Thursday, July 13, 2006

In which I walk on broken glass, as Jesus would have*

I hate sexism. I hate it not just because it's a terrible evil, as bad as any form of discrimination or bigotry, but also because it's extremely hard to write about it without sounding like an ass.
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:
  1. Don't get offended.

  2. Assume that the potentially-offensive speech is coming from someone who is not sexist, until given clear indication otherwise.

  3. Don't get offended.
Because when it comes right down to it, even if you step on pins and needles and employ every euphemism you know in an effort to have an intelligent discussion about gender issues, you're going to offend someone. And though I hate to say it, it's especially true for men. For many of the double-x-chromosome persuasion, all men are expected to be sexist--it's either genetically- or socially-ingrained--and any discussion of gender issues is immediately read through with that assumption in mind.

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:
  1. A general statement will not and is not meant to apply to all or any individuals.
Even if there are psychological differences (on the whole) between men and women, those differences do not imply a moral value or moral judgment. "Different" doesn't mean "better" or "worse," or even "smarter" or "more sensible," which is where Scipio made his mistake. Yes, there may be more men in prison than women, even just for violent crimes. Yes, there may be some genetic/hormonal conditions that make men generally more prone to aggression than women. But to say that "women are less aggressive than men" or "women are more sensible/smart than men" based on this circumstantial evidence is like saying "comic books cause juvenile delinquency because all juvenile delinquents read comics." There are other factors that one needs to consider. For instance, men are generally more physically powerful than women, and while women can commit rape, cases of woman-on-man rape go unreported far more often than the other way 'round, and are even more difficult to prove and prosecute than the other way 'round. That's a whole common category of violent crime that women are more or less excluded from. Women are just as likely to engage in partner or child abuse as men are.
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:
A Game of You

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:
  1. In an intelligent discussion of gender issues, once you call someone sexist, you have lost the argument.
Sure, there's such a thing as sexism, and sometimes it's easy to see. When the boss pinches his secretary on the ass and calls her toots, when your grandpa talks about "women drivers," when the phrase "throw like a girl" is used in a derogatory fashion, it's obviously sexism. The Corollary to Godwin may be suspended in those moments, since it's clearly not an intelligent discussion of gender issues. But when someone's trying to make an actual point about the differences between men and women, and what those may mean in some context, hold off on the S-word and any other "ists" until Rule 2 ("Assume that the potentially-offensive speech is coming from someone who is not sexist, until given clear indication otherwise") has been thoroughly satisfied. Just because someone sees the line between the genders in a different place, just because they assign a different significance to those differences, doesn't make them necessarily wrong, nor does it make them sexist. Until they come up with clear definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" that satisfy everyone, it's up to everyone to account for the existence of a broad spectrum of such defintions.

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!

Dig Deeper!


Verge said...

Interesting, well-reasoned post. I still wonder if the basic "superhero principle" might not appeal to both sexes more equally if we had more strong female characters, tho. Isn't Buffy the Vampire Slayer somewhat a superheroine? That being said, I'll admit that as much as that IGN article annoyed me, I'd probably sooner recommend the books on the list to first-time female reader than standard mainstream capes and tights fare.

100LittleDolls said...

I really enjoyed reading this, you bring up a lot of great points. I especially like your distinction of "Chivalric Sexism."

And I agree with valerie--less princesses, more superheroines: I think more young girls could relate.

The Bun said...

Well done as always. I think the 'boy secret identity' thing might be why I love comics where the heros don't have to hide their civilian identity. Maybe it's typically female, but the 'if they only knew who I really am' overtone makes me a little uncomfortable. Not enough to turn away, but just enough to feel a little foreign.

And the term is spelled 'misandry'.

As for the title - my first thoughts were split between Annie Lennox and Willem Dafoe. Am I even close?

Richard said...

I'd just like to point out that in the panels from Sandman reprinted above, Neil Gaiman is not saying those things. He's a writer of fiction showing us a character who says those things. This is not a trivial difference. There's no reason to assume Neil is endorsing those views or that he shares them -- and by the same token, no reason to assume he doesn't. Writers are certainly known to use characters as mouthpieces to express their own personal views; even more confusingly, writers can even use the same character to express both views they themselves agree with and views they deplore, in pursuit of verisimilitude. In the case of a good writer, there's no cut and dried formula for deriving a portrait of the author from the words of his or her characters.

One thing we can safely say about Neil is that to whatever extent there's some particular "secret" to writing comics that appeal to both genders, he's cracked it. My guess is that it has nothing to do with genre or story motifs or trappings, and everything to do with populating those comics with fully-realized characters of both genders. But that's just my guess.

Richard said...

P.S.: Something to dwell on before getting too caught up in definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" attitudes, a quote from Madeleine Albright I just found at Salon:

"I'm not a person who thinks the world would be entirely different if it was run by women. If you think that, you've forgotten what high school was like."

Scipio said...

"Even if there are psychological differences (on the whole) between men and women, those differences do not imply a moral value or moral judgment. "Different" doesn't mean "better" or "worse," or even "smarter" or "more sensible," which is where Scipio made his mistake. "

Since when did noticing that X is better at N than Y is become a moral/value judgment? Is that what young people are taught nowadays?

On the whole, men are more aggressive than women, women are better at languages than men, a car is a more efficient vehicle than a comb, capitalism is more in sync with the individual's natural inclinations than communism, yellow is easier to see at night than grey, and, although dogs are a lot louder than cats, they are better at protecting you.

These are not moral judgments by me; they are merely verifiable observations. And if people have been convinced to turn a blind eye to natural distinctions, it's no wonder all the straight men and women I know are so completely unable to communicate with one another, and are continually shocked and embarrassed to find that men and women often think in different ways.

Although people chose to hear me say that women were "better", "nicer", or "more good" than men, that is not, in fact, what I did say.
I said that the characters flaws and virtues of women make them less prone to the kinds of criminality that make you wind up a prison, an assertion easily verified by prison statistics. Thus, if the number of female supercriminals were to equal the number of male supercriminals in the comics I read, that would require an additional degree of suspension of disbelief beyond "people can fly" level.

While I respect everyone's right to discuss such matters, I really do wish people would stop trying to tell me what I am saying ... particularly when what they are really interested in is their own point of view.

Mark Day said...

Wildly off topic, but...

Kryptonite flavour Doritos?


Comedy consumer report...

ComicBookGoddess said...

> I'm so glad you gave a name to the "Chivalric Sexism" phenomenon. I've been needing one of them!

>> Perhaps the difference between the male and female "standard fantasy" is caused by the cultural issue that a woman usually needs to hide her powers and abilities to avoid "threatening" a potential mate with her power... I'm dropping this off here without enough examination, I'm sure I'll post a long examination of it. But one of the things that is most bothersome is that, either physiologically, psychologically, or socially, women are viewed in the submissive role... Whether they should be or not, it's an ingrained issue.

>>> The Buffy issue is complicated by Joss Whedon's general modus operandi - he takes a stereotype and reverses it. So, he had to make a superheroine based on a bad stereotype to overcome it... and this becomes a positive role model... I don't know, requires more thought as well.

>>>> Out of context, the Sandman panels seem much more like Grant Morrison's work on the Invisibles (with the same artist, if I'm not mistaken...)

>>>>> Scipio - You are making generalizations and using statistics that are affected by other issues to try and make a point. Potential criminality is affected by social and economic factors that may or may not have an effect on the number of women who would theoretically take supercriminal status. It can be proven that the average human female will bench press less than the average human male. It's not to far a step to say that the average human female might not be able to punch as hard as the average human male, in that case.

Which would make the average human female less likely to punch someone in order to solve her troubles, neh?

This wouldn't be the issue in the average superhuman female. And depending on her origin, the social conditioning that probably results in the lower feminine population in the prisons for violent crime may ALSO be irrelevant.

You have an interesting idea, but please do not confuse these ideas with proven facts. We don't know why women seem to have less propensity for violence, do we? Is it society, genetics, hormonal influence? If it's society... then our criminal population can be wiped out by changing the way we socialize our children! Totally! Completely!!!


Pretending that women who COULD become superheroes or supercriminals would be more or less likely to than normal women? It's impossible.

What about the courts? Are they more lenient to women? What about the criminally insane? What's our percentage?

Sorry, I'm rambling. Here's the thing... If women are better, morally, than men... then why don't we find out why, and fix society?

Fact is, it didn't work when people really did believe it, did it?

Sorry, I'm rambling and pointless, but, Scipio, you don't really have backup for your interesting idea. "Verifiable observations" without a specifically targeted study to control other variables in the situation is invalid for various reasons. (See this article on cognitive bias in Damn Interesting for a start... ). These people... I'm sorry, US people... just basically do not agree with the basis for your hypothesis and the applicability of it's implications.

(And, yes, I am Ragnell's sister, why do you ask?)

Anonymous said...

'Bout time somebody said it in a coherant, non-threatening and light-hearted manner. Good post, well done.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Tom, you summed up how I see it very well. Thanks, yo.

Scipio, at the risk of being a jerk, you did indeed make ethical judgments in the piece. Here are a trio of quotes:

"It's been my observation that, on the whole, women are not nearly as likely to be idiotic as men."
That is a moral judgment. It strongly implies the ethical superiority of women. "Idiotic" is an opinion, rooted in perceptions of right and wrong. "Idiotic" is not an empirical measure of an action, it's an interpretation, and a negative one. Casting men as "more likely to be idiotic" is a moral judgment.

"Setting aside for a minute men's hormonal tendencies toward aggression, men are stupid. Or perhaps more accurately, men are more likely to be narrow-minded or short-sighted."
The loaded word "stupid" is hard to ignore. Since, judging by context, you're not talking about intelligence per se, its use creates another implication of superiority and inferiority. Your qualification in the next sentence is another loaded line, since "narrow-minded" and "short-sighted" are regarded as negative traits by, well, everyone.

Then comes the oddball clincher: "'People need to realize that women's capacity for evil, selfishness, foolishness, aggression, and blind stupdity is every bit as great as men's!' That may be 'equality' but I'm hard-pressed to view it as empowerment or advancement.
Ah, but it is. Accepting the broader possibilities of women's characters is a leap forward. It's an acceptance of the full humanity of women.

Granted, I agree that women tend not to react with physical violence as often as men, yes. But acting short-sightedly, brimming with evil, self-righteousness, and contempt for others? That's a gender-neutral thing.

Tom Foss said...

Since when did noticing that X is better at N than Y is become a moral/value judgment? Is that what young people are taught nowadays?

When X and Y are individual people/things, and N is a task or other factually verifiable trait, then it is a statement of verifiable or falsifiable fact. If I said "Tiger Woods is better at golf than me," it would be easily verified. The fact that I do not play golf, while Mr. Woods does so professionally, would lend credence to the verity of that statement.

When X and Y are generalized groups and N is some trait that cannot be generally or factually verified, then the statement moves toward "value judgment" territory. Saying "white people are better at following the law than black people," or "Jewish people are better at bargaining than gentiles" or "gay men are better at being fashionable than straight men" all involve generalized groups and conceptual traits which cannot be verified factually.

The reason for this verification problem is either because the trait is subjective (better fashion) or based on too many outside variables (following the law). While one may pull out prison records and demonstrate that there are more blacks in prison than whites, factors like institutionalized racism, poverty and education rates among the different races, gang activity, legal representation, and many other various things make such a statement impossible to verify as it is.

So, taking that into account we can safely say that a car is a more effective vehicle than a comb, capitalism seems to be more in sync with human nature than communism, dogs are louder than cats, and dogs are better at protecting you. For most of these, there are exceptions, but that's why we have Rule #4. "Yellow is easier to see at night than grey" depends on your species, but is generally true for humans.

But "men are more aggressive than women" can't be verified in the same way, especially using only prison records. Women are essentially excluded from rape as a violent crime, due not necessarily to aggression levels but to societal and legal factors, which I would imagine makes up a significant chunk of the number of men in lockup for violent crimes. While women are just as likely to commit partner abuse as men, woman-on-man abuse goes unreported far more often than the opposite. And, of course, "aggression" is a trait not just measured in prison statistics, but is a key component in competitive success. The rising number of women in high-competition, high-stress jobs, and the fact that women now outnumber men at colleges and have a higher graduation rate, suggests that women may be more aggressive than men, when we look outside of violent crime statistics. And there's more to supervillainy than violence.

And, as any teenage girl will tell you, girls tend to channel aggression in a different way. Guys use fists, girls use character assassination. Generally.

Although people chose to hear me say that women were "better", "nicer", or "more good" than men, that is not, in fact, what I did say.

I tried to keep away from that, but I see where the confusion came in, and take the blame for that (here, anyway). The definition of "Chivalric Sexism" is meant to be a generalization of the underlying attitudes behind statements of that nature, not a quotation of your thoughts or expressions. I've seen it happen frequently, and tried to distill it down to its basic essence. That's the problem with generalization--people think you're talking specifically.

However, what I did attribute to you--women being "smarter" and "more sensible" than men--seems at least very strongly implied by your post. Perhaps I misread "men are stupid" and 'women are more likely to think past the moment', into "women are smarter and more sensible than men," but I don't think I'd be able to accept the blame for that one.

I said that the characters flaws and virtues of women make them less prone to the kinds of criminality that make you wind up a prison, an assertion easily verified by prison statistics. Thus, if the number of female supercriminals were to equal the number of male supercriminals in the comics I read, that would require an additional degree of suspension of disbelief beyond "people can fly" level.

Prison statistics also suggest that wealthy people an people with better education are less likely to commit violent crimes, yet how many Doctors and Professors fill the room at the annual Supervillain Ice Cream Socials? How many billionaires have threatened the world or James Bond? Shouldn't that be just as hard to believe?

As I said above, there's more to supervillainy than aggression and jackassery. There's a flair for the dramatic and theatrical, there's a desire for power and control, there's a necessity for cunning and cleverness. These aren't gender-linked traits, not so far as I know.

While I respect everyone's right to discuss such matters, I really do wish people would stop trying to tell me what I am saying ... particularly when what they are really interested in is their own point of view.
I do sincerely apologize if I've engaged in that, since I tried to avoid it. I see at least that one place where I meant to be general and came across as specific, but I hope that the intent of generality came across throughout the rest of the post. I certainly hope this doesn't result in bad blood; I'd hate to be unwelcome 'round the Absorbascon.

Hrm...maybe it's just because I grew up on a steady diet of the Baroness and Evil-Lyn, but I see no reason why women are less-suited to theatrical supervillainy (including the use of words like "drat" and "cretin" and "curses") than men. Heck, if we're going to engage in stereotyping, then women should make better supervillains. After all, women are manipulative, duplicitous, fickle, irrational, and mysterious--seems to fit the supervillain bill quite nicely.

Isn't that right, Malificent?

Tom Foss said...

By the way, I love that there's an intelligent discussion happening in my comments section, and moreover, that it features a bunch of people that I don't know. Time to go linkhopping!

Thanks for all the kind words, folks.

Anonymous said...

Well, here's an unkind one - I hate it when people keep to this subject. It's inherently uninteresting.

I'd love to see more good female superhero characters in comics. But instead of hearing people talk about "sexism" or "feminism" I'd rather see people produce work - online, whatever, that features good female characters and great writing. I've yet to see that. Instead it's just anger and whining. If this sounds like a tough attitude to take on the issue, sorry. But I find it's extremely easy to blow off a few lame words about any given situation and my respect only goes to those who do something to change it.