Monday, February 18, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Throughout the world, women are being harassed by men with evil intentions.

These men ostentatiously open doors for women; offer to carry women’s luggage when the women haven’t asked for help; keep enquiring after the women’s health and suggesting a lie-down when women do the least demanding things; and generally behave as if women are incapable of doing anything for themselves.

You might be fooled into thinking that these are simply polite, solicitous men.

But beware  - oh beware – of these evil men. They are manipulative male chauvinists whose main purposes are (a.) to get into the women’s knickers; and (b.) to treat women as subordinates and sex-objects. Their apparent good manners are a charade. They soften up unsuspecting women in order to dominate them.

They are really practitioners of Benevolent Sexism!!!!

Thus ran a recent cover-story in the New Zealand Listener, which posed for readers the leading question “Are relationships being ruined by traditional attitudes?” (The “traditional attitudes” in question being opening doors for women, offering to carry their bags etc.)

Not to beat about the bush, let me admit at once that my chief reaction to the article was a guffaw and snort as I considered how the article made so much out of so little.

In short, it was a journalistic beat-up, replete (oh the shame of the Thought Crime!!) with the news that “up to 80% of people” have some sexist attitudes.

Doubtless there are men whose extravagant politeness is a stratagem to ensnare and suborn women. But doesn’t an article like the Listener one really imply women are so stupid that they don’t already know this? Further, do such devious men pose any more of a threat to the wellbeing of women than the treat-‘em-rough Bad Boys for whom, we are constantly being told, some women fall? And are narrowly-defined “traditional attitudes” any more of a threat to relationships than selfishness, materialism, hedonism, a sneering attitude towards marriage (unless it is gay marriage, in which case it is to be promoted) and a culture which says that individual autonomy is more important than commitment to somebody else?

Wanna see really screwed-up, badly-hurt people in bad relationships? I doubt if many of them are victims of Benevolent Sexism.

As for the phrase Benevolent Sexism itself, it was made up by two sociologists, who (according to the Listener article) said they were proud of the fact that the phrase had the same initials as BullShit – B.S.

Tee hee hee.

The value-loaded “research” they recounted at once suggested crap sociology, while the name they had devised suggested pre-determined attitudes as well as a fairly primitive sense of humour on the part of the sociologists. So it is not as if we are dealing with penetrating, decisive and indisputable conclusions. We are dealing with partisan, loaded and fairly dodgy commentary.

Okay. Enough with breaking a butterfly on a wheel. If this singularly silly article annoyed me, it was because, like so many others in the field, it committed two obvious errors.

First, it was designed to flatter its readers. Women whose chief worry is over-solicitous and potentially manipulative men, are women who do not have many real worries. An article of this sort allows them to see themselves as persecuted sufferers in the cause of gender equity.
 Second, like so many such articles, it had a reductionist view of human relationships. There are times in any good, healthy relationship when he will go out of his way for her; and she will go out of her way for him. If doors are sometimes unnecessarily opened, if bags are sometimes unnecessarily carried, it can be a sign of real love and concern. If these were the only signs of love and concern, then in all probability it would indeed be a superficial relationship. But to rail at “Chivalry’s dark side”, as the heading of the article did, is to suggest that all politeness and good manners are to be shunned. What really seemed to rile both the sociologists and the author of the article was the evidence that some people – including many women – actually appreciate being treated with consideration.

If any woman feels a man is showing special consideration to her merely as a means of manipulating her, the advice is obvious: tell him to bugger off. Most women are perfectly capable of doing this. Those who are not – those who fall most easily for polite blandishments – are just as likely to fall for any other sort of manipulative behaviour. Or for b.s. sociology.


  1. Unfortunately the sexism article has become fairly typical of the Listener: let's explore some aspects of a social trend in a superficial way so that it will attract a broad readership.
    This breadth is also reflected in their enlisting more writers (Psychology, Money, etc) but sacrificing depth and detail. In case a page is in danger of displaying too much text, the ubiquitous Getty image will hopefully brighten it up.
    O.K. - they have to churn it out weekly, but this may be why it has come to resemble the Woman's Weekly.
    I've begun subscribing to the Australian Monthly to get the sort of stuff the Listener seems unable to deliver.

  2. I thought the article was a bit more nuanced than you portray it. I actually read it differently, relating it to my experience out in the dating scene. What it seemed to be saying was that woman can't expect to have it both ways. You can't have a "woman's power" and "girls can do anything attitude" while at the same time expecting your partner to treat you as a delicate flower unable to open a big heavy car door or deal with all those difficult family budget issues.
    Of course the article put it politely, but it was saying that the reason chivalry is dead is because most men aren't babying you and realise you can do it yourself. The men who are extremely chivalrous are the ones most likely to buy into sexist attitudes.
    Frankly I thought the article was an overlong explanation of a modern truism. If you want to be cheated on, then pick the chivalrous guy.

  3. Thanks for your thoughful comment,Anonymous, and I think you have noted correctly that I simplified somewhat. I think I would only add that some over-solicitous guys aren't necessarily trying to be manipulative, but genuinely believe that this is "good manners". They are easily corrected in this delusion, of course [by all but the most complacent of women]. However, I still feel that "Benevolent Sexism" is the least that women have to worry about.