Recently, controversial Christian preacher Douglas Wilson took issue with women who disagreed with him. (You can read a fuller version of the story on Tim Fall’s blog and several others.) He called them pushy broads, twinkies in tight tops, or waifs with manga eyes.
I’m not interested in discussing Wilson’s views; others do a much better job of pointing out what is wrong with his theology and attitudes. Nor do I feel the need to talk about what’s offensive about these particular terms; I’m assuming that my regular blog readers already agree that the terms are sexist and racist.
Here’s what interests me: If another person has a sexist attitude or uses a sexist term and doesn’t understand why it’s offensive, how do we help him (or her) understand?
(This isn’t limited to gender matters, of course. This applies to race and sexual orientation, too.)
For someone like Wilson, who defends his remarks, it might take a lightning bolt from heaven. Human rhetoric alone isn’t likely to do the job. Human words have no power to change a heart.
But for others, the offensive terms seem to spring more from ignorance than hatred. They simply don’t see what’s wrong. Sometimes—and I see this a lot with people around me—they view charges of sexism as mere political correctness, indicative of a liberal “agenda” they have no use for, and brush it aside. This is especially true if their actual words aren’t problematic but the attitude behind the words is.
Recently, I overheard a group of boys making fun of a different culture. I didn’t say anything. I was guilty of staying silent because:
- I didn’t know what to say (a terrible reason);
- They weren’t using ethnic slurs, but were betraying a slightly disrespectful attitude toward a different culture’s language; I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong in their silliness, only that it felt wrong and disrespectful, and
- The speakers were 6th grade boys, I didn’t know any of their names, and I have no idea how to talk so 11- and 12-year-old boys will listen. Especially when they’re on a noisy bus, bouncing around in excitement because they’re on a field trip and not stuck in a classroom. They were barely listening to each other, much less any adults.
But if someone is within our realm of influence, we should speak up. I should speak up. (I wish I had, and I’m deeply disappointed with myself that I didn’t. I’m open to suggestions for how to handle any similar situations.)
It’s relatively easy to point out disparaging terms. Calling a woman a broad, twinkie, bitch, and so on? Most adults I know would recognize the inappropriate nature of the words. (Keep in mind that I live in a conservative, well-educated, middle-to-upper-class demographic in the Bible Belt. Calling a woman a bitch? Impolite and unthinkable! How crass! It’s different elsewhere. Here, the putdown tactics tend to be more subtle.)
But how do you make someone see what’s offensive in an attitude?
Recently have become more aware (because my husband points them out!) of media that treat men in a way we probably wouldn’t accept if it were women. For example, there’s a FB site called “Hot guys reading books,” which features pictures of guys reading on buses, subways, etc. I wouldn’t even have known about it if two different female bloggers I know hadn’t tweeted a link to it this week. Yet I wonder what we would think of a site called “Hot girls reading books,” in which women were photographed anonymously, maybe without their consent? Yikes!
What’s wrong with a Facebook site like this? For starters, their individuality is destroyed; they aren’t given a name, only referred to as “hot guys.” Their full humanity is reduced to one particular element—their sexuality—and their bodies are turned into objects to be admired (or lusted after), not a part of a person to be respected. In short, women are treating these men the same way females often are treated.
It’s a sexist attitude. But not everyone seems to recognize that.
Sometimes, we have to swap the context to realize why something is offensive.
Putting ourselves in another person’s place isn’t easy. It might require a little more effort on another person’s part to make me realize what’s wrong. I might look at the “Hot Guys Reading Books” and think, Oh good, men are reading books! What’s the title? And then I’d be off, thinking about whether I’d read that particular book and what his reading choice said about him and what it any good, and not questioning the oddity of photographing anonymous men and posting their photos online.
But swap the genders, as Jeannie did in her comment. Instantly, I feel creeped out. I think about all the times I’ve read a book in public. What if someone had snapped a photo of me reading and posted it online without my consent? What if it were my daughters? “Hot Girls Reading Books”? My skin crawls.
A similar technique was used years ago for a commercial. Various average-guy-looking male actors are talking to the camera about their bodies. The statements are things that normally come from the mouth of women. A guy sitting on a barstool, drinking a beer, asks the camera, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Things like that.
It made people laugh, but it got laughs because the genders were swapped.
A woman asking that question? That’s a landmine for her significant other, a serious question revealing body-image insecurities and a craving for reassurance and approval.
A man asking the same one? We recognize how shallow the question is.
- Does it truly matter what other people think of our clothes and body size?
- Do we need other people’s approval to wear our jeans with confidence?
- Isn’t it wrong and offensive to judge other people by their appearance and size?
- Shouldn’t we be offended that women feel the need to ask this question as if their worth depends on their physical appeal?
Another example. I read an article about “microaggressions” that convey racist attitudes. Saying, “But I don’t even think of you as being black” or “I don’t see the color of your skin” would be considered two. I’ve avoided those phrases, though I didn’t quite understand what was so wrong with them.
Then I read one comment: Imagine that you’re female and some male tells you, “But I don’t see you as a woman. I don’t even think of you as a woman.”
If someone said that to me, I’d probably wonder if they needed their eyes checked (or if I needed to call a plastic surgeon ASAP to fix my body.) Being female is a huge part of my identity, so I feel slighted if someone doesn’t recognize the female aspect of my appearance.
Now I better understand why “I don’t see you as black” is insulting.
The context swap jolts us from complacency. It forces us to re-examine our presuppositions and attitudes. And it might, if articulated well, help someone understand what is offensive in their attitude. It might even change their attitude.