Spotting Sexism – The Enemy Within

As many of my readers already know, my blogs often start at the bar. I don’t think this is a coincidence – some of the most interesting conversations of my life happen while sitting in Finnigans at 3:30 on random Friday afternoons. Often after a beer or two, people will start to tell you how they really feel about things, and as a result, it can be a very intriguing consciousness-raising environment.

Which brings us to the other night. I was discussing dating with a bi-sexual friend who said, “When I am out with a girl, yeah, let’s split the bill at dinner, but when I am with a man, he should be paying! I mean, I’m a  feminist, but I like having my dinner paid for.”

After unproductively debating this back and forth for a few minutes I remarked that it was true that free food always tastes the best and let it go, but her remark kept bothering me over the weekend. Why was it so unnerving that a self-proclaimed feminist displayed such a sexist attitude when it came to dating and gender roles? Was it an issue unique to her or a larger problem infiltrating feminism on the whole? When I turned to the writing of two of my favorite feminist authors for advice, my suspicions were confirmed – there was a problem in modern feminism. It was something I haven’t known how to name or talk about, but one that I have been noticing the effects of for some time. Susan Douglas and bell hooks helped me put it into words.

I was actually lucky enough to see Susan Douglas give a talk about her book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done at JMU in Spring 2011. Her message was powerful and I have never forgotten it. Douglas looks at media, namely television shows, that place women in positions of power, creating what she believes to be false projections of what society is really like. In others words, while there may be women serving as Chief of Surgery in Grey’s Anatomy or running the Miami homicide unit on Dexter, the amount of powerful women on TV does not match up to the realities of the modern work force. The real truth is that women are still paid and promoted less then their male counterparts – sadly, the “glass ceiling” feminists have been talking about for decades still exists.

Douglas goes on to say that these false images in the media give off the impression that feminist’s work is, as her title states, done. The message that society’s issues of gender equality have been solved is a dangerous and false one, but even worse, it lends to an atmosphere of what Douglas calls “enlightened sexism.” If equality now exists it becomes okay, even fashionable, for males and females to engage in sexist behavior, because it no longer contributes to any real oppression of women in society. One needs only to think of the popularity of media like the show Desperate Housewives or the best selling novel 50 Shades of Grey to see how this idea plays out.

Apparently she sees nothing wrong with this?
Apparently she sees nothing wrong with this?

I see this all the time in my life, in comments like the one my friend made, in the actions of male friends who claim to “love” women, and worst of all, in the competition and lack of respect that permeates so many female relationships. As long as the “enlightened sexism” that Douglas talks about exists, true gender equality will forever be hidden under the lie that is has already been achieved.

It’s a concern that bell hooks also addresses in one of my new favorite books, Feminism is for Everybody. hooks believes, as I do, that a major problem in modern feminism is that it has moved away from the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960’s and 70’s and into the classroom. While many women may identify with feminist politics, the opportunities to be involved in the movement on a local level have become fewer and fewer since the development of Women’s Studies as a discipline. Because community women are no longer meeting, talking, and challenging each others embedded sexism, few realize that there is a problem.

hooks claims that there is a major problem, as feminism has become regulated as a university concern. What is even worse is that alongside this development, the idea of “lifestyle feminism” became popular, as women began claiming that one did not need to change their politics to be a feminist – they could take whatever parts of the movement they liked and adopt them to belief systems they already had in place – even if those systems were damaging to women. While it is absolutely true that “feminism is for everybody,” one does have to change their politics to truly identify as a “feminist.” One cannot say that they are for women’s rights and also say that women do not have the right to choose when it comes to their own healthcare. It doesn’t work that way, just as it doesn’t work to say you are a feminist that thinks a man should always pay for dinner.

Perhaps the best example I can think of is the photo below – I am coining the phrase “Republican Feminism” to describe this. By reappropriating the words “right to choose” to describe gun rights on an image with a women holding a baby (presumably she didn’t get the right to choose that) is a gross usurption of feminist ideals.


These are dangerous aspects of feminism that I hope we can keep off of our campus and out of our classrooms at JMU. While I would never want to exclude anyone who believed in the principles of feminism, I also believe, as hooks does, that “a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movements is a dangerous threat…the enemy within must be transformed before we can confront the enemy outside” (12).

Sometimes the “enemy” hooks speaks of can be illusive – it might be inside ourselves or in the comment of a friend. Sexism is a slippery snake, and for many of us, it is such a norm that we don’t even notice it. It’s a challenge but one feminists need to take on – to spot sexism when they see, try to understand why it’s there, and help provide the tools and old-school consciousness-raising it takes to get rid of it.

6 thoughts on “Spotting Sexism – The Enemy Within

  1. This post brings up lots of interesting ideas. I too saw Douglas last spring, and agree with both you and her on this topic as a whole. It is very easy for people to believe that the work of feminism is over, or to change and subvert its ideals.


  2. I think so too, and I think the most dangerous aspect of it is how pervasive and generally unnoticeable it is. I was talking to a friend about the false projections of women on TV and how it contributes to the ideal that feminism is “over” when I realized something I hadn’t thought of before – all the creators of these shows Douglas talks about are not part of a conspiracy plot against women – obviously. The crux of the matter is that women watch TV and want to see these types of characters. They also are invovled in various creative facets of these shows, and also want to project positive and powerful female characters. It’s truely a double bind – by showing attention to women, the message of feminism is subverted.


  3. I think this post is so compelling, because being such an isolated group, feminists seem to feel like we need to accept anyone willing to identify with us. However, I agree with you (and Hooks) that someone who holds fast to sexist ideas might sympathize with some feminist ideology, but isn’t a feminist, themselves. Ultimately, this just confuses the message of feminism and brings down the integrity of the movement. Toeing that line between being inclusive and true to the principles of the movement is a tough balance.


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