Sexism and the “If It Were A Man” Defense
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.