Especially for a guy.
Because, like it or not, most of human society exists in a patriarchical state, and women are oppressed or discriminated against to varying degrees everywhere where there are women, so for a man to complain about sexism is a little like a Republican in 2006 complaining about how little the Democrats allow them to do. We control it all, we're not put down, what room do we have to complain?
And yet, and yet...
Sexism is a complicated issue. Like racism, it goes both ways, I'm sad to say. And while misogyny is a significantly more apparent problem than misandrony (did I just coin that? neat), it doesn't mean there's no such thing.
Sigh, hand me the shovel.
Okay, sexism is complicated, and writing about it is doubly so. Trying to avoid offensiveness when writing about gender issues is like walking a tightrope with no rope. A major part of the problem is that no one seems to agree on what's acceptable. There's no hard and fast definition of "feminism," no Cliff's Notes version of what is "masculine" and "feminine," or even if those terms have meaning at all. So, here are my ground rules for discussing gender:
- Don't get offended.
- Assume that the potentially-offensive speech is coming from someone who is not sexist, until given clear indication otherwise.
- Don't get offended.
Have I hit bottom yet? No? Okay, but I'm going to need a flashlight.
So, take for instance this post by Scipio, or this post where, in the comments, I defend an article that I disagree with. I don't think Scipio is sexist, but he's using what I'd call Chivalric Sexism: Women are better than men, so we should treat them differently and expect different things from them. Putting women up on a pedestal ends up being the same as putting them in a pumpkin shell (or a tent due to uncleanliness). Personally, this is the sort of sexism that upsets me the most. It's hard to disagree with Chivalric Sexism, since it seems so complementary, and since it's often unintended. Hell, you might be able to chalk it up to some genetic or social masculine predilection toward protecting/defending the womenfolk. Hence, the "Chivalric" qualifier.
Of course, the problem with Chivalry is that while women were held up as paragons of purity and virtue, virgin queens and white goddesses and all that, they were also sub-human property, without rights or liberty, beholden entirely to the whims of their husbands and fathers. Chivalric Sexism sets up this contradictory attitude of the superiority of femininity and the inferiority of women.
And it comes (though not necessarily) out of one of the more debated topics in gender issues, which is whether or not there are significant differences between the sexes.
Of course there are differences. As that precocious youth reminds us in Kindergarten Cop, "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina." I don't think anyone's going to deny that there are significant morphological and physiological differences between men and women. When you start moving into psychological differences, there's a little more contention. When you start assigning moral value to those differences, you end up in a firestorm of controversy and disagreement. Much though he dislikes Ronnie Raymond, Scipio fell into just such a firestorm.
Are men and women equal, or different? Do the differences genetically and hormonally imply differences psychologically? Can we make any statements of a general nature regarding these differences? I'd say both, yes, and no, in that order.
We'll hit the second one first: yes, there are gender-related psychological differences between men and women. Various studies play this out (though I'm sure there are studies to the contrary), but it comes down to the fact that gender identity is not a purely, or even necessarily mostly, physiological trait. It comes about as a confluence of physiological and psychological conditions, but ultimately the psychological trumps the physical.
The flipside of this is that those gender-identity differences are not necessarily limited to members of one or the other physical gender. Furthermore, there's such a broad spectrum of psychological traits and gender identities and sexual identities that, while we can say with a good degree of certainty that men and women are psychologically different, a man and a woman may be very similar psychologically.
So, rule number four:
- A general statement will not and is not meant to apply to all or any individuals.
The point is that the differences between the genders are not enough to account for the disparate numbers of men and women in prison, and those disparate numbers alone do not allow us to say anything meaningful about those gender differences.
In fact, nothing really allows us to say anything meaningful about gender differences. Is masculinity defined by the machismo of a big, burly, boastful, hairy pro-wrestler, settling matters with his fists? Or is it defined by the loving father who teaches his children how to catch, how to fish, how to bowl? Or is it defined by the soldier who maintains his cool under the greatest pressures and shares a bond of brotherhood with his fellow soldiers? Is femininity defined by the bubbly bleach-blond with perky breasts who dresses in pink and chews bubblegum and owns a tiny little poodle? Or is it defined by the bra-burning activist in birkenstocks who attends every Lilith Fair concert and marches at NOW and NARAL rallies? Or is it defined by the voluptuous sexpot who is completely comfortable with her body and sexuality and sleeps with who she wants, when she wants, for her own pleasure? Or is it the loving mother who cleans and cooks and somehow manages to maintain a professional life and take care of both kids?
"Masculine" and "feminine" are such broad terms as to be nearly meaningless. They'd have to be to encompass the whole of male and female experiences. Once you get beyond physiology, it becomes wholly impossible to make general distinctions between men and women. So, when you start talking about men and women as different groups, you run into the problem of people vehemently disagreeing about what those differences are and whether or not they matter.
Let's get back to that IGN article about buying comics for your girlfriend, which I linked far above. Yes, the authors employ the sort of chauvanist language I would expect from dreck like Maxim or Stuff, but we'll ignore that for a moment and focus on the list they present. With the exception of Ultra, there's not a capes-and-spandex superhero book in the bunch, and all of comicdom's many and talented female writers seem to be conspicuously missing. Yet, the list they present is a veritable who's who of easily-accessible, intelligent, literary comic works and cult treasures. Comics I've loved, like Sandman, Blankets, Runaways, and Y: The Last Man; comics I've always heard good things about, like Bone, Leave it to Chance, and Strangers in Paradise, all made the top ten list. It was more or less a "comics to recommend to people who don't read comics" list, though with a clear aversion to the depressing (Maus) and the spandex-laden (Batman: DKR, Superman: For All Seasons, etc.), and with more than a little slant towards the romantic. The sexist attitude is clear: girls don't want to read about musclemen in capes and misproportioned women duking it out to a teenage boy's power fantasy; superhero comics are a boy thing, girls want to read more mushy, romantic stuff. The one superhero comic on the list is one starring several female characters, in what was at one time described as "Sex and the City" with superpowers. So, the article is sexist, and as Ragnell quite rightly said, the only way to recommend comics to your girlfriend is to find out what she likes and work from that. Clear-cut, right?
Of course not.
See, the thing about superhero comics is that they are kind of a boys' thing. Hear me out. Superhero comics come out of a time when societal expectations of the genders were well-defined and clear-cut, when girls were expected to pick up Betty & Veronica, and not Green Lantern & Green Arrow (anachronistic examples, I know). Boys were trucks and fighting and cowboys and indians and superheroes and supervillains. Girls were romance and Barbie and hair and dress-up and cute girlie comics. So, comics were written toward an audience of male children. Times changed, the audience changed, the market changed, the nation changed, attitudes about gender changed, and comics...comics stayed the same, for the most part. Superhero comics, anyway. Sure, there were more strong female characters as the years went on; women slipped out of the oblivious girlfriend/damsel in distress mold, and into a mold forged in the fires of women's liberation. But the actual stories? Still the same adolescent male power fantasies, with the added element of possibly seeing two chicks in spandex duke it out. By the time superhero comics began developing greater depth and complexity, they had also begun to develop the geek-stigma, that the only people who read comics are acne-ridden boys who refuse to grow up, refuse to leave the basement, and will never know a woman's touch. Whether or not superhero comics were a "boys' thing" by that point, they were seen as such, particularly as a "loser-boys' thing." The fanboys haven't helped the image; too many buy into the stereotype and turn adolescent awkwardness into a reason for social hermitage, developing comic stores that act as safe havens for geekkind, and foreboding dens of poor lighting and leering stares to any strangers, especially female strangers, who happen to enter. And I daresay that this attitude would make any woman a little hesitant to take the plunge into the world of capes and costumes.
Or, from Sandman:
In adolescent male fantasies, they have within them a secret power which they must keep hidden, they are more than they seem to be, but cannot reveal themselves. In adolescent female fantasies, they are secretly special, they are not who they think they are, and someday that secret will be revealed and they'll live happily ever after. Superhero comics rarely follow that latter model, though you'll find that many Disney movies do. Even aside from societal pressures both inside and outside the comics niche, it would seem that superhero comics play out a common male power fantasy, that they are fundamentally a sort of "boy thing."
And again we come to concerns over whether or not fantasy is truly gender-determined. Are the sorts of games we play and fantasies we have determined entirely by gender identity? Might there be a sliding scale or spectrum of such fantasy types? Should we just dismiss this outright since Neil Gaiman, a male, clearly has no insight into the female mind?
And this is about where people start yelling at each other again.
This is rapidly becoming both my longest and my least coherent post to date, and I have yet to make a point. I think that's mainly because there's not much point to make. Any time you bring up gender issues, you're treading on ice so thin that you better hope you can walk on water. Everyone has their own idea of what is meant by "feminine" and "masculine;" just look at Power Girl. Some consider her outfit, her large breasts and their "window," her confident attitude and sexual comfort to be sexist and degrading to women, others see the character as a champion of feminist ideals, an empowered woman who is beautiful, strong, and not defined by any man. I've heard Y: The Last Man described both as powerfully feminist and as a chauvanist male sex fantasy. No matter where you fall in the debate, once you take a stand, you're immediately sexist to someone.
So, perhaps rule five should be a corollary to Godwin's Law:
- In an intelligent discussion of gender issues, once you call someone sexist, you have lost the argument.
Next time you come across a discussion of gender issues, within or without the realm of comics, remember that disagreement doesn't equal discrimination. Don't immediately assume that the person who praises Kitty Pryde as a paragon of female ideals is a sexist pig. At least, not until they say "and I'd totally tap that."
Now, could someone throw me a rope?
*Yes, that's an obscure reference. Five points to whoever guesses correctly!