You may have seen this video floating around the internet lately: a “social experiment” in Italy where young boys are asked to caress, then slap, a girl. The overwhelming response I’ve seen to this video is along the lines of “oh how wonderful, how touching, what wonderful men these boys will be.” Not only do I not agree with that rosy assessment, but this video made me very uncomfortable. It’s benevolent sexism in action.
If you don’t want to watch the video, here’s a brief summary: some Italian boys aged 7-11 are asked how old they are, what they want to be when they grow up. Then a girl (pretty, about their age) walks up, doesn’t say a word. The interviewer asks them what they think of her, and they comment about how pretty she is, her eyes, her hair. The interviewer tells them to caress her, and they touch her arm, her hair, her face. Then the interviewer tells them to slap her, and they all refuse. The interviewer asks them why, and they give their reasons.
It’s apparently a PSA against domestic violence. Maybe its intended audience is children, because I doubt that it would convince anyone who’s already comfortable with hitting their partner to stop. Whoever the audience is, though, the seemingly-positive message the video sends is sadly likely to contribute to more sexism and associated violence.
This video is not evidence that these boys are being raised right, and will become respectful men. On the contrary: it shows that they already have sexist attitudes toward women, which seem unlikely to be challenged given the adoring reaction to this video, and the positive, supportive attitude many people have to these attitudes in the world at large. The attitude I refer to is the take-home message of the video, that real men don’t hit women, that it’s wrong for men to hit women. (There are also other very problematic attitudes expressed in the video that seem to slip by under the radar.) You may be thinking, hang on — what could possibly be wrong with saying it’s wrong to hit women? Of course I agree that it is wrong to hit women. It’s the phrasing, the packaging, of the message that I object to; what it teaches about the relationship between men and women. If this sounds crazy, bear with me. I’d like to go through the video and talk about each bit of it and why I think it’s disturbing, and hopefully by the end you’ll understand what I mean.
The first thing the interviewer does when the girl enters the video is to ask the boys to say what they like about her. She just stands there, mute, while the boys list the physical attributes they like. Of course they couldn’t comment on her personality, because she doesn’t say or do anything. The message here: she’s an object, something you can act on, comment on, not an equal being to you. Once again, the most important thing about a woman is her appearance.
Maybe they only asked the boys to speak, and not the girl, because the point was to show their attitude to violence against women. Even if it was their reaction that was of interest, of all the things to ask them: “What do you think of her?” What is the point of that question in this context? (It’s not like this is some rigorously-planned scientific experiment, anyways, which would have been ruined by giving the woman a little agency.) In fact, the point of this question, as revealed later in the video, seems to be that it’s especially bad to hit a girl if she’s pretty. 😦
Then the interviewer asks the boys to caress her, which is where things got really creepy for me. When the boys hesitate, it’s the interviewer’s permission they ask for, not the girl’s. Not one of them asks her if it’s ok for them to touch her. This is hugely problematic. The girl again has no agency, no say in what’s being done to her, and the boys seem to not realize that that’s wrong. Here is the beginning of the attitude that results in grown men groping and verbally harassing women, on the street and in other public places. Women are there to be touched, admired, and the only question is does the man want to touch or admire her, or not.
The interviewer asks the boys to make a face at her — the most innocuous part of the whole exchange — but again, the girl does nothing, says nothing.
Then we get to the slapping. Each boy refuses to slap the girl, great. Why should it be so amazing that a child wouldn’t slap another child, irrespective of gender? The interesting part is what they say when asked why they wouldn’t hit her. Three of them give a good answer (“I don’t want to hurt her,” “Jesus doesn’t want us to hit people,” “I’m against violence,” “because it’s bad”) — basically, expressing the idea that it’s wrong to hit people. The other three answer along the lines of “because she’s a girl.” One says “I can’t hit her because she’s pretty, and she’s a girl.” That is a terrible reason. Because she’s pretty?
Although half of the boys have a non-sexist, moral reason for not hitting her (yay!), the emphasis is very much on the “men don’t hit women” message. So many commenters swoon over the last quote, where a little boy says “Why? ‘Cause I’m a man!” And there’s still the touching-without-asking and commentary on the girl’s appearance, slipped in there before the big finale without anyone batting an eyelash.
And then they close by telling the boys to kiss her… argh.
So why is this an example of benevolent sexism? Why is it bad if boys don’t want to hit girls, whatever their reasons? Why is the flurry of enthusiasm and admiration for this video so disturbing?
Benevolent sexism refers to ideas about women that seem positive, flattering, but are really harmful. For example, that women are special, beautiful creatures capable of greater empathy and nurturing than men. Or that they are more delicate and need protection. This idea, expressed in the “real men don’t hit women” saying, implies that women must be dependent on men. Now yes, men are on average physically larger and stronger than women, but now that we’re not living in caves, that is not relevant in most of our daily lives. That women may struggle to defend themselves against a male assailant is true, and this saying seems geared to cajoling men into not doing what they could very well do: beat the crap out of any woman. The very basis of the appeal, sadly, perpetuates the attitudes that underlie violence against women. A far better value to ingrain in both sexes would be that violence against anyone is wrong (and that leads to a whole complicated topic of its own — encouraging boys to use verbal conflict resolution and to be comfortable with expressing their emotions, which are currently seen as female traits, and the underestimation of men, the damage and disservice done to them by assuming they are slaves to their basest impulses).
The thing about benevolent sexism is that it rests on the assumption that there is a certain way women should be. For those who subscribe to benevolent sexism, a woman is worthy of protection and even veneration as long as she meets these ideals, but when she steps outside the line, that rosy attitude disappears. There is a very strong correlation between having benevolent sexist beliefs and hostile sexist beliefs (the type of beliefs you probably think of when you think “sexist”: women are too emotional, women are manipulative and use sex to control men, women should only be barefoot, pregnant in the kitchen, women aren’t worth educating, etc.). A person doesn’t just have one set of beliefs without the other. So, when your pretty, supportive, Madonna-esque woman disappoints you, pisses you off, does something you find unfeminine, she’s suddenly a bitch, a slut, and needs to have some sense knocked into her. People with benevolent sexist attitudes are more likely, for instance, to blame a rape victim. Women with these attitudes are less likely to question unfair, sexist conditions, and when exposed to them at work, are more likely to perform poorly.
This quote from sexism researchers Glick & Fiske, 2011, sums it up very well (where BS = benevolent sexism, and HS = hostile sexism): “BS was the carrot aimed at enticing women to enact traditional roles and HS was the stick used to punish them when they resisted. One emphasizes reward and the other emphasizes punishment (hence their differing valences) but both work toward a common aim: maintaining a gender-traditional status quo.”
Instead of boys who refuse to hit a girl because she’s a girl, instead of “real men” who abstain from violence against women because they believe women are special and need their protection, I would like to see people who don’t hit other people, because violence is wrong and won’t fix whatever their problem is. I would like to see men who respect women fully, as equals, by never touching them without invitation, by never seeing them as objects whose prettiness is their most important quality, and by assuming that they are capable of everything that men are capable of.