Being a feminist comedian and activist, I can say with absolute certainty that a lot of people hate me. There are times when the internet can feel like a burst drain spewing vitriol of every possible kind. Usually before I’ve even had breakfast.
It’s not my job to figure out what every angry dude’s problem is. One of them may be a guy I briefly dated in the late 1990s; if so, my apologies, Simon: it was very rude of me to climb out of your apartment window while you were trying to borrow condoms from your flatmate.
One recurrent trigger is when I criticize sexist behaviour: calling women pet names at work, giving children gendered toys, asking women whether they’re ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. ‘How dare you?!’ comes the tsunami of responses. ‘I call my colleagues “darling” and “sugartits” and I’m not a sexist!’
People are terrified of being called a sexist. They’ve seen politicians, actors, sportspeople ripped apart in the newspapers for making sexist statements – the same newspapers, of course, that a few pages later will be criticizing a famous woman for not being ‘bikini body ready’ six weeks after giving birth to triplets.
The issue they have failed to grasp is that sexism, like racism and homophobia and many other prejudices, isn’t really an on/off thing. We don’t live in a world with 99.9-per-cent perfect people and a handful of Darth Vaders. We were raised and we live in a sexist world and we are not magically immune to it. Our expectations and attitudes are continuously shaped by the real world in which we live.
When we hear the word ‘supermodel’ or ‘nurse’, we all picture a woman, and for ‘lumberjack’ or ‘paratrooper’, a man. We all know the words ‘frumpy’, ‘ditsy’ and ‘hormonal’, but have we ever stopped to consider how rarely they get applied to men?
This doesn’t make us bad people, but if you are a female lumberjack the questions you get when you mention your job are eventually going to drive you ‘hormonal’.
We need a way to highlight this sort of sexism by saying, ‘I know you’re not a bad person. However, I think if you keep an open mind and consider the other person’s perspective you can see why this is an unhelpful behaviour choice and make a better one next time.’
So here’s my suggestion – we split sexism into two new words: ‘sexism A’ and ‘sexism B’. Sexism A means you know what you’re doing: this is overt, direct, deliberate sexism. Shame on you. Sexism B means don’t worry, you’re cool; we all do this sometimes, just do better next time. After an initial trial run we can potentially extend the concept to ‘racism A’ and ‘racism B’, ‘homophobia A’ and ‘homophobia B’, and so on.
People can learn and they can change and in the meantime we promise not to put you in the newspaper headlines. Unless of course what you’re doing is sexism A, in which case you deserve it. Unlike Simon, who really did not.