jessica valenti

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Jill Abramson & the slickness of sexism

Lots of smart people have weighed in on Jill Abramson being fired from The New York Times, so I’m not going to rehash what’s already been said so well. But what strikes me as notable is that those who are skeptical - incredulous, even - over the role that sexism may have played in this seem to have a very limited understanding of what sexism actually looks like.

Sexism isn’t obvious and clumsy - it’s subtle and slick. Having a certain number of female editors or writers at the NYT does not make it an institution free from sexism any more than having Dean Baquet at the helm will mean an end to any racism at the paper. Representation is important, but it is not a cure-all. These issues are deeply entrenched and surface in ways that are not always immediately obvious - especially to those whose privileges afford them the ability to ignore any oppression that isn’t explicit and oafish.

Sexism operates more like a pickpocket than a mugger. You don’t always get punched in the face - instead you’ll be happily halfway home before you realize you’ve been robbed.

One of the strangest anti-feminist stereotypes to me – among the Birkenstock-wearing and bra-burning – is the idea that we’re unhappy. Angry. Bitter. Both because the foundation of the insult is the assumption that women should be perpetually happy, and because the truth is that the culture doesn’t actually mind if women are unhappy – so long as we keep it to ourselves.

Women’s distress directed inward – from eating disorders to feelings of inadequacy – keeps the status quo moving along, with diet pills selling through the roof and women asking for promotions far less often than their male counterparts. But when our dissatisfaction takes an outward turn, people get uncomfortable. Then, women’s emotions are “hysterical” or over-the-top. Anything less than a bubbly disposition means that we’re “bitches”. Hell hath no fury like a man who finds a woman displeasing.

From “Why are women so ‘unhappy’?”, my latest at the Guardian.

When I argue with a sexist, there’s an inevitable point at which he will call me “sweetheart”. (I like to think of it as shorthand for “you’re winning”.) If I’m really making him feel foolish, he may resort to “bitch”. “Ugly” is the last refuge of the hopelessly destroyed.

I’ve been writing about feminism on the internet long enough that these names don’t really bother me. But nothing is more grating than when a man I don’t know - in comments, Twitter or real life - calls me “Jessie”.

It may seem odd that I’d prefer a curse to a cutesy nickname. Like most things men call women when they want to diminish them, “Jessie” is meant to remind me that no matter what I accomplish – the number of books written, articles published, speeches given – I’m still “just a girl”. But it’s the overly-familiar infantilization that really makes my skin crawl. Very creepy Uncle Chester.

From my latest at the Guardian - on misogynists who use nicknames