I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that Donald Trump is a terrible businessman, a ridiculous politician, and just not a good person… I have been addicted to The Celebrity Apprentice this season. The Next Great Restaurant (and my enduring love of terrible reality television) already had me watching NBC on Sunday nights and, before I knew it, I was tuning in to the Celebrity Apprentice each week too. It’s a terrible show that rarely makes sense (why was tonight’s episode three hours long?!) but I enjoy the mental vacation it allows me to take so I continue to watch week after week.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I have a few things to say about tonight’s episode.
After losing their challenge this week Star Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Meatloaf were sent outside so that Trump could consult with his two advisers. While outside, Meatloaf and Star continued the argument they had been having in the boardroom. When addressing Star during this conversation (which was not friendly or positive in any way) Meatloaf called Star Jones sweetie. I immediately cringed when this happened, and I am so happy to say that T did as well, because we both recognized how condescending this interaction was.
Upon watching this my mind immediatley jumped back in time, to the job that I was working two summers ago. One day a Professor came in and needed help using the stapler, so I showed him how to do it. He most likely felt embarrassed that he needed help using the stapler, because once he was done he made sure to throw a big, “Thanks sweetheart!” in there. Now, I know this is one of those scenarios where I’m going to have people coming out of the woodwork to call me an angry, humorless feminist for being annoyed by this… but I was. In that context, with the tone that was used, sweetheart felt like a tiny reminder that I was still somehow beneath him. Even though I had just taught him how to use the stapler.
Maybe if I had known this man I would have felt differently.
Maybe if our interaction hadn’t been one that threatened his authority (just a little bit) by making him look silly, I would have felt differently.
Maybe if there were any kind of equivalent to this type of comment that men regularly deal with, I would have felt differently.
But as this situation stands, I was left (just a little bit) annoyed, feeling like I had witnessed another (tiny) instance of sexism that plays into the web of (just slightly) frustrating events that build and build and build into the brick wall that is oppression.
The scenario on the Celebrity Apprentice was much less ambiguous than mine. Honey, sweetie, dear, darling… these terms of endearment are all lovely when used properly, in the right context. An argument, however? That is not the context. Meatloaf knew this, on some level, because in an argument when someone calls you sweetie the implication is calm down you silly sweet thing, you’re getting all riled up for nothing. Isn’t it?
To me, honestly, sweetie is the most frustrating out of all of these. Why? Because other people will acknowledge that being called fat, or turkey neck, or payless queen is insulting. Getting people to acknowledge that referring to you by a term of endearment when you are not close, and not happy with one another in that moment is not okay is a very difficult task, as we saw in this week’s board room. Trump layed into Star for being frustrated by this exchange, but still she stood her ground and ultimately got fired (for other reasons).
I feel the same way about the persistent door opening trope. If you’re opening the door for me because you got there first, or I was carrying something big and you’d like to be courteous… that’s awesome! Despite what you’ve been told about angry feminists, I am not going to get mad at you for helping me out regardless of your sex/gender identity. What frustrates me is the assumption that men must open doors, carry things, pay, etc. for women because women are the weaker sex and men are the providers.
This belief system is frustrating to me on two levels:
First, it assumes that all female-bodied people are one way and all male bodied people are another, leaving no room for the amazing amount of variation that actually exists between people.
Second, just like calling someone sweetie in a fight, opening a door for someone solely because that someone is a woman is just sexism dressed up in kindness. There’s a word for this in feminist theory, its called benevolent sexism.
Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection. [Source]
Benevolent sexism wouldn’t be so bad on its own but, because of the society we live in, it is impossible to divorce benevolent sexism from hostile sexism. Studies have shown that people high in benevolently sexist beliefs (aka chivalry) are also high in hostile sexism… in fact, most psychologists couple these together into something called “ambivalent sexism” when they look to measure the levels of sexist ideologies in a population. The way this, usually, plays out is that these people are sweet and chivalrous to the women they see as acceptable, but threatening and mean to the women who “step out of line.”
The way that this plays out in the real world, at least for me, is that I smile and thank anyone who opens a door for me or offers me a hand carrying something heavy. I tend to put up with people talking down to me with terms like sweetie or dear, unless it is being done in a blatantly rude way and/or I am in a position where I feel comfortable starting a dialogue with this person about their word choices. This doesn’t do me any damage really in those interactions but, at the same time, it means that I am not working to challenge people to question the sexist beliefs that they hold because how the heck do you ask someone why they are opening the door for you without appearing confrontational?
I’m stuck. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. I can talk theory, and I can call out blatant sexism… but how do I smoosh those two things together, and start educating the people around me who are not mean or hostile, but still carry sexist beliefs around every day?
What do you do to bring benevolent sexism under the microscope in an effective, non-confrontational way?