Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What is sexism?

All criticisms of Sarah Palin are not sexist. It would be sexist to expect that she would receive no criticism, or that she SHOULD receive no criticism, because she is a woman. I admit that some of the criticism of Palin may really be the result of ideological bias, or simply sloppy reporting, not sexism. Some of the questions are fair game in isolation (yes, of course, it's fair to talk about Palin's experience in general). The Palin piling on is a complex cultural stew. In some cases, I suspect ideological and gender bias are working together.

A reader has challenged me to define what I consider to be sexism. Broadly, I would define sexism in the political sphere as the following: When the woman is held to a higher and different standard than a similarly situated male, especially but not limited to issues that have no relevance to the race and that tend to diminish the woman's professional accomplishments by playing into gender stereotypes.

Specifically, here is a list of what I consider to be sexist behavior (feel free to give your own definitions in the comment threads):
  • Coverage of a female politician that fixates on her physical appearance, pro or con. I admit that male politicians sometimes face this (Obama walking shirtless out of the Hawaiian surf got a lot of attention, and there was a lot of attention about John Edwards' shiny hair). And I think that some women have mixed feelings about this. After all, who doesn't want to be considered good looking? But, for many women, when they are in a professional setting, and supposedly professional media commentators place the focus back on their physical appearance, as a positive or a negative, it feels diminishing of their professional accomplishments. This works both ways, of course. Hillary Clinton has been viciously attacked by some on the right for supposedly not being good looking. That, too, is sexist, especially since unattractive male politicians are generally not held to this standard. If you think about it, good-looking male politicians also find their appearance the topic of discussion in many cases, but that's not true of unattractive male politicians. It's true in both cases for women. Simply put, appearance is not relevant to competence, so why are we talking about Palin's hair and looks?
  • Sexual-related comments about a female politician.
  • Blatant belittling of one's intelligence without evidence and in a manner not accorded to male opponents (i.e. saying the woman is stupid, needs a teleprompter, needs a lot of coaching, etc.)
  • Implying that the woman must not really believe her positions or must be under the intellectual sway of a more powerful male. (This happens in racism too. Consider how opponents argue that Clarence Thomas is a tool of intellectual white men like Antonin Scalia).
  • Double standards relating to motherhood; i.e., the female politician is asked questions about motherhood that her male counterparts aren't asked about fatherhood. (Why doesn't Palin stay home to take care of the kids? Hillary, why don't you want to stay home to bake cookies and hold teas?) The reverse is also true. It's also wrong for people to demean females who CHOOSE to stay home and raise their families. I personally believe that whether a woman chooses to be a housewife, a career woman, or, like Palin, a mixture of both, is her personal decision and debate about it really isn't relevant in a presidential election.
  • Slurs that are typically used to demean women but aren't applied to similarly aggressive men; i.e. when attributes that would be praised in a man are reduced to a negative in the woman (b-tch, nag, etc.). The Martha Stewart phenomenon. The tough woman is a b-tch, but the overly emotional woman is too weak to lead (women can't win sometimes!)
  • The woman is held to higher standards for intelligence/professional qualifications than a male opponent. (Palin is utterly unqualified, but Obama is then not?)
  • Diminishing of traditional female roles as being silly (the PTA, chortle, chortle, chortle. She was a housewife once, how pathetic, etc.). I don't know about you, but right now I am thinking about the woman, a housewife, who ran my child's Catholic Bible school this summer, and she was quite a force to be reckoned with. I'd love to pit her against Putin.
  • Emphasis on female roles traditionally seen as silly when discussing an accomplished, professional woman (she was a beauty queen 24 years ago!!!!!!)
  • Assuming incompetence. (she's a woman, so she won't be a strong leader, etc.)
  • The woman becomes defined by a single gender-related issue in a manner that males do not (consider how the abortion question is defining Palin, but doesn't define Obama or even McCain.)
  • Issues that aren't used against male opponents are magnified out of proportion against the woman. (Bristol-mania. I admit this one might be ideological bias more than sexism, but I do think it's caught up in Palin's cultural role as a "mother")
  • Invasion of the personal sphere and personalization/lifestyle focus of/on the candidate. In other words, covering the woman through the gauze of personality and lifestyle issues, rather than professional accomplishment. (Why are we talking about Palin's prenatal care and amniotic fluid again? It's creepy. Do we talk about Biden's sperm count? I admit that's a really creepy thought, and I do admit that Palin invited some of this by talking about her breastfeeding to People magazine. But still.)


Melissa said...

Thank you for this post, even though I support Sarah Palin and have admired her for a while, I agree that not all criticisms are sexist but that the topics/areas the press keeps harping on that you highlighted definitely are.

Melissa said...

On a second point, Sarah Palin and John McCain are holding a rally in Cedarburg, Wisconsin Friday morning starting at 10 am. Since you are from Wisconsin and a Sarah Palin supporter, I thought you might be interested. Maybe I'll see you there.