Thus Spake Zuska

Please Don’t Disturb My Complacency!

Sooooo….it appears some of you take your comics quite seriously. At least, should one be so foolish as to point out painfully obvious, boringly everyday occurrences of sexism.

Danimal asks of Comrade Physioprof: “So you are saying the comic reflects real life?”

What Physioprof said is this: “Every single one of the Foxtrots themselves represents absolute conformity to patriarchal gender norms. And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”

Inasmuch as patriarchal gender norms represent Real LifeTM, or what you experience as real life, then to that extent the comic would represent real life.

The comic represents patriarchal gender norms. The particular comic I singled out represents a particular patriarchal gender norm, that girls are not good at math. This is so boringly obvious it’s almost unworthy of comment. I commented on it to point out exactly how dozens, hundreds, thousands of tiny shitty little bits like this comprise the gender smog we breathe daily. The comic strip on its own is barely worthy of notice. Who cares what Bill Amend thinks about women and math? His kids gotta eat, maybe he isn’t capable of actual humor like Stephen Pastis or Wiley Miller, sexism sells. The only thing interesting about it is how it functions as a particulate in the larger gender smog.

What’s just as interesting, however, is when you point something like this out, and you see the reaction. People falling all over themselves to insist no, no, no there’s nothing at all sexist going on here, nosiree, it’s just THE WAY THINGS ARE!!!!! In REAL LIFETM!!!!!!

Comments

  1. #1 volcanista
    April 27, 2009

    Yeah, the defensive reactions always bother and offend me far more than the one little example of sexism I (or someone else) may have been pointing out. But I guess it’s threatening.

  2. #2 Cecil
    April 27, 2009

    Just because a comic has a girl who’s bad at math certainly doesn’t imply the strip has a gender bias. The strip also has a girl who’s very good at math. The strip also has a boy who isn’t good at math.

    Why didn’t you read the strip and come to the conclusion that Bill Amend thinks all yellow-haired people are bad at math?

    Randall Munroe’s distills the sentiment: http://xkcd.com/385/

  3. #3 Zinjanthropus
    April 27, 2009

    Are people really trying to say that Paige doesn’t represent the “Ditzy blonde who can only calculate percentages at a clearance sale” stereotype? Or that the presence of other girls in the strip somehow negates that stereotype? Or that Randall Munroe is trying to point out the overreactions of feminists???

  4. #4 ChrisZ
    April 27, 2009

    The problem comes from different people defining sexism in different ways. You’re defining it as anything that contributes to some overall inequity between sexes, which means these stupid little comics contribute to the “institutional sexism” or whatever the term is for that type of thing.

    Others think of sexism as a conscious disdain for the other sex. I might call this “active sexism.” Whether or not the “institutional sexism” is a bad thing, there is a gigantic difference between “active sexism” and “passive/institutional sexism,” and people who only think of the former when they hear the word sexism get quite upset when they or someone else is accused of sexism because of the latter.

    I would seriously recommend to any feminist to find a new word, because sexism clearly implies “active sexism,” and doesn’t clearly imply “institutional sexism.” They are two very different ideas, and they need different words.

  5. #5 Joseph Hewitt
    April 28, 2009

    I think PhysioProf’s analysis of the strip was spot-on. This all reminds me of an argument that a friend of mine had with a professional cartoonist years ago- although the cartoonist was basically sympathetic to feminism, he just could not grok the concept that depicting males as “us” and females as “them” was problematic. Have you ever noticed how a male cartoon animal will be drawn plainly while a female will have a signifier of its sexuality?

    Why didn’t you read the strip and come to the conclusion that Bill Amend thinks all yellow-haired people are bad at math?

    I thought Zuska was talking about the cartoon, not about Bill Amend. I must have missed the part where she gave a rat’s ass what he thinks.

  6. #6 tbell
    April 28, 2009

    I love the smog metaphor btw.
    @Cecil, the point isn’t really what any particular cartoonist thinks, or what any particular instance of *potential* sexism’s deeper explanation is. It could really have been the case that the character in the cartoon who was bad at math just *happened* to be female in the mind of the artist. It’s just that when depictions in the media are viewed as a totality, it is an annoying fact that females are so much more often depicted as bad at math…
    And I don’t see anything wrong with calling attention to that fact, even if we are willing (or not) to grant that this particular cartoonist might have been acting perfectly innocently with no sexist intentions whatsoever.

  7. #7 J
    April 28, 2009

    I never did see any response to the often repeated point that the comic strip features a boy who is even worse at math and a girl who is the best. Zuska, care to address that point? Or is no there no way to interpret sexism into that? I wouldn’t want to get too defensive by objectively pointing out the facts.

  8. #8 Tinkering Theorist
    April 28, 2009

    J, I read only a few comments on the first post, and even I saw a response to that question. Even quoted above in this post, PP said “And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”

    It’s fine to disagree, or not understand, but it’s not like nobody commented on that point. Personally, I think that the other characters you mention do ameliorate the problem. But just because the cartoon could have been more sexist doesn’t mean that it’s not sexist at all.
    I think it’s important to note that Zuska is not at all trying to say that this cartoon in particular sparked all of the gender problems we have today, or that it is worse than anything else in particular. Something that makes the cartoonist less offensive than it otherwise would have been to me personally is that if he had written his whole comic the other way (genders of all characters reversed for the whole series), it would probably read as provocative, even confusing at times, and many wouldn’t have found it funny. But even if it’s only about as sexist as the prevailing culture, does that make it ok to be sexist?

  9. #9 m
    April 28, 2009

    Zuska– I liked the original post and am shocked to see the defensive reactions. It pisses me off more than the original comic. Which, whether you want to call it “sexist” or “representing patriarchal gender norms” or part of the daily “gender smog” we breath (great analogy,) the fact remains: It was a painfully unfunny comic.
    Keep up the good work!

  10. #10 becca
    April 28, 2009

    Actually ChrisZ, Zuska only used the word “sexist” as a contrast to the rationalizations for and attempts to normalize the comic, not the comic itself. In other words, the comic is reflective of patriarchal gender norms. The instinctive defending of patriarchal gender norms, and the act of telling the woman that objects to patriarchal gender norms that she’s not seeing reality, is what’s sexist. In other words, it is behavior that constitutes both 1. and 2. below:
    sex·ism (sěk’sĭz’əm)
    n.

    1. Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.
    2. Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.

    sex’ist adj. & n.

    I know. That definition is inconceivable!!

  11. #11 mpatter
    April 28, 2009

    Hi Zuska (& commenters): I commented on the original post, and I’d like to clarify.

    I can see the argument that this comic, when combined with a million other sly little references dotted around the world, contributes to a culture with a strong “bitter aftertaste” from recent history’s repression of women.

    But on the other hand, even in a (hypothetical!) world where sexual inequality and prejudices had been totally obliterated, it would be possible for someone suitably inclined to selectively home in on and count up instances of (what appeared to be) sexist attitudes. You can see almost anything through gender-coloured spectacles, and grow to think that today’s world is more harsh and intolerant than it really is. (Observational comedy like this strip, which admittedly relies on familiar stereotypes for its humour, is particularly vulnerable to such inferences.)

    Inspired by #4 above, another way to put this would be: definitions of sexism can be subjective, and yours seems to be rather sensitive. It’s all subjective, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    If your sensitivity helps us achieve an egalitarian future where our biological inclinations to sexist behaviour are placed fully under control, then maybe it is a force for good. But to call “victim!” at little pieces of culture where gender-stereotyping motives are vague and disputable, just doesn’t help anyone.

  12. #12 Ray Ingles
    April 28, 2009

    Okay, does anyone want to answer this question that nobody seemed to want to tackle from the last thread:

    If, just hypothetically, Zuska were wrong about a particular case, how would the response differ from what’s been seen here?

  13. #13 anon
    April 28, 2009

    Moving along, what is a reasonable way to have a comic strip in which some characters are good at math and some aren’t? Since the female character who’s good at math is apparently reinforcing patriarchal gender norms just as much as the female character who is bad at math, is there any fair and reasonable way to have a comic strip in which characters either display mathematical ability or a lack thereof?

    Maybe the topic of mathematical ability is simply too steeped in social baggage to make it possible to fairly address it in a comic strip, and it would be better if cartoonists simply steer clear of it.

  14. #14 tbell
    April 28, 2009

    @Ray Ingles
    I don’t believe my response would be different, since I concede it may be the case that this particular cartoon was not in fact motivated by sexism. I view the ‘smog’ as a statistical phenomenon. And I believe it is a good thing to call attention to it.
    It’s not like I don’t understand the complaint about picking on particular instances. I mean it is very problematic to treat any female character as representative of *all* females, or any particular male of *all* males, or any member of an ethnic or religious group as representative of *all* members of that group, and then complain when a particular character is not portrayed in a desirable manner. To always do so is to limit art and expression in an unacceptable manner. However I do *not* believe it is wrong to note, by bringing up particular examples, that there is a constant low grade reinforcement of crappy stereotypes.

  15. #15 Danimal
    April 28, 2009

    Wow, I a comment a made actually made the front page on a SB. That’s a first. I am honored. My question in response to CPP’s post was an attempt a humor.

  16. #16 highschoolphysics
    April 28, 2009

    One of my favorite online comics covered this nicely:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1411

  17. #17 Zuska
    April 28, 2009

    Oh, come on, Ray Ingles! What’s the point of asking that question? Zuska is NEVER wrong! Remember: “I am a Goddess, an Empress, and an Avenging Angel. You are welcome to argue with me but it is unlikely you will win.”

  18. #18 Samia
    April 28, 2009

    What a ridiculous discussion. Thanks for the laugh.

  19. #19 deang
    April 28, 2009

    It’s also annoying when people claim that humor, whether it be in comics, TV shows, movies, comedy clubs, or elsewhere, is not about anything at all, that it’s just about making you laugh, the equivalent of making a funny face. They’re in effect saying, ignore the content and just laugh because you’re supposed to. Some such people even get irritated when you point out the knowledge required in order to understand the humor, and of course they get even angrier when you analyze the content and find it lacking or stupid.

  20. #20 becca
    April 29, 2009

    anon- pi plus C, baby. Pi plus C (http://xkcd.com/385/)
    also highschoolphysics seems to have one

  21. #21 MartinB
    April 29, 2009

    “And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”

    Sorry, but this seems ridiculous to me:
    “This cartoon is sexist because in it girls are bad at maths.”
    “But there are also girls who are good at maths.”
    “That’s just a foil, it is still sexist.”

    I do agree that there is some sexist bias in many media, but obviously this comic is not a good example.

  22. #22 Ray Ingles
    April 29, 2009

    tbell – I’m sorry, I was referring to the “response” from people disputing the particular example (and I actually can’t find anyone on the previous thread or this one disputing that there exists a stereotype of girls in general being bad at math, or even that people do make jokes about it, even in comics). All I’ve seen is people thinking Zuska over-read on this particular example – and if you look at her previous post, at least 80% of it is devoted to two Foxtrot strips.

    I disagreed with how she remembered a previous strip, and described why, and then found a link to that older strip so others could compare our presentations for themselves.

    What should I have done differently?

    Zuska – Of course I know you’re never wrong, that’s why I said “just hypothetically”. What can I say, I’m a science fiction fan. :->

  23. #23 Mike
    April 29, 2009

    I view the cartoon is an example of art imitating life. Which is fine with me… I’m more upset by examples of life imitating art.

    You seem upset that the Patriarch has a patriarchal view. Would you expect him to have the matriarchal view?

    If the patriarchal gender norms view females and males as having different strengths. What are the matriarchal gender norms?

    If we lived in a matriarchal society, would men complain about matriarchal gender norms?

  24. #24 jc
    April 29, 2009

    @MartinB: “I do agree that there is some sexist bias in many media”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH! DUDE! What planet are you on? Trade ya.

    Teevee news here on earth: I can name 3 major network frontwomen. Campbell Brown, Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric. I can name dudes well into the night.

    Google the word Scientist and look at the image links – THEY ARE ALL MALE ON THE FIRST PAGE. 100%. (Marie Curie has 2 Nobels and her daughter has a Nobel – Bueller? Bueller?)

    History books – uh, nope, foggy memory there. Sojourner Truth, Martha Washington, usually a section (of one chapter of a whole text) on Women’s suffage. Pretty much ALL MALE. Women don’t have much history I guess! We don’t do nuthin.

    Even my money has MEN ON IT.

    You must be thinking of some media we don’t have here on Earth.

    @Mike “If we lived in a matriarchal society, would men complain about matriarchal gender norms?”
    When a matriarchy happens, I’ll bake you a cookie. “would men complain?” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH. Let’s treat men the way they treat women. Fair, ya know EQUALITY? How bout men get 70 cents on the dollar women make for starters. Let’s see if that pisses them off, ok?

  25. #25 MarkusR
    April 29, 2009

    The character I don’t get in Pearls Before Swine is the croc dad. Why does he speak like that? Do all idiots speak bad English? Sound racist to me.

  26. #26 Ray Ingles
    April 29, 2009

    (Well, apparently Zuska’s too busy to approve my comment, so I’ll try it without the links to the previous thread. Click on the “painfully obvious” link up top to see what I’m talking about.)

    tbell – Sorry, I was referring to the response from people who thought that Zuska was overreading in the comic in question. I didn’t see anybody in this thread or the previous one disputing that there are common stereotypes in the media, comics included. Some people thought the examples she chose weren’t good illustrations of that, however. For example, I thought that Zuska had overlooked or forgotten some details from the older strip that she mentioned. I said what I remembered, explained how I interpreted it, and then went and found a link to the older strip so that people could compare our presentations and decide for themselves which one fit better.

    What should I have done differently?

    Zuska – I know you can’t be wrong, so I said “just hypothetically”. I like counterfactuals, I’m a science fiction fan. :->

  27. #27 mk
    April 29, 2009

    It’s one more perfect stereotype of a female character. It’s not a particular lense that Zuska is looking through – in fact, if you remove the lense of social norm, the points that Zuska are trying to make become painfully obvious.

    I understand that the joke between Paige and Jason is supposed specific to to their characters but any reference to girls not being good at math should sound alarm bells because of the stereotype that girls ARE bad at math. Remember the talking barbie doll, “math is hard”. It’s true that this is not as bad as that that but publishing it without noticing it’s inarguable similarity to that was simply irresponsible.

  28. #28 MartinB
    April 30, 2009

    @jc: First of all, it seems my tendency to use understatement failed here.
    Second, I think that if google returns only male scientists is not a *media* bias, but a *society* bias, right? Same with history books etc. (This does not make it better, quite the contrary – if it were just media, it would be easier to change this.)

    @mk:
    “Any reference to girls not being good at math should sound alarm bells”
    Yes, but sometimes the alarm may be false – that’s all this is about, does the alarm apply to *this* cartoon or not? And I still don’t accept the logic that a female character being bad as math is a sexist stereotype and a female character good at math soes not counter this but is just a foil.

  29. #29 amish451
    April 30, 2009

    “it’s just the way things are ..in real life..”
    Pretty much the point here, and that sucks.

  30. #30 Zuska
    April 30, 2009

    The very large major huge obvious point in the middle of the room you are missing MartinB:

    What is it, exactly, that makes a joke about a girl, any girl, being bad at math seem funny? It’s that implicit reference to the whole noxious cultural stereotype about girls being bad at math.

    Try making a joke about a boy being bad at math. What deep well of shared cultural norms do you have to draw on that your audience will immediately recognize – without bothering to notice that they recognize, because it’s so pervasive it’s invisible – that will draw forth their laughter at the poor hapless dude, unable to add 2 + 2 ?

    Oh wait. Just make your male black. Or poor white trash. (You know why poor people are poor – they can’t manage their money.) Then it all works.

    The cultural superiority implied by math prowess is not only gendered, it is raced and classed as well.

    Now, if you can’t even be bothered to be aware of BASIC knowledge like these, hie thee off to some blog site like Feminism 101 and go read and study for awhile. Then come back and rejoin the dialog.

  31. #31 volcanista
    April 30, 2009

    mpatter, there is a lot out there on looking for things to get mad about and on sexism as “subjective.” Those things are pretty basic to understanding critical theory and feminist critique. (That second link should actually answer some of what ChrisZ brought up on the question of vocab, too.)

    What’s sexist in this case isn’t that there is one female character who is bad at math. It’s that it plays into historically sexist tropes which were actively used to dissuade women from pursuing certain careers. It’s all about context. This kind of thing is ALWAYS all about context.

    Mike, you really brought up the straw matriarchy?? HA!!

    What is with this need to look carefully for the possibility of that rare instance where a piece of art or cartoon or whatnot happens to perfectly mimic what has historically been a damaging and oppression-furthering stereotype, but in THIS case that’s not what it means? Bullshit. The joke was put out there as a joke because it plays on the idea of women being flighty and obsessed with shopping and unable to do academic things like abstract math. As Zuska pointed out, it would have been made in the first place without the contexts of women = shopping and women ≠ math.

  32. #32 volcanista
    April 30, 2009

    Ohhh stuck in moderation, sorry, there were links in my comment. I was being all nice and trying to help with the 101 stuff. Serves me right! :)

  33. #33 MartinB
    May 1, 2009

    @Zuska:
    The joke was about a person that is bad at math. Would it not work if the person was male? Why not? I laugh about Calvin & Hobbes, where Calvin uses his Spaceman-Spiff ability to find out that 5+6=6 or that 2+2=1 billion. (Of course that comic has its own somewhat stereotypical girl, but that’s not the point here, I think.)

    So your claim that math-jokes won’t work with males is not true.

    You will surely (vehemently) disagree with this, but to me the fact that you immediately look for sexist content/context when some joke is about a girl reveals that *even to you* the default sex of a person is male – if a joke is about a male, it is about the person, if it is about a female, it is about females in general.

  34. #34 Zuska
    May 1, 2009

    Sigh. Heavy sigh.
    There’s probably no point in talking with you, Martin, since you are so determined not to see the point, but I’ll try once more…

    The Calvin & Hobbes example is not equivalent. Calvin is not consistently portrayed in that strip as a bumbling airheaded shopping obsessed math incompetent ( = stereotypical female). On the contrary, he is the stereotype of the young boy obsessed with sci-fi fantasy – his stereotype includes competence. The humor in the strip does not derive from this series of propositions: Calvin is bad at math; boys are bad at math; the fact that boys are bad at math is funny; therefore Calvin being bad at math is funny. The Foxtrot strip, however, does depend upon this series of linked propositions for its humor, except just substitute Paige for Calvin and girls for boys. That type of humor doesn’t work if you just reverse the genders because we don’t have cultural stereotypes about boys being dumb at math.

    This is not some new idea I am making up out of my head. This is pretty basic feminism 101 stuff.

    It’s just a fact that a lot of mainstream humor that centers on female characters draws on mainstream cultural stereotypes as the basis for that humor. I really have a hard time imagining a joke involving a female character and math that would not call up or draw upon those cultural stereotypes as a basis for the humor simply because those stereotypes are so pervasive and unavoidable. Even if the comedian didn’t intend it, that cultural backdrop would be there to envelope any individual joke. Seriously – can you explain to me why, exactly, jokes about women and math are funny in any way except as they connect to that stereotype? Take it away – take away the idea that dumb math-impaired girls are teh funny! – and how does Paige’s character remain anything other than pathetic?

  35. #35 MartinB
    May 2, 2009

    Dear Zuska,

    thanks for the patience in explaining this. I believe (I hope) I do understand your point better now. I still would not agree that every joke involving a girl being bad at math out of necessity involves sexist stereotypes for the following reason: Imagine you have a funny idea for a joke involving someone being bad at maths and imagine that as far as you can tell, this joke does not in any way depend on the gender of the person involved. According to your logic, you *have* to make the person male because otherwise, out of necessity, everybody will perceive the stereotype. That’s what I mean when I said that even to you the default person is male.

    In some sense, this is the reversed version of the cartoon cited above, like this
    Panel 1: Woman looking at a comic where a boy is bad at maths.
    Woman “This is funny”.
    Panel 2: Woman looking at a comic where a girl is bad at maths.
    Woman “This is sexist”.

    I do understand that your point is that these stereotypes are so deeply engrained in our society that it is impossible not to associate them. I’m not sure I’m buying this – to use an analogy you yourself introduced: substitute black for woman.
    I don’t think anything involving a black person out of necessity is a statement about race (if such a thing exists). I’ve never seen Ben Sisko (from Deep Space 9) first and foremost as black, or Capt. Janeway (or Carter from Stargate – yes, I’m a Scifi nerd) first and foremost as women. They all had their function and character and happened to be women or black.

    Considering that Paige-cartoon (which I did not see in the original), first of all, I do not think it is particular funny, but if there is anything funny about it, it is that the boy is so nerdy that he takes the pains to actually encode a message in mathematical language, all the time knowing that Paige will never be able to decode it, making the whole exercise useless – to me, the joke is as much on him as on her.

    If you are right, and it is indeed impossible not to think in these stereotypes, then I would be very much interested in a suggestion what the solution can be. Only tell stories/jokes where girls are good at maths? Wouldn’t that just enforce the stereotype backwards -besides being wrong, cause surely there are some girls who are bad at maths? Not tell anything at all about girls and maths? Then where do we get role-models? Is there a simple solution from feminism 101 that I missed?

  36. #36 jc
    May 2, 2009

    Gender Smog: The Olympic Version

    http://www.pjtv.com/video/PJTV_Daily/Women_Ski_Jumpers_Take_On_Vancouver_Olympics/1815/6657/

    Reporter: “So, how’s your uterus?”
    Athlete: “Good. Hasn’t fallen out yet.”

    h/t FemLawProfs

  37. #37 Zuska
    May 3, 2009

    Martin, consider this: the whole subject of “math humor” as it relates to women is only of interest BECAUSE we have a cultural stereotype that women are bad at math. With men, it’s the “math nerd” stereotype that we draw on for our math humor. If we didn’t have either of these stereotypes, what, exactly, would we make our math humor out of?

    In other words – what would non-sexist math humor look like? (Because make no mistake, “math nerd” is the opposite side of the coin of the stupid-girl-no-good-at-math – they are both types of sexist humor. Or, should I say, humor that depends on patriarchal stereotypes.)

  38. #38 MartinB
    May 4, 2009

    Finally, I think I got your point. If it is really not possible to have a math-joke without either a math-nerd or a math-idiot involved, then of course every math-joke draws on a stereotype.

    There is lots of math humour (just google for mathematician jokes) which, as far as I can tell, draws mainly on matematicians being out of touch with the world (is this a form of nerdy-ness?). In my opinion, these jokes work as well regardless of whether the mathematician involved is male or female.

    So I still think it is possible to make fun of people because they are stupid at maths or because they are math-nerds, without even considering what sex they are. (And at least some of the jokes you find with google do not even tell you the sex of the mathematician involved.)

    If I understand you correctly, you do not agree on this point, and you are saying that stereotypes are too deeply ingrained to be overcome that easily. If so, this is possibly something we simply have to agree to disagree upon.

    In any case, thanks again for explaining your point of view so patiently – I think I learned something from this discussion.

  39. #39 mpatter
    May 5, 2009

    @volcanista: I am no expert on the history and detail of feminist critique, so thank you for having the grace to help me kick-start my education. The Shakesville posts are very much opinion pieces, but they are elegantly expressed and quite compelling.

    Society is rife with evidence that men’s & women’s positions in Western culture is – even today – far from equal. The comic uses a stereotype of the “airhead blonde” which is, arguably, a strand in a wider patriarchal mindset which still exists in our culture.

    But I still think the comic was a poorly chosen example. I feel in me an urge to jump to the defence of the author, because he (I assume it is a he) didn’t necessarily *intend* to be demeaning. Conciously he could be as great a proponent of sexual equality as anyone. And it’s porbable that some women avoid education because they identify themselves with this stereotype.

    But to eradicate prejudice, must we stamp on every joke which has someone at the sore end? Humour with stereotypes can be good for us, if we identify and reflect on what we are seeing. It would be doubly funny – and raise the reader’s consciousness a bit – if Paige actually finished the puzzle in the next strip. Then the joke would be on the arrogant kid for underestimating someone.

    So, I guess, being prepared to use gender stereotypes in humour doesn’t necessarily make a person a sexist (though they might be). I’d prefer this to pretending the stereotype didn’t exist in reality.

    (Sidenote: I don’t care for the “matrix” vision of cultural influence because it opens the door for a debate-blocker along the lines of “you just don’t get my cause because society has brainwashed you”. Do you believe that a person of intelligence and self-enforced open-mindedness can still never break free of their cultural bias? Are there no consciousness-raisers powerful enough to beat sexism? Because if that’s true, we’re all doomed and activism is just peeing in the wind.)

  40. #40 Zuska
    May 5, 2009

    I prefer to believe it will rain chocolate gumdrops. I feel an urge in me to defend that eating Big Macs will lower my cholesterol.

    Say, let’s all resolve to find the good in racist and heterosexist humor in the future, too! Just because someone tells a racist joke doesn’t mean we can’t IMAGINE that they didn’t really mean something positive! And if they did, why, what does it matter if the joke they told plays into decades, centuries, millennia of negative stereotypes???!??!!!

    Always look on the bright side of life (whistles).

  41. #41 mpatter
    May 5, 2009

    Call me a hopeless idealist… I’m not exactly proposing we sit down for tea and cake with Fred Phelps.

    I just don’t think this particular publication is a sexist joke – it’s considerably more subtle. Would you propose censoring this kind of stuff? Ought there to be a law?

    While we’re whistling and making posies, why not reflect on just how much better society has become in the last century or so, from a not-too-distant time of male-only suffrage and higher education? The very fact that this throwaway-humorist could be seen as at all repressive speaks volumes for how far the pendulum has swung in favour of equality. I wouldn’t say for a second that we’ve arrived, only that we’re heading in the right direction.

    Thanks in no small part to a generation of excellent role models like yourself. :)

  42. #42 SKM
    May 7, 2009

    mpatter, nobody said anything about censoring cartoon strips. Critique != censorship.

    Also, nobody called the author of Foxtrot a sexist. His work is echoing sexist stereotypes, regardless of his intent. I’m sure you see the difference. When one’s work falls in line with stereotypes, one does not have to intend to support the status quo; it just comes naturally. Intent is not relevant.

    Finally, if your take home message from this essay is that “it’s very much an opinion piece”, then you have entirely missed the point, which is that sexism can be objectively assessed.

  43. #43 mpatter
    May 7, 2009

    Re: censorship. I brought up the idea of censorship, “unprovoked” as it were. I’d like to make it an open question, about what Zuska (and you) would consider an acceptable pathway to rubbing these offending references out of society. Censorship by legislation is one strategy that could be pursued – the first that came to my mind. I’d enjoy getting your opinion about it. Presumably you would rather live in a world without gender smog… but how would you go about attaining one? Or is the milder strategy of vocal critique (including on this blog and yours) of the stereotypes you find likely to bring about change, in your opinions?

    I do see the difference between deliberate discrimination and unwitting conformity to discriminatory social norms. I’m happy that you do too, and you explore it nicely in your essay. (I think that using your essay’s definitions, the comic’s premise would be sexist but the author wouldn’t be “a sexist”? Still, that’s semantics.)

    But the central message of your essay seems to be: Sexism can be objectively evaluated, but only if one “learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women’s oppression”. The skeptic in me reads that as “change your subjective viewpoint to my equally subjective viewpoint.”

    Actually, I think it’s a shame, because I like and agree with your viewpoint – I just don’t step to using the language of objectivity. I dream of a world where one day we might remove the inbuilt, subconscious /biological/ bias that leads humans in isolation to default to male-dominated social structures. (I think there is one; that’s hard to prove, and so a bit contentious.)

    But, I recognise that there’s no objective way to decide how to run the world. My morality happens to start with a default setting of “equal rights for all fully-grown human beings”. But some people’s morals lay weight on respect for authority, or tradition, or reverence for God, or the perpetuation of female repression, because they think in their heart of hearts that it’s right.

    So it’s not really about who’s right… only who wins.

    (if this conversation is getting too long for the comments on this blog, someone please let me know)

  44. #44 SKM
    May 8, 2009

    mpatter, that is not my essay; it is Melissa McEwan’s. I am a different contributor at Shakesville.

  45. #45 mpatter
    May 8, 2009

    I’m sorry, my mistake.

  46. #46 volcanista
    May 8, 2009

    The objectivity in question comes from examining culture without ignoring history – i.e., just recognizing the historical framings that inform how we talk about things today. It’s not some wild set of opinions we’re talking about here.

    (I think that using your essay’s definitions, the comic’s premise would be sexist but the author wouldn’t be “a sexist”? Still, that’s semantics.)

    It’s fundamentally not semantics, actually. On the one hand, there’s a term, phrase, image, comic, joke, etc. that draws on historically sexist framings. This is sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional; and it says nothing specific about the character of the person who said or drew it. On the other hand, intent says something about a person’s character – whether or not they are fundamentally sexist in their outlook. We tend to regard people with extremely bigoted outlooks as morally suspect and socially dangerous (for pretty damn good reasons). And a lack of understanding of that difference is behind a lot of unnecessarily defensive reactions that people have to being called out on [unintentionally] saying or doing something sexist.

    A lack of intent doesn’t make it unimportant, either, because unthinkingly bigoted language systematically reinforces the much more sinister and intentional oppression that marginalized groups routinely deal with.

    I don’t think anyone is calling for government censorship. Calling people on shit so they start to notice and think about it, though, that can make a difference. Slowly.

  47. #47 mpatter
    May 9, 2009

    @volcanista: Sadly, I don’t think it’s possible for you or anyone else to be objective, when dealing with an issue that you are so passionate about. To come to Melissa’s conclusions means not just being aware of history, but taking a very particular view on the role history has played in influencing the current state of the genders in culture.

    You have an opinion-biased stance, but one that is increasingly acceptable in some parts of the world – so history might just be on your side.

    - –

    Also, I’m now pretty sure we both understand the very real issue of the difference between damaging words and the intent behind them. There is room for disagreement about what constitutes “a sexist person” (some could argue that intent isn’t needed to be one). That semantic issue might cloud debates, but is peripheral to the issue.

    - -

    Good luck (genuinely) with continuing to call people out and raise awareness of gendered language and values. This tactic has (arguably) had success stories, I believe it has contributed e.g. to profound changes in the way ethnic minorities are seen in the UK in the last few decades. (Successive governments were also on board with countering racism, but it takes more than government position to actually change a society.)

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