The problem with social justice is that it’s easy to see progress: simply look at where society is now, and compare it to where things were a hundred years ago, or three hundred, or a thousand, and say “Look how far we’ve come! Women are no longer married off like property, they’re not barred from participating in the government or military, and they’re not stoned to death for adultery! Surely sexism is over by now–right?”
When the work that’s already been done is laid out in neat landmarks like this, it’s natural to think of social progress as a kind of journey, and the destination as an X on a map. We’ve passed such-and-such landmarks–women’s suffrage, birth control, the feminist movement, etc.–so we’ve traveled such-and-such distance. It can’t be much further now, can it? The fallacy is that although it is easy to see where a society has been, and it is possible to see where a society is now, it is very difficult to see how far one still has to go. Improving a society is not at all like navigating a map, it’s more like writing and debugging a large piece of software: both are attempts at solving a complex, difficult, and usually poorly-understood problem.
Like solving any complex and difficult problem, it is easy to see how much progress a society has made relative to previous attempts, but much more difficult to see how much work is needed to reach some imagined ideal. Estimates always fall short, and our intuitions of work and progress are frequently wrong. There might not even be an ideal solution, or even if there is we might not recognize it. Work already done will include halfway measures, temporary bandage solutions, setup that does nothing on its own but might prepare the way for future work, dead ends, and a lot of ugly cruft. Some of it will even be actively harmful, and there won’t always be a way to know which parts are what. As for the problem itself, some parts will be straightforward and simple to solve, others will be subtle and difficult, and the vast majority will not even be visible until work on some other part of the problem brings them to light. As with measuring a computer program’s progress by how many lines of code it has, measuring the feminist movement solely by its past accomplishments is at best misleading, and at worst actively destructive.
The first and most important step in both software programming and social change is to understand the problem you’re trying to solve–in this case, sexism. What’s bad about sexism? Why should we get rid of it? The reasons why sexism is bad could easily fill their own essay, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say simply that it’s bad because inequality is bad. Sexism means the systematic discrimination of one gender over another, and if you accept that inequality is bad (as did the founders of America), then it follows that sexism is bad, too. So far, so good.
But here’s where it gets tricky: because it’s easy to see how much more equal the sexes are now than they used to be, but impossible to know what a society with zero inequality would look like, it can be very difficult to spot the inequalities that still exist. At every point in history for every problem there have been people saying “good enough, let’s stop here,” and in every case they were eventually proven wrong. So the next most important step in resolving sexism is to learn to recognize it where it still exists.
This is not easy. In fact, this is deliberately not easy. Remember how earlier, I defined sexism as “the systematic discrimination of one gender over another?” “Systematic” is the key word. Sexist acts by individuals are not the real issue–taken in isolation, they are just symptoms. If there were no larger pattern there would be no larger problem, just as a single coughing fit does not mean that you are sick. Unfortunately, isolated incidents are both more visible and easier to excuse than widespread systematic discrimination, because systematic discrimination is by definition an unconscious part of our day-to-day lives. It’s not any one act and it’s not any one person, it’s the entire system of society taken as a whole. It is in the cultural air we breathe–to recognize it, you have to recognize that you are part of the problem by default, even if you have the best of intentions. Simply not being actively sexist isn’t going to cut it.
This systematic bias goes by other names: “the patriarchy,” “male privilege,” etc. These names are often demonized and belittled by the unequal systems they point out, and if you are a male you may understandably take offense at their apparent implications of conspiracy or malice on your part. At their core, however, these terms have nothing to do with individual males, and everything to do with the broader social problem: systematic discrimination against women. When society belittles and alienates one group, it necessarily raises other groups up by comparison–male privilege is not the “fault” of any particular male, it is a direct consequence of endemic sexism in society.
I’m about to speak mostly for men wishing to reduce sexism in society and themselves. Please forgive me if what I’m about to say seems obvious, but I am going to hammer this point home as clearly and forcefully as I can because, assuming you admit that sexism is bad, it is the most important and most difficult thing you must learn to help bring about change. If you are a male in American society, you have privilege. What this means is that many things are easier for you by default than they would be for a woman.
Let me be clear: being male, even a sexist male, does not make you an asshole. We’re all sexist by default, remember? In fact, this is exactly what makes the problem of sexism (and all other forms of systematic discrimination) so insidious: it is quite common for an otherwise nice, intelligent, reasonable guy to believe that they don’t have privilege and that the whole feminist movement is misguided, overzealous, obsolete, or even malicious. Why? Because privilege is invisible to those who have it.
Recall the tale of the “great princess” (usually misattributed as Marie Antoinette) who, when told that the peasants had no more bread to eat, blithely replied “Then let them eat cake!” The point of the tale isn’t that the princess is mean or petty; her words aren’t meant as a cruel joke. The point is that she honestly doesn’t understand that when peasants don’t have bread to eat, they starve. To her, not having bread would be a minor inconvenience–she’d simply have to switch to eating one of the many other varieties of food available to her, by virtue of her tremendously privileged position. That’s what makes privilege such a difficult problem: it feels normal, objective, and natural to those who have it.
I once read a tale called The Parable of the Dog and the Lizard that explained this idea nicely. In this story there’s a big arctic dog and a small tropical lizard living in a house by themselves. The dog, having lots of fur, likes cooler temperatures, and is able to turn the AC up all the time. The lizard is too small to mess with the AC, so she has to resign herself to being way too cold almost constantly, unless maybe she can find an incandescent lamp to curl up next to. Although I don’t like how this story implies that men and women are literally different species, I do like that it makes two things about privilege absolutely clear. First, just having it does not make you a bad person. Nobody thinks the dog is a jerk just for having fur and being big enough to use the thermostat–he can’t help having fur and being big. Similarly, you (if you’re a man) didn’t ask for your privilege and you can’t give it back, and no one should expect you to feel guilty just for having it. What matters is that you acknowledge your privilege–and that is tough, because the second thing the story makes clear is that privilege is invisible to those who have it. The lizard knows she’s cold, she feels it all the time. She also knows it’s bad because she can compare it to how she feels when she’s curled up around a lamp. But the dog has never been cold in his life. If the lizard tries to explain how miserable she feels by saying “How would you like it if I turned down the AC on you all the time,” of course the dog will only say “Please do! It seems like I can never get it cold enough in here without hearing you complain.” What the lizard really means is, “how would you like it if I made you so cold it was painful,” but that’s not something the dog understands intuitively because he’s never been cold at all. This is what happens when a woman sick of being cat-called on the streets or objectified by her co-workers says to a man, “how would you like it if I did the same to you?” Of course the man’s reply will be “Great! I’d love to be objectified more!” But what the woman really means is, “how would you like it if sexual advances were dangerous and threatening“–and that’s just not something that ever happens to most men, because of male privilege.
Once you start paying attention to male privilege, you’ll see its effects everywhere. Ever wonder why sexism is so strongly correlated with homophobia? One reason might be because the thought of a man making a sexual advance on them gives sexist men a taste of the same danger and threat women face in their sexual encounters. The only way to reduce the fear of such “emasculation” without recognizing the privilege that motivates that fear is to defend their privilege even more strongly. Rather than take a step back and re-evaluate their position from a more empathetic standpoint, those who choose to remain sexist must reduce their fear either by belittling homosexuality and turning it into a punchline, or by demonizing homosexuality so as to justify their righteous outrage.
This reaction goes double against trans* people, and it even occurs when cisgendered heterosexual men so much as display traits associated with femininity: traits such as compassion, nurturing, submissiveness, emotion, frailty, domesticity, or even liking cute and frilly things. Much as we like to tout our “progress” in how we treat women who display masculine traits, the truth is women displaying masculine traits has never been a big deal–unless one of those traits was ambition, which is still discouraged in women today since it’s seen as an implicit challenge to the patriarchy. Women have always fought, worn pants, made discoveries, and invented new technologies. They never got credit for it, of course, but for the most part they weren’t persecuted for it either. Society’s attitude towards such women has usually been an ambivalent mixture of condescension and indulgence, perhaps exemplified most singularly by the concept of “penis envy” (thanks, Freud), which is what such displays are assumed to be. “Of course women want to be more like men,” society seems to be saying. “Who wouldn’t? It’s not like they can, of course, but there’s no harm in letting them pretend, the poor things. Just so long as they don’t let it go to their heads.”
So where’s the vagina envy? Where’s the patronizing indulgence of men and boys who wear makeup or dresses? Or who act delicate and graceful? Or who are attracted to other men (or simply the “passive” role)? Obviously, society’s attitudes towards these people are much less tolerant. Why? Because women and the traits associated with them are implicitly understood to be inferior. Xena (for instance) is a great figure and role model, but she’s not a threat to the patriarchy because she exemplifies and elevates traditionally masculine traits. The message she sends is basically “Hey, women can be just as good as men–by acting just like them.” Where are the male role models shown staying at home, caring for children, cleaning house, being emotional, and trying to avoid conflict? The ones who aren’t the setup or punchline to a joke?
We talk of putting strong women into our stories as feminist role models. But why do they have to be “strong?” Why is “strong” considered a compliment, whereas–say–“emotional” is insulting? Strength, after all, is not always good, and emotion isn’t always bad. Whether either one is good or bad depends on its context and the person behind it. There are many kinds of strength, of course–physical, emotional, ethical, intellectual, spiritual, etc. But there are many kinds of emotion as well–empathy, love, joy, grief, humor, determination, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness. Individually we consider all of these to be positive, human qualities. So why is “emotion” in general considered bad?
Because emotion is associated with women.
The problem with “the pink aisle” isn’t that it’s pink, it’s that pink is still associated with girls. The problem with “weak” female characters isn’t that they’re weak, it’s that weakness is still associated with women. The problem with rape culture isn’t that people sometimes get raped, it’s that our entire social structure devalues women’s consent and agency. If it was okay for guys to like pink–or more importantly the things in the pink aisle–then a “pink aisle” wouldn’t be a problem, it would just be another demographic. If female characters and male characters were represented with equal complexity and frequency, then “weakness” or “strength” in a female character would just be one trait among many, just as they are in male characters today. And if rape were something that happened equally to men and women, for equal reasons, then it would be a problem specific to a few extreme circumstances or individuals, and not a reflection of widespread, systematic, and largely unconscious oppression.
Have we come a long way? Absolutely. Does that mean we can relax?
…I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.
Postscript: Two Objections
For anyone considering posting a comment to the effect of “but there’s no evidence!” I ask that you click this link first. If you’re still considering posting that comment, don’t. It will be deleted.
For anyone wondering “but what about the men?” see this article on sexism in the videogame industry, and substitute “videogame industry” for, well, just about anything. Short version: yes, sexism is a double-edged sword that harms men as well as women and forces them both into limiting roles–but it does not harm men and women equally, nor does it limit them equally, and the cause of both is discrimination against women. It is incredibly dishonest to try to argue that male privilege doesn’t exist or isn’t important just because guys have problems, too. If a king complains of “the burden of his authority” and “the prison of his office” while sitting on a throne of gold in a luxurious palace, he is making excuses regardless of whether his complaints are valid–if he really hated his authority and obligations so much, he would be actively working to rid himself of them. So it is with sexism and all other forms of inequality: arguing that it “isn’t a big deal” because it affects men and women equally is a tacit admission that, in fact, it doesn’t affect men and women equally. One group is actively fighting for change, the other is calling the status quo “good enough.” Which group benefits by the status quo, and which is being oppressed?
 Obviously, there are many other factors that can make things more or less difficult independent of gender–wealth, intelligence, skill, luck, skin color, and more–but if all else is equal, being a male will simply make your life easier. The article I linked explains all this much better than I could–I encourage you to give it a look.