The other day I was reading an article online that bemoaned the fact that there is such a stark difference between “boy” toys and “girl” toys. While there are of course toys that are designed to appeal to kids of any gender, in most toy stores there exist rather distinct sections for girls and for boys. The “girls” section dances in shocking pink and is awash in dolls, princessy things, and pretend makeup kits. The “boys” section, on the other hand, is built much more black and blue in color, and contains a whole lot of trucks, a whole lot of guns, and a whole lot of trucks that have a whole lot of guns on them. And a whole lot of male dolls. (Oops! I mean “action figures.” You know, male dolls with guns. )
Many of the comments that people posted below the article said things like:
Sure, what you are talking about may be sexist, but why focus on stuff like this when there are things that are so much worse going on -- like the fact that women are being raped and killed every day?
Why are you wasting your time on this stupid little stuff?
Focus on real problems. On things that matter.
And my own recent blog post lamenting the seeming inability of many men in my region to get themselves to even use the term “woman” also received the same sort of response. Why, I was asked, when women are being killed, was I talking about stupid little stuff?
So let’s talk about that. Why do I sometimes do this? Why do I sometimes focus on “trivial sexism”?
Because doing so does not mean that I am in denial about men’s violence. Just because I sometimes focus on lighter topics does not mean that I am in denial about the tens of millions of women who are raped and/or killed around the world each year.
I am not in denial about the 4 women in the United States who will die today at the hands of their current or former boyfriend or husband. (That’s right. Today four American women will die at the hands of their guy.)
Gloria, one of my coworkers at a social service agency, was one of those women. She was killed by her abusive husband. We all tried to help her to get away, but she was never able to. I am not in denial about what happened to her.
Nor am I in denial about the one-in-four women who will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. (What helps me to not be in denial about this issue are the many brave women who have over the years shared with me stories of the sexual brutality which they have been subjected to by men. Once you become a safe man in regard to these topics, you will begin to hear the stories.)
And I am also not in denial about what just how scary men’s violence can be. I grew up with a violent father. And on a couple of occasions I wasn’t sure that I would still be here the next day.
Because I am looking for creative approaches to this issue. So yes men’s violence is huge and it is hideous. But one reason that I sometimes focus on facts other than the reality that 4 women in the USA will be murdered by their current or former partner by day’s end – or on the 720 women who will be raped in the U.S.A. today... and another 720 tomorrow… and 720 the next day... and 720 every day after that until we finally do something about this horrid epidemic! – is that these facts are already out there for people to find – should they care to.
(In fact, you can find them right here: http://www.rainn.org/statistics)
But as available as this “news” is, it often seems to fall on deaf ears. I think maybe people get “statistics fatigue.” And although these numbers should be eminently relatable – after all, we are all related to women to whom this stuff is happening! – the data don’t always feel that way. Numbers aren’t friendly. Numbers rarely evoke emotion. So I try to mix it up some. I try to find new ways to engage people in the struggle to reduce men’s violence against women and children. New things to talk about. New angles of approach.
Because it’s not always a good idea to focus too much attention just on that which you oppose. There is some research that suggests that graphic displays of violence or searing descriptions of horror can actually be counterproductive... that you should not necessarily put up terrible pictures or tell overly wrenching stories, for two reasons.
The first reason is that you can alienate potential allies. People who already care about these issues don’t need traumatizing reminders, and others who are on the fence might well be turned off by highly upsetting information or visual triggers. So it’s hard to know exactly what one is accomplishing by being overly graphic.
(Many years ago I saw an anti-porn presentation that included increasingly horrific visual images of the mistreatment of women, including torture. In my opinion, that program crossed the line... it moved from being educational to being traumatizing. And nearly two decades later some of those images are still burned into my brain. And that’s not helpful.)
And an even more concerning line of thought is that graphic depictions of an evil might actually encourage people to emulate the very acts that are being depicted! For instance, showing images of a man brutally beating a woman might lead people to fixate on the behavior and perhaps even imitate it. Showing horrific violence overwhelms people. And some people will not respond to this extremely intense material in the way that we want them to.
And it might even educate batterers as to new tactics of abuse.
(This is also why I have hesitations about some of the increasing number of documentaries out there that seek to critique the sexualization of women in our media and entertainment industries. Some of these films show sexualized image after sexualized image of woman after woman, while a disembodied voice critiques just what is being depicted. But what is it exactly that the audience will remember? Will they recall the narrator’s astute and incisive commentary, or the far more potent images of men groping and humping scantily-clad women? If we’re not sure just what will stay in people’s minds -- and I really don’t think that we are -- then I would suggest we have to be a lot more careful about what we are putting out there as we work to support of feminist social change.)
We absolutely do need to talk about the horrors that are inflicted against women and children in our world, but we also need to be cautious about just how we do it. Sometimes we need to ease up a little bit and bring forward a somewhat lighter conversation. And not always put all of these horrors on display.
Because being “just a little bit sexist” is still not okay. There is merit in choosing these smaller issues for our attention. Issues like the inability of some men to even use the word woman or the gender stereotypes being reinforced -- and even created! -- in toy stores. Because even if something is “just a little bit sexist” it is still not okay. If you don’t believe me, then consider the following questions:
If a child’s toy is only “just a little bit racist,” does that make it acceptable?
If someone tells a “slightly racist” joke, should we just ignore it and focus only on severe hate crimes instead?
I want to be clear that my paralleling racism and sexism here is not meant to imply that society has come anywhere near resolving the issues of racial hatred that still cleave such deep chasms between us. I do not believe that to be the case, and I believe we still have an immense journey ahead of us when it comes to dealing with racism. (As evidence of this, just look at all the continual stream of racially-tinged criticism that washes over President Obama, as well as the racially charged comments about the “Idle No More” movement in Canada. Or look at the fact that marketers still think it is perfectly fine to use racist Asian stereotypes to sell products (http://arewomenhuman.me/2012/12/21/dear-cibu-orientalist-stereotypes-arent-cute/), while frat boys still use these hateful images to promote parties (http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/02/07/duke-university-fraternity-suspended-over-asian-themed-racist-rager/).
I also don’t think that sexism is somehow worse than racism. Asking which form of oppression is worse is kind of like asking whether t you would rather be run over by a bus or hit by a train. Racism and sexism (like homophobia and other forms of oppression) are killers.
But I do believe there is something that is qualitatively different between racism and sexism, and that is that being a “racist” has become a social taboo. So while there is still immense disagreement about just what constitutes racism, and intense resistance to people recognizing their own behaviors as racist, there is nonetheless an awareness that being a racist is not okay.
We have not yet reached that same threshold when it comes to sexism. We don’t hear people say: “Yes, I may be racist, but I don’t think it’s that bad.” But I hear that sort of things said about sexism all the time… i.e. “Yes, it may demean women, but that’s okay!”
And that’s just horseshit!
Because profeminism is about more than just opposing violence against women. This blog is not called “Bill’s anti-violence blog.” While I believe that opposing violence against women is a critical part of being a profeminist man, to me, supporting the struggle for women’s full equality with men is not just about opposing the violence against them. It’s about supporting women in all of their efforts to gain economic and social equality. It’s about supporting women’s political involvement. It is about supporting women taking their rightful place in all of our social structures and customary activities. It is about people of all genders going into the future together as full partners.
So sometimes it makes sense to talk about the fact that women are being raped and/or murdered in truly appalling numbers. (Even one woman harmed is one too many!) And at other times it makes sense to talk about the fact that too many men lack the words necessary (words like woman) for even conceptualizing women as fully equal. And sometimes it makes sense to complain about the fact that society still pushes boys toward one type of toy and girls toward another.
The horrible thing about sexism is that it is omnipresent. It is all around us. But that also means that we have endless opportunities to fight it – to work against both the major atrocities and the smaller slights. Which leads us to the final reason that it is important to sometimes talk about “small” instances of sexism:
Because it is all interrelated! The sexist attitude leads to the invasive leer leads to the offensive joke leads to the repugnant catcall leads to the violating grope leads to the invasive assault leads to the painful rape leads to the vicious beating leads to the sadistic torture leads to the horrific murder!
And then there’s the social context in which this all occurs: unequal pay, silencing of women’s voices, the feminization of poverty, good ole boy political networks that box women out, social messages that (even before birth) tell girls that they are worth less than boys, exclusion and mockery of women who show their righteous anger, the limiting of abortion rights, the pornification of adolescent culture that tells girls that they are only good for one thing, etc., etc.….