"Hipster Sexism": Just as Bad as Regular Old Sexism, or Worse?
As the saying goes, “If you hate hipsters, you probably are one.” This is because, while many of us are familiar with the term (especially if describes us), it is obnoxious and has been used to identify numerous non-trends, from mustaches to homesteading to beer to bellies caused by beer. These things exist whether hipsters claim them or not, and drowning them in irony does nothing to change their nature. More usefully though, hipsterism has also been called out in conjunction with other isms like racism and, in a New York magazine piece from earlier this week, sexism.
Hipster sexist via quickmeme.
Hipster sexism, also known as ironic sexism or liberal sexism, is the notion that if sexism done is tongue-in-cheek it's okay, even hilarious. As s.e. smith points out at xoJane, this idea is nothing new (read s.e.’s piece if you haven’t already because ou does some important work reminding us why we shouldn’t just claim ideas as our own when someone else thought of them before we did). The concept has resurged this week though, and it’s worth talking about it again. Alissa Quart, the author of the NYMag piece, defines it thusly:
Hipster Sexism consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class.
Basically, hipster sexism is when people who should “know better”—progressive people with possible college degrees who are maybe environmentally conscious and probably liberal and might even identify as feminists—are ironically sexist. This includes women posing for the male gaze (but ironically!) in ads, creepy sexual predators continuing to amass cultural capital even though they’re awful, popular tv shows that normalize calling your sister a “skank,” and basically any time someone has sexually harassed you or told you to get back in the kitchen BUT AS A JOKE.
While actually sexist, of course, hipster sexism is different from what Quart defines as “Classic Sexism.” A hipster sexist calls you a bitch and tells you to shut up but in a funny way, while a classic sexist tells you your rape was God’s will without a hint of irony. Both are douchebags, but the hipster sexist is a douchebag in enlightened clothing (see also: the nice guy™, the hipster racist). Hipster sexism hinges on the assumption that “no one thinks this way anymore” and therefore it’s funny, like making a joke about horses and buggies or something. It allows for sexist comments under the guise of being sooo far above them, and it’s a lot harder to call out than non-ironic, old-fashioned sexism. (Ah, those were the days. JK I am being ironic! See?)
Over at the Frisky, Jessica Wakeman argues that this distinction is not important, that sexism is sexism no matter the form. I disagree, and not just because I encounter hipster sexism far more often than the classic variety, though I’d bet many of you do too. Many of us who identify as feminists are far more likely to encounter a hipster in our social/work/dating lives than we are a right-wing anti-feminist, after all.
Attempting to take the sting out of something by couching it in irony is dangerous in its sneakiness and sneaky in its danger. Like claiming that we’re in a post-racial society and therefore your jokes about slavery are uproarious, trashing women because you know better and still find it funny only reinforces the sexism inherent in your “humor.” And worse, as smith points out, hipster sexism “sends a clear message to women in hipster and young liberal communities: Embrace the hipster sexism or find yourself on the outside of the conversation. Don’t challenge sexism when it’s done 'right,' and be aware that if you’re sexually assaulted, emotionally harmed or exploited by a beloved of the crowd, you’ll be pilloried for reporting it and challenging it, not supported.”
I hate to be the feminist killjoy the hipster sexists have been LOLing about (okay, not really) but saying sexism is "no big deal" actually IS a big deal. It’s a big deal because we don’t live in a post-feminist society, and this brand of humor does garden-variety, non–fixie-riding misogynists' work for them, putting women down and keeping them down. It creates an environment where it’s okay to dismiss someone as a slut and to blow her off if she challenges you. Where you can joke that a woman should make you a sandwich knowing that she'll "get" the joke, but really, underneath it all you kind of do think women should have to make your sandwiches. Where women, regardless of the cut of their jeans, don't feel safe because they probably aren't.
Hipsterism, or if you hate the term, "irony" culture, is tricky because it mocks earnestness—and it takes earnestness to call out this bullshit. Checking people on their hipster sexism is designed to be embarrassing, because if these people—the ones shopping at American Apparel and referring to their girlfriends as their bitches (but in a HILARIOUS way)—are too cool to care, what does that make you? A FEMINIST KILLJOY. But it’s okay, embrace it! Non-ironically!
And it’s also okay to make jokes. We need to laugh, people! We just need to find ways to laugh that skewer sexist notions instead of fortifying them. We need to laugh at the sexism, not with the sexists.
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