When Benevolent Sexism is Mistaken for Female Empowerment
As the push grows for more women and girl protagonists in storytelling across all media forms, more artists and studios are starting to rise to the challenge. While these media creators are getting better at avoiding the more glaring misogynistic mistakes, more subtle ones keep rearing their heads. As our culture continues to shelve old stereotypes and tropes in search of new and fresh ideas it is not surprising that we are having some growing pains.
The mistake I want to discuss today is when a woman protagonist uses benevolent sexism as a vehicle to show her power and agency. If you are unfamiliar with the term benevolent sexism, I highly recommend checking out the links I’ve provided. Benevolent sexism is sometimes referred to incorrectly as “female privilege” because it is misunderstood as something positive*. In actuality, it can affect and harm both men and women. Some assumptions about, and reinforced by, benevolent sexism include:
- Women are expected to be weak. They benefit from this expectation by not having to do labor, such as moving boxes or changing a tire. Male friends often volunteer for such labor as an act of chivalry. Women’s career options, ability to be self-sufficient, and even their physical health are hurt by this stereotype.
- Women are expected to be docile and non-violent. They benefit from this expectation by not being considered the source of abuse in relationships. Male partners may be embarrassed or unwilling to reveal they are in an abusive relationship with a woman. The best example of this benefit can be found in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Another example can be found in the bank robbery scene of Flash Season 1 Episode 8, when the woman holding the gun is immediately thought to be a victim and not a suspect (she was holding a gun!). Women are hurt by this expectation because of negative social push back when they stop being docile, such as in the work place.
- Men are expected to be horny. They benefit from this expectation by not having to hold themselves accountable for assaulting women. Women are punished for taking any action that can be interpreted as having aroused the man who assaulted her. Men are hurt by this expectation because sex drive varies widely from individual to individual, but their partners will assume they will have sex on demand.
- Men are expected to be unemotional. They benefit from this expectation in the workplace and politics because lack of emotion is interpreted as a sign of rationality and wisdom. Men are hurt by this because they hide their emotions and do not confide in others, leading to problems such as a high teenage suicide rate and a lack of close male friends.
There are definitely many more examples of everyday benevolent sexism that could be given, but let’s move onto two examples I have come across in comic books of benevolent sexism mistaken for female empowerment.
Here is exhibit A from Starfire #1.
The aim of the writers seems to be to show Starfire’s agency by having her be decisive in her choice of who to kiss, especially since her reason for doing so is essentially a lie. She doesn’t need to learn “more English”. She is just using that as an excuse.
While it is not clear if Starfire kissed the young man with his permission or not, she came on to him in a way that would be offensive if the gender of the individuals were reversed. Even if she didn’t ask for his permission, society would tell this man that he is lucky to have such a beautiful woman kissing him. The entire underlying assumption is that he is a straight man with a high sex drive. The older woman confirms this societal expectation immediately after the encounter, and adds another dose of benevolent sexism by seeing Starfire as innocent in the exchange. Either way, it is troubling that the old woman does not seem like she’s going to do anything about the potential sexual assault.
In this case it is very clear that Wonder Woman is assaulting this man with an unasked for, and unexpected, kiss. Again, if the genders were reversed people would cry foul. At first glance it may feel empowering that Wonder Woman is acknowledging her sexuality and choosing who she wants to have sex with, but it is implied that the man has no choice. The underlying assumption again is that he is a straight man with a high sex drive who, in society’s eyes, should feel LUCKY to have such an attractive woman wanting to have sex with him. I’ve been emphasizing straight in italics because I think it’s crucial to remember that in the real world we can’t make assumptions about sexuality, or gender presentation for that matter.
In both of these examples benevolent sexism has become a tool to empower the female characters by showing they have some power over the men in the situation. However, that power is an illusion steeped heavily in patriarchal ideals. Starfire and Wonder Woman are already “successful” in the eyes of the patriarchy (i.e. beautiful, thin, straight, long hair, buxom) and are therefore allowed to get away with these acts. A woman not “successful” (i.e. most women) would not be given this power. By using benevolent sexism to bestow power, the media creators are undermining the strength of the woman protagonists (and the tertiary male characters) by placing them firmly back into the patriarchal setting that they seem to be trying to escape.
However, there is a way to do this right, given that the setting of the story is determined to be patriarchal (although I wish more people were willing to break that mold). If a woman realizes that benevolent sexism can be a source of power within a patriarchal paradigm, and she is a “success” in that paradigm, she could and would use it with purpose. This ultimately leads us to things like the “Black Widow” trope (and I’m not talking about Avengers). Interestingly, most of the examples I have for this exemption are villainesses: Poison Ivy, Delia (Sin City), Ula from the Producers, and more recently Ava from Ex Machina. Each of these women knowingly use their seductive powers to get ahead, and the audience is aware that they are doing so. It is also understood that what the characters are doing is harmful in some way. That is the key to using benevolent sexism appropriately.
But let’s not, ok? Let’s move away from what is and imagine what could be. That takes far more imagination and creative energy, and thankfully there are very talented people out there fighting the good fight. Here is a list of some of the comics that have wowed me:
In fact, you should read our post “Ten Comics to Help Get Your Girl Power On” next!
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*To make matters worse, that misunderstanding of “female privilege” is often used as evidence of women’s power over men by various MRA groups. I could link to some sites here, but I’d rather not give them the web traffic. If you are curious, all you need to do is google “female privilege” and you’ll find some unfortunate site links.