Sexism is the Air We Breathe

Until recently, I wasn’t really a feminist. To be honest, I don’t know if I am a feminist. I wasn’t a chauvinist, but there’s a large space between the terms that we tend to ignore–if you’re not a feminist you hate women. If you are a feminist, well, that the politically correct default; a feminist…does what exactly?

I. No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative

We’re conditioned to believe that progress is the natural course of social evolution. We also often confuse power with progress, progress with arrival. Despite what was at best a passive fan of feminist ideology, I saw myself the epitome of a feminist–I’m assertive, I’m opinionated, and I speak my mind no matter what you want to hear (sometimes to Chapelle gone wrong extent).

But in truth, being a woman with a strong personality and a sizeable Jimmy Choo collection did not make me a

feminist any more than being an alpha male did. I gladly ignored or politely deferred correcting sexist behaviors because I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to describe what was quite wrong with the picture. No one was Betty Draper’ing around in a state of constant male gaze malaise. More of us were going to college, professional schools, earning more…significantly enough that The Atlantic ran a cover on “The End of Men,” which spelled and charted out female progress on the career, education, and earning power front, implying, well, all you can infer from the title. (Hanna Rosin then turned this into a book. Oh, the epitome of self-gain at the expense of your sex. No wait, that would be Sheryl).

I found the article’s existence disquieting. Its declaration was that the second sex had arrived, and not only vanquished inequality but tipped the scales–was actually alarming. It inflames the source of the majority of overt and implied sexism–what I am terming the male entitlement-insecurity complex–as women make strides forward in every field, female competition naturally threatens the patriarchy. What was once naturally theirs is being “taken” by these interlopers. In addition, it also leads to feminist complacency, that willful blind eye we all turn for the sake of politeness, of feminine “niceness,” of remaining enticing.

Why the last choice of words? Well, I’ll let Bey* take it from here. In Flawless/Bow Down, she throws over the melodic beat Chimamanda Adichie’s very succinct definition from her TED talk (the winding, fascinating, and often self-contradictory evolution of Beyonce as a feminist icon vs. a feminist individual warrants a own post.)

Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

II. Illusions and Wishful Delusions

With all due respect (and by all I mean an enormous, deferential quantity) to Adichie, my personal definition of feminism substitutes “fights for” in place of “believes in” (not that the difference is significant–Adichie’s books are strategic military campaigns). While equality is such a nice thing to believe in, lulling ourselves into thinking that all change is progress (which is in turn synonymous with equality) is exactly how the patriarchy (by intention or not) maintains the status quo. Just because we’re not expected to hold Betty Draper as a role model doesn’t mean that we’ve chipped away at the heart of sexism, the same inequalities of expectation and opportunity that stifled life for women of the 50’s.

–In the rest of her talk, she illustrate just one of the many insidious injustices that span all three categories:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

In Adiche’s TedTalk, the problem she cites as an example flow from one area of inequality to another. So why is it that we act as if it’ll all be a-ok if we just lean in, a wee bit more, we can just ignore entrenched structural problems? I don’t know, but I’ll throw out three hypotheses: It’s uncomfortable–and frankly, unfashionable–to have productive discussions about issues that have no quick, easy solutions when sexism is such a loaded term. Second, sexism itself is such a loaded word that all but the most socially-minded men immediately trot out snappy personal defenses (“I always split the check!” “My boss is a woman and I respect her!” or–my favorite–“My girlfriend’s really ambitious and I think that’s sexy…”). Well geez, all right then–not being Season 1 Don Draper totally makes you a radical feminist, dude. And where are the upwardly mobile women themselves in the dialogue? I won’t pretend that my sample size of myself, my friends, and classmates at Harvard and Stanford B-school is a perfect sample (though given the last two institutions, not a bad representation of tomorrow’s influential women).

Nonetheless, I believe that we have succumbed to the lazy, defeatist, slippery slope to believe that some injustices are inevitable and what they perceive to be the last vestiges of sexism aren’t worth fighting against–especially when doing so could threaten their career or marriage prospects. That the existence of prominent, powerful women–such as Sheryl Sandberg or Beyonce–makes feminism obsolete.

May day, may day, earth to bitches*–being Hungarian for success and power does not make you a feminist. Not all

accomplished, powerful women are feminists. My classmates are intelligent; I’d like to believe that most are aware, but have justified passivity in sexist problems small and large by deciding to defer speaking out until they’ve amassed the prominence and influence to stand on a platform. Until they’re so powerful and loved that no man’s disapproval could even make a dent.

And that’s fine. That was me. And to most, a cornerstone of feminism is the power of personal choice. Do I condemn the selfishness and cowardice of deferring the good fight? That’s personal and irrelevant. Just don’t ever forget that every day you’re not fighting for equality, you are a passive, de facto promoter of inequality–and slowing progress for your sisters–and for yourself. It’s your life, your choice; I’m only rallying against the convenient delusions I’ve only shaken off myself recently.

**Can a feminist use words that have historically been demeaning to women? (Yes–in my truly humble and nascent feminist opinion–depending on who’s speaking and the context of the usage). Is Bow Down/Flawless/Flawless remixed a feminist song despite its obvious flaws that actually promote latent sexism? (I’m not sure yet–I’ll get back to you when I think through all the clashing agendas presented in the lyrics)

III. The Role of Men in the Millennial Movement

This is supposed to be the section where I desperately protest the notion of being a man-hater. I’m not going to dignify that practice. There are plenty of men I disdain and yes, even hate, both for sexism and a multitude of other reasons–I highly doubt I’m alone in that description.

Yet the single discovery that’s amazed me in the last six months is that my male peers are not only some of the most clear-minded, progressive, and active feminists I know, they’re also the ones who did more than half the work in bringing me to this state of consciousness. I’m incredibly fortunate to have some of my generation’s most intellectual, socially-conscious, and self-assured men as my close friends. To have the vocabulary and belief in human equality to be an active feminist when it’s just not your problem is actually awe-inspiring–and shamed me into making large-scale changes to my worldview, and as an outward manifestation, how I live my life.

I don’t exactly expect all men to pick up the torch when most of my female friends have opted out. But it would be nice if men would first recognize that it’s a lot harder to live as a woman under the double-standard of the male phrase, the “accidental” male graze, and yes, the unwanted obligations that come with male praise. That their good intentions don’t matter when their actions promote sexism–your lack of awareness is not a viable excuse, nor is it my problem.

Perhaps calling feminism “obsolete” was too strong of a word. And we should celebrate all the progress that’s been made…while remembering that no collective progress comes without personal sacrifice–sometimes enormous ones. I am not on some moral high horse because I did make one of the latter sacrifices–it may have been the trigger for an piece like this, but trust me, at the moment when the decision was made, I was certainly not consciously thinking about the shortcomings of today’s feminist agenda (or lack thereof). But I do think that I have seen enough appalling social and institutional injustice to say that if my generation–women and men both–continue in their path of complacency, we are fucked.

I suppose there’s a need for one more qualifier (don’t you hate it when petty protests are used to drown out the main point?)–I do have more female peers than I can count who are both far more evolved–and educated–so much so that everything I’ve said is like, duh. But bear with me for stating the obvious–if you disagree with my thesis–that despite the existence of prominent women in positions of power or socioeconomic status,* we are laughably, shameful far from equality–or even awareness–as a society…here are my questions for you.

IV. Three Examples of Blatant Injustice

1) Cultural Failure: Hours before the 2009 Grammys, one of the most prominent male music stars of then and today slammed his then-girlfriend, a counterpart with even greater stardom, into the steering wheel by grabbing the back of her head and slamming it into the steering wheel. He then proceeded to go Mike Tyson on her, leaving teeth marks on her face before dumping her by the side of the road. He received probation and education as punishment, and went on to have a still–lucrative career and performed at two more Grammys.

Say what?

2) Institutional Failure: I have a college classmate whose ex leaked intimate photos of her that were passed around. She was socially ostracized, publicly mocked on the internet, and basically had her life destroyed. She happens to be attractive, kind, talented and brave, but even if she were hideous, cruel, stupid, and cowardly, her peers at Harvard–women especially–should have rallied around her. Instead, most of the student body took a “this would never happen to me” stance and focused on the fact that she used to write a thoughtful, intellectual, and profitable blog called Sex and the Ivy, on which she posted about the banal Ivy life, what she wore, excellent POVs on the issues of the day, and occasionally, an sexualized image of herself.**

If she were not a close friend of mine, I probably would have succumbed to the same weak, delusional thinking. That is appalling. Nonetheless, I failed her as a friend–I didn’t realize how much havoc this was wreaking on her life, and I didn’t make the time (midterms!!) to do all that I could to mitigate the effects of sexism on her. That’s also appalling. Lena, I never apologized for my failure as a friend and as a feminist until now. Thank you for forgiving me nonetheless and for pushing me to see what I was willfully blind to.

But worst of all, it’s appalling that an institution known to be liberal and progressive–and fucking Harvard, for fuck’s sake, has either no or seriously inadequate measures for all sorts of crimes against women. Just google “Harvard University” and “rape.”

Women are getting into elite institutions at unprecedented levels. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay! We can now send our brightest young women to places where they are more likely not only to become victims, but victims who are denied justice. Drew Faust–another example of a woman whose rise to prominence was hailed as progress for woman. She then proceeded to forget to update the antiquated standards for crimes against women and landed Harvard on the Department of Education’s list of 55 institutions under investigation.*

3) The Wage Gap: I refuse to google how many cents women earn on the dollar, which varies depending on study. I just know that in none of these articles is it 100. Again, “good enough” is not equality. I want my goddamn dollar.

I could go on and on, but I’ll hold myself to these three for now. Like racism (both figuratively and literally), sexism is the air we breathe. It existed for millenia before even the term “feminism” was coined.

How did we fool ourselves into believing that the problem could be eradicated in a few decades, or that it wouldn’t require personal sacrifice?

*Not all of whom are feminists. I’m looking at you, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Rhianna, “Girls Rule The World” Beyonce. I personally believe that women with the luxury of fighting for equality should feel an obligation to past and future generations to do so. Again, that is a personal belief.

**Can women yield to the make gaze and still be considered feminists? Yes; and again, a post in and of itself.

Originally published at on September 22, 2014.

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