Smile, bitch

Peter Beinart on the two flavors of sexism:

On Thursday, Donald Trump tweeted that MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she visited Mar-a-Lago last December. On Tuesday, in the Oval Office, he interrupted a phone call with the Irish prime minister to call over a female Irish journalist, Caitriona Perry, while referring to her “nice smile” and “this beautiful Irish press.”

The incidents are two sides of the same coin.

Or to put it more clearly, they’re the same thing in different moods. The sexist insult and the sexist compliment are both expressions of patronage, of ownership, of altitude. The complimentary version can in fact be worse, because if not obediently and gratefully received it can leap instantly into verbal and even physical aggression. I happened to see a guy doing exactly this just yesterday: he asked a woman what she’d done to alter her appearance, she responded uncertainly, and he instantly went into fake-jocular exclamations about how “It’s impossible to give you women compliments!!” hardeharhar. He laughed his ass off, she fake-laughed a little because who knew where he would go next. I thought about all the things I’d like to say to him but wasn’t going to.

Two decades ago, a pair of social psychologists, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, distinguished between what they called “hostile” and “benevolent” sexism. Hostile sexism manifests itself in derogatory or threatening comments about a woman’s appearance, capacities, or behavior. Benevolent sexism, by contrast, manifests itself in praise or chivalry that nonetheless reaffirms a woman’s subordinate status. Telling your female coworker that she’s ugly is an expression of hostile sexism. Telling your female coworker that she’s pretty is an expression of benevolent sexism. Sexually assaulting a female colleague is an expression of hostile sexism. Suggesting that a female colleague needs help carrying her bags is an expression of benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism may be more antagonistic and aggressive but benevolent sexism also conveys the message that women should be valued for their appearance, and that they are not equal to men.

And benevolent sexism can be unbelievably patronizing – as when a man whose arms are fully occupied carrying a heavy load of something won’t let a woman hold a door open for him. (I’ve had that experience.)

The more a woman conforms to traditional gender norms, the more likely she is to experience benevolent sexism. The more she threatens them, the more likely she is to experience hostile sexism.

Heads he wins, tails she loses.

Viscerally, Trump likely understands what the research shows: that focusing people’s attention on a woman’s appearance makes them value her abilities less. For a 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg asked one group of college students to write about Sarah Palin’s appearance and another to write about her “human essence.” Then both groups were asked a series of questions about her. The students who had written about her appearance rated her as less competent. In a different study, participants told to focus on Michelle Obama’s looks deemed her less competent, too.

This of course is why his “compliments” to Perry were more pseudo-benevolent than genuinely so – she was working, so his irrelevant eruptions about her smile were fundamentally insulting, as if she were there to be eye candy as opposed to doing her job.

The good news is that it motivates us to fight back. The bad news is that it grinds us down.

What Trump may not grasp is the different effects benevolent and hostile sexism have on the women who experience them. Jennifer Bosson, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told me that, “benevolent sexism reminds women of male protection and of the benefits of being pretty. It can leave women immobilized.” Hostile sexism, by contrast, “pisses women off. They get motivated to fight back.” As Becker and Wright put it, “benevolent sexism undermines, whereas hostile sexism promotes social change.”

Hostile sexism seems to motivate women even when they merely observe it happening to others. A 2010 study by Stephenie Chaudoir and Diane Quinn of the University of Connecticut found that merely hearing a man speak in demeaning sexual terms to another woman made female college students “feel greater anger and motivation to take direct action toward men.”

There’s some evidence that Trump’s hostile sexism, as evidenced most infamously in the Access Hollywood tape released last October, has had exactly that result. A post-election study found that people who were more angered by Trump’s comments about women were more likely to take political action to oppose him. This January’s women’s march in Washington was the largest in American history.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while women often initially react to hostile sexism with outrage and a desire to reassert their dignity, the effects of persistent hostile sexism can be debilitating. A 1993 study by the University of Illinois’s Louise Fitzgerald found that women who suffer ongoing sexual harassment or disparagement “experience lower morale and job satisfaction and increased absenteeism, anger, anxiety, depression, and physical illness symptoms.”

That’s the paradox for anyone who gives a shit about anything, really. You’re motivated, but you’re also subject to disappointment and frustration.

[Editing to add – “altitude” isn’t a typo – it’s a rather cryptic way of saying “higher position on the social ladder.”]

4 Responses to “Smile, bitch”