Context is Everything

I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that Donald Trump is a terrible businessman, a ridiculous politician, and just not a good person… I have been addicted to The Celebrity Apprentice this season. The Next Great Restaurant (and my enduring love of terrible reality television) already had me watching NBC on Sunday nights and, before I knew it, I was tuning in to the Celebrity Apprentice each week too. It’s a terrible show that rarely makes sense (why was tonight’s episode three hours long?!) but I enjoy the mental vacation it allows me to take so I continue to watch week after week.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I have a few things to say about tonight’s episode.

After losing their challenge this week Star Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Meatloaf were sent outside so that Trump could consult with his two advisers. While outside, Meatloaf and Star continued the argument they had been having in the boardroom. When addressing Star during this conversation (which was not friendly or positive in any way) Meatloaf called Star Jones sweetie. I immediately cringed when this happened, and I am so happy to say that T did as well, because we both recognized how condescending this interaction was.

Upon watching this my mind immediatley jumped back in time, to the job that I was working two summers ago. One day a Professor came in and needed help using the stapler, so I showed him how to do it. He most likely felt embarrassed that he needed help using the stapler, because once he was done he made sure to throw a big, “Thanks sweetheart!” in there. Now, I know this is one of those scenarios where I’m going to have people coming out of the woodwork to call me an angry, humorless feminist for being annoyed by this… but I was. In that context, with the tone that was used, sweetheart felt like a tiny reminder that I was still somehow beneath him. Even though I had just taught him how to use the stapler.

Maybe if I had known this man I would have felt differently.

Maybe if our interaction hadn’t been one that threatened his authority (just a little bit) by making him look silly, I would have felt differently.

Maybe if there were any kind of equivalent to this type of comment that men regularly deal with, I would have felt differently.

But as this situation stands, I was left (just a little bit) annoyed, feeling like I had witnessed another (tiny) instance of sexism that plays into the web of  (just slightly) frustrating events that build and build and build into the brick wall that is oppression.

The scenario on the Celebrity Apprentice was much less ambiguous than mine. Honey, sweetie, dear, darling… these terms of endearment are all lovely when used properly, in the right context. An argument, however? That is not the context. Meatloaf knew this, on some level, because in an argument when someone calls you sweetie the implication is calm down you silly sweet thing, you’re getting all riled up for nothing. Isn’t it?

A random tweet on the episode: Star Jones wanna get mad at Meatloaf calling her “sweetie” but they done called you “fat”, “turkey neck”, and “payless queen” before?

Clearly, the way to render feminism obsolete is to take the glass ceiling down and use it to replace all doors with automatically opening glass doors!

To me, honestly, sweetie is the most frustrating out of all of these. Why? Because other people will acknowledge that being called fat, or turkey neck, or payless queen is insulting. Getting people to acknowledge  that referring to you by a term of endearment when you are not close, and not happy with one another in that moment is not okay is a very difficult task, as we saw in this week’s board room. Trump layed into Star for being frustrated by this exchange, but still she stood her ground and ultimately got fired (for other reasons).

I feel the same way about the persistent door opening trope. If you’re opening the door for me because you got there first, or I was carrying something big and you’d like to be courteous… that’s awesome! Despite what you’ve been told about angry feminists, I am not going to get mad at you for helping me out regardless of your sex/gender identity. What frustrates me is the assumption that men must open doors, carry things, pay, etc. for women because women are the weaker sex and men are the providers.

This belief system is frustrating to me on two levels:

First, it assumes that all female-bodied people are one way and all male bodied people are another, leaving no room for the amazing amount of variation that actually exists between people.

Second, just like calling someone sweetie in a fight, opening a door for someone solely because that someone is a woman is just sexism dressed up in kindness. There’s a word for this in feminist theory, its called benevolent sexism.

Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection. [Source]

Benevolent sexism wouldn’t be so bad on its own but, because of the society we live in, it is impossible to divorce benevolent sexism from hostile sexism. Studies have shown that people high in benevolently sexist beliefs (aka chivalry) are also high in hostile sexism… in fact, most psychologists couple these together into something called “ambivalent sexism” when they look to measure the levels of sexist ideologies in a population.  The way this, usually, plays out is that these people are sweet and chivalrous to the women they see as acceptable, but threatening and mean to the women who “step out of line.”

The way that this plays out in the real world, at least for me, is that I smile and thank anyone who opens a door for me or offers me a hand carrying something heavy. I tend to put up with people talking down to me with terms like sweetie or dear, unless it is being done in a blatantly rude way and/or I am in a position where I feel comfortable starting a dialogue with this person about their word choices. This doesn’t do me any damage really in those interactions but, at the same time, it means that I am not working to challenge people to question the sexist beliefs that they hold because how the heck do you ask someone why they are opening the door for you without appearing confrontational? 

I’m stuck. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. I can talk theory, and I can call out blatant sexism… but how do I smoosh those two things together, and start educating the people around me who are not mean or hostile, but still carry sexist beliefs around every day?

What do you do to bring benevolent sexism under the microscope in an effective, non-confrontational way?

18 thoughts on “Context is Everything

  1. Thank you for posting this. I really felt my heart sink in my chest when I first heard Matloaf say it, and then Donald Trump diminish it. Star Jones had tears in her eyes with rage, and frankly, using such a power tool on prime time should be addressed by the network. How come Marlee didn’t speak up? Why was Star Jones ridiculed by one of the most experienced business men on earth? So sad. Again, thanks for posting.

  2. To me, Celebrity Apprentice this season validates the sad state of our society where bullying and sexism are not only tolerated but glorified. I worked in a male dominated profession and the oppression of intelligent women there was amazing. Although I’m not a huge fan of Star Jones (felt she was a bully herself), I’m glad she made a point out of how inappropriate and demeaning it was being called “Sweetie” – I only wish the media would use this to bring it up for debate.

  3. I was very upset to hear Meatloaf call Star “sweetie”. In my work, I have seen and heard men say that to women. In all cases the men have been repromaned for it. It just goes to show you how Donald Trump thinks. I wonder how he would advice this wife or daughter to respond to something like that. Star was Obsolutely right in saying that comment was out of line

  4. THIS THIS THIS. OMG, did you watch the episode a few weeks ago where Gary Busey called John Rich “boy” and that was a huge deal? No one tried to make John Rich justify why he felt insulted by the diminutive language. It was the first thing I thought of when I watched the Star episode.

    I don’t like Star. I don’t like the way she approached a show that really should be about charity. But she had every. single. right. to be irritated by that language choice.

    • I did watch that episode too, but I had forgotten about it until you mentioned it now… ugh. I agree with everything you just said… I don’t like Star much either but, Meatloaf was RUDE.

      … why do I even watch this show?

  5. I had a convo with my aunt about this episode. It irked me that he called her sweetie. My aunt thought that women want to play the gender card and if a woman had called her that, Star would have been ok with it. I was absolutely disgusted that another woman would say that about another woman. However, if you knew my aunt you wouldn’t be surprised.

  6. Did you know there’s a limit on hitting reply? Haha.

    First – can I just say I love that entry? I adored Huge when it was on (and generally love Nikki Blonsky), discovered King of the Hill within the last year, and watched most of What Would You Do on hulu within the last week. (PS, that show made me even more scared of things like date rape drugs, and made me want to hug John Q for not punching people the multiple times he was told to go back to Mexico despite being seventh gen USian).

    I assume you watch Parks and Rec? I was terrified it would get canceled this season since they made it a midseason replacement, but next season should be a full year, so I’m super excited. Leslie Knope is who I want to be when I grow up. I wasn’t a big fan of the first few episodes, but it got infinitely better when it stopped being an Office copy.

    • I actually have never seen it! I’ve been meaning to for awhile because I know I should but there were so many other things eating away my free time… I should get on that :P

      Thank you for the recommendation & the compliment… I always get excited to talk to people who share my love of truly terrible reality television AND feminism :D (Not to mention the fact that you said USian instead of American :D :D)

      Did you see the most recent WWYD, where they featured teens needing help getting Plan B/condoms? I got into a few twitter conversations (and one argument) after that with people who legitimately did not know what Plan B was :X I LOVED ABC for doing that segment!

        • They (kinda) did (I think) at one point, in a little *pop up* at the bottom of the screen… not in those words but, close-ish. I also wish it had been more explicitly spelled out. It surprised me, though, to see how many people hadn’t even HEARD of Plan B (in the episode and on twitter). I wish we all had better sex education.

    • :( Yes it did… ugh. I don’t know how to communicate with people who feel that a fertilized egg (just an egg, not even one that has implanted yet) deserves protection at the expense of the autonomy of a living, breathing, thinking human being. What do you even say to that?

      At least I have The Apprentice to distract me :P (btw, do you have a twitter? We should be twitter friends or followers or whatever it is!)

  7. What do you do to bring benevolent sexism under the microscope in an effective, non-confrontational way?

    A couple of things, one maybe more non-confrontational (less confrontational, yes, but with more qualifiers!) than the other:

    1) When it comes to guys and doors (or anyone and doors, really, but the emphasis is probably on men here), I hold them open for anyone for whom I think it’s probably courteous. I mean, guys walking in right after me, guys walking out carrying stuff as I’m walking in, etc. Where I live, this is actually kind of a big deal. I see very few people make Big Scenes about opening doors for women, but I do see a lot of men making smaller scenes (running ahead to grab a door, holding a door for long periods of time before the woman gets there, etc.) in this respect. Me opening the door for someone else tends to be a very in the moment way of challenging this assumption.

    2) Every once in a while, when a guy calls me an unwanted term of endearment (for some reason, it’s usually “sugar”), I will call them the same thing right back.

  8. As a woman, I think it was rediculous that she got offended. Especially since she heard Meatloaf call Donald Trump “dear.” If it was meant to strip her down I’d be more upset. But I’m not because he clearly says it to everyone regardless of what their gender is. I think saying that you don’t have the credentials is way more insulting since it’s way obvious what she meant by it. It was an easy playing card to pull to get a pity plea. Star isn’t stupid so she knows what she can use to her advantage and chose to play the sexist card. Point blank.

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