When Sexism is Debatable


Last week, as I was in the midst of a local discussion about sexism, Miss Representation posted the picture above, taken from an AXE commercial, on Facebook.  The accompanying text asked for readers to weigh in:  “Has AXE hit a new low with this commercial? Or is it just harmless fun?  Let us know if you’re #NotBuyingIt.”  The picture and hashtag were meant to spark discussion and action—readers could take to twitter with #NotBuyingIt and protest AXE’s use of disembodied boobs as an advertising gimmick.  But that’s not all the text encourages:  it leaves the door open for someone to say that this gimmick is just “harmless fun.”  Since I was having a week in which I was protesting sexist humor, I wasn’t buying it.

First of all, of course disembodied boobs are sexist.  If you have any doubts, close your eyes and picture a pair of disembodied balls selling Obsession.  Not workin for ya?  Wonder why?  Because we don’t live in a society in which testicles have been simultaneously sexualized and commercialized.  (For more such musings on a world in which male bodies are treated the way female bodies are—and why I wouldn’t want to live there—see my post Imagine a World….)

The people at Miss Representation know that disembodied boobs are sexist—their question was largely rhetorical, part of a growing trend in which media outlets posit a question and then ask for reader input.  It’s a hook, a gimmick to drive social media mania.  But in this case, I think it was the wrong move:  it allows people to believe that sexism, rather than being a socially constructed, universally readable language, is a matter of opinion.

If sexism is a matter of opinion, sexism wins. 

We live in a society in which opinion—be it educated or uneducated, carefully constructed or unconsciously absorbed, flippantly expressed or painstakingly articulated—is democratic gold.  In America, opinion is everything.  And so it is nothing.  If I see sexism where you see harmless fun, it’s you say tomato and I say tomahto, and we’ll never call the whole thing off.

Don’t you think sexists know that?  I think they do—in fact, I think they’re counting on it.  So, in the interest of progress, let’s get a couple of things straight:

1.  Discriminatory Humor:  Some people think sexist humor is funny.  Some people think racist humor is funny.  The fact that someone is laughing at something that hurts someone else doesn’t negate the pain.  It just means the person laughing needs to cut it out.

2.  Sexy vs. Sexism:  Ah, but not everyone who might laugh at a sexist image is a sexist, you say.  In fact, women laugh at it.  Women want to show cleavage and make out with men who wear AXE, you say.  Ergo, women love sexism—or else what I say is sexist they say is sexy and we’re back at square one.  This, my friends, is the ground we have lost to backlash.  Women have absorbed the idea—the youngest of them, practically from the cradle—that sexual objectification is sexually empowering.  That idea has been sold to us in movies, commercials, magazines (including, and especially, our own magazines—not just Maxim, but Cosmo), TV shows, billboards, video games, online porn (which is prevalent, profligate, and misogynist as all get-out)—you name it, we’ve bought and sold it.

I might not live to see it, but here’s the day I’m dreamin of:  the day women rise up against the confining spaces we’ve been squeezed into, reclaim our disembodied boobs, and recognize sexism for what it is, everywhere it is.  When we recognize it, we speak out against it—and the idea that, because it is humorous to some, it is acceptable as a way of life.  When we clearly define it and speak against it, we can stop it.

So keep your eyes out, y’all:

Sexism is anything that makes a woman feel as if she can’t be her whole self, either literally or figuratively.  Sexism can be blatant—as in unequal pay for equal work, or healthcare coverage for Viagra but not birth control pills, or disembodied boobs for all and disembodied balls for none—or it can be subtle, like an offhand comment between buddies.  Sexism can make a woman feel as though she can’t be part of a conversation in which she has a right to speak, and a stake in the outcome, simply because she is a woman—it is anything that keeps a woman from speaking up, speaking out, or making informed, empowered choices for herself and her loved ones.

Sexism happens in the here and now, but it is informed by the there and then:  when this country was created by a bunch of equal white men, women couldn’t vote or own property.  They were considered the property of their fathers or husbands.  And sex?  Sex, and a woman’s desire for it, weren’t part of the conversation—at least, not the conversation women were invited to.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t:  the conversation around sex and a woman’s body is still owned by people who have a vested interest in keeping sexism alive.  And there ain’t nothin funny about that.

One thought on “When Sexism is Debatable

  1. Karen Evans says:

    Spot on. I am uplifted by the writer’s courage. Backlash is ugly and widespread. It takes a critical mass to overcome sexism and misogyny. We’re not there yet, as national events recently have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.


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