Reader query: what do you say to the ignorant or anti-feminist?

A reader writes:

I’m new to the fascinating world of philosophy, especially feminist philosophy, and I would be very thankful if you could answer a couple of questions for me!

What I realised since following your blog is that you guys don’t bother with the petty arguments about feminism (I could be wrong, though, as I’ve only recently started following this blog)….

I find myself lost for words when I’m stuck in debates about how “feminists hate men” and how “feminists want men to get in trouble for [insert anything here] but not when a woman does the same thing”.

And also, I can’t help feeling discouraged by the majority’s attitudes towards feminism. I see sexism everywhere (e.g. a TV ad in which two men are fighting each other in a crowd of people and the winner walks off with a pretty girl in revealing clothes.), but people’s responses are always that feminists take everything so seriously, etc.

How do you guys deal with society’s belittling attitudes? I know it’s a silly question and I’m expecting answers such as “if we don’t do it, it will never change”, but I thought it’s better to ask than to just sit here and imagine what you would say.

24 thoughts on “Reader query: what do you say to the ignorant or anti-feminist?

  1. For me, there was this terrible awkward period in my life where I had discovered feminism but none of my friends had (they were still of the “feminists all hate men” mindset). So I got involved in more feminist things (volunteering at the local rape crisis center, reading more feminist blogs), which helped because it meant the people around me weren’t the belittling majority anymore. As I kept going, it just kind of naturally happened that other feminists and I became friends, and the friends I had who didn’t support this kind of fell away. So for me now, it’s not so much that if I don’t do this, things will never change (although that remains true). It’s more that I do this with the love and support of my friends and feminist community, which makes it all seem a little easier to do.

    You are not alone in this. It’s ok to feel frustrated and upset and like you can’t carry the feminist flag all alone all the time in the face of idiots. You don’t have to. You can put it down when you are too tired to argue (because no one can make all of the arguments all of the time). You can even put it down when you want to go have some mindless fun! We are all here with you to help make it easier. It gets better as you keep on. I hope this helps.

  2. How I respond depends on the circumstance/context (and in part on my mood–you can’t respond to everything and shouldn’t feel like you always have to). But often I try to ask the person making the comment just what they think feminism is–or why they believe that feminists “hate men” or want to treat men “unfairly,” etc. Often they have no good explanation for their views.

  3. I live in an area where feminists are hard to find, so I love sites like this that keep me sane. I ignore some stuff because I know I’m in the minority, and when I speak out, everyone just gets really quiet then avoids me for a while. I have daughters, though, and when their friends come over, or when I’m teaching, I’m not shy about provoking teenagers to think about some of the common ideas running through our culture – about the limitations some women impose on themselves, and the amount of work they think they should do, and their obsessive concern with perfection in their homes and clothes. I guess I’ve sort of given up on my generation, and just focus on the next one. One feminist I met here suggested it would likely be healthier if we just moved, but I’m sticking around.

  4. How I respond, or whether I respond at all depends on circumstances–but when generally, I second helenesch’s recommendation of asking why they think the way they do. Wanting gender equality and justice is the opposite of wanting to treat men unfairly. When folks say that feminist take everything seriously, I think it’s helpful to point to things like this: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071106083038.htm (a study linking exposure to sexist humor and sexist behavior).

    And sometimes I like to watch this, just for laughs for myself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRW7DjYxTyk

    I think, too, that reading certain books has given me the resources to better handle these kinds of conversations (e.g., He’s a stud, she’s a slut, and 49 other double standards every woman should know; The mismeasure of woman; Backlash; etc.).

    For me, it’s important to not let myself get discouraged. I know how to turn frustration and indignation into a positive force for change, but I’m not productive when I’m discouraged. I also think it’s important to have some kind of community to ward of discouragement. (And in part, actually, I find that here on this blog.)

  5. I used to despair as well, “seeing sexism everywhere” — but then I realized that “everywhere” primarily meant the mass media, which is owned by just a handful of conglomerates (according to Free Press’s website, updated in 2008, Disney owns ABC, Touchstone, and Miramax; Viacom owns MTV, CMT, and Paramount Pictures; CBS owns Simon & Schuster; Time Warner owns AOL, HBO, Warner Bros., and Little, Brown and Company; GE owns NBC and Universal Pictures; Time Warner owns HBO, CNN, Warner Brothers Studios, Time, Life, Fortune, Business 2.0, and Little Brown Publishing; and so on), so really what we’re seeing ‘everywhere’ is just the view of the predominantly young, white men who work in the advertising or acquisitions departments of those compaines. Getting not-young, not-male people into advertising would help, but really, who among us wants to work in Disney’s marketing/acquisitions dept? And anyway, we wouldn’t get hired…)

    So the problem is more that (a) the mass media is everywhere (so the solution is to dismantle that monopoly) and (b) most people expose themselves almost exclusively to the mass media (so the solution is to get people to consume ‘indie’ media — if only my neighbors would read instead of watch tv, and would read Adbusters instead of the mainstream newspaper, or would log onto the internet–sites like this instead of ebay…).

  6. Feminism is a collective struggle, so look for allies and don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t convince everyone around you.

    It’s a long march and so don’t expect to reach the promised land in the foreseeable future.

    As others have noted above, get involved with groups of people who share your values. Make new friends and maybe you’re going to lose some old ones who do not share you new values.

    There are some people whom are not worth arguing with or trying to convince, but getting some sense of whom it is worth trying to enlighten takes time and practice and is far from an exact science, so you learn from trial and error, as in most things.

    One tip: a friend, in a slightly different context, once suggested that if you want to subvert society, look for people whose paint is chipping, who did not emerge with perfect paint jobs from the factory and start with them.

    Good luck.

  7. some days i think, man, i am too tired to be a feminist today, for reasons like these, even though i don’t really encounter that much anti-feminism and i have plenty of support from other feminists around me. i just keep in mind that, as a philosopher, i am most likely better at this than they are (the debating thing). I also often find that i rely on arguments that show people that feminists often want precisely what they want (self-determination, or freedom, rather than making women out to be ‘victims,’ ugh), or that major assumptions that they themselves rely on are actually a result of feminist critique and organizing. and when reason fails, there’s always snark and laughter. and a beer with friends after to laugh about it and let it go, so you’re less tired next time.

  8. For me, I try to focus on “what I do” rather than “what I say”. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a feminist, and sometimes we do have serious debates about it, but everyone who knows me also knows the fun I have and the life that I live. If you want to brush off “feminists are serious” comments, then quote Jessica Valenti from “Full Frontal Feminism” and tell people that feminists have better sex… There’s nothing serious about that…

  9. Some brilliant responses, here.

    I would add that one needs to decide whether there is a reasonable upside to struggling with some people. I usually favor a good-natured, probing approach. But, if one is confronting a simply nasty, closed-minded individual (no audience), I think caring for one’s own sanity is more important than trying to score points.

    However, if others are listening or if one’s interlocutor seems to be a reasonable person (and, this is always worth assuming), then a calm exploration of basic issues is the way to go: do you think that women and men should receive equal pay for equal work? do you think all women are in some way inferior to [all] men? And so on.

    I also think that explaining what ‘feminism’ means to you – and noting that there is no monolithic ‘feminist’ view – is important.

  10. I am in love with this thread. Also with Kathryn’s links.

    Personally, I find it difficult to get anywhere when confronting sexist statements precisely because I think philosophically–dissecting people’s statements and responding to them with arguments. No one wants to think that deeply or critically in everyday conversation. My partner makes much more progress by responding with subversive jokes. I just wish I had that talent.

  11. ChrisTS:

    It’s generally useful to frame questions so as to elicit the answer that you’re aiming for:
    thus, instead of “do you think that women are inferior to men?”, “don’t you think that women have the same abilities as men do?”

    Once you’ve obtained the “yes” answer that you want to elicit, you can build on that.

  12. Thank you for this -for the questions and the answers, particularly the links.
    I live in a bubble where I thought that a) my professions (veterinary medicine and writing, the one in my past, the other my present) were relatively free of sexism and b) that I wasn’t a feminist by nature: a lesbian maybe, but the two don’t go together.
    Then last week, I was at a publishing event where my publicity department had offered to sponsor the food. The senior publicist was taking round plates of finger food and offering it to people. She offered to another author, whose response to, ‘Would you like some [fill in small finger food here]?’ was, ‘No, but you can give me a blow job.’
    I was beyond angry. Because I had a senior role in the event and was wary of a screaming row, I got one of my male colleagues to tell him he was out of order and that he had to apologise. He did so, twice.
    Later, we went out for massed dinner. I came out of the restaurant at midnight (this is the time to point out that I never drink and so am frequently the only sober member of any gathering) and met said individual.
    We had a conversation which started amiably enough with my thanking him for apologising and apologising in my turn for not having spoken to him earlier, but that I was avoiding a scene – and was grateful there hadn’t been one.
    We deteriorated into a bizarre, surreal conversation where he, backed up by his friends, maintained that he had done nothing wrong, that if it was said, ‘with good heart’, it didn’t matter and I should lighten up.
    I, for my part, simply stuck to, ‘No, you’re over a line, the line is clear, you can’t say this in civilised society.’ We went round in circles, agreed to disagree and shook on it – at which point, he said, ‘And now you can kiss my dick.’
    Another 5 minutes of ‘You can’t say that.’ ‘Yes I can.’ And we left (minor interlude where a drunken Big Issue salesman came along and poked me in the chest and told me that my friend clearly loved me and I should kiss and make up. Close call, there. I didn’t lose it. The two authors with whom I was ‘discussing’ had the clear sense to get rid of him.).
    Two others followed me, to apologise in nicest possible terms for their entire gender and to say that they didn’t intervene because they thought I didn’t need it and wouldn’t want it. (Right on both counts).
    But I learn that my publishers might be considering offering this man a contract. And I find that if they do, I’m not sure it will be a safe place to remain because what that will say about the ‘boys will be boys and it’s all a joke’ mentality at the top is unsustainable.
    Conversely, if I mention this, I’m the radical dyke with no sense of humour. Anyone who knows a way out of this deadlock, is welcome to offer it…
    Apologies for high-jacking the thread.

  13. wow manda – that is nothing short of fked (apologies sensitive types). i worked in one of the most masculine and rough retail industries from where i’m from, and never had to hear that sort of thing (mind, they’d have been too scared to talk that way too me, but sometimes forgot i was there and said some pretty foul stuff).

    is it possible you could present this series of sexual harassments (in a single night) not as a personal concern for yourself, but one for your company? i’m not sure what the situation is where you work, but a heathen like this wouldn’t last too long in many professional work environments here (australia) because someone would take him to the equal opportunities board for sexual harassment, and it would cost the company a packet! so, you’d be doing them a service :-) the first instance was not directed at you, it was to someone else, right? if you emphasise that, make sure there is at least one other woman in the room, and you can rattle off a little about the sexual discrimination laws where you are, you may be able to turn their opinion of him.

    good luck!

  14. Ariseile, re “I find it difficult to get anywhere when confronting sexist statements precisely because I think philosophically–dissecting people’s statements and responding to them with arguments.” YES!! That is PRECISELY what happens to me too. So I’ve simply stopped. I realized I spend way too much time being angry then — not only at their original stance, but then also at their refusal to think.

    But my more important point is that I just came across a comment by Lynne Truss in her “Speak to the Hand” wherein she says something like in today’s society, all critical comment is taken as an act of aggression. And the thing is, she wasn’t talking in the context of anything resembling philosophical discussion; she was talking about the context of civility, of simply asking someone to perhaps turn down their music. So if a request for consideration/civility is taken as the implicit criticism it is, and gets met with a “Fuck you, bitch”, well, that just explained to me in spades why my philosophical thinking question (much more explicitly critical) is met with the same aggression.

  15. @ali – Thank you… I can try – the unfortunate thing is that I’m a self-employed author (as is he) – so it’s hard to sue anyone. The first person can sue the publisher for putting her in that position, but I’m sure she won’t and to be honest, it wasn’t their fault – he’s a loose cannon and is currently published elsewhere. My dilemma was what to do if he comes to my publisher – that is, if they were to offer him a contract, knowing what he’d said/done – not necessarily to me, but to her. It’s that (potential) ‘it wasn’t important’ attitude- that eases sequentially into, ‘it wasn’t rape because he’s a decent bloke and he didn’t hold a knife to her throat and anyway she was drunk…’
    They might, of course, decide not to touch him with a barge pole. I’m just playing with ‘what if’…
    But thank you for support. It’s good to know I”m not just being terminally humourless.

  16. You know what we need is a handbook of perfect responses, responses that identify the implicitly sexist attitude and simultaneously challenge it, to all the standard ‘invisible’ sexism, the comments like ‘Lighten up’ and ‘Smile, why dontcha’ and the dismissive ‘Look, I’ve got to get some work done’ …

    I’d be willing to collate such a thing and publish it as an ebook if someone can somehow orchestrate a call for submissions…

    On another note, re hanging out with people who share your values etc…yes, so very important, and the internet is my salvation. NO ONE in my neighborhood has the least bit of paint chipping, and though I don’t confront anti-feminism per se, I am continually/continuously ‘dismissed’ as persona non gratis. Socially, intellectually, in every way possible…

  17. This is such a good question and great thread – it can be very tiring and disheartening to deal with these same questions and myths over and over. That’s partly why I started putting together my Feminism F.A.Q.s videos – to give quick and succinct responses that other feminists can use to help answer those questions like “Do feminists hate men?” and “If feminism is really about equality why don’t you call yourself equalists or humanists?”, etc. If any of the videos are helpful (you can find them at http://www.youtube.com/user/jarrahpenguin) feel free to use them.

    I guess the big thing for one-on-one conversations is to know when to pick your battles. Other than online, I try to mainly spend time really explaining feminism to people I am going to be dealing with on a regular basis and/or who I think are genuinely approaching it with an open mind but have doubts because of the negative misconceptions. As an entry point I try to appeal to their respect for me, explaining why I’m a feminist in a positive way, then discuss issues I think we can agree in principle on.

  18. Regarding comments like “Smile, why dontchya”– I sometimes say something like, “Oh, sorry for the confusion– I don’t like to smile in public because I find it often makes total strangers feel inclined to start conversations with me and I’d rather they didn’t.”

    If it’s someone I know, I find directing them to a useful resource on the harms of street harassment, and the justifiable reasons why women might not want to discourage strangers from engaging them can be helpful, e.g.: http://unwinona.tumblr.com/post/30861660109/i-debated-whether-or-not-to-share-this-story

  19. To the original query, I say, Make it up as you go along. Sometimes you will succeed, sometimes you won’t. Do your best, learn as you go. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t be too hard on others. It will take, in time. Good luck.

  20. Thank you everyone who shared their experience and advice. I’d planned to weigh-in, but didn’t think my responses to sexism’d be worth much to many of you. As a friend pointed out to me, as a fairly large white heterosexual male, all my views are fairly well-accepted whether feminism or something meaningless…and I can confidently call someone out for their anti-feminist or anti-gay bullcrap and know they won’t push me back and that I won’t suffer consequences.

    Reading this makes me realize I’ve never really faced the trenches of feeling so marginilized and helpless and most of all ATTACKED. Best to all of you and thanks again for sharing your experiences.

  21. Hi, everyone! I was the one who asked the question, and I can’t express how grateful I am for all your insightful responses and advice. Thank you so much. I somehow thought that there were things I had to do “to be a feminist”. It’s such a relief to know that I don’t have to force myself to be fighting this battle all the time, and that it won’t make me less of a feminist.

    I’d like to share a post I read last night: A Message to Women from a Man: You are Not “Crazy” (http://thecurrentconscience.com/blog/2011/09/12/a-message-to-women-from-a-man-you-are-not-%E2%80%9Ccrazy%E2%80%9D/). It talks about the way a lot of men (unknowingly?) condition women into thinking we over-react, we’re too sensitive, we can’t take a joke and so on. The author calls it “gaslighting”, an emotional manipulation. It made me realise that I’m NOT irrational like the guys in my life have told me I am. It will take some time to “unlearn” my attitude towards myself, but I feel much better and stronger already.

    I’m a 20-year-old Korean girl living in Australia, and I experience stereotypical racism and sexism quite often – as a young, submissive and stupid Asian girl or something along that line. When I’m with my boyfriend (who is white), I’m rarely addressed or talked to. Plumbers and painters would come to the house to fix something and would completely ignore me as if I don’t know anything. This kind of experiences have made me very self-conscious of my ethnicity and gender, and I’m not as confident as I’d like to be.
    Right now I’m working on educating and improving myself, and I’m so thankful for blogs/forums such as this, and wonderful people like you all.

    Thank you again for sharing your experiences, and encouraging and teaching me!

  22. The asking of what they believe feminism is a very good start. Many people who think they aren’t feminists will find many points of feminist agreement.

    Part of the problem may be that “feminist” is a very big tent, and the most radical stuff tends to get the most public attention (as is true of most -isms, I suppose). If all they know of feminism is a superficial take on Andrea Dworkin, it won’t be surprising that their view of feminism is caricature.

  23. What happens when the other person doesn’t actually believe women have the same abilities as men do? I’ve been reading a lot of threads lately such as the discussions on imdb on the film G. I. Joe with Demi Moore and here: http://www.the-spearhead.com/2010/12/22/adopting-a-feminist-proposal-for-women-in-the-military/
    they argue that women’s inclusion in the US military is a mistake, that women set double standards, that women get “special treatment” so there are a lot of laws that are discriminating to men and boys, men will always be better than women in intelligence and physically as nature intended so that’s just the way it is. I just found myself getting so worked up and struggling to coherently reply. I don’t have the talent for making subversive jokes either, my frustration just crowds out everything else. It disgusts me that there are people out there who say things to lever themselves up by putting others down. I don’t understand the whole gender division thing. It spirals into endless debates and arguments because neither side wants to budge. I think all these fights are in the end about preserving human dignity and respect but people will protect their own pride even if it means humiliating someone else.

    @Manda Scott. There are always the few who say stupid things that give the whole general population look bad. No wonder there are anti-feminists who feel they suffer on account of the ignorant few. What’s more frustrating is that the guy really could say that because there would be no consequence to him except a reprimand. You were assertive but by the end of the day, nothing had changed – and I don’t believe this is an issue to agree to disagree on. I’m hating the idea that that guy is still probably going to go around being insolent and disrespectful, and continue to take advantage of the fact that the people he insults are actually civilised and will not touch him.

    @ Dani. I’m Asian girl too, and I’m pretty short and I’ve been told I look 16 even though I’m 19 so I absolutely know what you’re talking about. People don’t tend to take me seriously. Thanks for the article that you linked to. Gaslighting seems to be exactly the tactic that the author dude Manda Scott was talking about resorted to.

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