Though sexism often rears its head in big, ugly, violent ways, there are plenty of times in which — even from those with whom you're close. Knowing how to respond to benevolent sexism from your friends may no be easy, but it's worth learning. It'll both help dismantle the patriarchy and bring you closer at the same time. Learning is one of the many things friends are for, right?
"Benevolent sexism" is predicated on the belief that women are naturally kinder, gentler, meeker, and more skilled at domestic tasks, while men are more brash and braver and stronger and can't hardly do anything delicate with those big, meaty paws of theirs. Rather than overtly attacking women, this type of sexism traps women under the guise of "compliments." In doing so, it can be much more difficult to identify and argue against.
In the 18th and 19th century, the concept of "separate spheres" became particularly popular in the United States as an explanation for why men held public positions of power, while women were discouraged from doing so. Legally, women were dependents until marriage, and under coverture afterwards — meaning, essentially, that a woman's separate legal existence disappeared after they were married. A woman's sphere was inside the home; a man's was outside of it. To enforce this structure, female "strengths" began being touted as inherent. Women are just naturally better at housework. Women are naturally better at raising children. These are compliments! Women are great, but just, like, different! We lost generations of incredible minds because of this constrictive way of thinking.
These toxic, social constructs of gender are far from being eradicated; if anything, in a world where hostile sexism is moving ever so slowly in the direction of "unacceptable," benevolent sexism is thriving. Studies have shown that countries with higher rates of benevolent sexism tend to have fewer women in roles of power, and that women who buck these stereotypes are treated with an increased level of hostility.
So how do you respond to benevolent sexism? Especially when you're dealing with sexism from your friends, from people you care about, confronting them about their views can be a murky social situation. Personally, I've found the concept of "calling in," as opposed to "calling out," particularly helpful. Work against sounding condescending. Ask them to just think through preconceived notions and stereotypes. Express why it's harmful and how it makes you feel. You got this.
1They Say: "I'll Let You Organize This Social Event Because, You Know, You're A Girl."
Women are often pressured into shouldering all of the emotional labor within a relationship, because we're supposedly inherently kinder, gentler and more social. (We're not, obviously, but that tends to be a prevailing belief.) This can manifest itself in a lot of small ways, and within friendships, can mean that female-identifying friends are often pushed into the role of social director.
Next time a male pal suggests that you text all the friends and get them together and pick a bar, just say, "No." (You're allowed to do that). Ask him to organize instead.
2"Girl Talk" Versus "Guy Talk"
When you're the only male or the only female within a social setting, and they immediately begin apologizing for "girl talk" or "guy talk," listen to the way they do it. Women are more likely to apologize, more likely to engage in self-deprecating behavior — "This must be so boring for you, this must be so painful, LOL," as if being in the presence of too much womanhood is physically harmful — while there's a good chance men will veer more in the direction of, "Shield her!"
We've all seen how harmful the concept of "locker room talk" can be. Call it out. You always want to include everyone in the conversation, but combat the concept of gendered, "appropriate" narratives.
3They Say: "Oh Right, You've All Got To Go To The Bathroom Together."
This whole concept of, "Women are gossipy li'l hens who need to move in herds" is just begging to be unpacked.
The next time your male friends joke about this, ask them why they think it's such a widespread trend — and if they're not quite sure, or they're not willing to discuss it, then suggest, maybe, that it's a learned safety mechanism. To avoid harassment and physical attacks.
4They Say: "Whoa, Ha Ha, Calm Down! You're Getting So Angry/Loud/Upset!"
Don't! Tell! Women! To! Calm! Down! It's condescending! It's in line with centuries of sexist stereotypes about women and their fragile, fickle emotions! It's not funny! It's not cute!
People are allowed to feel their feelings. Make that clear: You are allowed to feel however you feel.
5When The Check Comes, Who Always Grabs It?
It's one thing if all of your friends trade off paying for drinks and snacks and stuff; it's another if the only friends paying are the men. Offer to split it, offer to cover it, offer to grab the tab next time and then follow through — but don't let that stereotype of "men taking care of women" take root within your friendships.