The ‘Feminized Society’ Myth

How the gender perception gap makes a female minority feel like a majority.

Sady Doyle January 22, 2014

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosted the Golden Globe Awards for the second consecutive year—which, though the show has never had a solo female host, was enough to spark fears of a wholesale female takeover. (David Shankbone/ Flickr / Creative Commons

Con­grat­u­la­tions, fem­i­nism! It’s 2014 — not even a hun­dred years since women won the right to vote in Amer­i­ca — and already, the Unit­ed States has been trans­formed into a man-loathing dystopia, where women rule all we sur­vey, and men work night and day to appease us.

The heart of the problem is one of the strangest manifestations of male privilege: It actually seems to interfere with men's ability to count women. Specifically, it creates a tendency to actually see more women—or hear more female opinions—than are actually present at any given time.

At any rate, this is what I gath­er from Fox News’ Brit Hume. With regards to New Jer­sey Gov­er­nor Chris Christie’s grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a bul­ly who takes dis­pro­por­tion­ate and pet­ty revenge in response to any per­ceived slight, Hume opined that in this sort of fem­i­nized atmos­phere in which we exist today, guys who are mas­cu­line and mus­cu­lar like [Christie] in their pri­vate con­duct, kind of old-fash­ioned tough guys, run some risks.” Specif­i­cal­ly, Hume says, If you act like a kind of an old-fash­ioned guy’s guy, you’re in con­stant dan­ger of slip­ping out and say­ing some­thing that’s going to get you in trou­ble and make you look like a sex­ist or make you look like you seem thug­gish or whatever.”

Hume’s remarks, grant­ed, are pol­i­tics-as-tedious­ly-usu­al; any­one who’s suf­fered through an elec­toral news cycle can see the gears grind­ing. Christie is an ear­ly front-run­ner for the 2016 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion wide­ly pre­sumed to be Hillary Clinton’s for the tak­ing. Much of Christie’s poten­tial appeal to mod­er­ates and unde­cid­ed vot­ers comes from his posi­tion­ing as a rea­son­able right-winger”: a mod­er­ate, big-tent nice guy, capa­ble of get­ting votes from Democ­rats when need be, known to praise (and even hug!) Pres­i­dent Oba­ma upon occa­sion with­out spon­ta­neous­ly com­bust­ing or turn­ing into a pil­lar of salt. There­fore, the nice guy” image is being dis­man­tled by Christie’s oppo­nents, and his vin­dic­tive, belit­tling, con­fronta­tion­al side is being dragged out into full view. Hume’s sex­ist feint — the idea that Christie’s per­son­al cru­el­ty is essen­tial­ly and admirably male; male like every oth­er Pres­i­dent in his­to­ry, male like Hillary isn’t — can clear­ly be read as a bit of re-posi­tion­ing. By stir­ring up fears of female pow­er, of a nation so fem­i­nized” that being open­ly male can actu­al­ly get you in trou­ble,” he’s not-so-sub­tly ral­ly­ing male vot­ers’ inse­cu­ri­ty, rage and enti­tle­ment, trust­ing them to cling tighter to Christie as they instinc­tive­ly resist the idea of a woman hold­ing the high­est office in the nation. Men aren’t inher­ent­ly thug­gish and nasty, but peo­ple like Hume sure­ly aim to make them act that way in 2016.

But the night­mare of a female-dom­i­nat­ed world is not unique­ly Hume’s. In fact, it’s not even uncommon.

Take, for instance, Kyle Smith’s now-infa­mous review of the Gold­en Globes in the New York Post, which summed up the whole three-hour event with three words: Too Much Estro­gen!” Specif­i­cal­ly, it was host­ed by known estro­gen-havers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who — in their 15 total min­utes of screen time — lobbed fem­i­nist joke-bombs” at the audi­ence, remorse­less­ly caus­ing thou­sands to smirk, or per­haps even chuck­le, at mild­ly risqué humor about famous men. (Smith was par­tic­u­lar­ly offend­ed by Fey’s and now, like a super­mod­el’s vagi­na, let’s all give a warm wel­come to Leonar­do DiCaprio,” because no straight man is ever more deeply wound­ed than when he is sup­posed to have fre­quent sex with beau­ti­ful and enthu­si­as­tic women.) Nev­er mind that both Best TV Series” awards went to male-run, male-led shows; that both Best Pic­ture” awards went to male-direct­ed, male-led movies; that Best Direc­tor went to Alfon­so Cuaron, Best Screen­play award went to Spike Jonze, Best Score went to Alex Ebert, Best Song went to the all-male U2, and the Life­time Achieve­ment Award went to Woody Freak­ing Allen; that, in fact, there was only one notable female win­ner out­side of the female-spe­cif­ic actress” cat­e­gories, Frozen co-direc­tor Jen­nifer Lee, who was one-half of a half-male team accept­ing for Best Ani­mat­ed Film.” Women were allowed to pass out the tro­phies that all those men received, and that con­sti­tutes a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist takeover.

And it does­n’t stop there. It’s not just a mat­ter of one cor­rupt politi­cian get­ting pun­ished for his mus­cu­lar” bridge-clos­ing abil­i­ties, or one award show allow­ing women to ruin it with all their female yap­ping. Just a few days lat­er, on Fox & Friends, author and self-described philoso­pher” Nick Adams — along with his eager inter­locu­tor, Elis­a­beth Has­sel­beck — not­ed that the impend­ing matri­archy has advanced so far that it pos­es a threat to Amer­i­can nation­al security.

It’s real­ly impor­tant, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the lead­er­ship role that Amer­i­ca has in the world, that Amer­i­can men be allowed to be men,” said Adams. And while I agree that all Amer­i­can men trans­form­ing into Chia pets, or per­haps mod­er­ate­ly sized lumps of coal, would be prob­lem­at­ic, this is not the prob­lem Adams per­ceives: He believes fem­i­nism has result­ed in a mind­set that seeks to squash male ten­den­cies” and pro­duces fem­i­nine men,” men who are effete, urbane met­ro­sex­u­als” fre­quent­ly seen wrestling with lattes.”

When men, when they want to make a deci­sion, when they want to speak up at a meet­ing, when they want to say some­thing, they’re sweat­ing more than Paris Hilton doing a cross­word!” Adams crowed. They real­ly feel uncomfortable.”

Do you see this affect­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty?” Has­sel­beck asked.

Absolute­ly,” Adams replied. Wimps and wussies deliv­er medi­oc­rity, and men win.”

So, there you have it: Women, hav­ing tak­en over pol­i­tics, busi­ness and pop cul­ture, are now bul­ly­ing men into silence, mock­ing them for enter­tain­ment and quite like­ly going to kill us all. For fur­ther ref­er­ence, you might check Times cov­er image for their recent piece on Hillary Clin­ton, which graph­i­cal­ly demon­strates one of the pre­ferred matri­ar­chal exe­cu­tion meth­ods: Grow­ing to the size of a sky­scraper and crush­ing a man to death with one’s high heel.

But, while it’s fun to mock these Revenge of the Women fan­tasies, one should con­sid­er that even the strangest para­noia often stems from some gen­uine threat. Which is to say: If these men are afraid of women tak­ing over, it might be worth con­sid­er­ing their evi­dence. Which is not entire­ly insub­stan­tial — it just does­n’t say quite what the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists think it does.

While women are far from equal­ly rep­re­sent­ed in media — the Byline Sur­vey Report finds that white men still com­prise the vast major­i­ty of staff jour­nal­ists, with white women in sec­ond place, and peo­ple of col­or of both gen­ders lag­ging way behind; women are under­rep­re­sent­ed in all areas but pink top­ics” (the dead­ly Four F’s: food, fash­ion, fam­i­ly, and fur­ni­ture) — these days, there are indeed some women in media, and even some women-dom­i­nat­ed and fem­i­nist-friend­ly sub-sec­tions on major online media hubs such as The Atlantic, Slate and Gawk­er Media. While fem­i­nism is far from uncrit­i­cal­ly accept­ed by every mem­ber of 21st-cen­tu­ry soci­ety, some fem­i­nist mem­bers of soci­ety are much more audi­ble now, thanks to the self-pub­lish­ing pow­er afford­ed by social media and the vocal fem­i­nist com­mu­ni­ties found on sites such as Tum­blr and Twit­ter, where it’s easy for mes­sages to be reblogged, hash­tagged and RT’d beyond the scope of the social groups in which they orig­i­nat­ed. Not every movie released this year is a par­a­digm of ide­al inter­sec­tion­al fem­i­nist rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but three of the biggest, Grav­i­ty, Frozen and Catch­ing Fire, were uncon­ven­tion­al female sto­ries fea­tur­ing uncon­ven­tion­al female leads, and one of them had a female co-direc­tor. And while it’s not that men every­where are quiv­er­ing in sweaty fear at board meet­ings, fac­ing the icy stares of their all-female man­agers and co-work­ers, nor that every man who says some­thing sex­ist gets called out and ripped to shreds, some sex­ist men — and some sex­ist com­ments — do in fact get called out.

So how do you get from some fem­i­nism, some of the time, to a fem­i­nized society?

The heart of the prob­lem is one of the strangest man­i­fes­ta­tions of male priv­i­lege: It actu­al­ly seems to inter­fere with men’s abil­i­ty to count women. Specif­i­cal­ly, it cre­ates a ten­den­cy to actu­al­ly see more women — or hear more female opin­ions — than are actu­al­ly present at any giv­en time.

Geena Davis Insti­tute for Gen­der In Media found that, in crowd scenes, women tend to com­prise about 17 per­cent of any giv­en crowd. She’s argued, based on out­side data and her own inter­pre­ta­tions, that this imbal­ance relates to and rein­forces the way men per­ceive the actu­al num­ber of women in any giv­en room.

If there’s 17 per­cent women, the men in the group think it’s 50 – 50,” she told NPR. And if there’s 33 per­cent women, the men per­ceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

The idea of a gen­der per­cep­tion gap is borne out by stud­ies in oth­er areas. In one study on gen­der par­i­ty in the work­force, sent my way by col­league Flavia Dzo­dan, it was found that men con­sis­tent­ly per­ceive more gen­der par­i­ty” in their work­places than women do. For exam­ple, when asked whether their work­places recruit­ed the same num­ber of men and women, 72 per­cent of male man­agers answered yes.” Only 42 per­cent of female man­agers agreed. And, while there’s a per­sis­tent stereo­type that women are the more talk­a­tive gen­der, women actu­al­ly tend to talk less than men in class­room dis­cus­sions, pro­fes­sion­al con­texts and even roman­tic rela­tion­ships; one study found that a mixed-gen­der group need­ed to be between 60 and 80 per­cent female before women and men occu­pied equal time in the con­ver­sa­tion. How­ev­er, the stereo­type would seem to have its roots in that same per­cep­tion gap: “[In] sem­i­nars and debates, when women and men are delib­er­ate­ly giv­en an equal amount of the high­ly val­ued talk­ing time, there is often a per­cep­tion that [women] are get­ting more than their fair share.”

How do you give men the impres­sion of a female major­i­ty? Show them a female minor­i­ty, and let that minor­i­ty do some talk­ing. This is how 15 min­utes of Fey and Poehler becomes three hours of non-stop estro­gen,” how a Con­gress that’s less than 19 per­cent female becomes a fem­i­nized” and male-intol­er­ant polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, and how one viable female Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date becomes an unstop­pable, man-squash­ing Godzil­la. Men tend to per­ceive equal­i­ty when women are vast­ly out­num­bered and under­rep­re­sent­ed; it fol­lows that, as we approach actu­al par­i­ty, men (and Elis­a­beth Has­sel­beck, for some rea­son) will increas­ing­ly believe that we are enter­ing an era of female domination.

Every­thing depends on the per­cep­tion gap: On that ancient, long-encul­tur­at­ed sex­ist log­ic, which dic­tates that, when it comes to women and pow­er, some is enough and enough is too much. The log­ic which tells us that the only envi­ron­ment not at risk of being fem­i­nized” is an envi­ron­ment with no women in it.

And if that’s our option, well: I say, all hail the matri­archy. Sure, it will mean suf­fer­ing through a few more years of sex­ist men hav­ing embar­rass­ing, pub­lic melt­downs about how women are run­ning every­thing and ruin­ing their lives. But we can rest secure in the knowl­edge that, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, we prob­a­bly won’t be ruin­ing those men’s whole lives, or even most of them. We’ll prob­a­bly only ruin about 33 percent.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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