To some, “sexism” is a word that sums up the issue pretty well. Many of us don’t realize that it’s actually more of a blanket term, and that there are different kinds of sexism out there. One particularly tricky type is called “benevolent sexism.” I know the word sounds like an oxymoron – benevolent means “well-meaning,” while sexism definitely isn’t that – but when you think about the definition, it makes a lot of sense. Benevolent sexism refers to phrases that don’t sexist, but definitely are – phrases that come off as complimentary, but still enforce sexist stereotypes.
For example, overt sexism is saying something like, “Women belong in the home and not in the work place.” It’s outwardly gross and terrible. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is saying something like, “Women are natural caregivers who are predisposed to be nurturing.” It sounds nice, but when you really think about it, it’s basically saying the same exact thing as the outwardly sexist remark. It’s similar to saying, “She has such a pretty face for a fat girl.” Benevolent sexism might look and sound good, but at its root, it’s still sexism.
A lot of people who use these kinds of phrases are not trying to be sexist. Some of them even consider themselves to be feminists and woke af. Hey, we all make mistakes and say the wrong thing sometimes! It can be hard to shake off all of the sexism we’ve all endured both consciously and sub-consciously – and this leads us to saying phrases we don’t think are sexist, even though they definitely are. I’m willing to bet you’ve said at least one of them:
1) “Oh, right, Eva Mendes. She’s Ryan Gosling’s wife, right?”
True statement – these people are married and she is his wife. However, if your first identifier for how to differentiate one woman from another is to bring up her relationship to men, that’s benevolent sexism. I don’t care if she has a dream husband. Eva Mendes has her own career and life outside of being married to Noah from The Notebook – she’s an actress who has a makeup line and does her own thing. Whether you’re referring to celebrities or real life women, try talking about them as their own person and not just as someone’s wife/girlfriend.
2) “She’s exactly how a woman should be: modest and classy.”
As in she’s not in danger because she’s not sexually dangerous. Nothing wrong with being modest and classy, but implying that there’s one imperative way to be a woman in the form of praising someone for doing it “right” is still sexist since there’s no one wrong or right way to be a woman.
3) “She didn’t deserve to get assaulted, she’s so sweet. I don’t even think she’s kissed a boy!”
The ongoing false belief that women who are technically more “virginal” or “pure” are in a sense more deserving or in need of protection hurts all women. It implies that they are somehow morally better and ranks women based on their perceived value as humans measured off of their sexuality.
4) “Give your laundry to your mom, she’ll figure it out.”
Women aren’t magically endowed with inherent cleaning knowledge by being born female. Laundry and other cleaning chores aren’t solely female jobs. Maybe your mom is a laundry wizard, but is that because she’s been taught that this is her job alone in a family since she’s a woman? Google is a free resource available to everybody, so technically, we can all learn how to get grease stains off of cotton fabric, okay?
5) “All boys are stupid and dumb.”
I only bring this up because it’s typically thrown around when we’re talking about boys being bad at relationships. Everybody can be a total jerk in relationships. Are all girls inherently amazing at being with someone? It’s always the guy’s fault when something falls apart? Obviously not because there are plenty of dudes who are in good relationships with awesome women. Which brings me to…
6) “Girls are just way more mature than boys.”
Hey, maybe we are more mature, who knows? But implying this says that girls should always be the bigger person, walk everybody through tough times – especially our male peers, do all of the emotional labor and heavy lifting, then act like the people they helped got there on their own, like it was an independent effort and we weren’t steering the ship with our “natural maturity” the whole time. Yeah, screw that.
7) “Ugh, she’s probably acting like such a bitch because she’s on her period.”
Or maybe her emotions aren’t delegitimized by a bodily function. How about that? Also, throwing this burn at a dude also hurts women. Asking a guy if he needs a tampon because he should calm down? Yeah, no. Being a woman or menstruating isn’t an insult, no matter who you’re trying to offend.
8) “Girls take more organized notes.”
Note taking and organization are not gendered skill sets. Being selected involuntarily as class representative to take notes or record everything in a group project rather than be the leader, for example, keeps girls on the sidelines. Also, guys can be organized and take notes as well. Why is this limited to being a girl thing?
9) “Pretend you’re my boyfriend for a sec and protect me from that creep.”
You don’t “need” protection. It certainly doesn’t help that creeps and other dudes only respond to perceived male ownership of a girl rather than respecting the word “no.” Friends doing friends favors is amazing and awesome, but calling on protection or saying you need it because you’re a woman is still sexist.
10) “The only thing boys want is sex, so protect yourself.”
Girls can want sex too, shouldn’t have to be on the defensive in all sexual encounters. Yes, we can all protect ourselves on our own accord, but why do we have to constantly protect ourselves from dudes? This implies that men are inherently predatory and that women are somehow better than that when
ideally it’s mandatory that sex should be enthusiastically consensual.
11) “Never send a man to do a woman’s job.”
You’re gonna need to be a little more specific there, buddy. What is a woman’s job, exactly? I know this is usually said in an empowering way, but seriously? Opposite. No thank you.
12) [Insert tired, Pinterest-ed to death, trope about a dad grabbing his shotgun when he hears his daughter is dating.]
*snores very loudly* Men are not the guardians of the value of women and that value is not negated by sex or dating *falls back asleep*.
13) “Act like a lady, work like a man, think like a boss.”
Speaking of Pinterest fails, why can’t those three attributes be about the same person? Why do we have to gender these personality traits? What the hell does act like a lady mean? Do men OBVIOUSLY work harder? Because I doubt that they have to double down on their work ethic to fight against gendered stereotypes that they lack drive and ambition, I’ll tell you that much.
14) “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE BEHIND THE MEN, THOUGH. Yeah, I get it that you’re giving credit where it’s due, and that this is meant as a compliment, but we can do more than help men. We can help ourselves and do our own thing.
Do you say any other things that could be considered benevolent sexism? Do you think it helps or hurts? Let us know in the comments!
You can follow the author, Aliee Chan, on Twitter.