The complications of sexism and gender equality once you’re old enough to understand it.

Once upon a time, I didn’t notice sexism except as occasionally something being unfair. In fact, I would say that my strongest understanding of sexism came from the books I’d read, where for some reason or other, a girl would not be given the same rights as boys, and, usually, this would cause some uproar. I always remember reading Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small quartets, fantasy novels which feature (respectively), a girl pretending to be her twin brother so that she can become a knight, and a different girl, a generation later, being the first girl in the land to become a knight openly, without hiding her sex. Each, of course, suffers greatly for the great crime of being a girl (the setting is somewhat comparable to real-life medieval times).

When, as a 10 year old, I read those books (and others like them) I remember being absolutely outraged, offended that my sex wouldn’t be allowed to pick up a sword if they chose to. So, obviously I was aware of this strange prejudice, but my knowledge of it was simple and easy: women should be allowed to do whatever they want, if guys are allowed to do it. Anything else is simply unfair.

That was my childhood philosophy – in my early (OK, earlier) teens, I changed it up a little: women and men should be allowed to do exactly the same things, and women shouldn’t be allowed to do any thing that men can’t do, OR vice versa. The key difference there being that women (in my ideal world) are given the same rights as men, whereas previously they would possibly have more.

The reason I felt the need to redefine my ideology is that I’d noticed a number of times when women were given preference over men, which sounds a little strange, but bear with me here. I refer to the times when women are allowed to insult men but still be considered politically correct  – things like the now-common ‘Husband Creche‘ which suggests that men are basically useless when it comes to certain pastimes like, oh god, shopping. These signs usually elicit a laugh, perhaps a comment on the cleverness of the idea – but just imagine the backlash if someone dared make a sign saying ‘Girl Creche’ outside, say, a comic shop?

I was so proud of myself, for not going along with the general public’s opinions and actually using my own brain to deduce what I thought was right and wrong. And I do still genuinely believe that women are sometimes given a free pass to be less sexist than men because they are the (traditionally) victimised group. Still, I genuinely thought I was just a little brighter than those just mindlessly saying that women were the only ones being oppressed.

(Ah, the follies of youth. And our willingness to believe that we’re special in some way, though I’m fairly certain that carries over into adulthood.)

Now, a few years and much reading later, I’m slowly beginning to realise that sexism isn’t such a cut-and-dried topic as I always believed it to be. It’s actually rather a shock, to be honest, because I always thought that sexism was just equal rights for each sex – I never even dreamed of having to take into account things like transgendered individuals and their experiences, or whether we should be eschewing all the traditional gender roles and all the other gender-based things ingrained in our culture like pink and dolls for girls, and blue and cars for boys.

It’s not just that women aren’t given the same rights as men – it’s that they don’t get the same treatment, and are subject to so many double standards it hurts my brain to think about it. Men aren’t just the oppressors, they’re the victims, because they always have to be manly and masculine. And in fact, women are also helping to perpetuate some aspects of sexism.

Gender equality isn’t just about girls and guys anymore, either – there’s also the sexuality and gender-identification aspects to worry about, that is, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, genderqueers, transsexuals, and every other label I’ve forgotten (if you’re interested in the definitions, this is really useful).

I really, honestly, do not have objections to these people being included in gender equality, I believe it’s only right – but shoot, way to confuse me! For whatever reason, I’ve had very little exposure (read as: none whatsoever) to anyone who doesn’t identify as purely female or male, or anyone whose physical sex doesn’t match their mental gender. (I sincerely hope I didn’t exclude a group or mess up the definitions there.) As such, I’m not used to them existing, and being acknowledged – that’s obviously a failing of our society, however, it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know much about this whole section of gender equality and what they go through, and the correct terms to use.

Finally, just to confuse my brain a little more, there’s all these things flying in the face of what I’ve been taught by society (yet again), but this time, by polite, pro-gender-equality society. Note the descriptor “polite”. I’ve always been taught to be modest and, you know, not run around with no shirt on, so I’ve always stuck by that rule, because hey, public nudity is impolite and a big no-no. But apparently that’s yet another aspect of non-equality in our society and we should be embracing and encouraging comfort with naked bodies. While in principle I think I agree, it’s really hard to reconcile that ideology with the constantly enforced idea that it’s, quite simply, rude to show certain parts of your body to anyone (but especially to those who are sexually attracted to whichever gender you happen to be).

Overall, sexism and gender equality has become such a complicated, convoluted, confusing topic that I can no longer have the same views as I did just three years ago. So, for now, I’m working with a new philosophy – everyone is equal and should be treated equally in all ways, and in general all harm and offence to any group or individual should be kept to an absolute minimum. That’s very broad, and very hard to do in real life, though, so I also like to add: People should try and understand issues before complaining about them, and should always be prepared to learn something new about, well, any issue, and finally, people should most certainly not be vilified for being products of our non-gender-equal society if they’re trying to understand issues, but finding it difficult because our modern Western society has ‘brainwashed’ us. By which I mean, hey, I’m trying my hardest to not insult you for being genderqueer but I’ve never met a genderqeer person before and I don’t necessarily know that being called genderqueer might be hugely insulting to you, because our society teaches me social etiquette like the correct term to address my elders (use their last name, unless they invite you to call them something else, or you are introduced with a different name) and not the correct term to address people who don’t identify as female or male.

Look, guys, it’s all really very simple. Try and treat absolutely everyone you ever meet with total equality, be nice, and try your best not to insult people.


5 thoughts on “The complications of sexism and gender equality once you’re old enough to understand it.

  1. Nice observations. In any ideal world, people wouldn’t freak out at ‘differences’ but, the prejudices instilled in various communities, religious right, neo-liberal, et cetera, make for a world of bruises and bumps, if not always outright hostility.

    My own personality had been shaped largely by a remnant of matriarchal society (Those Blackfeet Indians who still spoke their language) and the misapprehensions of my appearance and behaviors are sometime simply ludicrous, based on the stereotypes instilled in western personalities. Apparently because I do not project any sense of ‘machismo’, and do not have a culturally instilled western gender identity having to do with certain fashion, I’m often a blip on the ‘gaydar’ and have been solicited by gay males more times than I care to think about (I’ve never had sex with a man and never intend to, at 62 years.) It makes for trying to enjoy sitting in nature on a bench a bit of the frustrating experience at times, comparable to a very large and annoying fly suddenly in your face. And it makes me laugh that the western so-called ‘straight’ males are equally wrong when the see Marilyn Monroe’s (plastic of course) lips on my keyring, if I were gay, they’d be Mick Jagger’s lips, wouldn’t one think? I expect is is a form of culturally instilled gynophobia. And then! I have a magenta color phone and an 8 years old (my guess) girl confronted me over that! My German wasn’t good enough to think on my feet, she wasn’t backing down and so I lied and told her it was my wife’s and she was satisfied and let me go about my business. I laughed at that for days… but it goes to show how prejudices are instilled relating to gender long before puberty.

    In the culture which had shaped me, the word for wife, ninaki, translates literally as “boss.” Ninaki is the lesser form of the word ninawaki, which had been the highest form of Blackfoot chief in pre-conquest times. The equality there was really quite balanced, respectful and women had been entitled to be warriors, the term for such a woman was sak-wo-ma-oui-aki-kwan, loosely translated as ‘defiant woman.’ And looking at the photographs of those last males from that culture’s era of freedom, their costumes and appearance were often quite feminine but make no mistake, they were not gay. The gay and transgender persons were more often found specializing in the healing arts in that culture and were respected and afforded their place.

    Another misconception is the countless forms of gender in the language, the western linguists puzzling over how so many male/female forms could be kept straight and why so many when in fact this was the language expressing varying degree of androgyny in descriptions, an alien concept to the anthropologists. A related note would be, the anthropologists were allowed to keep mistaken assumptions because the culture they were studying did not have a concept of correcting so-called ‘wrongs’, people are supposed to figure out their mistakes for themselves.

    You might find this take on the western culture’s misogyny interesting:

    My best to you

    • That’s fascinating, I would never have expected a Native American upbringing to result in ‘gay’ tendencies. The culture you mention sounds far fairer and equal than our own – funny to think that they’re the ones called ‘savages’.

      I really do hate the way those gender differences are such an ingrained part of our society! Kids that little shouldn’t feel entitled to question your choice of phone colour.

      Interesting that you say there were actually people who were apparently acknowledged as gay or trans but still had a particular place in society – I think most Western cultures just refused to believe they existed.

      I’m not sure I quite understand how society would function without a concept of correcting wrongs – but then again, that would just be because I’ve never lived in such a society.

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