Admitting the Un-Admittible

Now that the dust has settled and everyone’s had a chance to offer a knee-jerk reaction to the Oscars, it feels like a good time to assess, critically, the one line from Chris Rock’s opening monologue that seemed to anger many of us feminists.

The moment the joke left his mouth, I knew there would be criticism. If we can get into heated exchanges over topics with far less depth – like the Starbucks Christmas, no wait Holiday, cups – certainly, there would have to be uproar over the comment, “everything’s not sexism”.

I debated the hilarity of the joke, too. I remember saying to myself, Hell yeah, the moment those words left his mouth. The next moment I thought to myself, Fuuuck.

The internal back-and-forth reminded me of a conversation I’d had with one of my friends (whom I affectionately call my feminist sister), where we both lamented feeling like you can’t say anything without offending someone, and then another conversation I’d had with a former colleague, who chastised me for exhibiting male privilege because I did not agree with her assertions of the rape-prevention nail polish. It was as back-and-forth as a tennis match.

Yes…no. Great point…what are you smoking? Hell yeah…fuuuck!

On the one hand, I get it, Chris Rock even suggesting everything’s not sexism trivializes all that is rooted in sexism – the gender wage gap, the glass ceiling, violence against women, the list goes on. The accomplishments and sacrifices of the women who have fought before us, the plight of those whom we now fight alongside of, are belittled if we accept, broadly, that everything’s not about sexism. Or if we fail to recognize that certain institutions, policies, and practices give women less control, less of a voice, less agency, less room at the figurative table, compared to that which men have. Or if we allow such comments to go unchecked, giving fodder to those who think men’s rights are evaporating like puddles on a sunny day. As progressive and insightful as Chris Rock is, my fuuuck response was fitting. Some things are sexism.

But I used his joke to assess how those outside of the feminist movement see sexism, and how they perceive our view of sexism – what we’re fighting to uproot. This is where some valuable points can be extrapolated.

Although it was not stated directly, Chris Rick was making a clear reference to #AskHerMore, with that particular joke. As in, ask female celebrities more than who she’s wearing. Or why she chose to wear that necklace. Those soft, appearance-obsessed questions that are slow-pitched to female celebrities may not rise to the level of sexism the way our foremothers faced. But they make us feel some kinda way. It may not be sexism from 1960, but it still feels wrong, nonetheless.

From where I stand – as someone who catches a glimpse of the awards’ pre-shows via my wife’s consumption – the interviews are not the actual problem. The true culprits are the awards’ pre-show because they focus on fashion and attire, rate the best and worst dressed celebs, and highlight appearance over talent, like some adult version of mean girls. These shows set the table and provide the environment for those soft and superficial interviews. So it’s no wonder actresses are asked about their gowns and not their crafts, when they’re on the red carpet.

Still, with the #AskHerMore campaign, we are asked to get upset about soft and superficial interviews, but not the entire awards’ pre-show festivities, which allow the superficial interviews to exist. Said another way, we are asked to target the symptoms, but we are not asked to go after the root cause. If we raise our collective voices and ask for a shift in how the awards’ pre-shows are covered – celebrating artistic accomplishments and highlighting challenging roles actresses and actors play, for instance – the interviews can follow suit. Then, perhaps Ryan Seacrest will ask questions that have some level of complexity. As such, one assessment we can glean from Chris Rock’s inflammatory joke is that we should ask more of not only #AskHerMore, but also more of ourselves when we demand #AskHerMore.

When we dig deeper, though, we can extrapolate another valuable point – that is, our collective sexist treatment of female celebrities. Let’s go back to 2015, when everyone was outraged over the 10 hours of sexual harassment one woman faced while walking in New York City. With good reason, most of us were not okay with an everyday woman (that is, someone who is not a celebrity) being catcalled, gawked at, and fawned over, and subjected to sexual comments, which made her feel uncomfortable. Women do not owe you their time, was one of our collective battle cries. Yet, when it comes to actress, singers, and other female celebrities, we seem to be okay with a certain level of sexual harassment and objectification. Of course the complexities here are endless, as some celebrities pose, purposefully, so the camera (and those of us consuming the images from the camera) can get a better glimpse of their bodies. But this is not true for all female celebrities. As P!NK sang in one of her fiery hits, “I’m not here for your entertainment”. Not all female celebrities choose to pose on men’s magazine covers, for instance. But, all female celebrities are subjected to sexual objectification. In this regard, it feels like we have selective outrage. When it happens to the young lady who documented her trials, we labelled it sexual harassment. When it happens to actresses, though, we dub it entertainment. So if we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s remark, it is just treatment – that is, let us humanize our female celebrities and not reduce them to a collection of sexual parts. Their crafts should be enjoyed as entertainment, not their bodies.

When I dig deeper still,

I see a field that is so besieged by patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that damn near everything feels as though it is reinforcing those archaic ideals. And rightfully so. Women in leadership positions aren’t given the same respect as men in those same roles. Some politicians are determined to politicize contraception, taking control from women over their bodies. And even though we denounce sexual violence, we still ask women to take ownership for preventing assaults committed against them. Those atrocities are surely worthy of our attention and outrage.

Yet, while many issues are rooted in sexism, not every issue is. Not every issue reinforces male privilege and not every issue furthers patriarchy. Take manspreading, for instance. You know, where a man is seated on a train, bus, or other public venue, and spreads his legs such that he covers two seats. Taking away seats that other passengers could occupy. Limiting seating options for women. When we delve into this issue, however, we will find that manspreading affects women as well as men. It affects anyone who’s looking to occupy an empty seat, really.  Additionally, a man spreading his legs across two seats is just as restrictive as a person (perhaps a woman) sitting in one chair, while placing their bag in another chair, effectively taking up two seats. So while manspreading may be an annoyance – and an irritation and leave some too intimidated to speak up – it is not a privilege given unto men that women cannot have. Nor does it confine women as second-class citizens. Suffice it to say, I am not part of the feminist movement that believes manspreading is worthy of our outrage. In and of itself, manspreading may not be trivial. But when compared to the gender wage gap, for instance, it is trivial.

So when we voice outrage about issues such as manspreading, and we give it the same level of contempt as we do the gender wage gap, for instance, it comes off as both disingenuous and disrespectful to the latter. If we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s joke, it is that our collective outrage can use some perspective.

During his opening monologue, Chris Rock made me laugh and then he made me cringe. But, his jokes forced me to do some self-inventory – Is it the red-carpet interviews or the awards’ pre-shows? Are we okay with sexual harassment or sexual objectification? Do we apply sexism to everything or those specific issues that are truly, unjust? This isn’t giving him a pass – as mentioned above, his comment trivializes many sacrifices and accomplishments. So I didn’t laugh at Chris Rock’s joke because it had strong comedic value. But because it challenged me to consider how can we reach people outside of the movement, and bring them in. If it means admitting “everything’s not sexism”, let’s assess it and have a dialogue. If we hope to engage the masses, we have to meet them where they are, in order to eventually bring them into our mix. More than that, we have to remain open to self-analysis – whether the criticism is coming from someone inside, or outside, of our field. It’s complicated. Not everything is about sexism. But we have to admit some things are still about sexism. Moreover, we cannot let the perception that everything’s not sexism prevent us from addressing that which is about sexism. For so many of us, it is sexism – and its many manifestations – that drive us to do this work. If we’re going to be driving the bus, we have to keep our focus on the final destination, while also remaining open to different routes (in this case, critical assessment) that’ll help get us to that destination.

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