Being a Gentleman ‘Sexist’, say Feminists


No Longer Politically Correct to be a Gentleman

Chivalry is demeaning towards women and a sign of ‘sexism’ in men, feminist psychologists now claim.

The controversial claims follow a report for the Psychology of Women Quarterly which asserts that there is a cluster of behaviours called ‘benevolent sexism’ which manifests itself in everything from opening doors for girls to men offering to help women choose the right computer. (See Andy Bloxham’s Telegraph article, Chivalry is actually ‘benevolent sexism’, feminists conclude.”)

Playing the part of a gentleman is a particularly insidious form of ‘benevolent sexism’, rooted in warm feelings towards women, the researchers claim. While gentlemanly behaviour might at first appear to be positive towards women, it is actually a form of gender colonialism.

“The warm, fuzzy feelings surrounding benevolent sexism come at a cost,” warned Melanie Tannenbaum in the Scientific American last April, “and that cost is often actual, objective gender equality.”

Social scientists have even claimed that equality is threatened when a man tells a woman that he cannot live without her or when he ‘cherishes’ her.

The radical claims were published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, the official publication of the Society for the Psychology of Women. The authors of the study, Julia Becker and Janet Swim, warned that “Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives. …women…are the victims of ‘benevolent sexism’.” They warned that sexist attitudes include an “odd…conjunction of what at first seemed inherently incompatible: subjective affection as a form of prejudice…”

Although most women welcome benevolent sexism, social scientists are alerting them to the danger. As theScience Daily reported,

“Benevolent sexism motivates chivalrous acts that many women may welcome, such as a man’s offer to lift heavy boxes or install the new computer. While the path to benevolent sexism may be paved with good intentions, it reinforces the assumption that men possess greater competence than women, whom benevolent sexists view as wonderful, but weak and fragile.”

The report for the Psychology of Women Quarterly drew on the work of social psychologists Dr. Peter Glick and Dr. Susan Fiske who wrote a paper in 1996 which postulated the existence of ambivalent sexism. Ambivalent sexism is a category thought to include both ‘hostile sexism’ (things like rape, wife-beating, etc.) and ‘benevolent sexism’ (things like offering to carry a woman’s luggage, opening doors, etc.). The authors claimed that their research proved that both hostile and benevolent sexism are composed of three subcomponents: paternalism, gender differentiation, and heterosexuality. Both forms of sexism also have origin in men’s desire to dominate women: “[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.”

Glick and Fiske believe that the gender differentiation and heterosexuality that are integral to benevolent sexism emerge in ‘protective paternalism’, intimacy-seeking, male self-disclosure (how sexist to assume a woman will be a sympathetic ear!) and romantic love. As Glick and Fiske write, “the attitudes we define as characterizing benevolent sexism” include “protective attitudes towards women, a reverence for the role of women as wives and mothers, and an idealization of women as romantic love objects.”

Other tell-tale signs of ‘benevolent sexism’ include the belief that “women should be cherished and protected by men”, the belief that “men should sacrifice to provide for women”, or when a man offers to do the driving on a long distance journey (‘protective paternalism’ again). Even saving a woman’s life is offensive, for according to Swim the statement that “in a disaster, women should be saved before men” is sexist.

Being Positive is Being Negative

It is not only males who are being accused of perpetuating ‘benevolent sexism’. If a woman think too highly of her sex, then that is a sign that she too has fallen victim of certain sexist myths. As the Scientific American reported, “women who were exposed to benevolent sexism were more likely to think that there are many advantages to being a woman.” One of the questions used to determine ‘benevolent sexism’ is whether a woman agrees with the statement, ‘there are some things that a woman understands better than a man.’

On the surface, it is strange that any feminist would have a problem with a woman complimenting her own sex. However, given their fixation with ‘gender equality’, the only thing feminists hate more than someone suggested women are inferior to men is for someone to suggest that women are superior to men. The compliment is offensive precisely because the suggestion that women are superior implies that men and women are not the same.

We have seen that the theory of ‘benevolent sexism’ argues that there is a strange juxtaposition between praising women and hating them, that acting positive towards a woman is actually negative; being nice to women is actually not so nice. At first this seems completely bizarre. How can positive feelings towards women be negative? How can it be not quite nice to treat a woman nicely?

The answer to these questions can be found in the pervasive suspicion that if men sacrifice for women or look after them, then this implies women are weak or even (God-forbid) that women are not entirely self-sufficient without men, and visa versa. But classical feminism denies that women need men. By classifying ‘benevolent sexism’ in the same class as ‘hostile sexism’ (rape, wife-beating, etc.), feminist theorists are targeting any kind of mutual dependence and complementarity among the sexes – what Glick and Fiske refer to pejoratively as “complementary gender differentiation.”

These ideas are not limited to fringe feminist academics. If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go into a big city and spend the day looking for acts of chivalry you can do towards women. It could be anything from opening doors for women to helping them on with their coats. You may find that you will have an experience similar to the 55-year-old businessman named Tony whose experience Wendy Shalit chronicled in her book A Return to Modesty.

I was out with my wife and one other woman and when I got the other woman’s coat for her and reached to help her with it, she practically ripped the coat out of my hands, said “Nobody has ever done that for me!” and stomped off and waited, fuming, by the door.”

Such is the topsy-turvy world in which we live, where being nice to women is considered demeaning.

Social Consequences

The irony is that without the concept of gender differentiation, and without a high premium placed on men acting as gentlemen, women are actually vulnerable to the very types of exploitation and abuses to which feminism claims to be the solution.

Glick and Fiske have shown that ‘benevolent sexism’ lurks whenever women are made the objects of men’s adoration, protection, and provision. But don’t we see the results of women not being the recipients of male protection and provision all around us? We do, and it isn’t reassuring. All around us we see the result of a world in which men no longer think they need to protect women. Every day in the news we are reminded what a society looks like where it is no longer cool for a man to be a gentleman.

Not only do we live in a world where a man can claim the moral high ground by repudiating the role of gentleman, but feminists have given us a world in which it is praiseworthy for women not to act as ladies. For let’s not forget that the concept of ‘benevolent sexism’ not only targets men who act as gentlemen, but also women who have a kind of feminine pride, who think of themselves as special, who gravitate towards men who will protect and adore them, and who try to act as ‘ladies.’

When we turn away from the academic theorizing of feminist social scientists to the real world and look at what goes on in the street, it is doubtful that the erosion of female dignity is actually good for women. It isn’t a complicated point that an attractive woman who believes there is a special dignity about being female is more likely to have the inner resources to resist the lucrative pull of the porn industry. A woman who believes that she has a right to male provision and protection merely because she is a woman will be less likely to let herself be victimized by unscrupulous men. A woman who thinks of herself with dignity and who appreciates the advantages of being a woman is going to be more likely to seek out men who will protect and cherish her.

So perhaps ‘benevolent sexism’ isn’t so bad after all. In fact, I’ll go further. Without an appropriate sense of ‘benevolent sexism’, it becomes difficult to rightly assess the tragedy of sexual abuse against women. Let me explain.

Remember that one of the components of ‘benevolent sexism’ is gender differentiation. But without a strong sense of gender differences—what we might call the womanliness of women and the manliness of men—we might legitimately ask whether the violation of female sexuality is really that bad. For some thinkers the answer seems to be no.

For example, the original text of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play, ‘The Vagina Monologues’ venerates rape performed on a 13-year-old girl, who declares, “If it was rape, it was a good rape.” In her book Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Camille Paglia write that if rape “is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude about sex.” Significantly, Paglia bases this idea on a non-benevolent view of women, saying, if we have the “kind of attitude” that women “are basically nurturing, benevolent people…then of course rape is going to be a total violation of your entire life…” In her own approach, however, a woman being raped is just like a man getting beaten up.

Although these comments should fill us with horror, they are not without a certain feminist logic. If there is no gender differentiation, rape cannot be said to be a crime against one’s womanhood and female dignity, but only a crime against the body. This is because these theories assert that womanhood and female dignity, as something differentiated and complementary to manhood, either do not exist in an ultimate objective sense, or exists as merely the residue of our patriarchal culture. Indeed, when all aspects of our humanity are reduced to gender-neutral categories, then what is left to be called a “woman” has hardly any right to complain that rape is qualitatively different to being beat up, or that prostitution is different than any other type of profession (hence the debates among feminists on whether prostitution should be legalized).

Once gender differentiation is seen to be a species of sexism, then not only is the gentleman seen to be an icon of our sexist past, but the virtuous woman is seen to be an icon of female subordination. This frightening logic has been realized in various movements in which feminists have intentionally appropriated to themselves the language of female hatred. One thinks of Elizabeth Wurtzel book Bitch, or the ‘Slutwalk’ phenomenon which attempted to reclaim the word “slut,” or New York State University’s taxpayer-funded ‘Revolting Behavior’ conference which attempted to reclaim the word “Shameless Hussy”, or the International GoTopless Day which attempts to bring to men sights that at one time would have been restricted to a brothel, or movements like ‘V-Day’ which attempt to reclaim certain slang and offensive terms for the female genitalia. The irony of all these movements are that they sponsored by feminists who, in the name of equality, have embraced themes that used to be the province of misogynist men, while those males who remain gentleman are demonized.

In Defense of Chivalry

Chivalry is unpopular today precisely because it is an emblem of masculinity among the men who practice it and an emblem of femininity in the women who receive it, even as feminine modesty reminds us that there is a difference in how responsible men and women dress. Chivalrous behavior thus presupposes certain things about our humanity. It assumes, for example, that women ought to be treated in a special way because they are women, just as feminine modesty proclaims that women ought to dress in a certain way because they are women. When a man embraces his calling to look after and protect women, or when a woman embraces her obligation to dress modestly, both are proclaiming that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes.

However, in a world where women have been “liberated” to be the same as men, where we are taught that all gender-specific roles (including men showing special honor to women) are oppressive, it is inevitable that strong attack will be leveled against men behaving as gentlemen and women acting as ladies. However, the irony is that by turning female honor and dignity into something dirty, feminism opens women up to new forms of exploitation.

By contrast, being ladies and gentlemen—embracing ‘benevolent sexism’ as something good—acts as a hedge against the sexual reductionism of our society. Good sexual manners—whether it be man offering to carry a women’s heavy suit case or a lady making sure her clothes are not transparent—constantly reaffirms that the raw matter of our world has a certain shape and poetry beyond the brute facts of existence. It also affirms what Glick and Fiske argue is a central tenant of ‘benevolent sexism’ but which might not actually be that bad to recover: the notion that “women are to be loved, cherished, and protected.”

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