53. Oppositional Sexism, Cissexism, and Transphobia

Reasonable Expectations and Learning Experiences

Gender binarism is the view that there are two, mutually exclusive genders: man and woman. This tends to align with there being only two, mutually exclusive sexes: male and female. (I don't buy into the clear sex/gender distinction, so I use male/female/man/woman interchangeably.) Oppositional sexism is the view that the sexes (and, well, genders) are both mutually exclusive and that they have oppositional properties. Men are strong, whereas women are weak; men are good at sports, whereas women are not; men are rational, whereas women are emotional; men are good at fixing things, whereas women are good at cleaning and cooking; men are the bread-winners, whereas women are caretakers and child rearers; and so on.

failpolarbear.pngOf course, we know (right?) that these are all false stereotypes. Moreover, they're damaging stereotypes. They're part of what constitutes socially constructed gender roles: men should be at work, women in the home, for example. More insidiously, when a woman "transcends" these stereotypes by, for example, being athletic, she gets called manly, or her sexual orientation is brought into question (female soccer players are all lesbian, for example). Alternatively, if a man likes to cook, dance, and is into fashion, he gets called a sissy, and is assumed to be gay.

Oppositional sexism is bad, but it's persistent and ubiquitous. What's especially frightening, I think, is that even dyed-in-the-wool feminists utter oppositionally sexist comments from time to time. Here's an example that happened in my presence last year.

There were, as I recall, three women including myself, and three men. One of my female colleagues (and friends) asked me if we were able to get a slo-pitch team together that summer, as we were able to do the previous summer. I answered that we were not, to my dismay. The discussion then turned, somehow — I don't recall the exact details here — to girls and sports. My other female colleague, who had expressed interest in playing on the team were we to gather one, said something along the lines of, "I throw like a girl." Both my friend and I jumped on this for being sexist and oppositionally sexist: some girls can throw really well: there were two examples sitting right next to her.

Granted, I'm trans, but my friend isn't. Both of us were raised in sports-heavy families and environments: it was normal in my life for girls to learn how to play sports. My little league team had a girl on it. And she was definitely one of the strongest players: better than me, for sure. My friend played softball competitively (she pitched, as I recall), and her and I have thrown the ball together.

So our collective response was, "No, you don't 'Throw like a girl,' you 'Throw badly.'" Girls aren't automatically bad at sports, and (here's the oppositional sexism), by implicature, boys aren't automatically good at sports. Both stereotypes are harmful: girls are assumed not to be interested in, and to be good at sports, and those who are are manly; boys are assumed to be interested in, and to be good at sports, and those who aren't are girly.

Side note: Implicature is when someone communicates something, without saying it. And, moreover, we can't infer that the person is asserting the implicated proposition. For example, saying "I throw like a girl" communicates a lot more than the speaker's inability to throw well. It also communicates that girls, in general, don't throw well and that boys tend to throw well. However, we can't say that the speaker actually "said" that girls tend to throw poorly, and that boys tend to throw well. Language and communication is pretty complicated, huh?

I posted this cute comic in a previous post.

So we jumped on the statement for being both sexist and oppositionally sexist. She conceded, but then something weird happened: she doubled down. She said something close to, "Well, I throw poorly…for a woman without a penis."

My jaw (almost) audibly hit the floor. I think it was probably good that I was distracted by responding to an urgent student email (I usually don't have my laptop out at lunch). I was so shocked that I think that all I could let out was, "Really?" Sitting no more than two feet away from her was a woman…with…well, who cares. My presence is utterly irrelevant. That basically ended the conversation, and everyone pretty much made a hasty retreat to carry on with our days. No apology was given, really. (More on this below.)

My initial reaction to what happened was that it was a transphobic comment. Why? Because it seems to suggest that women with penises aren't really women, which is bullshit. Moreover, what explains women's ability to throw well (or play sports) is that they're "really" men and have penises. And I find that both intellectually and personally offensive. I stand by this view of the utterance.

However, that wasn't her intention. She was trying to draw attention to the way that there's an overabundance of sports talk in that particular context: more than one would expect to find in a typical philosophy department, to be sure. I grew up on sports, so it's fine. Although, it can be tiresome, I admit. When guys (usually) start going on about football and stats, I just turn off because I couldn't care less. And for someone who isn't as into sports as some of the regular group, it can be exclusionary. However, it's not as if sports are raised even most days; I don't want to make it seem like it's all that's discussed.

For some people, the intention behind an utterance or action is paramount: if the intention was good, then the outcome is either irrelevant, or less important than the intention. Or, some people think that having a good intention mitigates bad outcomes. I happen to know that this is the speaker's view. And since she didn't intend anything against trans* persons by the comment, she doesn't think that it's transphobic.

I used to think that this is definitely the wrong way to think about things, even in this context. If you recall, in this post, I wrote about how I feel (and think) about people who unintentionally mispronoun me. Essentially, I argued that I hold people responsible for their mistakes, even if they didn't mean it. In fact, even if people have good intentions, and they don't change their behaviour after mispronouning me (for the nth time), I don't think that their good intentions mitigate much, if anything. Sure, they're a lot better than a person who maliciously mispronouns me, but I think that both are beyond the line for "You did something bad." Basically, I think that good intentions, at least in these contexts, only weakly mitigate the badness of an action. People who think that good intentions strongly mitigates the badness of an action may think that a malicious act is bad, but an unintentionally bad act is simply neither good nor bad: it's in-between. Clearly I disagree, at least when it comes to mispronouning and uttering cissexist/oppositionally sexist/transphobic things.

For the record, she did apologize shortly after that same day.

Yours truly,