When you think about it, people are weird creatures.
This statement applies on many levels, the least of which being the way we allow ourselves to feel awkward. Saying ‘no’ to people, talking about money, walking the same speed as a stranger; the list of things that sends us a bit funny goes on forever.
However, there’s one thing we can find ourselves feeling awkward about that we really need to get over. It exists all around us, we know to be an issue and most will acknowledge ‘something needs to be done about’, yet is often skirted around.
We need to become more comfortable talking about sexism.
Why? Because sexism is a very real thing that needs to be worked on in order to be deconstructed. And how can we get on with doing that if the topic is something we immediately get our guards up over?
Straight off the bat, we need to acknowledge that the word represents a very wide spectrum. It can be applied to instances from the most extreme, intentionally hurtful, troll-like actions to the innocently passive comments that are so ingrained as acceptable in society that we don’t even realise we are doing them.
However, sexism, like many things that cover a varying range of degrees, often is interpreted in the most extreme sense of the word. It makes it a hard discussion to have because the connotations that come to mind are the really bad ones that trigger a sense of defensiveness.
We might want to mention that something someone has said or done is ‘a little bit sexist’ but we fear the word because it can be so jarring. People hear this as ‘you are a sexist’, which sets off the fireworks.
In a way, feminism is the same. It’s hard to say ‘I’m a feminist’ without feeling the need to add on ‘but you know, not the crazy bra burning type’. It’s a challenge with all labelling, really.
What this means is that often we don’t realise just how often we might be playing down the softer end of sexism.
The fact is, it’s impossible to always know if something we say might offend someone. And sometimes it’s not even offence we need to be worried about; more often than not it’s just the repetition of a behaviour that normalises the status quo.
I’ve caught myself saying ‘grow a pair’, ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be a pussy’ more times than I’d like and while on the surface these mightn’t seem like sexist comments, when you peel back what they are really saying, they are.
To take one of those in order to demonstrate the point, I’ll let the very well articulated words of my partner in fem-fighting crime, Rebecca Williams, explain:
The main with “man up” isn’t so much that it implies a default that ‘man’ equals positive, ‘female’ equals negative (although it does do that also), it’s that it tends to dictate a version of ‘manliness’ that is actually harmful to men. It communicates that it’s not ‘manly’ to be vulnerable, to be unsure, to be emotional. Over time, the cultural ingraining of that message can’t be healthy nor completely coincidental to the absolute tragedy that is men’s mental health and suicide rates. As such, there seems little to be lost by eradicating it from our lexicon.
The point here isn’t to beat ourselves up for this, it’s simply to create a pause on behaviours we’ve become immune to think of as anything other than normal. It’s about rethinking if their true messages is something we want to further perpetuate.
To shift the context and give another way of thinking about it, the same thing goes for words like ‘retard’ or ‘gay’. People don’t often mean these terms in a literal way, but it doesn’t mean that when they’re used it won’t be seen as a bit off to someone somewhere along the line.
While the words or phrases in isolation may not seem overly offensive, the behaviour and culture they assist is something we should all disagree with.
For women who are taken back by passively sexist language, or indeed offended, it acts as a silencer. It sets off a very ‘boys club’ mood and puts women in a position that I don’t really expect men to understand. We feel the need to roll our eyes as if it doesn’t faze us, awkwardly joke along so not to come across as precious, or retreat into our shells as form of separation.
It may seem like a small step, but hammering out passively sexist words and phrases will do a lot in terms of setting the foundations for what we allow to be acceptable and not.
If we are going to have any hope of one day beating sexism out of society, we have to start with the small things we can change. First and foremost this means becoming more comfortable talking about it, and as a next step being assertive in pointing out the behaviours that play into unconscious, intentioned sexism.
Mentioning a word that might be inappropriate or suggesting a less gender based turn of phrase will be the tiny things we can do within our own networks that will, over time, prove where we stand on the topic.
And if it means us all feeling a bit awkward for calling people out, so be it. It’s too important of a topic to ignore.