A girlfriend recently told me, “If my date doesn’t pick up the check after dinner, there’s no second date. It’s important for a man to be a gentleman.” Now, I get just as heated as the next feminist when I’m told that a woman was not promoted at her job because of her gender, or that girls are just not as good at math as boys. It’s easy to recognize sexism when it’s violent or involves discrimination. But what about when sexism is disguised as . . . politeness?
Researchers call it “benevolent sexism,” but we might call it chivalry — when men act in a way that puts women on a pedestal. If you think that men opening doors or offering to carry things for women conveys good manners, you wouldn’t be alone; research has found that some women think more highly of men who practice “benevolent sexism”. But let’s think for a minute about where these manners come from. These little acts of “politeness” are actually rooted in traditional gender stereotypes that say men are strong and women are weak. Even more than that, they are rooted in gender stereotypes that define what is appropriate behavior for men and women in really narrow ways (i.e., women can only be feminine and men can only be masculine). What’s scarier is that these traditional stereotypes can be reinforced through sexist behavior.
Violent or discriminatory sexism, called hostile sexism, is used by men in patriarchal societies to police women’s behavior. When women defy gender roles by acting in a way that is perceived as too “masculine,” men use violence to punish them and remind them of their feminine role. Benevolent sexism is simply the reverse of this; it isn’t the punishment for acting too masculine, it’s the reward for acting appropriately feminine. These two types of sexism often exist together and men (or societies) that use one will generally use the other. So why do women like it when men hold boxes? If a woman is being rewarded through benevolent sexism (e.g., put on a pedestal) than at least she isn’t being punished through violent sexism. It’s easy to see how violence is wrong, but is being on a pedestal really that bad?
Benevolent sexism may not be physically violent, but it has a pretty similar outcome to hostile sexism. When women are re-situated in a traditionally feminine role (whether through violence or a man holding doors) they are reminded of feminine stereotypes, like women are the weaker sex. What makes this extra tricky is that it’s hard to spot. Like I said before, the history of benevolent sexism has been lost over time and it’s hard to recognize benevolent sexism as sexist. As my friend would argue, these days it just seems like a sign of respect.
But I would imagine that even if it seems like respect, it probably doesn’t feel like respect. Part of that traditional femininity is an over-zealous focus on a woman’s appearance. Women are supposed to be both beautiful and sexually enticing to men. It seems like being reminded of this wouldn’t make a woman feel respected, but instead would make her feel self-conscious about her looks. It might even make her compare herself to other women, to see if she is pretty enough
So, what do we do about benevolent sexism? I’m not proposing that we should all kick the next man who holds a door for us, because, let’s be honest, it is polite to hold the door when someone is walking behind you, no matter what your gender or theirs. Instead, we need to question the “rules” about what men and women should do and say (or not say!) or how we should look. Even at a time when a lot of people say that men and women are equal, that our society is “post-feminist”, this study shows us we have to think about and work to recognize how gender norms are still operating, even in disguise, and how they may still be harmful to women.