Women aren't always in need of chivalrous attention.

April 30, 2020   4 mins

Like many parents of my class and background, I embarked on my childrearing adventure with an earnest commitment to gender neutrality. My children would not learn of “girl toys” and “boy toys”. My children would never have cause to think anything off limits to them because of their sex. My children would be — and how this was supposed to happen in defiance of the entire rest of the society and all my own baggage I cannot imagine, and yet I really did believe it would happen — beacons of individuality in a sexist world.

My children were, by the time they started school, both very much not with the plan. My daughter lived in a sequinned flurry of princess dresses and “clip-clop” shoes. My son’s favourite outfit was any miniature replica football kit. All things considered, it was a dispiriting experience, and many parents have simply declared themselves defeated upon experiencing the same wreck of their ideals against the stubborn will of a small child. If this is what their child wants, then it must be because there is a deep-down elemental truth to gender stereotypes that adult meddling cannot deny.

But children are not the finished article, something underlined by research just published in the journal Sex Roles by Matthew D. Hammond and Andrei Cimpian. According to the study (which surveyed children from New York and Illinois), both boys and girls are more sexist at five than they are at 11. What can seem like the instinctive expression of hard-wired tendencies — dolls and pink versus toy cars and blue, and each sphere vigorous in its exclusion of the other — is just a phase. Psychologist Cordelia Fine calls children at this stage “gender detectives”, in tribute to their dogged commitment to learning and applying every possible law of being a girl or a boy.

Which is to say, there’s probably something intrinsic going on here, but it’s about the process rather than the output. Girls aren’t attracted to pink because, say, their eyes are specially adapted to spotting berries (one of the more recherche theories of colour preference to have been advanced), but because they’ve figured out that they’re a girl and girls are meant to like pink. Boys don’t turn away from Barbie because she’s an affront to the “systematising” tendencies that Simon Baron-Cohen claimed characterise the male brain (the female brain is allegedly blessed with a complementary talent for “empathising”), but because they’ve learned that she’s not a toy for boys.

Over time, the zeal of this early rule acquisition relents, and all this is a lesson to parents – whatever their personal position on gender stereotyping – not to put too much stock in the preferences of small children. If you’re anxious for your daughter’s Snow White phase to end, all you need to do is white-knuckle your way through several hundred plays of “Some Day My Prince Will Come” while she gets over it. The same goes, incidentally, for parents who think their young child’s passionate attachment to opposite-sex-typical things means their child really is the opposite sex. As is often the case in childrearing, the best first response is to chill the heck out.

However, the Sex Roles researchers found that not all sexism retreats in the same way in all children. Sexism come in two flavours: hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism is the kind of thing that can comfortably be recognised as misogyny. Considering women to be intellectually inferior, over-emotional or physically feeble all come under the heading of hostile sexism. Benevolent sexism covers those tropes that are harder to dispute, because superficially flattering — like the belief that women are naturally kind and sweet-natured, and so in need of men’s chivalrous attentions.

Hostile and benevolent sexism are not opposite belief systems, but interrelated. The more strongly an individual cleaves to one of them, the more strongly they tend to cling to the other. “Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women?” asked Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication. The more one holds to an image of what women should be, the more one can righteously despise women for failing to attain that feminine perfection. (Think of the incel underbelly, where men simultaneously yearn to be protectors to women, and rail bitterly against the women who decline to be protected.)

For both girls and boys, hostile sexism declines as they mature. For girls, benevolent sexism declines too. But in boys, the researchers found that benevolent sexism persisted. And benevolent sexism, despite its name, is hardly kind to women. Benevolent sexism would deny a woman a promotion, not because she’d be bad at the job, but because wouldn’t she rather be spared the stress? Benevolent sexism says, no need for women to worry about equal pay, because their husbands should be looking after them. Benevolent sexism says, women spend their time in unwaged drudge work because women are just inherently empathetic to others’ needs.

Why should benevolent sexism have this strange persistence in boys? Hammond and Cimpian speculate that while both sexes have their hostile sexism knocked out of them by its obvious social unacceptability, and while girls rapidly learn the limitations of being an angel, the superficial niceness of benevolent sexism allows boys to hang onto it more easily. With it, they conveniently get to retain the sense of superiority they picked up as small children along with all those things they learned about action toys and wearing blue.

Obviously it’s not all boys. But benevolent sexism is the animating force behind the dread figure of the male feminist – the ones who pitch up to the movement not because they intend to change themselves (God forbid), but because they refuse to believe that women don’t want to be looked after. Once, after a panel on women’s rights, a male audience member bounded up to me and one of the other participants to ask: what could men do? When my fellow panellist responded not by offering him a star role in feminism, but instead suggested he could start by not leaving all the housework to his female partner, his face collapsed into disappointment like an iceberg crumbling into the sea.

Unpicking sexism is the work of a lifetime and a society. It can only be done with an understanding of sexism’s self-protective double-nature, the hostile and the benevolent. Because while the ills of outright woman-hating are easy to delineate and organise against, there’s a more intractable affront to female freedom in the subtle form of the gentle-faced man who swears he just really – really – loves women and wants to look after them. When treating women like princesses who want to be rescued is deemed just as unacceptable as treating them with contempt, we might be getting somewhere.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.