The Dueling Definitions of Sexism

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 20 October 2014

An image has been going around that I think helps show one of the fundamental disconnects. Someone, while talking about Anita Sarkeesian, says the following:

my biggest problem with anita, is that if I used her logic i could see sexism everywhere.

For myself and my friends, the reaction is often along the lines of "so close but so far." However, this very real disagreement on the meanings of words and the reasons for critique form is part of the so-called "culture war." I'd like to go into it further.

Let me first say, I think there's something to what they are saying, although not the way they usually mean it. It's a well known issue among academics, and Sarkeesian is one, that one's training leads to certain biases. Now, that doesn't mean one is in some sort of unbiased state before training, but rather, political science majors are more likely to want to explain the world in terms of social structures and power, economists want to explain it in terms of markets and capital, etc, etc. So, it's true that Sarkeesian's critique focuses on one fraction of the academic spectrum and that alternate lenses could be used to view the same material and conclusions. All that really means is that we shouldn't be surprised when someone who focuses on the academic framework of gender studies and especially feminism produces an argument that focuses on gender and sexism. I mean, when I listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, I don't rage quit because they don't use other frames for looking at the world.

Crash Course recently had a rather interesting look into these biases, this time by looking at the often taught concept of "The Rise of the West and Historical Methodology." In addition to talking about biases likely to be developed by political scientists, economists, and the like, he even deconstructs the issues with calling any location by its cardinal direction. I also enjoy that he breaks down the false division between science as facts and literature as fiction and shows that different people, even within the same discipline, can come up with different theories.

While I've been talking about separate disciplines to this point, one of the more interesting things to me is that while Sarkeesian does rely heavily on the academic work of women's and gender study research, she attempts to bring in more interdisciplinary approaches throughout her work. The research and literature that supports her points comes from a wide array of academic fields of study. She integrates psychology, especially the work on stereotype threat, she looks at history, comparative literature, film studies, and more. I often get the feeling that many people view women's and gender studies programs as existing outside of academia instead of being integrated within other lenses.

What all of this means is that while I understand the complaints about "one-sidedness" in Sarkeesian's arguments these are 1) not a bad thing, we live in a complex world that sometimes needs to be simplified, 2) are neither uncommon nor outliers, and 3) merely pointing it out isn't really a critique of her work. That last point in particular needs to be emphasized. Pointing out that people who specialize in a particular academic discipline are likely to frame the world in the terms of that discipline is not a critique of the work produced. That's why criticisms of "she's biased!" so often fall on deaf ears.

With that understanding out of the way, I'd like to delve a bit more into the meat of the disagreement. People like the one in the above referenced tweet often are working from a different definition than people like Sarkeesian are working from. It's one that generally centers on the intent of the person being accused of sexism and/or emphasizes overt acts of sexism. It tends be more literal and lacks nuance. I will admit here that this definition is what I, myself, had used for much of my life, even after taking multiple cross-disciplinary women's studies courses, so I don't lack familiarity with it.

Sarkeesian works from a different model, one that generally emphasizes subtext, power dynamics, and outcomes. It's not enough to say that women are powerful in a game; they both can be power and the game can still have elements of sexism, it's all about whether that power comes from societal stereotypes or if people can have their own agency. Sexism isn't merely gender discrimination, the use of gendered terms, and the like, it's about the power to enforce gender discrimination beyond the individual basis. It's about outcomes. For instance, explain away however you like the fact that women in the same jobs often earn less than men in those jobs, the fact that jobs that are traditionally female are paid less than jobs that are traditionally male is also an issue. This frame of the world is the one that I generally hold today.

This disagreement over the word "sexism" causes many, many problems. Because the first group believes it should only apply in overt circumstances and often that people who perpetuate such overt acts should be punished, the more nuanced use causes them to become defensive. For some men, this often manifests since "defending one's honor," a widely held masculine virtue. Not defending one's honor is seen as weakness and, by some, questions that person's masculinity. For some women, the distrust the more nuanced view generates can cause greater issues, either for them personally or for the men that they care about, and they will fight against it. Some women profit from or internalize the messages sexism in our society tells them, leading them to defend the status quo.

Much of this is further complicated by two things. First, we have an issue where men in general, are often not allowed to complain about the status quo, aren't allowed to change things. I had to go through this as a kid when I wanted to play "boy games" in elementary school. In particular, we played a game that was like everyone-for-themselves dodge ball. The boys didn't really want me to play, so they would do things like slam the ball down on my head. If I complained, they would point to it as a reason why I really shouldn't be playing. If I "took it," then I was accepted into the group. While my gender had something to do with the treatment I received, they would have done the same to any child who did not show the values, masculine values, that the rest of the group accepted. The bullying of "sensitive" boys comes from the same roots. Boys and men are often taught at a young age in our society that they cannot complain, that they must "take it like a man." This leads to those accusations that Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu, and others are professional victims.

Second, it leads to a situation where many of the consequences of sexism in society remain beyond our reach to address. While overt sexism has consequences, I think they are dwarfed by the consequences of implicit sexism. The amount of money people earn has a tremendous effect on their lives, not only in the immediate term of what they can afford, but when it comes to retirement, bonuses, and other long-term financial planning. Whether or not people can get jobs in an industry affects what gets produced in that industry. This belief that the only real harm comes from the people who tell me what my place and role as a woman is hides the real costs of sexism. Much more harm was done to me over the past few years by the people who tried to tell me what sexism should mean or what I should write about than any of those other people have done. It did lead me to not want to write for a time and to withdraw from the community. I understand why that happened and I don't fault the people who did it, but I think it's something worth bringing up.

So why write this at all? Sure, I wanted to present my arguments for why maybe we should be at least willing to see sexism everywhere, but also because until we find a way to address this fundamental disagreement, I think our path will continue to be full of adversity and harm. I keep trying to find ways to reduce this harm, but I can't do it alone.

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