“Useful” sexism: A real feminist headfuck

Yesterday afternoon I was in Asda with my kids, who were driving me completely and utterly mental.

Having written an opening line like that, I would now like to describe a series of suitably extreme activities – setting fire to the cheese aisle, disputing the Asda price promise, even deliberately not choosing items from the “chosen by you” range – such as would merit the high levels of distress and frustration I was experiencing. Of course, there was none of that. It was just the usual crap – pushing the trolley in the wrong direction, running off down the booze aisle, spending too long pressing the button on Daisy the Cow.* On a good day I would have responded to it all with self-congratulatory liberal-parent nonchalance. Alas, yesterday was not a good day.

So there I was at the checkout, the mad shouty lady yelling her head off, when it suddenly crossed my mind that I ought to apologise to the rather startled man working on the checkout. So I said sorry and he just smiled and said “they’re just typical boys being boisterous”. And of course, my first thought on hearing that was “hmm, that’s a bit sexist”. But then I had a second thought, which was “actually, it’s quite good if he assumes all this is down to my kids having penises rather than, say, my complete and utter inability to organise a simple trip out to purchase cistern blocks and wine” (oh yeah, we had a wild evening planned).

This was, of course, yet another instance of me being confronted by the feminist headfuck that is “useful” sexism. Someone’s being sexist, but it benefits me and I can’t see it immediately harming anyone else (for instance, my sons didn’t give a toss. They were too busy dismantling the sun cream display). So shouldn’t I just let it go? After all, I’m a woman and I’m normally on the losing side. So don’t I deserve a break every now and then? Does this stuff really matter?

I decided that in this instance it didn’t matter. I was too stressed and the man had been on the till for god knows how many hours so I hardly wanted to have a go at him. Still, it got me thinking. Surely there are instances where it does matter. What should we do about them?

The most obvious example of this is, I think, provided by breast cancer campaigning. Usually focusing unduly on a woman’s tits is just sexist and bad, as is suggesting that all things associated with women should be pink, overpriced and superfluous. And yet both of these things have provided a focus for campaigning and made a lot of money for cancer charities, not just those looking at breast cancer alone. So how bad is it really? Is it just churlish and blinkered to ask questions?

Questions have of course already been asked, first from “what about teh menz?” whingers, who use discrepancies in cancer funding to suggest that the pendulum’s swung too far (don’t we all just love the pendulum of misogynist-misandrist doom?). This is to completely ignore that a) extra funding into breast cancer is based on the successful exploitation of anti-feminist stereotypes, b) other “female” cancers do not receive the same special treatment and c) male-focused funding drives, such as Movember, can also be successful (if still really bloody irritating). More interestingly, criticism has also come from female cancer sufferers themselves, who feel that, on top of dealing with horrendous symptoms, treatments and a potentially curtailed lifespan, they’ve been co-opted into some Barbie pink smile-a-thon without their consent. Strong protests against the “pinkification” of cancer have come from the performance artist Tutu with her Punk Cancer campaign, and the American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Smile or Die in rebellion against the “positive thinking” foisted on those who have little to be positive about. It’s incredibly important to listen to these voices, as it can show how, far from easing suffering, the well-meaning “positive” exploitation of stereotypes can still make people’s lives a misery. But what about those of us who can’t speak from immediate experience? How should we respond?

The next time someone asks me to sponsor them in this year’s Race for Life in memory of their Great-Aunt Mabel, what should I say?

“I’m sorry, but I won’t be complicit in the potentially damaging reinforcement of sugar-coated stereotypes. Haven’t you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book? I mean, neither have I, but I read a review of it in the Guardian, and it sounded good, so that’s why I won’t give you any money.”

Should I go for the middle ground?

“Okay, I’ll give you a fiver, but only if you don’t wear that pink wig. The pink wig’s just trivialising the whole thing, and yes, I know you’re the one with the dead auntie, but I’m a feminist intellectual and that’s my final offer.”

Or should I just do what I usually do i.e. mumble something incomprehensible even to myself, then scan the sponsorship list and offer what appears to be the going rate?

I think I’ll take the last option. I believe in choosing my battles, or rather, I believe in it as a principle, I just haven’t a sodding clue which ones to pick. And as for Asda, maybe the sheer triviality of it means I should have done more. Perhaps, rather than have a go at the poor bloke, I should have pushed the boat out and gone along with him. “Yeah, boys are a total fucking pain. I think I’ll get mine chemically castrated.” Do you think that would have challenged his preconceptions?

* For some reason, our local Asda keeps a life-sized plastic cow next to the dairy produce section, along with a button you can press to make it moo. My boys have somehow assumed that Daisy the Cow does in fact own Asda. I have not disillusioned them. One day they will have to learn of the existence of Wal-Mart, but not yet. They are innocent and it is too soon.

2 thoughts on ““Useful” sexism: A real feminist headfuck

  1. You know, I’m all for equality but some of this P.C. claptrap (and yes, some of it IS claptrap) really is bordering on the ridiculous. There are realities that some people just choose to ignore, and heaven help anyone who happens to point them out. So lets start with a few things you’re sure to disagree with …

    For example, lets take the systemizing properties of the male brain to analyse, deconstruct and categorise. It makes males less flexible, less open and more dependent on drilling down concepts into their components and behaviours in order to accept them. Lets throw into the mix the average mans difficulty in multitasking and the fact that he can almost always explain and expound upon where his ideas come from.

    In contrast theres the female. More intuitive, less likely to know (or find important) WHERE an idea comes from. Rather than systemizing she uses intuition and empathizing. She is typically more capable of effective multitasking.

    Now, you can tell me thats all sexist nonsense, but there ARE huge differences in the typical male and female brain which account for all of this, and they are present prior to nurture – they are most definately nature. you can’t blame TV, or society, or gender biased toys or rock and roll. Yes, a woman can be a physicist and yes a man can be a nurse … but neurological predisposition is an inarguable fact and it is very much physical and measurable.

    Now, you’re clearly intelligent and articulate, so when you look at the actual neurological studies and the wealth of empirical evidence on malebrained and femalebrained persons (both of whom CAN be either gender, although predominantly brain gender matches sexual gender) I’m sure you’ll realise how blinkered it is to insist that we’re equal in all things. By nature we ARE different.

    Simplifying greatly (not that you need me to I’m sure) there is overwhelmingly less grey matter in a ‘female’ brain and far more white matter, this allows the whole brain to play a part in forming an idea. A ‘male’ brain has quite the reverse, a great deal of storage for detail but limited pathways for accessing it all… a male brain, therefore, usually seeks information systematically (see, efficiently) when forming an idea to make best use of those pathways – a rather stepwise thought process. whereas a female brain is a flood of access drawing together many disparate concepts and experiencial modes in a way that cannot later be retraced – intuitions. Often a female-brainer cannot explain exactly how a decision or thought is arrived at whereas a male-brainer can usually always do so. Both brain-genders have their strengths.

    The same imbalance of white and grey matter explain many male-brainers experience difficulties in multitasking compared to female-brainers. Furthermore in the femalebrain far more neurons are clustered around sensory areas making females more sensual in terms of experience, and males more systematic.

    The truth is, there is study upon study that shows stark differences in how the male and female brain operate at the physical level including how they access and collate information, and this has a huge impact on how each experiences and rationalises the world around them. Yes, some males have female brains, some females have male brains, and some brains are decidedly gender-neutral… but, in the main, males and females have brains that, to a greater or lesser extent, tend to match their actual gender and explain much of the stereotyping that feminists find so thoroughly disagreeable.

    Your fight, it seems, is not so much with arcane social convention, advertising and chauvenism (which indeed would be a fight worth having) but with God, Nature and our very DNA. Equality in law, employment and relationship is something we should all strive for, but absolute equality ? Well, thats simply not possible nor even desireable.

    It IS okay to celebrate our differences you know :)

    I’m sure your boys WERE just being boys.

    1. I really think all of this depends on what you read. Just Simon Baron-Cohen and Steve Pinker, then yes, you’d think that (except when you looked around you and noticed real, live, actual people). But there are other works – Deborah Cameron’s, for instance – which offer a different context in which to compare all this.

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