The term “Benevolent sexism” is often used by coffee shop feminists to brush away recognition of male experiences of discrimination or misandry by redirecting to female victimhood. When criticized for doing this, feminists will often accuse the critic of not understanding sexism. What the critic doesn’t understand is that feminists are basically taught sexism only goes one way: Against women.
The term they’re using is part of a larger concept, “Ambivalent sexism,” which divides the meaning of sexism into the subtypes, hostile, and benevolent.
Dictionary.com has probably the simplest explanation I’ve seen, describing ambivalent sexism as “a theory that sexism toward women is multidimensional, one form (hostile sexism) reflecting negative views of women who challenge traditional gender roles, and the other form (benevolent sexism) reflecting positive views of women who conform to these roles.”
And of course, feminists do feel entitled to decide what everyone is allowed to think of gender roles. If you disagree with them, you’re sexist.
Right away the definition seems to, without cause, wrongfully deem sexism to be a description of bias and discrimination against only women. To understand why, one must dig a little deeper. How about we take a look at the Wikipedia entry on Ambivalent Sexism, curated by wikiproject feminism, which adds a component: The admission that it relies on viewing the concept of sexism through feminism’s favorite crazy conspiracy theory, Patriarchy. Feminists have labeled the set of beliefs related to this concept “Patriarchy theory,” but in reality it is better labeled “The Patriarchy Hypothesis,” because as we’ve pointed out in previous HBR Talk discussions, it hasn’t actually ever been proved. Instead, as crazy conspiracy theorists commonly do, feminists treat attributing Patriarchy as the underlying cause of all adverse or disapproved conditions and experiences faced by women, as evidence. The use of the concept in their description of ambivalent sexism is consistent with this behavior. They’ve simply made up some buzzwords, defined them, attributed Patriarchy as their cause, and cited things they consider examples of them as evidence.
The entry’s General Overview section introduces the Patriarchy Hypothesis as a filter for the concept of sexism by stating:
Sexism maintains patriarchal social structures and reinforces prescribed gender roles.
The entry relies heavily on the article "Hostile and Benevolent Sexism," by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1997. Here is where the definition and the supposed role of Patriarchy come together under feminist logic. According to Glick and Fiske:
Anthropological research reveals that patriarchy (men’s structural control over political, legal, economic, and religious institutions) is virtually universal among human societies. Patriarchal control has profound consequences for all aspects of relationships between men and women, from gender roles and stereotypes to power in intimate relationships. There can be little doubt that male structural power is related to hostility toward women. Many theories of prejudice note the connection between the restriction of a group to lower status roles and hostile stereotypes that justify this exploitation. We do not question this connection in the case of sexism.
In their earlier work, The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism, which is cited in their article, Glick and Fiske state that hostile sexism fits Gordon Allport’s classic and commonly accepted definition of prejudice, explained on page 6 of his book, The Nature of Prejudice, as “a feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on, actual experience.” They admit that benevolent sexism does not. For that, they had to make up another set of criteria:
We define benevolent sexism ~ as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy seeking (e.g., self-disclosure).
They go on to state that benevolent sexism’s “underpinnings lie in traditional stereotyping and masculine dominance.” Again… patriarchy.
So essentially, feminist academia uses Patriarchy, the core belief of their ideology, to exuse thinking of sexism as something that primarily disadvantages the female population for the benefit of, or to serve the interests of, the male population. They view sexism not as just an attitude or behavior, but a mechanism by which an inferior or subservient gender role is imposed on the female population. Feminist dogma filters all discussion of gender issues and even many genderless ones though the belief that whatever affects women has targeted them specifically because they are women, while whatever affects men is side affect of sexism that targets women specifically because they are women. This filter is simply accepted as a part of reality, without question.
Because of this, whenever any part of the male population is disadvantaged, feminist scholars have to try to figure out how some part of the female population is not only victimized by the male-disadvantaging factor, but specifically, victimized in a way that makes it more important to consider their disadvantage than it is to consider those disadvantaged men. In other words, if it’s not about how women are victims, it’s not a valid discussion on the topic of sexism. This has been used by feminist pundits as a way of shoehorning all gender issues discussion into discussion of women’s interests as determined by feminist interests. Once they figure out how to label women the primary victims of a men’s issue, the discussion is effectively redirected to women and any discussion of how men are affected or any need men might have in relation to the issue is forgotten, or callously labeled an attempt at “derailing” discussion of a women’s issue.
A prime example is a talking point from Lindy West’s article, “If I Admit That 'Hating Men' Is a Thing, Will You Stop Turning It Into a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” a title which really screams “I have so much compassion for men!” Her “List of "Men's Rights" Issues That Feminism Is Already Working On” (the list Chanty Binx, aka Big Red, became famous for shouting at some of the guys from A Voice For Men) begins by blaming discrimination against fathers in the family court system on “the assumption that women are naturally better caregivers,” which West claims is “part of Patriarchy,” because she does not know her feminist history. She is therefore unaware that the basis for the Tender Years doctrine was writen by alienated mother and feminist Carlone Norton. Maternal custody as laid out in that doctrine has been protected in US law by lobbying from the National Organization for Women, the nation’s largest feminist organization, throughout its history, with opposition to joint custody in the 70s and 80s, and to equally shared parenting bills ever since. Their method has consistently been to demonize fathers as deadbeats and abusers. In other words, it’s feminists who used the belief that women are better caregivers (in the most extreme way) to pressure legislators into creating and maintaining anti-father discriminatory family law. Most feminists do not know this and will bury their heads to avoid the information.
They have been taught, via this concept of benevolent sexism, that men’s experiences are not to be cared about except as a potential side effect of women’s bigger victimhood. Erasure of male victims of female-perpetrated intimate partner and sexual violence becomes an attack on women’s agency - which is fine to acknowledge, as it’s an important factor in raising female personal accountability to the same level as male personal accountability - but it’s not fine when feminists use that to avoid recognizing male victims’ need for legal recourse and victim’s resources. “Let’s talk about how women are the real victims of this” doesn’t stitch up the slices made by a knife attack, help the victim recover his financial and social independence, prevent the perpetrator from going on to abuse another man, or protect her children from becoming her next victims. It just keeps feminists from having to give men’s issues a seat at the table in the dialogue on human rights… and that is what it’s all about.
Strip off the varnish of buzzwords and other rhetoric, and the behavior is flat-out gatekeeping of human compassion. It is offensive to feminist ideologues to see compassion afforded to men at all, much less without blame, and worst of all without the toll of homage to the female victim identity being paid first. That identity is the root of the movement’s political power. Without it, the ideology has no reason to exist, and society has no reason to listen to its supporters.
Between academic feminists’ creation of the language to enact that gatekeeping, organized feminists use of it to protect their interests, feminist politicians using it in their engagement with the public and even in legislation, and grassroots feminists bringing it into everyday discussions, the movement has engaged in a sustained, systematic, institutionalized attack on compassion for men, used to keep men’s interests subordinate to those of women. You know, sort of a social attitude to maintain a power structure while reinforcing a set of prescribed gender roles they see as advantageous to women at men’s expense.
That seems kind of… matriarchal... doesn’t it?