I have, with some personal difficulty, now plodded my way through the turgid text of the report on perceived sexism by Julia Becker and Janet Swim, in the Psychology of Women Quarterly
, which has caused a stir with its identification of a syndrome called "Benevolent Sexism". The study's full, throat-clearing title is: Seeing the Unseen: Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as a Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs
" is a form of patriarchal control designed to promote sexist attitudes in a pseudo-friendly way. Manifestations of it - as identified by the authors - include calling women "girls" but not men "boys"; believing that women should be cherished and protected by men; helping a woman choose a laptop computer in the belief that it's not the sort of task for which her gender is suited; and complimenting a woman on cooking or looking after children well because that is behaviour especially suited to a woman.
It is a curious melange of complaints. I, for one, have no objection to being cherished and protected, within reason, by anybody: if mild cherishing is on offer, you can generally count me in, unless you're a dead ringer for Lenny from Of Mice and Men
. I would be equally keen to get not only some masculine help with my laptop, but also that abiding trouble with my BT broadband connection set-up, if you've got a few minutes to spare. But we can agree that there is the germ of a point buried deep within Becker and Swim's largely impenetrable prose. If a man comes to dinner and says to a woman: "You're a great cook" it's a welcome compliment. If he says: "You're a great cook, and thank God you're right where any little lady should properly be, working away at the stove" it's going to sound weirdly antiquated. Most of us can understand that, thanks, without an academic article analysing and amplifying the bejaysus out of it.
Much more serious, however, is the damage that this sort of overwrought hand-wringing does to the name of feminism, by making people believe the old canard that it's all about women scowling if a man is courteous enough to hold open a door for them. There is plenty of material for both women and the numerous men who care about the dignity of women to get properly angry about.
Here, just off the top of my head, are a few: the prevalence of female circumcision and its attendant health miseries; child marriage; the enforced wearing of the burqa; the trafficking and use of women for prostitution; the prevalence of rape as a weapon of war; and the proliferation of images of extreme sexual violence in films and on the Internet. Not to mention the fact that so many Western women now apparently find it necessary to cut and re-stitch their faces or surgically insert silicone bags into their breasts in order to render themselves physically acceptable to the wider world.
Given these concerns, it might really be some time before feminism should devote its energies to worrying about "Benevolent Sexism". Indeed, I am inclined to think that when one finds a man who believes that women should be cherished and protected, it would be a good idea to send him forth to encourage the others.