It is anticipated by many, but built upon unwelcome foundationsby Jessica Abrahams / February 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
Valentine’s Day. A day of romance; a chance for men to shower their women with love and treat them like princesses.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But 14th February is a classic example of what people who study such things call “benevolent sexism.”
The term was coined by psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, who define it as “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealisation, and affection directed towards women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.” Compare, for example, the belief that women are less capable than men professionally (hostile sexism) with the belief that women have a maternal instinct, a natural talent for taking care of children (benevolent sexism). One sounds like an insult while the other sounds like a compliment, but both have the effect of suggesting that a woman’s rightful place is in the home.
Women will be aware of “benevolent sexism” happening all around them, from repeatedly hearing that they are gentler or have better social skills than men, to being told their looks give them an advantage in certain careers.
Because these beliefs are ostensibly positive towards women, they may be more widespread or considered more acceptable than attitudes that are openly hostile. What’s more, they are often accompanied by apparently negative beliefs about men—men might be good at business and things mechanical, say these benevolent sexists, but they’re useless at running a household, dealing with emotions or anything involving fashion. Such ideas are insulting to men, but they are also underpinned by traditional beliefs about the supposedly natural differences between males and females which end up damaging both.
Chivalry is one manifestation of this, hence why there is often confusion about it. It is a kind gesture for a man to pull a woman’s chair out or hold a door open for her, but it is also based on assumptions about gender roles that we could do without.
This is what will happen on Valentine’s Day, this year as every other, when men wine and dine their female loves, and give them roses and jewellery and heart-shaped greetings cards. This is the danger of benevolent sexism: the day may be…