This odd title is a deliberate botching of Martin Luther King’s famous phrase from his “I Have A Dream” speech, the part when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The content of their character. So many girls and women are still judged not by the content of their character but by their lips and their eyes. For so many women on this planet, beauty is still the only working capital.
I am fortunate to live in a place where women have opportunities for education and careers. And yet I am struggling to deal with the reality that my 5-year-old daughter has already learned that her appearance seems to be more important than her character. She is learning that for many people, her appearance is primarily who she is.
In her case, the content of this story centers on the wild ash-blond curls scattered over her head, a mess of ringlets that have become an object of constant praise and even worship for a few over-the-top admirers.
Which leads me to “the content of her hair” as a thought experiment on benevolent sexism.
How can sexism be benevolent? Well, it can’t, but it’s useful to understand as an insidious foil to the more obvious hostile sexism. Hostile sexism refers to blatantly negative and aggressive attitudes and actions toward women, like paying female employees less money than what their identical male counterparts receive.
In contrast, benevolent sexism, as defined by researchers Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, is “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.” This includes things such as inappropriate compliments, like Obama’s silly praise of California attorney general Kamala Harris, and unnecessary protection for perceived female weakness and inferiority, like a man paying for a woman’s meal or rushing to defend her from street harassment.
Many people think benevolent sexism is harmless, but it’s not really about winning praise or a free lunch. Its underlying assumptions are that female worth depends on appearance, and that women are weak and need certain special protection.
Glick and Fiske have found that benevolent sexism is highly correlated with hostile sexism. That means that even though someone who practices benevolent sexism doesn’t necessarily endorse hostile sexism, the researchers found that in fact the two often go together: people who endorse one often endorse the other.
And they found that benevolent sexism (independent of hostile sexism) significantly predicted nationwide gender inequality across a range of indicators, like life expectancy, income, social status, etc. Other researchers, Julia Becker and Stephen Wright, found that when women were exposed to benevolent sexism, they were less likely to take specific actions against gender inequalities and were more likely to justify unequal systems.
So benevolent sexism is much more insidious because it often makes women feel great but ultimately can do as much damage as hostile sexism.
Think of it like the high fructose corn syrup of social relations: It totally rocks while you’re eating the candy but will seriously screw with your life if you give in to the addiction.
Lest anyone think that benevolent sexism is a thing of the past, it has been all over the news lately. Besides Obama’s gaffe, there was the revelation of Elise Andrew as the creator of the I F-king Love Science Facebook page, which prompted a tsunami of offensive praise (OMG a hot girl loves science!!!). And we had the New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which touted her cooking prowess and wifely humility, making her career seem like a bonus coupon.
But wait, there’s more. Now we are graced with the Dove campaign, which reveals how touchingly blind we women are for not realizing the depth of our true beauty. You see, we are so fragile and misguided that total strangers can see us better than we see ourselves!
Friends and strangers alike take pleasure in my daughter’s hair. This is because when it’s not matting into little dreadlocks, her hair resembles pale lilies in sunlight. It is rare and beautiful to look at and even better to touch. Like lambs wool woven with silk.
This seems harmless enough. We perceive beauty because we find it is real and because human beings are beautiful. With so much ugliness and injustice in the world, what’s wrong with professing beauty where we find it? Isn’t it only right, even essential to find beauty where we can? Isn’t it natural to compare my girl’s hair to flowers in sunshine or sweet fluffy animals? And haven’t I chosen photos for this blog based on some perception of beauty, or at least some aesthetic value?
If we can’t appreciate beauty then what is left in this world? Reality cop shows and Cheez Whiz for the rest of our days?
I don’t think it’s quite so hopeless, partly because there is a big difference between appreciating whatever or whoever we experience as beautiful and making beauty the essential nature of that person or thing.
Here is what sometimes happens in a typical day with my daughter. We go out walking somewhere and somebody stops to praise her lovely hair. At our next destination – maybe it’s the coffee shop – someone else will comment on her adorable locks. Then we go somewhere else, like the doctor’s office for a checkup, and the nurse can’t resist gushing over her gorgeous curls.
It is not yet noon, and my daughter has received so many compliments from friends and strangers. Maybe that seems like no big deal. Maybe that seems great for her self-image. But as I watch this, I realize I am in fact witnessing the belittling of a girl’s self-perception, the whittling away of her personhood. Because not one of these people has said a thing about her character, her strong vocabulary, her decent manners, how fast she runs through the park, or how confidently she climbs a tree.
No. In these comments she is learning that the first and most important thing people want to notice is her hair. In a few short years it will be her clothes, her makeup, her body.
How much are the comments sinking in? By four years old, she was already insisting that soccer was “for boys.” She finally agreed to try a class, but only because her friend was in it. She wasn’t much into the game.
So when I witness these patterns, not just on one day, but many days over and over and over and over again, I understand in a new way that benevolent sexism is not some cute sugar joke. In fact, hostile sexism is relatively rare for us, but the benevolent brand is how we degrade the worth of women and girls every day, how we make it constant, how we make it sink in. How we make second-class life seem so utterly benign.
Benign, that is, until one day when we are all looking around asking how rape culture in so-called first-world countries can still be so prevalent. How it is that any police officer could look the other way when a 5-year-old girl is raped. How people could order textile workers in Bangladesh to get back to work in a dangerous building, only to watch it collapse on them moments later.
And so I come back to King’s words and my thought experiment: what if we could make benevolent sexism as culturally awkward, as strange and wrong as my title sounds, “the content of her hair.”
What if we could think our way out of this problem by sheer force of imagination? What if we found a new language to imagine our way out of the norms of injustice – to think our way toward freedom for women?
There is no magic word wand for this crisis, no secret code to wish it away. But I do believe that imagination is as crucial as action, and possibly the key to it.
I also believe this challenge is not as impossible as it sometimes feels. Yes, feminism has lost ground in recent years and in some very alarming ways. There’s serious work ahead.
But we humans can be surprising, and children, it turns out, are not so attached to the meanings of words.
A few weeks after my daughter quit soccer, she announced out of the blue one day that she wanted to play basketball.
At her second lesson, she hadn’t quite gotten that the point of the game is to shoot baskets, but she loved the idea of getting her hands on the ball. She was the only girl. I watched in amazement as she zoomed around the court, stealing the ball repeatedly from one particular older boy. She began to attract attention. A few other parents started cheering every time she raided the other team.
She didn’t seem like lilies in sunlight at all. More like rushing water in a desert wilderness.
After the game, some kid’s exuberant dad was over the moon about my girl.
And for once no one said a word about her hair.