Sexism: A Femme-Inist Perspective

By Dahl, Ulrika | New Formations, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

Sexism: A Femme-Inist Perspective


Dahl, Ulrika, New Formations


INTRODUCTION

Sexism is a concept with an entrance. The standard dictionary definition is double; on the one hand as Wikipedia puts it: 'prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women' and on the other, 'behaviour, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex'. Sexism is thus also a concept with an inheritance. As a container of a brief (Western) history of the second sex, it describes acts that especially affect women. There is a potential 'we' in its object; a 'we' who presumably experience it regularly and thus must make sexism a subject, again and again. The second definition erases this specificity, that of women and femininity and more importantly, any hierarchy between the 'sexes'. It makes 'sex' (as in gender, a social construction) itself the problem. While the first tells us that sexism lies in views and actions, the second suggests that its explanation is cultural or ideological; it lies in 'roles' and 'stereotypes', attributions of bodies that are learned and thus, presumably, like any 'role' are not 'real'. As a diagnosis, offered mostly by feminists on behalf of 'us' who object to prejudice and discrimination based on sex, sexism has certainly made an entrance. It has travelled widely as an optic, and a feminist 'we' has been constituted and undone through it. The concept's ability to move, take on meaning and become a tool remains shaped, like all travel, by relations of power historical and contemporary: its various meanings and implications are localised and embedded in cultural practices; its power lost or strengthened by gaps and divides in knowledge formations. (1)

Fighting sexism, Marilyn Frye once argued, must begin with making sexism perceptible, and this she and others contend, always involves struggle. (2) On the one hand, feminists are repeatedly expected to prove that sexism is a problem that is not over by showing that sexism injures, and how. This is challenging, in part because sexism itself seems perceptive; it absorbs critique and mutates, always it seems, retaining a changing but persistent proximity to something called a natural order. After all, a range of worldly phenomena, including capitalism, colonialism, heterosexuality and reproduction have strong investments in sexism, it is a powerful fuel. At the same time, what and whom exactly sexism diagnoses and what its cure or solution is can be challenging to agree upon, including among feminists. Part of the struggle of perception concerns how to describe what we mean by 'women', or by something being 'based on sex', or by 'discrimination', where and how.

My brazen blonde femme ambition in this essay begins in sexism as auto-ethnography and aims to consider sexism as ontology, a theory of reality and being. (3) I begin inside feminism, and with the assumption that sexism, despite its inherent complexities and shifting meaning and implications, is the main subject of feminist work, and it is indeed my line of work. It is what I do, as a teacher and researcher in gender studies, a field itself founded on a critique of (academic) sexism, the sexism of science and knowledge. It is also an attribution; I am often charged with fighting sexism simply being the position I have at work, arriving in or maintaining a room in the Ivory Tower. My disciplinary belonging, if not my public feminist voice, is at times enough to be appointed the task of pointing it out, when my presence is not seen as proof of its (ongoing) elimination and as itself reproducing sexism in its concentration of 'women'. I am interested in how, in this setting, sexism can become a reality, a way of making sense of the world. What happens when fighting sexism is not only the objective of one's life work but its foundational history, the very architecture for one's shape, form and orientation? How can we bring it into view when it is the point of view? Sexism can be more than an obstacle, it can be a form of attachment, something we invest in and that becomes constitutive of our bodies of flesh and knowledge. …

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