"Lovelocks" attached to Pont des Arts bridge in Paris by couples. The bridge crosses the river Seine.

Valentine's Day: a classic example of benevolent sexism

It is anticipated by many, but built upon unwelcome foundations
February 11, 2016

"Lovelocks" attached by couples to the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris.

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 filled with good intentions on the part of men, and may be enjoyed and anticipated by many women, but it is nonetheless built on unwelcome foundations which ultimately do women no good. The trouble is that those foundations are obscured by a friendly facade.

It is no coincidence that many of the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day date back to days that were less favourable to women. There is a long tradition of amorous men idolising and idealising their female love interests. Think of the courtly love of medieval times, for example, in which women were wooed by men with poems and songs and gifts; Chaucer is identified by some scholars as being the first writer to associate Valentine’s Day with romantic love. But this tradition isn’t necessarily in women’s interest: they are idolised because they are seen as fundamentally different from the men doing the idolising; and they are worshipped for their perceived fulfilment of a feminine ideal, the characteristics they are expected to have because of their sex.

Other marginalised groups will also be familiar with the phenomenon of benevolent discrimination—apparently positive stereotypes such as “black people are good at sports” are often seen as harmless or even complimentary, in contrast to more negative stereotypes that are understood to be damaging. For that reason, this kind of discrimination can be the hardest to deal with.

As with many things, Valentine’s Day—a celebration of love—doesn’t have to be sexist: it is our social context that makes it so. There are ways to work around it—men and women taking turns to treat each other, for example, and skipping or inverting the traditional symbols of femininity that come with the day (flowers, jewellery and the ubiquitous pink).

Without those changes, Valentine’s Day might seem nice—but it’s sexism delivered with a smile.