Sexism’s puzzling stamina
This month the Supreme Court will issue raptly awaited decisions about affirmative action and gay marriage. But what’s been foremost in my thoughts isn’t race, sexual orientation or our country’s deeply flawed handling of both.
It’s gender — and all the recent reminders of how often women are still victimized, how potently they’re still resented and how tenaciously a musty male chauvinism endures. On this front even more than the others, I somehow thought we’d be further along by now.
I can’t get past that widely noted image from a week ago, of the Senate hearing into the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. It showed an initial panel of witnesses: 11 men, one woman. It also showed the backs of some of the senators listening to them: five men and one woman, from a Senate committee encompassing 19 men and seven women in all. Under discussion was the violation of women and how to stop it. And men, once again, were getting more say.
I keep flashing back more than two decades, to 1991. That was the year of the Tailhook incident, in which some 100 Navy and Marine aviators were accused of sexually assaulting scores of women. It was the year of Susan Faludi’s runaway best-seller, “Backlash,” on the “war against American women,” as the subtitle said. It was when the issue of sexual harassment took center stage in Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
All in all it was a festival of teachable moments, raising our consciousness into the stratosphere. So where are we, fully 22 years later?
We’re listening to Saxby Chambliss, a senator from Georgia, attribute sexual abuse in the military to the ineluctable “hormone level” of virile young men in proximity to nubile young women.
We’re congratulating ourselves on the historic high of 20 women in the Senate, even though there are still four men to every one of them and, among governors, nine men to every woman.
I’ll leave aside boardrooms; they’ve been amply covered in Sheryl Sandberg’s book tour.
But what about movies? It was all the way back in 1986 that Sigourney Weaver trounced “Aliens” and landed on the cover of Time, supposedly presaging an era of action heroines. But there haven’t been so many: Angelina Jolie in the “Tomb Raider” adventures, “Salt” and a few other hectic flicks; Jennifer Lawrence in the unfolding “Hunger Games” serial. Last summer Kristen Stewart’s “Snow White” needed a “Huntsman” at her side, and this summer? I see an “Iron Man,” a “Man of Steel” and Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Channing Tatum all shouldering the weight of civilization’s future. I see no comparable crew of warrior goddesses.
Heroines fare better on TV, but even there I’m struck by the persistent stereotype of a woman whose career devotion is both seed and flower of a tortured private life. Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Mireille Enos in “The Killing,” Dana Delany in “Body of Proof” and even Mariska Hargitay in “Law & Order: SVU” all fit this bill.
The idea that professional and domestic concerns can’t be balanced isn’t confined to the tube. A recent Pew Research Center report showing that women had become the primary providers in 40 percent of American households with at least one child younger than 18 prompted the conservative commentators Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson to fret, respectively, over the dissolution of society and the endangerment of children. When Megyn Kelly challenged them on Fox News, they responded in a patronizing manner that they’d never use with a male news anchor.
Title IX, enacted in 1972, hasn’t led to an impressive advancement of women in pro sports. The country is now on its third attempt at a commercially viable women’s soccer league. The Women’s National Basketball Association lags far behind the men’s NBA in visibility and revenue.
Even in the putatively high-minded realm of literature, there’s a gender gap, with male authors accorded the lion’s share of prominent reviews, as the annual VIDA survey documents. Reflecting on that in Salon last week, the critic Laura Miller acutely noted: “There’s a grandiose self-presentation, a swagger, that goes along with advancing your book as a Great American Novel that many women find impossible or silly.”
I congratulate them for that. They let less hot air into their heads.
But about the larger picture, I’m mystified. Our racial bigotry has often been tied to the ignorance abetted by unfamiliarity, our homophobia to a failure to realize how many gay people we know and respect.
Well, women are in the next cubicle, across the dinner table, on the other side of the bed. Almost every man has a mother he has known and probably cared about; most also have a wife, daughter, sister, aunt or niece as well. Our stubborn sexism harms and holds back them, not strangers. Still, it survives.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.