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On Bitches and Sexists

Today, while reading about this story, I stumbled upon a blog called Shakesville which had an excellent analysis of the story. One phrase they used is “owning the context” which means that someone can commit racist speech even when they do not intend it. In the story above, I think that the man with the t-shirts is “playing dumb” and understands perfectly that comparing an African-American to a monkey will be offensive to African-Americans. However, even if he did not know of the historical use of that phrase to insult black people, that does not make the t-shirt any less offensive to those that do. When this happens, when one finds oneself ignorant of the context, the only acceptable action is apology. What a concise summary of the subtle racism that still exists in our society!

Suitably impressed, I began to scan the front page of the blog for more great content. How shocked I was to find that one of the writers had taken Wil Wheaton, one of my favorite bloggers, to task for something he had written the day before. It was even something that I had agreed with and laughed at. Now, if I had read this article before the one about the Obama t-shirt, I would have quickly concluded that this was a group of unreasonable feminists and left. But I had read that other article and the parallels were immediately obvious. Disparaging remarks about women also have a context and the context here is that portraying a woman as “crazy” means that she can or should be ignored.

I revisited Wil’s blog to review the comments and found some that were very thought-provoking. Someone named “Backpacking Dad” really hit the nail on the head:

The metaphor evokes a trope in sexual politics, that of the irrational girl who cannot accept that a relationship is over. Labeling, categorizing, pigeon-holing someone in this way “he’s a geek, she’s a slut, he’s a pig, she’s cow” is at once appealing to a fragment of truth, and also making the target controllable.

This is the historic context of how our society has marginalized women. Another commenter named Sarah made it more concrete:

Look, I don’t think you hate women– I think you mean well and want to be an ally. But that means you need to listen. If you don’t think something is sexist, but people who have to deal with sexism every day are telling you that it is, maybe you should take another look.

And that made me look at my own views on sexism. Too often I’m dismissive of women just because they are women. And sometimes, if I think they are deserving of it, I’ll refer to a woman as a “bitch”. But, when considered in the full historical context, that word is no different than the racial epithet that rhymes with “digger”. Both are considered derogatory and both can be labels worn proudly by some who have been the target of these insults. Whether or not the target is deserving of these words, the context that they evoke should preclude us from using them.

Today I have decided that I will never again call a woman a bitch.

Update 5/15:

Here’s a few other opinions on Wil’s post:

I think it’s important to point out that I still intend to read Wil’s blog faithfully and I don’t regard him in the same way that some of these other people seem to: an irredeemable misogynist pig. We all have a little bigotry inside of us but that doesn’t necessarily make us bad people. Wil’s gonna figure it out some day. Hell, I did.

 

Update 5/15 (again):

Shakesville has a really good article about identifying expressed sexism. Here’s the crux of the matter:

Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express sexism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how women have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed sexism even if the speaker’s intent was not to oppress women. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of sexism, intentionally or not.

 

Update 5/20:

Backpacking Dad followed up with Wil in person and he was not as mad as he appeared on his blog. Backpacking Dad also liked the email I sent him.


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One Response to “On Bitches and Sexists”

  1. Thank you. (And this is where I stand and applaud the screen.)
    What an awesome discovery and realization, and a simple response. It all becomes more clear, doesn’t it?