Internalized Sexism

Tekanji has written a great new Feminism 101 FAQ article on internalized sexism. I think this is one of the more difficult things to talk about within feminist communities, as well as one of the more important. No individual can be unaffected by the sexist messages of our culture, and yet I often expect myself to somehow be different–I think I should be “smart enough, educated enough or vigilant enough” to overcome it. That’s not just refusing to fight internalized sexism by denying it in myself, it’s an expression of exactly the anxiety and self-hate that Tekanji describes. I sometimes feel I’ve failed in my feminist role if I catch myself thinking or speaking a certain way, as though it’s an all or nothing proposition and as though I somehow deserve to be judged for my limitations.

One point that I think she makes extremely well:

If a little girl is told to not speak up because that’s what “good little girls do”, she is not necessarily going to internalize that literally. She could have any number of reactions, including (but not limited to): “I want to be a good little girl, so I will speak up less” (acceptance), “If being quiet is what ‘good’ girls do, then I want to be a ‘bad’ girl” (mixture of acceptance/rejection), or “I am a good girl and I don’t want to always be quiet, therefore that person was wrong” (rejection).

Rebelliously doing the exact opposite of what people tell you is “good” and wearing it as a “bad girl” mantle is working within the system. It’s accepting the virgin/whore dichotomy created for women, and while it may claim to be about making the marginalized pole more acceptable, it doesn’t create extra options. It doesn’t create an “opt-out” space where women’s sexuality and behaviour is just not judged at all, whether positively or negatively, and it’s therefore part of the problem.

Internalized sexism is the reason (in addition to the more obvious ones) that it’s unacceptable to say “I’m a woman and I think/don’t think [x]” or “I’m not offended by [x], therefore it’s okay”. It’s also, to me, one of the most damaging aspects of living in a patriarchal society–the ways it’s inescapable even from within one’s own head–and I’d therefore like to be called on it when I’m expressing it, and to have the courage to call it out when I see it among friends. As Tekanji says,

the line between critique and attack is not easily drawn, nor is it easy to differentiate between righteous anger and unfounded attack…But, despite the pitfalls and the problems, not trying is not an option.


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Wow… this is something I’ve been trying to express all weekend. Something I keep running into women who cheerfully to me that they hate women because women are so bitchy and gossipy and passive aggressive and aren’t men just so much more straightforward and wonderful?

    My usual response anymore is to ask, “What do you think I am?” to which they usually respond, “Oh, you’re different.” But I have no idea where to go from there, because invariably she thinks she’s offering a legitimate, liberated critique of women.

    The big irony is that a lot of women who give me this spiel later talk behind my back, go passive aggressive with me, or otherwise mistreat me in one of the very ways they identified as hateful in women.

    Um… yeah, tips on how to deal with people like that would be appreciated. For now, I think I’ll just tell them, “Okay, so you hate me” and walk away.

  2. says

    In response to BetaCandy’s comment:

    I’m lacking in tips, but I think you’ve got the right attitude down there. I think that, in that position, I’d want to respond the same way as I would if someone says “I hate programmers because…” or “I hate people with curly hair because…”. It’s a ludicrous generalization, it’s an unpleasant thing to hear already, and then you reach the conclusion that the person you’re speaking with has just buckled down and told you they don’t like you at all. So yeah, I should think being offended is pretty much the only response I could imagine. If your responses to being offended include expressing that you are and then walking away, then that’s your cup of tea. Mine too. :)

    Of course, if it’s a particularly bad case, you could always try something with honey and fire ants. Just tossing out ideas here. 😉

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL! It’s just so odd, because female misogynists always think they’re paying you a huge compliment when they tell you “You’re different from other women.” When you get it across to them that you’re fine with the idea of being different, but you don’t like the mass generalizations about women, they start with the examples: “But you don’t do this, and you don’t do that, and dozens of women I know do those things.” At which point it’s hard to insert into casual conversation “But some of that may be how you’ve been conditioned to see women via the patriarchy; i.e., you dismiss or even applaud the same behavior in males and don’t even realize it.”

    So I think the honey and fire ants might be simpler. Bet they don’t know dozens of women who do that. :)

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