A sociological understanding of sexism

A lot of what we do here on Storybookish appeals to our good friends pathos and ethos. To balance everything out, I thought I’d throw in a healthy dose of logos for this chapter.

I was, for a brief moment in time, an aspiring social worker. Which probably speaks for my utilitarian tendencies and confidence in our ability as individuals to save the world. Specifically, I wanted to go into foster care reform, but my year as a sociology major required courses covering all sorts of social problems. There was even a course for it, which was (creatively) called Social Problems.

Admittedly, studying sociology at the second most conservative school in the United States could be a little weird, since social work is largely dependent on operative government functions. That said, I lucked out big time in Social Problems class. My professor was some sort of hybrid Hippie-Mormon dude, and as you can imagine, we got along pretty well. Except for when he annoyed me by unceasingly challenging my understanding of the world.

I had a lot of “aha” moments in this class regarding race, religion, poverty, education, basically any political hot topic you can think of. But for me, the class was mostly about feminism.

Up until this point, I hadn’t really identified as a feminist. I understood (and still do understand) all the arguments as to why the movement is irrelevant, why it hurts men, why those feminist marchers were nothing at all like me. And then I took this class, and realized that feminism has nothing to do with women at all. 

Confused yet?

Okay. Here’s how the Hippie-Mormon Professor explains it.

First and foremost,

SEX ≠ GENDER

In sociology, sex refers to an individual’s genitalia and genetic makeup that distinguishes them as either male or female. Gender, on the other hand, refers to certain attributes deemed by society as either masculine or feminine.

To understand this a little better, let’s look at this list from Planned Parenthood:

WORDS COMMONLY USED TO DESCRIBE FEMININITY

  • dependent
  • emotional
  • passive
  • sensitive
  • quiet
  • graceful
  • innocent
  • weak
  • flirtatious
  • nurturing
  • self-critical
  • soft
  • sexually submissive
  • accepting

WORDS COMMONLY USED TO DESCRIBE MASCULINITY

  • independent
  • non-emotional
  • aggressive
  • tough-skinned
  • competitive
  • clumsy
  • experienced
  • strong
  • active
  • self-confident
  • hard
  • sexually aggressive
  • rebellious

To explore this a little bit, let’s look at the symbolic interactionism example of skirts (traditionally feminine) and pants (traditionally masculine). Early feminism allowed women to move from wearing skirts to wearing pants, and that’s wonderful! However, does it really make sense to stop there? After all, women can now wear pants, but if a man wanted to wear a skirt to work, he wouldn’t meet the social expectation. Moreover, a woman who wants to wear a skirt to work may be taken less seriously for being too girly and therefore not as capable as a woman who wears a pantsuit.

When we’re talking about skirts and pants, this seems very insignificant. But how does this represent the larger societal circumstance? You may notice that the feminine characteristics listed are generally considered to be very righteous or humanitarian, whereas the masculine characteristics are considered to be what makes an individual successful. But does it really make sense to move women into the workplace and receive a woman’s point of view if we’re going to expect them to act like men? Why can’t a sympathetic and emotional individual be wildly successful in today’s world?

In reality, we’re all probably very character androgynous, naturally possessing characteristics from both lists. If we felt able to display both without fear of societal shaming, it would free men and women alike. With earlier feminist movements, women were given the power to begin displaying characteristics on the masculine list, but perhaps at the cost of those characteristics on the feminine list. Correspondingly, men could not even begin to consider moving into the feminine category. What if the discussion on feminism had nothing to do with females at all, but much more to do with a balance of feminine characteristics within the workplace and society as a whole?

It’d be good for women. It’d be good for men. It’d be especially good for the conversation on LGBT. It’d leave the difficult questions (think: rape culture, abortion, maternity rights, etc) to be answered, but would give us a common playing ground so we could discuss these things in a less polarized environment. And I think that’s something worth fighting for.

It’s not a perfect model, and it’s ever evolving. But I’d love to get your feedback! Does this sociological understanding change your views on feminism?

And more importantly, what are you going to do about it?

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