The Sexist

Sexism and the “If It Were A Man” Defense

palin obama

Need a convenient way to evaluate any charge of sexism? Pull out the "If It Were A Man" defense. Here's what you do: Isolate an instance of sexist behavior against a woman. Now, imagine a man is the target of the allegedly sexist scenario. Would the man be treated any differently? If yes, it is sexist! If no, it is not sexist!

This theory was recently tested out on a particularly incendiary Sarah Palin Newsweek cover. The magazine ran a photo of Palin posing in short shorts alongside the cover line: "How do you solve a problem like Sarah? She's bad news for the GOP—and for everybody else, too." Charges of sexism were instantly refuted by the "If It Were A Man" defense: It can't be sexist because it happened to Barack Obama:

"Was This Magazine Cover of Obama 'Sexist?'" Andy Ostroy of the Huffington Post asks of Washingtonian's May 2009 cover, which featured President Obama walking shirtless on the beach. Answer: Nope, it wasn't sexist. Therefore, no other cover image can ever be sexist:

To the Republicans who've been critical of Palin's mistreatment by the big bad liberal media, I say, stop your whining. Nothing's more unflattering than a thin-skinned conservative. The Newsweek shot is no more "sexist" than the May Washingtonian cover of a bare chested beefcake President Obama, who the publication called its "hot new neighbor."

Sorry folks, but that's not how sexism works. Ostroy is right, of course: The Washingtonian cover was criticized for a variety of reasons—from photo-shopping a public official to selling sex for page-views—but nobody accused the magazine of sexism. But Ostroy ignores two major distinctions between the Palin and Obama covers. One, Washingtonian used an ab-tastic photo of Obama to illustrate how hot he is, whereas Newsweek used a leggy photo of Palin to illustrate how bad she is. Second, Palin is a woman and Obama is a man. And the second distinction has everything to do with the first one.

First, perhaps we should do a little bit of a primer on what "sexism" actually is. Let's turn to the Gender Bender Blog for a reminder:

There is no such thing as reverse sexism. . . . Just like how racism = power + prejudice based on skin color, sexism = power + prejudice based on gender. When talking about the various forms of oppression, many people often confuse prejudice with the ism. . . . Therefore, a person who does not exist with the necessary institutionalized power and privilege of belonging to a dominant in-group, cannot be racist, sexist, ableist, etc. Women can certainly be prejudiced or discriminatory against men (which is not acceptable either) but they cannot be sexist or “reverse sexist” simply because they lack the institutional power to systematize their prejudice against men.

Why is it different for a publication to run a photo of Obama's hot bod and Palin's hot bod? Because male and female bodies signify different things to the people who publicize and consume them. These magazines applied explicit value judgments to the Palin and Obama bodies—hot Obama is just "hot," while hot Palin is "bad."

Women's bodies aren't just their bodies: They're also a reflection of their value as a person. This is why underage Taylor Lautner can prance around wearing next to nothing and be praised as "hot," while underage Miley Cyrus shows a bit of back skin and is condemned as a "disappointment." This is why male political commentators don't resort to insulting each other for being old and/or fat, like Meghan McCain and Laura Ingraham famously did earlier this year—because a man's looks aren't seen as a reflection of his worth, whereas women in the public eye are routinely judged on age and weight.

Sexism is not a copy-and-paste sort of thing—it can't be applied to males and female equally in all situations. Sexism is a structure. And particularly when it comes to appearances, that structure is stacked against women. Yes, men are criticized for their looks. But the "suitably male appearance" is far more forgiving than the "suitable female appearance," which must strike that delicate (almost impossible) balance between too sexy and not sexy enough. That's not to say that sexism exclusively functions through people conflating women's legs with their brains. But it is helpful to put these body issues in some context: This is a country where the images of George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama are both considered fit for the White House. I don't have to remind you that we've yet to deem a female body suitable for that position.

  • Martin Quinones

    Why so binary?

    At first I couldn't figure out why I was so frustrated by the Gender Bender quote, but then I realized it was because the issue that was frustrating me was predictably absent: the fact that we are (as usual) talking about CISwomen and CISmen.

    The notion that (cis)women are NEVER capable of sexism EVER rests on the assumption that if one is looking at power re:gender (cis!)women are never part of "a dominant in-group," which is true only if everyone in the world is cis. If we're defining sexism as "power + prejudice based on gender," then when a (CIS!!!)woman acts on a prejudice against a transman, transwoman, genderqueer or genderfluid individual, etc., that's sexism, period.

    Put another way, when the Gender Bender post says "there is no such thing as 'female privilege,'" I read "there is no such thing as ciswoman privilege," on which I call BS. And the fact that this possible interpretation is never addressed reinforces the point.

  • Amanda Hess

    Great points. Thanks, Martin.

  • Reid

    Yeah, I think that quote is either not well thought out or simply intellectually dishonest. Moreover, it's awfully politically convenient too.

    In my opinion, sexism and racism is merely discrimination that the speaker doesn't like.

    They're less useful as genuine descriptive terms than they are useful as rhetorical tools. In other words, they are so accusatory by nature that they function less as a means to identify and more as a means to castigate. For these reasons it's obvious why someone like that blog writer would try to circumscribe the use of the phrases. She or he simply doesn't want the rhetorical force of the words to be used for causes he or she doesn't agree with. It's not a semantic argument, it's a political one.

  • Amanda Hess


    If we define sexism, racism, classism, cissexism, etc. as "power + privilege," then are you arguing that prejudices against white people carry the same social power as prejudices against black people, prejudices against cisexual men and women carry the same social power as prejudices against trans men and women, and prejudices against men carry the same social power as prejudices against women?

    I would be surprised indeed if you could convince me that racism against white people is as much of a real social problem as racism against historically subjugated minorities. Why? Because white people have social power, so the prejudices of people who do not hold social power simply do not affect them.

    If you're saying that this definition of these "isms" is only useful to people who want to point out that privileged people have privilege, I'd definitely agree with that. Privilege and social power are extremely relevant to sexism, and to ignore those forces is to completely ignore how sexism actually functions in our society. Of course, I invite argument as to which people have "privilege" and how that privilege functions. But to ignore it is, ahem, intellectually dishonest.

  • Reid

    I didn't say that I believe all discriminations are equal. I absolutely agree that the more power or privilege you have the less that the discrimination you face will affect you negatively. Thus I completely agree that racism against white people is not a social problem due to the enormous privileges associated with being white.

    I repeat: discrimination against white people and white men in particular is not a social problem.

    But that's just the point. It's one thing to argue that discrimination against white people or men is not a real social problem, it's another thing to argue that the definition of racism and sexism itself must comport with your conclusion.

    I'd prefer to keep the definitions neutral, and then make all the arguments on privilege and power to stand on their own. In my view it is a more intellectually honest way to discuss things.

  • Chucky

    As an illustration of what you're saying, Allison, I'm the only white person in my neighborhood in a suburban/rural zone outside Beijing. I encounter strong prejudice all the time. People say things like 1) all white people are rich; 2) white skin is really attractive; 3) tall men have their choice of women; 4) I speak English and am a native English speaker; 5) when given a choice of foods, I will always choose cheese and/or beef.

    Now, these things are silly, and they come from ignorance, and they're prejudices. They are inconvenient for Russians and beef-haters and the poor. But they're a world different than what, say, Muslims from the northeast get here (the last matter-of-fact description I heard of them is that they are "all dirty and love to steal") -- those prejudices get you locked up.

    I don't care that much about the labels, but there is a kind of race ignorance and assumption that is a step towards understanding (the step before understanding), and a kind that is weaponized to limit or repress an individual group. I can tell the difference. I often feel like those perpetrating injustices can too, but choose not to think about it.

    (that having been said, I think it's an awful idea for the president to be photographed showing off his muscles. Very Putinesque, very creepy.)

  • Amanda Hess

    Reid, how is distinguishing between discrimination/prejudice and sexism intellectually dishonest? I define sexism along the lines of prejudice + power because I see sexism as an institutional structure, and it's helpful to have a word that means that. I accept that not everyone shares this definition of sexism, but I won't accuse those people of being "intellectually dishonest," since we're all adults here who are very clearly stating our definitions of the term and defending why we favor that definition. Furthermore, defining sexism as a structure doesn't mean we can't talk about prejudice and discrimination against men and white people, it just means I don't use the terms interchangeably. The blogger I quoted didn't just claw at this definition out of thin air, by the way. It's pretty standard.

  • Nom Chompsky

    I honestly don't understand why people still go back and forth on the definition of sexism.

    It, like so many words, has different but somewhat similar definitions. One, simply, is discrimination based on sex. Another, more robust definition, includes power structures that women aren't a part of. There's no more point in going back and forth with somebody using a different definition than there is arguing whether the opposite of "right" is "left" or "wrong".

    There are so many better things to argue about. Like, what's the deal with conservatives, amirite? And those liberals! Don't get me started. Don't even get me started.

  • Reid

    I don't think distinguishing between discrimination and racism/sexism is intellectually dishonest. I believe that discrimination is an act; sexism and racism is a belief or state of mind, which may or may not underlie that act. It is also, as you say, a system. But that doesn't change the fact that it is at heart a state of mind.

    What bothered me about that quote was the assertion that a human being simply cannot be racist or sexist without the power structure. Do you really believe that it is impossible for a woman to believe in her heart that women are superior to men, or for a Black man to believe that black people are superior genetically than white people. What do you call that if not sexism and racism? It's one thing to not be worried about the instances of these forms of sexism and racism. But I believe it's quite another to write them out of the definition.

    Personally I think that was done more for rhetorical strategy (i.e. don't let conservative reactionaries use the powerful words "racism" and "sexism" against us) than for clarity. And in my mind that's intellectually dishonest.