It's 2012, and things are different for women in the West. Women have had the right to vote for over 90 years. Women currently outnumber men in college, and more women than men now have master's degrees. An increasing number of CEOs are women—20 of the largest companies in America are led by female CEOs. And, as demonstrated by the latest political election, more women are being elected to public office.
But this historical evolution has resulted in a strange and concerning development, one I'll call "ironic sexism."
if you're a woman like me you have probably experienced ironic sexism. You may have even done it yourself. It goes something like this: You're hanging out at your house with friends, some of whom are men. You share your latest workplace frustration, which elicits the following response from a peer: "You just need to get married and have kids. A woman's place is in the home, after all." He says with a wink.
At face value, the comment is unconscionable. The remark not only fails to offer comfort, it is so dripping with sexism as to revolt. What kind of friend would say such a thing?
One who is saying it ironically.
You see, he doesn't actually mean it. He is speaking in jest because, as everyone there knows, he isn't actually sexist. He doesn't really believe a woman's place is "in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant." And because everyone there is liberated and enlightened, such remarks are not only funny but also satirical.
The woman who feigns scriptural incompetence owing to her gender. The pastor who laughingly tells female church members they belong in the children's ministry. These comments, and those like them, are intended to mock genuine sexism.
In a recent piece for New York magazine titled "The Age of Hipster Sexism," Alissa Quart explores this phenomenon in popular culture. In it she refers to the ironic use of sexism as "hipster sexism," which "consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox …. [It] flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it."
In her critique of hipster sexism, Quart rightly and wisely notes how much women themselves contribute to hipster sexism. Women are just as likely to engage in ironic sexism, as evidenced by Lena Dunham's HBO show, Girls, or Dunham's recent political ad in which she likens first-time voting to losing one's virginity. Quart writes of this ironic sexism, "We get to laugh at the idea of young women so obsessed with boys and sex that they mistake voting for sex and at the same time feel cool and outrfamp;copy; for being in on Dunham's double meaning."
As a woman who has experienced ironic sexism everywhere from church to the seminary classroom, I can attest to the fact that it hurts. Even when I know the speaker is not the least bit sexist, there is something degrading about the remarks. I am reminded of Proverbs 26:18-19: "Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!' "
But what about women? Can we benefit from our own use of ironic sexism? When we are the ones spouting it, are we actually subverting sexism by resisting it through satire and mockery?
This is what women like Dunham are apparently trying to accomplish. But like Quart, I have serious misgivings about the effectiveness of their strategy.
Reading Quart's piece, I was reminded of the essay "'A belief in self far greater than anyone's disbelief': Cultivating Resistance Among African American female adolescents." Written by educational scholars Tracy Robinson and Janie Victoria Ward, the essay explores the techniques African American high school girls use to resist racism and sexism. What they found was fascinating.
According to Robinson and Ward, the girls in their study resisted in one of two ways. Some resisted as a form of "survival," whereas others resisted as a form of "liberation." Resistance for mere survival involved delinquent activities, such as school dropout and drug use. These self-destructive behaviors, which Ward and Robinson describe as "crisis-oriented" and "short-term," were desperate grasps at personal empowerment. Ultimately, they were unproductive.
Girls who engaged in resistance for liberation, on the other hand, were productive in their aims. They succeeded because they were connected to a healthy community or a "grounding heritage." The researchers concluded, " … African American adolescent girls must resist an individualism that sees the self as disconnected from others in the black community and, as it is culturally and psychologically dysfunctional, she must resist those who might advocate her isolation and separation from traditional African American cultural practices, values and beliefs."
I appreciate two aspects of this study. First, it helpfully distinguishes between forms of resistance. Simply resisting a destructive cultural practice is not necessarily productive. In fact, many forms are self-destructive and counter-productive. There are strands of feminism that, in my opinion, fall into that category, such as sex-positive feminism and lesbian feminism. In the case of ironic sexism, it also resists culture in a manner that is rarely uplifting. It opposes sexism, yes, but it strangely requires female degradation in order to combat it.
The second contribution of the study is its emphasis on community and tradition. The girls who succeeded deliberately ground their actions in a healthy community or tradition. As Christians, we can certainly affirm this. Although there is a time for satire and even sarcasm (Paul himself employed this device in 1 Cor. 4:8), we must look to our community, our tradition, and God's Word for direction in how to exercise it.
And what does our tradition tell us? That we belong to a faith that honors the image of God in every person, including ourselves, and exhorts us to treat one another accordingly. That is not to say that joking has no place in the Christian life. But we must always keep an eye to edifying the church and reflecting our own Christlike identity. These biblical principles do not reject ironic sexism outright. But they do provide guardrails as we seek to oppose sexism in a manner that is truly liberating.