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.”