Sunday, March 14, 2010

on sexism and gender performance: it's the bathrobes that's outrageous?

There's a nice little conversation going over at really? law? about masculinity, gender performance, law school, and competition.

The post, which was written by my sister Laura McWilliams in observance of International Women's Day, describes her experience as a female law student. As she explains, her male classmates are the ones who shout her down, who silence her; she writes:
I can’t say for certain that this is about gender, but I can say that I’ve often been dismissed, insulted, or shouted down by men, but only once, since I started this thing, by a woman. Not every man has acted this way, but nearly every person who has acted this way has been a man.
She does add, however, that she hasn't thought much about how men perform gender, and specifically about "the anxiety that comes with being a man and proving one's manhood":
I always separated in my mind the competition between men and women and the competition between men and men. One was about domination; the other was about bonding. Now I’m thinking that I was nowhere near right. The two are more mixed up than that. I’ve only recently begun trying to synthesize the two.

Men’s interactions are about performance–right?–in a way that’s different from how women perform. Men are constantly proving their gender, while women are forced to try to prove–I don’t know, their lack of gender?
The post has received several comments from male readers, and the set of comments by someone who calls himself "passer by" were especially interesting to me. He begins by arguing that women are far more competitive than men are:

I’d challenge the notion that males are more aggressive that females. And I have given it more than a passing thought. Both are more than capable of aggression, at equal levels.

Competitive? I’d say your (sic) wrong, sorry. Both men and women are competitive, but men more often acknowledge when they loose (sic), and let it go on the spot. Maybe with a bit of rude behavior, but that’s it. Women tend to find a way to bring it back around, go after revenge, and throw some vengeance in to boot.
This writer argues that women are more competitive, more vicious in their gossip, and more "catty"; in fact, he writes,

Cats are both masculine and feminine, but how many men do you know that are “catty?” How many men gossip in a way that undermine the credibility and reputation of women, or other men? Far more women tend to expend energy on such things.

Over the course of a multi-comment exchange between Laura and this commenter, she gently suggests that the "cattiness" label is part of how women are disempowered, then follows him as he changes the subject to sports, stereotyping of all men based on how a minority behave, and biological differences that he believes prove that men and women are just different--they just are. He writes:

Yes, environment plays a huge role. But any 8 year old can tell you boys and girls are born different, and anyone who has forgotten that fact hasn’t looked in their pants in far to long. To try to “discover” there are biological differences is a hysterical concept to me. It’s not news that sexual organs are the only distinguishable differences, so are hair patterns, hormones, and emergence differences that are apparent. To think that this doesn’t affect mood, attitude, aggression, and ultimately social perception is just naive.
Laura's willingness to engage with this commenter, and to consider his arguments thoughtfully and carefully, led to a lengthy and perhaps productive conversation about gender. But I was struck by how hard Laura seems to have had to work to make this happen. The notion that "cattiness" is an apt term for women but not for men is just...well, it's blatant sexism, is what it is. And the commenter argues that sports are to blame for turning men competitive, but somehow overlooks the inherent sexism in the fact that society "encourage(s) boys to play sports more than girls."

Yet, by letting these comments pass, Laura makes it possible for the commenter to post an interesting argument: that all men get blamed for the sexist behavior of "a small minority"--in his view, maybe 20% of all men.

Which is a powerful point that's well worth discussing. I'm not willing to go so far as to agree that sexism is only evident in 20 percent of all men, but it's clear that not all men engage in sexist behavior, and that not all men who do engage in sexist behavior do so all the time.

The problem, really, is this: Even if less than 20 percent of all men engaged in sexist behavior, we still live in a culture that not only encourages but rewards that kind of behavior. Which means that this "small minority" has a distinct advantage when it comes to not only sports but education, work, and access to advancement opportunities.

Women and men alike should be outraged by this. It means that women and men alike are being forced to play a game that, all things being equal, they would probably choose not to play; it means that the rules of the game are being set by a small subset of our culture; it means that if you, male or female, choose to opt out, you're setting yourself up to walk a rockier path than you might otherwise take.

Sam Seaborn: Where'd you get the bathrobe?
Carol Fitzpatrick: The gym.
Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?
Claudia Jean 'C.J.' Cregg: In the women's locker room.
Sam: But not the men's.
C.J.: Yeah.
Sam: Now, that's outrageous. There's a thousand men working here and 50 women.
C.J.: Yeah, and it's the bathrobes that's outrageous.
From  "The West Wing: Bartlet's Third State of the Union (#2.13)" (2001)


The Untwitterable said...

watching CJ is so fun

if only i could get her into my model on technology and education...

The Untwitterable said...

oh yeah I remember why i logged on to your blog,

i wanted to ask you if you saw the House episode about blogging? (its on hulu if you haven't)


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