Sexism is in itself a bit of a sexist construct. Dictionary definitions are generally akin to this one, from the Oxford English Dictonary:
“Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.”
The word means discrimination on the basis of sex. It might well be more typical for men to discriminate this way against women. Okay, let’s face it – it is. But that’s surely not a matter for the dictionary. It’s an addendum to the definition, not part of it.
The problem with equating the term sexism specifically with prejudice against women is that it has a marked difference on the solution to the problem. The opposite of discrimination is non-discrimination. The opposite of discrimination against women is discrimination against men.
When George Clooney recently married Amal Alamuddin, many headlines were cited reporting how the famous actor had married – while failing to report that Ms Alamuddin was pretty famous in her own field as a high profile civil rights lawyer. Of course civil rights law is hardly part of popular culture, so it’s not sexist or any other kind of -ist to mention the globally-recognised Clooney in a headline while leaving Alamuddin’s credentials to the body of the article. Where, importantly, she always did get her due. No article ever suggested that the famous actor had simply married a female.
But such headlines were deemed sexist. So presumably with a nod to this, New York Magazine recently published the following headline:
“Robotics CEO Marries Trophy Boyfriend Joseph Gordon-Levitt.”
Comments below the article lauded the humour of the headline – but very few complained that it was sexist. And in fact, sexist in a far worse way than any Clooney headlines. No one ever suggested that Amal Alamuddin was a “trophy wife”.
Just like the Clooney headlines, this one named Gordon-Levitt but not his bride. Because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a well-known actor whose name would be recognised by the majority of readers, whereas robotics CEOs are not so commonly known outside of their field. That is simply a comment on the parties’ respective breadth of fame, and nothing else.
But apparently, because this headline was perceived to trivialise a man rather than a woman, it wasn’t sexist – it was hilarious.
Sexism is about discrimination on the basis of sex. That sex can be male just as it can be female. Discrimination against men is not the way to abolish sexism against women – just as the answer to anti-Semitism isn’t to pick on black people. What should have been reported in both of these cases was that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt married robotics CEO Tasha McCauley, and actor George Clooney married civil rights lawyers Amal Alamuddin. In other words, the facts.
As long as the response to discrimination against women is “hilarious” discrimination against men, sexism remains rife. The answer to sexism is simple. Don’t be sexist.