Sexism at Time and the Times
How do you know someone is being condescending? When the praise they offer is disproportionate to the act being praised.
By this measure, the condescension towards women senators this week rivals Mother’s Day’s condescension toward mothers.
Time Magazine’s Jay Newton-Small in an article titled “Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington” tells us that women US senators (bless their cooperative little hearts) organized a pizza playdate among themselves to discuss the shutdown. And then comes the big moment for the ladies:
In the hours that followed, those discussions attracted more Senators, including some men, and yielded a plan that would lead to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to end the shutdown. [emphasis added]
The discussions after the pizza included “some men” so you know they were legitimate and not just about painting each other’s nails. And the grand result was a plan that led to a talks between two men. Don’t examine that causal link too closely or you’ll notice that it seems at odds with this similar New York Times piece that credits a group of senators, less than half of whom were women. No matter. The Times scribes a headline whose condescension towards women is worthy of a parent whose child has just learned to use the potty all by himself:
Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord
This would not be the headline if women were actually fully whole adults instead of cute, adorable children. There is no risk of offending the men involved in the same discussions because men are real adults and adults know that they don’t need to get credit for every little thing they do.
Callie Beusman’s words on Jezebel last week fit the situation too well for me worry about quoting her out of context on the type of praise women can expect and for what types of achievements:
Once you’ve wormed your way in to one of them, people will protect you and tell you you’re pretty and cute and let you have some degree of Woman-Success (your own Lean In circle!), which is not the same thing as actual success (men only).
These news outlets think the best women can hope for is to influence powerful men. That is Woman-Success, and it is celebrated because actual success was never on the menu.
In another piece on Time’s web site, Newton-Small gives us this:
The women [senators] all agreed that they would not air their differences in public, but rather emphasize the fact that the bills are 95% identical and that whichever one passes, it would represent the most significant overhaul of the issue in Congressional history.
They personalize issues in highly effective ways. In Washington Democrat Patty Murray’s first year in office in 1993, the Senate was debating the Family Medical Leave Act. She took to the floor and spoke about how a dear friend’s son’s sickness and death had cost him his job and nearly bankrupted their family.
These stories make heavy use of gender essentialism [pdf]. Well-intentioned people often think it is OK to embrace benevolent sexism to say good things about women as long as they leave out all the complementary, complimentary stereotypes about men. They think no harm is done by heavily implying that all women are better communicators and collaborators. All women empathize better and are more ethical than men.
The problem is that readers are not wholly stupid. They will read that their woman senator didn’t care which of two bills passed and deduce that for really hardball negotiations where you need that last 5%, you better get a man in there. And women empathize and personalize more, so you’d better get some men in there to make sure that bills aren’t being passed by the force of emotionally charged anecdote alone. Benevolent sexism always ends up mostly “-volent” and not so much “bene-“.
You can’t sell your audience on half of a sexist narrative and hope they will forget what you omit. When you praise women as being intrinsically better collaborators, you simultaneously reinforce the notion that men are better at spatial reasoning and making tough decisions. Perhaps these outlets will convince the public to vote in a few more women senators, but it will be at the price of making the public believe women would make lousy presidents or engineers.
Photo credits: Flickr user mitopencourseware (Yes, really.)