Sexism is a system of oppression that privileges men and discriminates against women. Sexism requires prejudice plus power. Like racism, sexism is not about isolated incidents but about patterns. The institutions of government, law, religion, education, and the media—as well as language and social mores—long perpetuated sexism, keeping females inferior and subordinate. Even though a female can discriminate against a male and do him harm to the point of taking his life simply because he is a male, such discrimination is different from systemic oppression. The societal problem is sexism, not males, and the movement to end sexism, sex exploitation, and oppression is feminism.
Today discussions about the women’s movement typically speak in terms of waves. The First Wave grew out of the anti-slavery movement and began as an organized movement with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and ended with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote in 1920. The Second Wave grew out of women working in the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements and started in the 1960s, following the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. In 1968, the term sexism first appeared, giving expression to a previously unnamed reality in women’s lives. The Third Wave began in the 1980s and continues still.
Female or male status and roles are social constructions usually based on the ideology of patriarchy. Patriarchy grants males privilege and gives men power based on their gender identity. Males as a group obviously benefit the most from patriarchy. Females may benefit by attaching themselves to and identifying with males. Patriarchy thus is male-centered, male-dominated, and male-identified, and it functions by oppressing women.
Sexism often manifests itself in the workplace and in politics. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear judgmental comments about the appearance or personality of a female leader to an extent seldom heard about a male. Strong female leaders cannot escape criticism about their “lack of femininity” or “over-assertiveness” when they take strong positions on an issue.
Gender stereotypes about females and males keep sexist thinking alive. Females who have the ability to incubate embryos, give birth to human beings, and feed infants and toddlers with their breasts are stereotyped as members of the “weaker” sex. Males who excel in upper body strength are stereotyped as members of the “stronger” sex. In addition to being stereotyped as “weaker,” females are stereotyped as seductive and eager to please males. Racially tagged stereotypes portray black females as animalistic and hypersexual; Asian females as exotic and focused on catering to male desires; white females as bimbos and dumb blondes; Native American females as beguiling princesses or “squaws”; and Latinas as “hot mommas.”
The socialization process traditionally teaches females to be subordinate, passive, compliant, nurturing, emotionally expressive, vulnerable, cooperative, and accommodating. Males learn to be dominant, aggressive, tough, emotionally in control, logical, and assertive. Some researchers refer to the socialization of females and males as a component of sexual terrorism (a system whereby males frighten and by frightening dominate and control females). Such “voluntary compliance” essentially socializes females to be victims and males to be terrorists in the name of masculinity.
Although some people argue that sexism ended in the 20th century, evidence of sexism abounds. Children experience sexist socialization in virtually every social institution. In the media, for example, a content analysis of children’s television and print cartoons reveals that there are many more male characters than females. Spongebob, Barney, Big Bird, Snoopy, Garfield, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, and Superman are some examples. Some male characters do have female counterparts, such as Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Smurfette, but they are typically less important and very stereotypic, performing domestic duties and acting cutesy. Lucy and Peppermint Patty from the Peanuts comic strip are arguably strong female characters. Others have attempted to bring in strong female cartoon characters such as the Power Puff Girls, but most of the newer female characters are presented as “sexy” females.
Video games present males as very violent and females as very sexual. An early female character named Samus from Metroid, a Nintendo game, was a strong character, but her female identity only became known at the end of the game. The depiction of most females in video games shows them with large breasts and as both hungry sex fiends and helpless victims of male conquest. The many male characters compete and kill with impunity.
Advertisements reinforce stereotypes, with females often depicted performing domestic tasks and doing service work. In contrast, males play and watch sports, drive cars, and occupy management positions. Advertisements also contribute to female subordination by undermining female self-esteem by encouraging females to be critical of their bodies, to fear gaining weight and showing signs of age. Advertisers offer products that aid dieting, maintain youth, and make females attractive to males by smelling right and looking seductive. Since the average American sees thousands of advertisements each day, these gendered messages are very effective.
Saturating television, music videos, music, magazines, and film are countless stereotypic gender messages. Repeated images of women in domestic roles and catering to the sexual desires of males reinforce traditional sex roles. On most television programs males have the major roles, and they are the most successful hosts of prime time talk shows. It feels “right” to see males in the power roles. Music videos are particularly rife with images of females offering males sexual pleasure. Some popular music such as rap and heavy metal contain overt messages encouraging violence against women and homophobia. Magazines marketed to women feature articles telling women how to please their men. Magazines marketed to men show images of highly sexualized females. Most popular movies feature images of aggressive males and sexy young females.
These media images are extraordinarily powerful. They effectively reinforce and reflect patriarchal values.
The so-called weapons of sexism include violence against women, homophobia, and economics. Males can exercise their aggressive masculinity by committing violence against females to keep them subordinate. Feminists charge that the global proliferation of pornography and the pandemic of battering, rape, sex trafficking, and sexual harassment are evidence of patriarchy as an oppressive worldwide system.
Economics is another weapon of sexism. Keeping females less well off economically than males, even though they often have the responsibility of supporting their children or older relatives, ensures female subordination. Unlike in the past, women today are more likely to be financially responsible for children. Women’s responsibility for children in a society that does not provide day care and other social services tends to leave them poor. U.S. females working full time earn about $.78 for every dollar earned by a male. Since the Reagan era, poverty has increased among women, a trend known as the feminization of poverty.
Sexism is perhaps best understood in the context of other systems of oppression, such as racism, hetero-sexism, and classism. People hold multiple identities by sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and other simultaneous social identities. The term intersection helps pinpoint these multiple identities. Since there are hierarchies of identities, a person can simultaneously be dominating and dominated. For example, a white rich female has two dominant (race and class) and one subordinate (sex) identities.
No hierarchy of oppressions exists, however. Sexism is the practice of male domination that all people experience as dominants or subordinates. It is problematic that domination and subordination are used to organize society. Another model of societal organization that could move society beyond sexism is partnership, the organizing principle of societies prior to the advent of patriarchy. In partnership societies, deities were conceptualized as female or as females with male consorts; in art, violent masculinity and warfare were not idealized; wealth was rather equitably shared; and there was equal partnership between women and men. Although some scholars argue that this model might be more of a fantasy than a reality, it can aid in envisioning a society free of sexism.
Abuse, Intimate Partner; Feminist Theory; Feminization of Poverty; Gender Bias; Gender Gap; Gender Identity and Socialization; Segregation, Gender; Segregation, Occupational; Sexism, Advertising; Sexism, Music; Sexual Harassment
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