Sexism vs. Misogyny

Lately, I’ve noticed that the words “sexist” and “misogynist” seem to be used interchangeably quite a bit, and it got me thinking about how the two terms are different and why that might matter. Now, the pedantic thing to do would be to post definitions of the two words and go from there, but can we all just accept that language changes with usage and dictionaries are imperfect? We can? Excellent.

The specific inspiration for this train of thought came from a serious of recent tweets deriding the anime Sword Art Online as misogynistic, among many other bad things (but mostly misogynistic.) Now, I’ve defended SAO more than once, not because I don’t think the show has flaws — hells yeah, it does — but because I feel like the criticisms directed at it are often loaded and unfair. But this isn’t really about SAO; I’ve made my feelings on the show clear, for better or for worse. It’s about what misogynist is supposed to mean in this context. Do they think that the show was written by people who hate women, or actually promotes a hatred of women? Should that even matter?

To demonstrate what I feel the difference is between sexism and misogyny, I’m going to use a rather personal example: My own father. Born in 1946, my Dad holds very progressive views in many respects, but occasionally says things that give away the fact that this is someone who had his worldview formed in the ’50s. I remember him coming home from work one day and noting that the latest engineer at his company was an absolutely beautiful woman, and he was kind of floored by that. “I can’t believe a woman who looks like that became a mechanical engineer!” he said. Now, being a reasonable man who pays attention, he knows that women now have the opportunity to pursue many careers that weren’t available to them when he was young, and I know he knows that that’s a good thing; he’s said as much. But the fact remains, in my Dad’s worldview, “beautiful woman” does not equal “engineer,” and he was somewhat mystified by this new coworker even though he should have known better.

Is my Dad sexist? Sometimes, I believe he is. I don’t want to say he can’t help it, because I don’t know if that’s really true, but once again, this is someone who’s worldview was shaped in the 1950’s. Despite a fairly progressive political outlook, at times he says things in regard to gender that betray a viewpoint honed in an era when the world was a very different place. I think we all know people like this: parents, grandparents, coworkers, etc. We don’t necessarily give them a Get Out of Jail Free card for outdated beliefs, and may even challenge them at times, but by and large we accept them as products of their time.

So I’ve established that Dad is indeed sexist, at least sometimes; sorry, Daddy. But is he a misogynist? I really, really, really don’t think so. On a personal level, he’s often been surrounded by women on account of his hobbies, and enjoys their company as much or more as their male counterparts. During the years when he volunteered with the Cub Scouts, many of the other troop leaders were female (“Den Mothers,” I believe they’re often called), and the joke was that he was “one of the gals,”; he was just missing the khaki skirt. The friends he’s made through all of his various hobbies and volunteer work include both men and women. He finds the current Republican Party’s views on women’s reproductive health (and women in general), to be an embarrassment to the civilized world, something Americans shouldn’t stand for. I remember asking him once, as a young child, why America hadn’t had a female president yet. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like “Because some people are backwards and don’t believe a woman can be president. Many other countries have had great female presidents, so we know women can do the job. It’s stupid that we haven’t.”

Furthermore, he was eager to introduce me to things that weren’t traditionally “for” females because he thought I would find them interesting– and I have a perfectly good brother, so it wasn’t a “Oh well, I only have a daughter so I guess I’ll treat her like a boy!” situation. He taught me Morse Code and about the mechanics of ham radio, how to shoot an air rifle and how to repair cars. I remember him patiently explaining the difference between the different parts of an automobile, like the “crankshaft” and the “camshaft,” in the hopes that i would one day be able to do maintenance on my own car, which he feels is an extremely useful skill for everyone to have. Unfortunately, I never had an interest in cars and the teaching didn’t stick, but that’s not my Dad’s fault. In general, there was a sense that there was nothing inappropriate for me to learn as a girl; he placed no limitations on what he believed I could accomplish.

Can I really be objective about my own father? Not completely, no. But I believe that if I can be objective enough to realize that he is sexist at times — almost despite himself — I should also be objective enough to realize if he displays misogynistic tendencies. As far as I can tell, he does not hate women and has never hated women, and that remains true despite the fact that he has a view of gender that may at times seem antiquated.

So through my own personal experience, I’ve leaned that it’s very possible to be sexist while not being misogynist (although, to be fair, the reverse isn’t true: I don’t see how it would be possible to be misogynist without being sexist). However, that doesn’t mean the two are completely different things that have nothing to do with each other; there’s a lot of obvious overlap. For example, some of the things that have become sexist conventions were based on misogynist ideas from way back in the day; so someone, while not hating women at all, can promulgate ideas that are based on the fear and hatred of women from another point in time, without meaning to.

Okay, so where are we? Sexism is not the same as misogyny, but the attitudes that formed sexist conventions came in large part from the misogyny of the past, so aren’t they ultimately the same thing? No, because as I’ve illustrated, one can be sexist without hating women, and as far as I can tell, the presence or absence of hate is a pretty big deal. Someone who thinks that as a woman, my capabilities and temperament may be different from a man in some respects, does not necessarily hate me; I think whether or not I’m being hated makes a difference, personally.

Getting back to the original point, why does it matter if the word misogyny is used in the place of sexism? Because, in my opinion, misogyny is an awful lot worse than sexism. To a certain extent, one can be an “innocent” sexist– someone who was shaped by a regrettably sexist culture, but has no ill feelings towards either the women in their lives, or women in general. Then there are misogynists, who actually hate women, think women objectively have less worth than men, and — perhaps most importantly — use women as a convenient scapegoat for all of their own fears and insecurities. If one is a lot worse than the other, calling someone or something misogynist when merely sexist is doing a disservice, not only to that individual but to the whole concept of misogyny. If anything sexist in the slightest gets labeled as misogynistic, it really does take away from our understanding of just how toxic misogyny is.

I almost hesitate to bring this back to SAO, because no good ever seems to come of that, but I suppose I’m duty-bound to do so. Is SAO sexist? Sure; the way the female characters’ likenesses are used for fanservice, yet the male characters aren’t, is proof enough of that. Is it misogynist? That’s a much more complicated question. It doesn’t outright promote hatred of women, no, but many would say it doesn’t have to. Some would say that the way the female characters are marginalized is evidence of misogyny, but plenty of viewers, both male and female, find the female characters in SAO to be strong and inspiring, and are only marginalized to the extent that they aren’t the main character; I know several viewers who feel this way. I don’t think I can unequivocally say that SAO isn’t misogynist, but I know that’s actually a different question from “is it sexist?”, and that’s the point.

Finally, this all ties back to what I was saying in Women in Gaming: A Different Experience, which is that the whole SJW camp really needs to stop criticizing things as though everything is equally egregious and terrible all the time, because it’s simply untrue, and telling lies doesn’t help your cause. Just as advocates for gender equality in gaming should probably stop saying that there are no good female characters in games and being a female gamer is the height of demeaning misery, advocates for gender equality in general should probably stop saying that anything with a trace of sexism is automatically misogynist. When you exaggerate and lie, it makes it seem likely that you may also lying about the fact that the subject of your complaint is a problem in the first place, in classic Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf syndrome. I know some of my recent blog posts may seem anti-SJW, but it’s because I actually agree with a lot of the SJW movement on general principle that this bothers me so much.

Or, as my Dad would say, “When you’re right, you shouldn’t have to scream.”

 

5 thoughts on “Sexism vs. Misogyny”

  1. I’m not sure who in their right mind would use those terms interchangeably. Misogyny can be a form of sexism, but sexism doesn’t specifically refer to misogyny, or misandry. It’s too broad of a term to equate it to a single form. They’re simply not synonymous.

  2. Well, people aren’t coming right out and saying “Misogyny and sexism are the same thing,” it’s more like a consistent usage of “misogyny” in cases where in the past, people would have used “sexism.” I guess sexism just doesn’t sound like a damning enough criticism anymore— misogyny has the “wow that sounds really evil” thing going for it.

  3. I don’t know if I see people using misogynist instead of sexist that often, but I’ve seen both words used wrongly often enough. In the case of misogyny I simply see it used to imply something that isn’t true. Usually slander (or exaggeration if you prefer) against someone. In the case of sexism I think it is simply overused. I wouldn’t even call your father’s statement sexist for the example you gave. The word I would use for that statement is ignorant. In at least as much as you wrote out here he neither discriminated against the woman or held any prejudice against her. Surprise isn’t sexist is it? I guess you could say he was passively sexist because he allowed the distinction to enter his mind, but that brand of sexism holds very little value with me. In the scenario you presented your dad made a distinction that challenged his ideas of women and he accepted it. If that is sexist then sexism really has lost its bite.

    One of the big flaws I see with some feminist reasoning is that everything is guilty of being sexist until proven otherwise. It’s a political ultimatum and a mentality I can only see as bitter nonsense. There is a sense that anything that makes a gender distinction is sexist just for existing and anyone who acknowledges that distinction is sexist by association. The reason I see this as such a problem is that a distinction doesn’t inherently include prejudice or discrimination. If for example, I were to see a male body builder walking around my small town in a pretty pink dress it would surprise me and not because I have a prejudice against someone doing that, but because it would be highly unusual. If I saw the same thing in say LA I might not even notice it. The LA in my head is probably wrong(never been there) but again there is no prejudice in my ignorant distinction. I know some feminists would say otherwise, but ignorance is not sexism, at least not any form of sexism I have a problem with.

    Lets look at SAO. If there were an episode dedicated to Kirito walking around naked would that suddenly quell all the complaints about it being a sexist show? I have seen games and anime that throw around fan service for both genders, but it takes on a very distinctive feel when they do it, one that probably would have worked against SAO. Even if it wouldn’t work against SAO, which could probably be done, we are still calling it sexist for something it doesn’t have instead of something it has. Personally that just doesn’t hold any weight with me.

    The prejudiced I’ve seen in regards to SAO has been aimed at the show, aimed at Asuna for being able to cook, aimed at house wives who really are similar to Asuna and aimed at gamers who think that Asuna is a nice ideal. The prejudice I’ve seen from the show itself? It’s all digging, people looking for something to be wrong and finding it because we can’t prove that it isn’t. I’m reminded of stories where people would play vinyl disks backwards and believe they could find messages about Satan worship. Actually a better example… I am reminded of the creationist debate that evolution is wrong and that god created the earth because no one can prove that he didn’t.

    In your example SAO is sexist not for holding prejudice against or discriminating against women, but simply for not being fair. Prejudice and fairness are not synonymous are they? The wrong use of the term sexism that I usually see is in regards to fairness. It is a matter of gender politics yes, but one of entitlements, not sexism. The two are similar sure, but not the same thing.

    One thing that I think sexism and misogyny both share is that both terms imply something bad. If we make distinction part of the definition of sexism then I am forced to question when sexism is or is not a bad thing and I don’t think anyone wins in that scenario. What I see is that you are accepting the idea that sexism isn’t always such a bad thing and honestly maybe that is an okay way to look at it. I know that it is one way of looking at sexism, but it isn’t one I personally agree with. For my own part I think that it is far more confusing and strips the term of at least some of it’s original intent. Part of the problem here is that feminism and sexism by association, are not very well defined. “Positive” sexism is a real ideology and I am aware of that, but it is one one that really needs to find better terminology in my opinion.

    1. Sorry for the late response, got so deep into a Jtor black hole that I didn’t even notice my own blog for a bit.

      I think your definition of sexism is a bit narrower than mine, and mine seems to be narrower than most people these days. However, take an example like the SAO New Year’s special: it goes out of its way to contrive a situation to put all of the girls in swimsuits, even though it honestly doesn’t make much sense (why would Suguha bring girls she barely knows, like Silica, to her swimming lesson? Why would someone as athletic as Suguha is be unable to swim in the first place?) Maybe it involves more reading between the lines than you would feel is fair, but I have a hard time not seeing that episode as sexist in its execution. And no, just having Kirito walk around in swim trunks for a while would not change that, nor is that really desirable….well, some viewers would clearly desire it. But not me.

      “Positive sexism,” I don’t know…I think we’re supposed to believe that you can’t fight sexism with more sexism (or racism with more racism), but in practice, that’s often what we end up doing. For example, this obsession with “strong female characters” comes from the assumption that the default female character is weak, and that weakness is inherently negative even though characters of both genders need to have some kind of weaknesses in order to be fully-realized characters. So the insistence that female characters be “strong” all the time, and that strength is inherently A Good Thing, would be hailed by some as positive sexism…although to me, it just seems like sexism, full stop.

      Argh now I’ve just confused myself more, LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE

      1. No problem. I manage to keep myself super busy as well so I understand and this issue isn’t at risk of losing relevance overnight. I do want to pick your brain a bit more. I hope you don’t mind my long ranting comments.

        Let me ask you this: What makes that situation with Suguha sexist? I don’t think it was that unusual for Suguha to be hanging out with Kirito’s friends. I see nothing inherently wrong with that. The fact that an otherwise athletic woman can’t swim isn’t sexist is it? Is the implication that it is sexist because it isn’t fair to Suguha as a character? If that is the case I find myself wanting to support the creators and call the claim of sexism out as nonsense. Above and beyond sexism I think the idea that a story needs to be fair to its characters is silly. The context of fair to a character is very different from the context of fair to a real person or even fair to an audience. That said, if you were to tell me that gender representations in SAO are not always fair I would actually agree you, I just don’t see any inherit value in fairness. I think we need a reason for fairness to be important in any given context. I am open to talking about that, but the dialogue always gets trapped on sexism.

        The other potential implication I can see is that SAO is prejudice against Suguha and therefor women as a whole as well. The idea being that it is sexism which causes the things in the story that you defined to happen. This is more meaningful to me. The idea that the creators are sexist and that we can see that sexism in the form of their fiction. I think the difference in our distinction may simply be that I refuse to believe they are guilty of this sexism without solid proof, something unlikely to find in the fiction itself. For the sake of argument I either need to assume they are innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent. At the end of the day the answer I have is that maybe the creators are sexist, maybe their art is a reflection of that sexism, but that isn’t the only way to interpret it so maybe it isn’t and maybe they aren’t. No one wants to hear a maybe as the answer to a yes or no question so I’ve chosen to say no, it isn’t sexist. I think the truth is that we can’t be sure, but that isn’t a very good answer to the question. It doesn’t give us a course of action.

        Prejudice is an awful thing, but so is fear. When I say SAO is not a piece of sexist fiction what I mean is that after having all the evidence gathered and examined I see nothing that can’t be explained in another way. Part of all this is that I personally think that it is near meaningless to call fiction sexist and this logic of evidence that can mean many things is the reason why I think it is meaningless. Fiction is all in the eyes of the beholder. The people behind creating fiction? They are very much capable of sexism. Are they guilty of it? Maybe? When I say no they aren’t what I mean is that I haven’t seen proof of it, or even any solid evidence. When I defend SAO as being not sexist I do it because I see no reason to shame the creators that way and because I honestly don’t see any message of prejudice against women.

        To further complicate all of this even if we do somehow discover that the creators are sexist, that discovery doesn’t mean anything for their fiction unless we do manage to make that discovery through the fiction itself. If someone doesn’t see the reflection of sexism in a thing are they even exposed to that sexism in the first place? I would expect many feminists to say yes, but I think that is one sided. Personally I lean toward saying no. Someone can’t be harmfully exposed to an idea that they don’t or can’t understand. Just like I can’t understand the meaning of lyrics spoken in Korean without subtitles. Unstated Intent can’t be interpreted without a cipher from someone who understands it.

        This all makes me wonder what we are trying to accomplish when we label fiction sexist in the first place. Is it to guilt people into better understanding women so that they write better fiction? I’m all for better fiction, but surely there is a better way to have meaningful conversations about that? Conversations that establish what people actually want to see instead of playing hot potato with shame and guilt.

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