Take Two #69: Benevolent Sexism

By Kyra-lin Hom

To continue from last week, though I had a lot of fun, I sadly never got to meet Gillian Anderson at Emerald City Comicon. You know those 6-inch heels I mentioned before? Well, those had something to do with it. Turns out I'm good for about two hours in those shoes. After that, chairs become my very best friends. I learned this smack in the middle of the massive dealers' hall without a public chair in sight. I did, however, manage to convince what turned out to be the Playboy Comics booth to lend me a chair. I did not actually know whose generosity I was partaking of until I was good to stand again and the comic artist wanted to take a picture with me. So I think a photo of me is on that blog somewhere. I aimed for 90's feminism and found Playboy. I'm not sure how I feel about that...

Speaking of, I learned a new term this week. Apparently first coined in 1996, the technical phrase is “benevolent sexism.” Heard of it before? Traditionally it's defined as a particular brand of sexism marked by overly paternal attitudes toward women, subtly treating them like children. It is often disregarded by both involved parties “because of it's ostensibly positive qualities.” I'd like to expand this definition to include overly maternal attitudes toward men as well – that way I'm not leaving anyone out.

Essentially, what benevolent sexism boils down to is not respecting the genders and encouraging gender roles whether consciously or not (i.e. weakness and softness in women and slobbish invulnerability in men). For instance, thinking women are pure and should be put on a pedestal from whence they can cook, clean, look pretty and not tax themselves with hard things like math and mechanics. Or to keep things even, another example is belittling men when they mangle laundry or want to talk about their feelings. Benevolent sexism is an attitude. (And yes, men and women can just as easily target their own gender too.)

Here's a recent instance from my life. During a kids' martial arts class, a father was egging on his son by saying, 'you hit like a girl.' I take exception to that. The comment wasn't meant to give offense, but it put down every little girl in that dojo. A comment like that encourages the idea that girls don't need to throw in their all because quality results aren't expected of them anyway. A learned helplessness, so to speak. And besides, I hit harder than that dad.

Back to Gillian Anderson and her starring role in the X-Files. Watching the series now makes me nostalgic for 90's female characters. You just don't see roles like Dana Scully or Captain Janeway anymore – power roles that just happen to be played by women. Roles that don't hinge on some aspect of femininity. Don't get me wrong, I love Once Upon A Time's main character Emma Swan (not to mention their updating of Snow White). She's a bounty hunter, the sheriff and overall tough as nails. But her role – the actual role her character plays in the overall story – is dependent on her status as a mother. A man couldn't play her role. It just wouldn't work. Plus that would break the long line of Disney princesses.

This distinction is important and remains the reason why we won't think twice about a mostly male cast but will definitely notice a female-heavy show like Once Upon a Time. Strong, potentially gender neutral roles almost always go to men unless the show is actively trying to hit a political correctness quota. Though I will say lately I've been pleased to see hints of the contrary.

A parallel situation, though dealing with race and not sex, arose while I was working on the short film Fortune Hunters a few years back. It's an adorable romantic comedy about a Chinese young man and his yellow-fevered girlfriend. The entire plot depends on him and his family being Chinese. Yet when the producers pitched the film to the major production houses in Hollywood, one of the first questions asked was if the character could be made Caucasian to make the film more marketable. Are you kidding me?!

Maybe it's asking to much for men and women to respect each other and themselves in full measure. I'd like to believe that's not true, but we have a long way to go. We're at tolerance right now. We can, for the most part, put up with each other. Congratulations. Now can't we do any better than that?

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