Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is "loser" a male noun?

This article in the British Globe and Mail takes aim at TV commercials made at the expense of fictional inept men:

Silly men. You can’t take them anywhere.

If they’re not messing up your house, running into glass doors or trying in vain to outsmart an air freshener, you’ll find them eating the inedible or falling down for no reason whatsoever.

At least, that’s what some advertisers would have you believe. More and more marketers are trying to tap into the overwhelming buying power of wives and mothers at the expense of their other halves. Dads are dumb, boyfriends are bumbling and husbands are utterly hopeless as brands strive to relate to women by showing men as especially goofy or incompetent.
[Update: The article used to include YouTube clips of commercials like that, but the videos have been taken down.]

When the piece was discussed on Metafilter, some commenters questioned whether the anti-man bias in commercials is really a problem worth worrying about. Well, you might object to these commercials on feminist grounds: they're upholding traditional gender roles in which women are better than men at taking care of the home (the implication being that they belong in the home). But can you expect to be taken seriously if you actually feel sorry for the men? Sample sarcastic comment on Metafilter: "WILL MEN EVER GET FAIR TREATMENT?!?!?!?"

My response: It's important to criticize sexism wherever it shows up. There's plenty of sexism-against-women and sexism-against-men, and it should all be fair game for criticism and commentary. The notion that sexism-against-men should get a pass implies that men should just "take it" — because hey, they have pretty much all the advantages, right? Not really, but that isn't my only problem with this. It also implies traditional gender stereotypes: men are tough, women are fragile; women need to be protected from unfairness, but a real man doesn't complain about sexism.

The broader problem is that if some sexism is considered acceptable, that undermines the fundamental principle that it's simply wrong to treat people differently based on gender (except when there's a particularly compelling reason).

There's also circular reasoning going on when we laugh off any observation of sexism-against-men on the grounds that everyone knows it's not a serious problem. If it's never pointed out because doing so is considered socially unacceptable, then of course you won't see the evidence of it! But if it's not a serious problem, then what's the problem with pointing out the little evidence that exists (e.g., the ads with bumbling men)? We should be suspicious of anyone who adamantly insists that we not look at the evidence of ____.

A commenter called "grobstein" responds to another commenter who suggests that ridiculing inept women should be more offensive, because we're still living in a "Man's World." Grobstein's response:
It's not a Man's World. It's Some Men's World. The most powerful positions in society are still filled disproportionately by men, but it's a big mistake to regard this as the dominance of "men" generally. The worst positions in society are also disproportionately filled by men. Men are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime, to be incarcerated, to commit suicide, and to be lonely and friendless at any stage of their life. Men are more likely to drop out of school at most stages. …

[W]hen you target men monolithically, you're not only targeting the winners of sexism — you're targeting a huge boatload of losers. If you say it's okay to portray "men" as buffoons (etc.) because they benefit from sexism, you're saying it's okay to heap punishment on a huge crowd of human beings who are losing. … "Loser" actually is a curious expression — it has no inherent gender, but it's almost exclusively applied to men. If you are a man and your life is in bad shape, and you're not achieving anything, you are a target of contempt.

Let's not build our sexism-free utopia on the backs of the worst-off.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Women are the real losers for putting up with such behavior; and if they put up with it from men, they'll put up with it from their children and themselves.

Such is the decent into barbarism.

LemmusLemmus said...

For many of the same points that grobstein makes from an academic psychologist's perspective, see this speech by Roy Baumeister. I may have linked to it in this blog's comments sections before, but it's really very good, I think.

As for men disproportionately being made the butt of jokes (not just in ads), this may have a lot to do with men striving to project an image of confidence, strength, etc. Also, it seems to me that men, somehow, are just funnier on average. Most comedians I know of are men (and most of their jokes aren't on themselves). That's not because of discrimination against female comedians.

John Althouse Cohen said...

LemmusLemmus: Thanks for the Baumeister link. I've seen this piece before, but it's worth re-reading. The section called "The Most Underappreciated Fact" is great.