What Makes Sexism Difficult to See?
Given the extent of violence against women globally as well as locally, how are so many of us able to deny its existence? Why does mainstream culture position women’s oppressions as a problem of marginalized societies (developing nations or people living in poverty) rather than as a pervasive system that affects all women throughout the world, mediated by their additional social positions (of race, class, sexuality, and other identities)? In order to understand how the pervasiveness of violence against women, and violence against women of Color, poor women, trans women, and women with disabilities in particular, becomes so normalized as to be virtually invisible, one must practice seeing the interconnections between socialization, institutions, and culture.
There are several reasons why sexism is difficult to see. First, the way that dominant culture focuses on individuals obscures group-level patterns. If we view oppression as isolated events (such as suffrage or reproductive rights), or as an extreme example of violence against a single woman, the broader patterns become obscured. It is harder to see everyday and ongoing sexism when placed alongside the sensationalized examples (e.g., a woman whose nose is chopped off to “restore honor,” or a woman locked away in a basement for years and forced to bear children by her father/abuser). When we define oppression solely as individual acts that individual bad people do, we conceal the everyday ways that social institutions organize and hold sexism in place. Further, there is a silence that surrounds most individual cases, which helps keep gender violence hidden.
Second, corporate-produced popular culture has become a more pervasive institution in our lives through multiple points of entry such as
advertising, sponsored curriculum in schools, and mass media. For example, corporate-produced toys amplify rigid gender roles, socializing girls into femininity (nurturing, caring, beauty play) and boys into masculinity (aggressive, violent, physical play). Walk through any major toy store and peruse the aisles and you will see that rather than definitions of masculinity and femininity expanding and stretching, these definitions have become increasingly narrow and rigid. Male musculature in toys and media representations has become more exaggerated, the emotional range has become more limited—usually to some variation of rage—and violent play for boys has become more realistic through video games (Morrison & Halton, 2009). At the same time, girls’ toys and imagery have become more passive as girls’ play is focused primarily on self-grooming, friendship, and performing domestic duties.
As corporate culture represents masculinity as dominance, disconnection from feelings, invulnerability, and immunity from emotional attachment, it simultaneously represents femininity as passive, pleasing, and above all else attractive to boys. In this way, sexism is naturalized very early on in children’s popular culture.
At the same time, corporate-produced advertising promotes the idea of individualism and free choice. According to corporate culture, it is through their products (and the lifestyles advertisers associate with them) that we can demonstrate our uniqueness and freedom of choice. The sexism is thus sold to us and continually reinforced, while at the same time it is denied.
Third, the sexism in our everyday lives is obscured through the ideology of the “West” as civilized and liberated, in contrast to places that are uncivilized and backward, such as the “East.” For example, “The Muslim Woman” is an archetypal oppressed woman, standing in stark contrast to our own perceived liberation in the United States and Canada (places that are presumed to be free of Muslim women). Indeed, many of our female students frequently deny that sexism is a socializing force in their own lives and support this denial by giving the example of the Muslim woman as the woman who is truly oppressed (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2006). When our students look to the Muslim woman in this way, they see the opposite of themselves. Think about the following list and consider which side is associated with “Western” women and which side is stereotypically associated with Muslim women:
Modern/Primitive Active/Passive Individual/Group Industrious/Idle