Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sexism And Misogyny Are Not The Same Thing

What would a post on women and France be without a picture of Catherine Deneuve?
I just returned from a short trip to Paris, France.  To me, one of the most puzzling things about Paris is that even though it's a bustly city with a ton of people, crowded subways, and -- let's face it -- somewhat uncomfortable and cramped interiors, being there is somehow relaxing.  Why is this?

There are a few obvious things.  Like, Paris is well-organized and beautiful.  Signs tell you not only when the next subway train is coming but when the one after that is coming as well.  Just walking along one of those tidy streets, with those lovely building facades, all a little different but sort of the same -- very relaxing.  When there are a lot of people somewhere, you can guarantee that someone has thought out how it should work.

The ads are interesting, and pretty, and they aren't everywhere.

There are things that are less obvious, though, and I think one of them is that while French culture may be sexist, it isn't really misogynist.  That is, while men and women are treated and regarded differently, and women do a lot of the domestic duties (often in addition to working) and there are the same kind of gender imbalances we have here in North America, in France, people basically like women, feel warmly toward them, and enjoy having them around.

This liking of women -- it's something that seems on the wane here in North America.  There's this whole guy thing here that I don't really understand but that seems to catch us in this double-bind.  If you're a woman who doesn't put a lot of effort into pleasing men with your appearance, then men are hostile on grounds that you're not pleasing them -- or, sometimes, you're just invisible.  But if you're a woman who does put a lot a lot of effort into pleasing men with your appearance, then you're either some kind of tease -- and men are hostile over being baited -- or you're a slut -- and men are somehow even more outraged by that than by being baited.

Talk about a no-win situation.

Now, I don't mean "all guys" or "most guys" do this -- certainly not.  But there's enough guys expressing these views, in the right contexts, for it to be a real thing.  Think about women who are on TV.  If they're not dressing up, forget it.  But if they are dressing up, forget it on the other side:  they're "inappropriate" or "slutty" or whatever.  And if you're dressing up and you look really good and you're unavailable, that's it:  you have to be brought down a peg.

Actually I was thinking about this the other day when that annoying article came out in the New York Times about how these studies had "shown" that attached men find women who are ovulating less attractive than non-ovulating women, even though for unattached men it's the reverse.  This was based on attached men rating some woman questioner as less sexy if they were attached and more if they weren't.  The conclusion the researchers came to was something like, See how mother nature makes it possible for us to be in long term steady relationships!

I'm always so irritated by articles like this.  I mean, consider the very first paragraph of the article:
"The 21-year-old woman was carefully trained not to flirt with anyone who came into the laboratory over the course of several months. She kept eye contact and conversation to a minimum. She never used makeup or perfume, kept her hair in a simple ponytail, and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt."
Are you seriously telling me that these guys think that being quiet and keeping your eyes down can't be a way of flirting?! Do they live under rocks, these people?  I mean, I get that for the purposes of the study, all that matters is that she acted the same way with each guy, but honestly, can't you just say that?  And that jeans-and-a-simple-ponytail business.  As if the whole Playboy empire wasn't based on the sexiness of the girl next door.  How stupid.

And then the conclusions, geez.  I mean, sure, maybe that's what made the guys rate the woman lower.  But couldn't there be a bunch of other hypotheses?  Like, they found her more attractive, but because they felt not free to flirt with her, they wanted to take her down a peg?  "Meh, big deal, she's not so great."  Really, who knows? But isn't this at least as plausible?  How come we always have to leap to these stupid conclusions about What Mother Nature Intended?

OK OK back to the theme.  My point is just that you can have sexism without hostility toward women, and that for whatever reason, we seem to have some hostility toward women 'round these parts.  I haven't even mentioned the most uncomfortable hypothesis lurking here:  that we have more hostility because we have less sexism, that somehow it's the demand for equality that is making everyone so mad.  I haven't discussed it because I don't know if it's true, and I don't even know how one would figure out whether it's true. 

But as to the hostility itself, trust me, if you're a woman, it kind of wears you out.


Mare said...

Something has to sell these days (relating to the article).

"One safe way for both men and women to stay in a relationship is to avoid even looking at tempting alternatives" -- John Tierney, NY Times

Alright, since I don't want to become blind, I'll try to be infertile in order to get my boyfriend to put a ring on my finger. Plausible conclusion :)

Props on the trip! Nothing better than taking a short trip to a country full of culture and poetic air. You have breathed the same air as René Descartes! :)

Patricia said...

Hi Mare, yeah, those evolutionary arguments always get out of control pretty quick, in my opinion.

Same air I don't know, but maybe some of the landscape stuck around?