Moving Beyond Scorched Earth

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 07 December 2014

Recently I talked about the dueling definitions of sexism. I'd like to talk about a related issue I encounter frequently, the belief that we should limit the use of the word sexist to those offenses egregious enough that we should take a scorched earth policy towards the action or event.


There are a few issues with this approach:

  • It leaves us without a term to use to describe arbitrary decisions or trends based on sex and/or gender that don't rise to the level of require a scorched earth policy.
  • It conflates labeling the behavior with how to respond to the behavior.
  • We're left with one response to sexist behavior, without any insight into whether or not that response has a positive impact.

This definition of sexism causes much of the defensive behavior we often complain about because the originator is now anticipating a scorched earth response towards them.

Others, including myself, would prefer that we label behavior what it is and then decide the best way to deal with that behavior. Basically, we would decide whether or not the behavior is sexist and then determine what to do. The decisions on both the definitions and the remediation (if any) can be decided by individuals as they see fit.

This would accomplish a few things:

  • Lower defensiveness because potential punishment is not implicit in the argument. I can say, "Yeah, I did a sexist thing" without worrying about people automatically ostracizing me.
  • Allow for us to more easily see the more insidious forms of sexism since we will no longer be concerned about whether or not they meet a certain threshold of severity. This could help in areas of institutionalized sexism.
  • Allow for a wider range of fixes. For instance, sometimes just talking about the issue can help. Additionally, acknowledging that something is sexist can help with another common issue, that when people eventually do speak up, the response to them often feels worse the original incident.

Being able to talk about the issues without implying punishment or requiring it to meet a arbitrary threshold of severity, we can start to identify the parts of our media and our society that create or amplify sex- and gender-based discrimination and oppression.

While we're on the subject of punishment, something else that often annoys me in these conversations is the conflation of ethical with legal. While there can be overlap between the two, for instance murder is both unethical and illegal, there are plenty that are separate. Many incidents of sexism are unethical but not illegal. Legality is often, but not always, tied to the seriousness of the event. Does it make sense for the full force of the government to be brought to bear against the perpetrator? That doesn't mean that incidents that fail that test should be done without community repercussions.

Also, I'd like to point out that sexist opinions and actions exist throughout our culture and 1) are often reinforced by people regardless of their own gender and 2) often harm people regardless of their gender. For instance, a recent study on hiring practices showed that using a female name on an otherwise identical resume resulted in lower salary offers and a more common expectation of incompetence. Many gender role expectations that automatically place men, especially fathers, in positions of authority (patriarchy) harm people of all genders even if that harm is felt disproportionately by some groups.

In addition to allowing gradations in severity when it comes to sexism, removing the implicit response allows us to talk about works and people as the complex entities that they are. Rarely can we reduce a work or a person to one label, such as sexist. Take, for instance, two female characters that many who identify as geeks would know: Princess Leia and Eowyn. Both characters have what can be viewed as empowering moments. Leia participates in her own rescuing. Eowyn kills Lord of the Nazgul. Yet there are times when they are used to reinforce gender stereotypes such as when Leia is enslaved and when Eowyn sets aside her sword. In both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we can also point to the lack of other female characters as being sexist. We can talk about these elements of the thing without necessarily declaring the thing as a whole sexist.

We can't move forward if we continue to enforce the "if sexist then scorched earth response" definition of the word sexism. We need to move past introductory understandings of sexism and get to that more nuanced discussion. We need more responses than "kill it with fire." There will still be times for scorched earth, but we should not think it is implied anytime someone says something is sexist.


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