Anybody making a case for the relevance of feminism today will have to tackle the familiar objection about reverse sexism as equivalent.
Despite a lack of awareness about the role of feminism in dispelling gender stereotyping for both males and females i.e. ‘manning up’ or ‘throwing like a girl’ and in working to advance LGBT rights, it isn’t realised that most sexism is internalised and institutionalised.
The message of women as inferior is so embedded in our psyches that it affects our perception of others and the language we use. Linguistic sexism is encapsulated by generic masculine pronouns, used when the gender of the person referred to is unknown. The presumption of the unknown as male shows that male is the perceived norm whilst the feminine is the ‘other’. And it is the norm in society that dictates policy, public opinion and acceptable action leading to greater superiority in reality. Pronouns aren’t the only part of language where ‘male as the norm’ is demonstrated, it can be seen in feminised suffixes in nouns for professions – with actor being the norm and the word actress having to be a modification on the archetype.
With this in mind, sexism itself should be seen, not as something localised to certain issues, but as pervasive, stretching from our minds, to language and to our actions.
Let’s visualise society as a tree and sexism as a disease in its veins spreading down to its roots. The branches are instances of that disease like the pay gap, rape culture and the objectification of the female form. A tree surgeon comes in and treats the disease by trimming off the most affected branches. Whilst this is effective to some extent, what truly needs to be tackled is the diseased roots.
We can see this in real-life with the campaign No More Page 3 which, though it inspired many young feminists, culminated in lingerie-clad women replacing the bare tits of yesteryear. Despite this, as Laura Bates says, the message “the news about women was their breasts” hasn’t been removed but has been tempered and put in lacy briefs. To ignore the symbolism of this success would be callous and not giving the campaigners their rightful due, but not pointing out the limited consequences of this victory would be to neglect the cluster of unhealthy attitudes about women’s bodies that promulgate and reinforce Page 3 as ‘simply a bit of good old-fashioned fun’.
Has the victory of No More Page 3 been symbolic and important? Yes. Has it tackled the problem, root-and-all? No. What remains is an habitual and normalised objectification of women in the media shown by the Protein World ‘are you beach body ready’ ad springing up again in New York. What’s more, as many feminists have pointed out, what is on The Sun’s page 3 (along with much more explicit material) is available out there online and free for anybody to access anyway. The branch was cut, but the root of the issue still remains.
The roots of our society are ‘diseased’ because of a collection of beliefs about women as physically and mentally inferior upon which our society was built – the main premise being ‘men are superior in x way to women’. It is for this reason that ‘reverse sexism’ can’t possibly be classed as equivalent or even as comparable to what occurs to self-identifying women.
Instances of prejudice against men, and that’s what I believe it should be called, cannot recreate or imitate generations of beliefs built around the tenet that women are inferior nor can it replicate the implicit power structures that formed around this belief holding women back where men aren’t. Though these power structures are often enveloped in linguistic and behavioural subtleties and not so subtle harassment of women in day-to-day life, the statistics show the disease in practice with only 7 FTSE 100 companies with a female CEO – fewer than the 17 CEOs with the name John.
Reverse sexism or female privilege cannot be equated to traditional sexism because to do that would be to compare the defective branches of a non-diseased tree to our disease ravaged tree above. Singular instances of something cannot be fairly compared to a structural and all-pervasive problem.
To get rid of the true disease in our society we must recognise the challenges all self-identifying women face and correct the toxic beliefs at the root of society from which sexism has grown and flourished. It is only when we realise the madness in the method by which we think and act about women that we can fight the true disease in sexism.