A Few Words on Casual Sexism (or, “Just How Sexist Are You?”)

Beginning a little over four years ago — you can deduce the causative event yourself — it became popular for people to proclaim that the United States has become a “post-racial society.”

Whatever that means: “post-racial” is an ill-defined term with no clearly established meaning. It hasn’t made it into any major dictionary at this time, and even a browse through the political and sociological literature in J-STOR suggests that “post-racial,” like Potter Stewart’s pornography, is something that you’ll only know when you see. You’ll get just as workable a definition of post-racial from wikipedia (or from the smart-asses at urban dictionary) as you will from the scholarly literature.

It’s also not unusual to hear people talk about how sexism has been overcome. In fact, some research has suggested that many young women, especially before college graduation, have fully bought into this fantasy. They only become disillusioned when they hit the pavement of the job market and learn that the glass ceiling is often bulletproof, harassment frequently goes unchecked, dependents in diapers are anchors against career advancement, and, perhaps most important, they still only get about 77 cents for every dollar men earn for equivalent work (see notes). In a truly humane society, these things would be criminal acts, with appropriate punishments.

Our language, as you probably know, is steeped in sexism. Efforts to correct this have been made for generations, with limited success. Many “-man” formations (and some “-woman” or other forms) have been ‘gender neutralized.’ For example, chairman became chairperson became chair. Postman became letter carrier, which is both neutral and technically accurate. Fireman shifted to firefighter. Meter maid became…parking enforcement officer. And so on. If you keep up with language conventions and the official style sheets that many publications follow, you’ll be aware that the gender specific forms of words which were popular earlier in the 20th century (actor/actress, comedian/comedienne, aviator/aviatrix, etc.) are now frowned upon and are frequently considered sexist, if not derogatory. Most guides now recommend using only the neutral (historically male) term, regardless of the sex: actor, comedian, pilot (see what they did there, by losing aviator‘s baggage?). Since the gender distinction in words of this sort is artificial to begin with, that’s good advice — it’s also standard practice today.

AP Style gives a couple of examples showing how to convert potentially sexist terms into appropriate (and meaningful) descriptions: not newsmen, but reporters; not mankind but humanity. AP frowns especially on “-person” formations, and favors gender-distinct (“chairman” or “chairwoman“) over ‘-personized’ gender neutral (“chairperson“) terminology.

Of course, you know that something is a lively and important issue when it gets lots of ink in GMAU — where sexism as a major heading gets just under three full pages. You’ll find a lot more good advice there.

He/She” and “his/her” constructions have proven harder to root out than “-man” type formations. Pronouns allow a sexist interpretation of otherwise neutral terms: a skilled surgeon keeps his scalpels sharp; a hygienist keeps her tools clean. And so on.  Hacker and Sommers’ A Writer’s Reference is very useful here, showing not only how to use non-sexist vocabulary, but also how to use the plural (“they” instead of “he” or “she”) or to recast a sentence to minimize the awkward wordiness that efforts to purge sexist language sometimes cause.

This sort of thing is easy enough to detect and rewrite, if you’re alert to it. In fact, if you deal with this sort of thing as much as I do — and I assume that any good writer or editor does — nullifying sexism becomes second nature. So much so that I actually struggled to create some of the obviously sexist examples for this post — my first three or four attempts automatically went to neutral forms, and a few after that were simply ugly sentences which most folks would never write.

It’s incumbent on all of us to eradicate sexual (and racial) stereotypes in our language use — written and spoken. But there does, sadly, seem to be an acceptable level of sexism among certain groups, and my annoyance with it prompted this column.

During a single 12-hour period not long ago, I witnessed the following overtly sexist statements:

– Men can’t do detail work / have poor dexterity because they didn’t play with dolls / sew clothes when they were children.
– Fathers aren’t really affected by a miscarriage / the death of a child like mothers are.
– Men always cheat on their girlfriends /wives. That’s just what they do.

If you haven’t detected the pattern, I’ll turn on the spotlight: these were all blatantly sexist statements about men (and implicitly sexist about women, but let’s stick to one side of the issue). At least, I gave thanks under my breath, I wasn’t told how boys are slow learners, girls are smarter, and if it weren’t for grade school bullying by boys, all the world’s problems would be solved.

While just about every other form of overt sexism and racism has become unacceptable, one of the few exceptions seems to be that if you are a woman bashing men, it’s okay (and in some circles, apparently, still downright fashionable).

Yes, I am offended by these kinds of blanket male-bashing statements, as everyone, male or female, should be. If a group of men made equivalent comments about women in the same context as these statements were made, listeners would be shocked. Maybe — just maybe — this type of thing can be allowed in joking, friendly conversations. But all of the above were used seriously, in otherwise thoughtful discussions.

Since all of these happened in conversation, you might think it’s not really important. This is, after all, a blog on the written language. While I many times use examples from speech, I usually make a point of noting that spoken errors make for great examples, but more often than not they’re forgivable.

However the written and spoken language are inextricable, and each affects the other. In this case, one shows an especially dangerous potential to infect the other with very bad habits. It was Orwell, in his famous essay on Politics and the English Language, who asserted that sloppy thinking leads to sloppy writing (and vice versa). There are many things in the living, spoken language that we should be willing to let slide; overt sexism should never be one of them.

Keep your own writing and thinking crisp, and don’t let this type of carelessness creep in. You’ll thank yourself later, because it has the potential to keep you out of a lot of hot water.

= = = = =

Notes and further reading:

When it comes to equal pay for women and men, I am aware that the figures range from a low of 58 cents to a high of 95 cents. Since 77 cents was used as an average figure by the Census Bureau in 2011, that’s what I’ve used here. The relevant graph is on page 12 (page 20 in electronic pagination).

For a useful description of how different groups perceive different definitions of “post-racial,” see Gregory D. Smithers, Barack Obama and Race in the United States: A History of the Future, Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (July 2009), pp 1-16 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/41054118).


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to A Few Words on Casual Sexism (or, “Just How Sexist Are You?”)

  1. atarunomiko says:

    While I find all of the examples you cite stupid, egregious, or upsetting, I don’t believe sexism against men carries the same weight as sexism against women. In a perfect world, what’s good for the gander should be eminently good enough for the goose. But as your post points out, that perfect race- and gender-blind world doesn’t really exist yet. While we certainly have made great strides, it is false to say that the problem has been completely eradicated. The struggle for equality is far from over. We still live in a world where girl babies are aborted and a man committed suicide over Obama’s re-election. As you said yourself, many women (and members of other minority groups) still go out into the workforce and encounter the glass ceiling. Because of the sexism that is still rampant out there, it’s just not the same, even if logically it should be, for the same reason that Chris Rock can say things about white people that a white comedian could not get away with saying about black people, and that the word “cracker” does not have the same sting that the “n” word does (and that I can write the word “cracker” without a thought, but can’t bring myself to write the other word out, even in quotation marks). Whether it’s fair or right, or even whether the statement is true or false, isn’t the issue. A historically powerless group just can’t hurt the historically powerful one – be it whites, men, or white men – as badly, simply because they are the ones enjoying white/male/white male privilege. They are not being marginalized by any such insult, and even if they are, they are maybe going from 0 to .0001 on a scale of 0 to 10, whereas insulting a minority person reinforces the systematic oppression of an entire already-marginalized group and entrenches us further into opposite sides of the divide. Do I think it’s fair for one group to be held to a different set of standards just because they happen to be born into that group? Of course not. But as my mother often liked to remind me, the world is far from fair. Who are we to declare that marginalized groups should not vent some of their frustration verbally just because it offends some of us, when our widdle, hurt feelings can’t even compare to the suffering brought on by apartheid, slavery, or systematic subjugation over centuries, if not millennia? That we have not really moved completely beyond race and gender means that insults against a privileged group by an oppressed group simply do not have the same level of impact as insults in the other direction. And just as it isn’t fair that the rules are different for a white man just because he was born a white man, it isn’t fair that the whole of society is stacked against a black woman just because she was born a black woman. In both cases that is the reality. Both may even be realities that we must work to change. But if you think that both are equally urgent, I would have to disagree.

    I would be remiss if I neglected to add that there are plenty of backlash groups crying about how minorities or women are allowed to malign them without retribution while they can’t say one little thing about blacks or chicks without being branded a racist or chauvinist. I would like to remind them that at least they live in a world where they’re allowed to say these things. No matter how hard their lives are, they will never face the same kind of difficulties others face on a daily basis because of discrimination, whether they’re walking into a store, courtroom or job interview. Getting your feelings hurt on the internet once in a while is not such a bad tradeoff.

    • atarunomiko says:

      I realize I used “systematic” twice where one could argue that the word ought to be “systemic.” I chose to use “systematic” because I was referring to subjugation and oppression that came of out the systems of oppression that have been in place in our society for centuries (and because Google search winner wins: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppression#Systematic_oppression ).

      • I think you used the right word. In the particular case you’re arguing, the issue is *both* systemic and systematic, but systematic is by far the better word: although most people would agree that it is “the system” that causes or perpetuates the problem, you’re going to have a very hard time showing how any of this is actually documented or maintained as part of a formal “system.”

    • Excellent comments, and I’m with you on them 100%.

      Please don’t mistake me for one of those privileged white men who thinks that privileged white men are now the only group that it’s fair to discriminate against. If you knew my personal situation and history, which I’m not going to discuss, you’d see that. Sadly, I’m more of a feminist than many women I’ve met.

      I am infuriated when I hear about things like white men suing for discrimination because their jobs have been opened for competition, with or without allowance for sex or class, etc. I have also had more female students than I care to admit who have believed in the fairy tale that gender equality has already been achieved, so that they no longer need to care about it or work for it. They act like I have a second head when I explain to them that $1 for a man equals 76¢ for a woman (or whatever it is these days…it actually went backwards last year).

      On the other hand, I also find it equally revolting when someone makes sweeping generalizations (including insults) about any group — including, dare I say it, privileged white men. While there are certainly plenty of privileged white men who deserve their share of ridicule and invective, the clichéd but simple truth is that there are plenty of others who are on the side of the powerless and that, in fact, without their assistance the scales would not have been moved anywhere near as far as they already have been (it should also go without saying that there are plenty in the ‘powerless’ groups who side with the privileged, and move things in the wrong direction).

      My point with this post was cautionary, based on experiences I had had shortly before writing it. It is essentially a warning that people need to be more aware of what they write and say. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable making a blanket derogatory statement about women or about a particular ethnic or religious group, for example, why would you feel that you can get away with a very similar statement about men? I’ve seen it too many times — and had seen it too many times immediately before posting that, and have seen it too many times since (in fact, twice just this week I’ve had to point out to people that their blanket statements of ‘fact’ about the behavior and capability of boys were not fact but opinion and cultural stereotyping).

      Keep in mind that some of my major concerns on this blog include ‘what is good writing,’ ‘what is effective writing,’ and ‘how are you going to look to a reading audience.’ You might be able to get away with this kind of male-bashing with some audiences, but it’s a dangerous proposition. In most cases you’ll come off looking bad. That’s especially true in our connected realm, where what you can say comfortably (and in private) to one group can very quickly be shared publicly (and often out of context) with the rest of the world.

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