What comes to our minds when we hear the word “sexism”? Sexism is often understood as the hostile attitude and stereotypes towards women that deem them as inferior to men. In contrast to this common belief, sexism is not just the hostile attitude and negative stereotypes that are directed towards women. It consists of more than one dimension.
There is a theoretical framework known as ambivalent sexism, which is a form of reconceptualisation of the traditional view of sexism. It describes sexism as not one but as two different types. To understand this theory, we should consider the two components that it comprises, which is hostile sexism and the less known benevolent sexism.
Hostile sexism is what we are more familiar with – the negative evaluations and stereotypes about gender. The most common example of hostile sexism is shown towards women – considering them inferior to men. Women face discrimination due to stereotypes that impose upon them certain gender roles that are internalised as normal or acceptable. The concept of patriarchy, a system in which the men hold power, is also a feature of hostile sexism, as the women are excluded for being weak.
Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is a rather positive version of evaluations about a gender that may seem harmless and even kind but is just as bad as hostile sexism. When the only forms of a sexist act are thought to be antipathy and hostility, benevolent sexism doesn’t get noticed as much. It even gets misunderstood as the ideal attitude towards the opposite gender and might get brushed off.
To understand and learn to identify benevolent sexism, we must actually read between the lines, because at first, it will only seem like the person is trying to help you or respect you. But throughout history, especially for women, the excessive sense of respect has caused more trouble than good. The best example for this can be observed in the recent movie The Great Indian Kitchen, in which the father denies his daughter-in-law’s wish to get a job, and says “her duty as a wife and mother is far greater”.
The stereotypical roles imposed onto women are praised and they are placed on a pedestal for conforming to the rules set by society. They are already doing so great by being a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a sister, so what is the need of any other role which is so inferior to their great duties? This question, when asked with ego masked with a smile, has actually convinced several women that their wishes are unnecessary. Even on women’s day majority of the posts were made appreciating the role of women as caretakers of the family and described on the basis of their relation to the man, rather than as individuals. While a hostile sexist would convince a woman that her dreams are too much for a weak being, benevolent sexists would say with utmost care that the dreams of women are too little to even be considered, compared to the honourable duties they already have.
Gender roles are glorified, stereotypes are praised and women are kept chained to domestic duties. Besides gender roles, women are also associated with the qualities of patience, care, love, and purity. Women are seen as pure but weak beings, who are to be protected by men. So once again the control goes to the men in the family, as whatever they do is ‘for the protection’ of the women. This then joins the toxic cycle, where women also start to think that they are being unreasonable by stopping the men from doing something which is for their own good. When a woman asks if she could go for a job, the family members would kindly say that jobs are for the inferior men, while she is to do the great honour of caring for the family. The men will work and be the breadwinners of the family, and the women will be the goddesses who light up the house.
Associating women to divine beings is one of the biggest scams that has again got brushed off as ‘an innocent, kind thought’ because as mentioned earlier, benevolent sexism mostly goes unnoticed. Women are not even human beings to some people, they are goddesses.
Goddesses are forgiving, loving, caring and most importantly, they are superior to all human emotions and roles. Working is for the man, and the goddess of the house is to be protected and kept inside the house.
Though the positive attributes may sound pleasing at first, it starts to get difficult once the women realise that they are to stay inside this societal mold and not even flinch. The pure and divine beings are to remain pure and divine for life, if not then they are judged and made to fix their mistakes. Raw human emotions, thoughts, and wishes are not said for a woman, as she is far superior to all that and she must live her life trying to conform to something she never asked for.
What makes benevolent sexism worse than hostile sexism is that only a few women even realise that they are being oppressed and subjugated. The praises make them think that they have already achieved everything that a woman can achieve, so the only thing left to do is to maintain those so-called achievements, leaving no room for their own opinions. Women can be helped when subjected to hostile sexism but it becomes harder in the case of benevolent sexism as they have to first realise what they have been put through.
The theory of ambivalent sexism combines the two components together and concludes that in the gender power struggle that has lasted for centuries, there always arises not one but two types of conflict between the genders. Both of them seem different in execution, but together they give the same result of portraying women as weak and incompetent.