What Do You Do When Your Lady Friends Say Sexist Things?


Recently, a reader emailed the Jezebel tips address with a highly relatable question.

Maybe you’ve written about this in the past, but I think it would be interesting to hear some thoughts about how to interact with girl friends who aren’t feminist, per se. I have a couple of friends who are generally great ladies and I definitely want to keep them in my life, but sometimes when they say things that I feel are a bit sexist I don’t know if I should call them out or let it slide. It’s never anything super offensive, just off hand comments like “she’ll never get married looking/acting like that” or “women shouldn’t do X or Y because it’s for men” type stuff. Sometimes when I try to bring a feminist perspective into the conversation they seem a bit annoyed, like I’m taking things too seriously. Like I said, most of the time this is not an issue and they are perfectly respectable women, so I’m not about to drop them from my life over it.

Katie, are you by any chance buds with Princeton mom?

In trying to picture what kind of women think this way, you might eventually come to the realization that tons of them do. That being said, you may still be understandably tempted to let loose your thoughts about how it could even be possible that women want to get married at all—studies show it’s a way better deal for men anyway, not to mention historically fraught as fuck—as well as the truth that knocking on however a lady is looking and acting in terms of her marriage-worthiness is a particularly cruel, petty, sexist, garbage-person way to look at another human being, particularly a woman, who has been getting that kind of shit left and right since birth and ought to be able to at least count on another woman to have her back for once. You may be then tempted to throw a drink in your friend’s face and leave.

On the other hand, those ladies are probably right, in their own very particular way. If you want to get married, it’s probably best (or at least more pragmatic) to look and act a certain way (that I think involves a handjob motion) if you’d like to signal worthiness to all the men in a one-mile radius. Is acknowledging this sexist or practical? (This should definitely be a Tumblr.)

It’s hard to know whether or not to dig in, in these situations. Whether I personally would, in this hypothetical-but-also-common situation, depends: on how egregious the comments were, how misguided the person was, how open to talking they seemed, how close I am to them, and more importantly, how much one-woman social-justice warrior juice I still had in me for the day. The latter shit runs out by 3 p.m. on most days, unfortunately.

But I love this question, because like you, I am a feminist, and I want everyone to work on themselves all the time, to be humble and accountable, to be forever curious, to be working toward some greater good, to unpack the shit out of all the shit as much as possible and check their privilege and incorporate multiple points of view.

And yet, here we are in the actual world as it is, are we not? Just this morning I was getting my five-year-old daughter dressed for kindergarten. She wanted to wear a new dress we hadn’t really tried on at the store; I’d just held up to her quickly to size it up and move along. Putting it on, I realized it was kind of big. It looked nothing like the cute little Jackie-O style number I’d imagined it being at purchase time, and more like a boxy, rumpled tablecloth. For a minute I tried to encourage her to wear something else until I realized what I was doing.

I’m no scholar, but why was I willing to take up crucial morning time we didn’t have getting a five-year-old to change her clothes so she looked—what? Marginally prettier? The fuck is wrong with me? Who gives a shit? It’s kindergarten. (Answer: Yeah, probably, prettier, and a lot of people give a shit. The fuck is wrong with us?)

This isn’t a perfect analogue to your question, but it’s an example of how the real complicates the theoretical. Being in the world is messy; everyone is a complicated jumble of experiences and thoughts and dispositions. Women are often petty toward other women not because of an innate pettiness but one that’s been dictated to them almost as a mandate—because they’ve internalized these larger patriarchal ideals about what women or men should or shouldn’t be like. Sexism, in other words, is how they’ve had to move through the world, how they believe they’ve had to be in order to be accepted and loved. They feel like, if they have to suffer over it, other women should be held to the same standard. They’re certainly—and whether this is more or less depressing remains up to the jury—not making any of this shit up.

And ideas about what’s appealing and what’s proper don’t always line up with actual political positions. Some women totally believe in equal pay, a woman for president, paid maternity leave, keeping your own last name, but they wouldn’t be caught dead out without full makeup and a good bra because you never know when you will run into the One, and you can’t fuck that up with the wrong kind of bouncy tits and any woman who doesn’t abide by that sort of practical thinking is Looney Tunes, OK?

Sucks they don’t want to unpack that. Sucks you can’t really make them. Sucks that neither of us is even technically sure they need to. All I know is most women I know have spent far more of their lives trying to meet a cultural criteria for “respectable” and only a shorter, more recent part of adulthood getting good and pissed about it—if at all. Often women don’t realize how much they’ve been fucked around by this shit until they get older, or become mothers, or otherwise wake up. Or even if they have, they don’t know how to stop holding themselves and other women to this retrograde set of standards.

What I’m saying is that you’ve got to give everyone a chance to arrive at that place on their own. Some might not ever do so, though. Can you still be buds?

Regardless, ideological lockstep is a high bar, friend. At this point in my life I have more friends who I would guess “think like me” than perhaps at any other time in my existence, and yet, we still disagree. Sometimes we argue over class stuff, race stuff, charter schools, you name it—when you’re with people who are mostly just like you, you can then move on to experience the joy of something called the narcissism of petty differences, AKA, agreeing about 99 percent of the big stuff, thereby spending all your time and energy arguing violently over that 1 percent you don’t agree on. For an abundance of examples, see the comments on any post on this website.

I have come to see that I don’t necessarily need my friends to think like me, but one criteria I have for all my friendships that I put effort into is this: I can’t hang out with anyone who isn’t willing to own their opinions, who doesn’t enjoy debating them at least a little, who isn’t willing to scrutinize them from time to time. That doesn’t mean I can’t go out and get drinks with virtually anyone just for fun. But the most fun I have with people I consider good, close friends usually involves sitting around talking and turning things over. For this reason, even strong disagreements aren’t dealbreakers, because there’s a spirit of openness involved, a willingness to be wrong. (I’m not talking about hanging out with a neo-Nazi, but, say, like, a perfectly decent dude who would never call himself a feminist.)

You have to make room for linguistic missteps, misguided thoughts, and differing worldviews. I also have lots of women in my life who aren’t feminists but who I admire a lot for how they live their lives, which, even as I’ve told them, espouse feminist values whether they realize it or not. Some people are hung up on the word. I try not to be hung up on that. I think the values and the life matter more than the errant utterance.

So depending on the person and their openness, I might or might not bring it up seriously, faux-argumentatively, mockingly, or otherwise—all based on how other discussions had gone. And if we hit a standstill, it’s always an individual calculus about whether it’s worth it to press the issue or keep things as-is, in order to maintain whatever level of otherwise greatness we had. Friends can be good for different kinds of hangs—the person I’d meet at a bar is much different than who I’d hit up the Farmers’ Market with. Finding friends who feel precisely as you do about the world is the friend jackpot. That only happens a few times in a life, if even.

Besides, I think there’s a real danger to the idea that we should only surround ourselves with people who think like us anyway, particularly to a card-carrying degree. I believe you should try to be friends with good people even when they have flawed thinking. I roll my eyes every time I see another Facebook update from someone who is bragging about successfully blocking everyone who says anything offensive so they don’t have to experience it. I personally almost never hide or unfriend anyone on Facebook. It’s a thing I do because for some reason I feel compelled to know the especially contradictory points of view of others in my general acquaintance circle. The offensive, bigoted, awfulness—I don’t enjoy it, it often makes me sick, though sometimes I marvel at its wrongheadedness—but I still feel it’s my duty to understand the world as it is, not how I would like it to be.

I draw the line somewhere, of course. I pick my battles, and sometimes pick fights. Some stuff sticks harder in my craw than other stuff. I hate when people spout evo-psych bullshit about how women and men are different, and I will happily argue all night long in a drunk, yelly way over it because for me, that juice never runs out. But this is part of my personality, and I’m doing this with friends who also like to argue, and in general, I’m fully prepared to have things go south if need be. I gauge all the time what low-simmering level of dumb shit I’m willing to be around, and I usually only make an effort to get someone talking about it when I think it will be fun for me, or them, or possibly enlightening for both of us. Or at least where we can yell super good at each other.

The thing is, I have to be willing to take it too. I might be right about one thing, but wrong about something else. That’s a two-way street, and you can’t assume you’re always on the right side of the ideological fence either. And the next thing you know, you’re an unassailable feminist but an elitist snob, and someone else will be writing a letter asking how to fix you.

Image via Fox/screengrab

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