Distinguishing Benevolent Sexism from Postfeminist Sensibility


Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick define benevolent sexism as “a subjectively favorable, chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who embrace conventional roles” (Fiske et. al, 109). It puts women on a pedestal as the weaker, but essential, sex, as a way meant to be seen as cherishing rather than restricting her. Benevolent sexism co-exists with hostile sexism, as defined below, and exists cross-culturally. Benevolent sexism benefits the traditional social structure; the more women see men as protectors and supporters, the more subservient and less independent women are willing to be, and women will more likely occupy the domestic sphere. According to Fiske and Glick, benevolent sexism is characterized by an emphasis on the following:

  • Protective paternalism (e.g. “ladies first”)
  • Sexual difference (e.g. “women are naturally purer than men”)
  • Heterosexual intimacy (e.g. “every man needs a loving woman to support him”)

Fiske and Glick break down benevolent sexism into these three categories, and then provide a cross-cultural analysis of quantity of benevolent sexism across regions and nations. These terms, of course, need a bit more unpacking; for example, what does it mean to “emphasize” – is this meant in regards to rhetoric? Body movement? Does benevolent sexism occur on the macro level or the micro level? In human interaction or in larger systems?

Benevolent sexism, much like postfeminism, is a sensibility, not an ideology. One does not identify as a “benevolent sexist” – in fact, those who express sentiments that are characteristic of benevolent sexism are usually not aware that they are doing so. “Benevolent sexism” is a labeling term, and for that reason, in usage it is inherently considered to be accusatory and even aggressive. This is to an extent true: to label as “benevolently sexist” is to accuse the speaker of expressing sentiments that are on the surface altruistic (and usually meant that way), but under the surface expressing more traditional, condescending values in regards to women. As a result, to accuse someone of “benevolent sexism” is to an extent to accuse someone of inauthenticity – of attempting to disguise more regressive politics with sugar-coated “benevolence.”

Let’s first examine human interaction at the micro level of communication between two human beings. Let us assume that this communication is happening between a cis man (the presumed perpetrator) and a cis woman (the presumed victim). Let’s look at our first characteristic of benevolent sexism: protective paternalism. What exactly is meant by “protective paternalism”? To “protect” means to “cover or shield from exposure, injury, damage, or destruction” (Merriam Webster). Paternalism means “a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other” (Merriam Webster). What is interesting about the term “protective paternalism” is that it takes the verb “to protect,” a direct action usually performed at the individual level (“I will protect you”) and combines it with the “-ism” noun “paternalism.” The “-ism” implies that a larger system is at work; it implies a larger practice, a system, an ideology, or a school of thought. The “paternal” part of the word “paternalism” means “of or relating to a father.” So, “paternal” and “ism” placed next to each other, at the most basic level, mean a larger system that is of or relating to a father. The system is fatherly. Merriam Webster’s interpretation of this term, interestingly, does not imply that paternalism is an inherently masculine term; its definitions are relatively gender-neutral. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a similarly gender-neutral definition: “the policy or practice of restricting the freedoms and responsibilities of subordinates or dependents in what is considered or claimed to be their best interests” (OED). A dictionary provides the definitions that protective paternalism is highly gendered and highly raced. The term “paternalism” has its associations with European colonialism, the “white man’s burden,” and “Manifest Destiny.” It invokes images of Christian missionaries attempting to convert a marked Other. It implies a assimilation; it implies conversion; it implies ownership; it implies failed execution and violence disguised by “well-meant” superiors. In a gendered and familial sense, it implies the power of a superior masculine father over an inferior feminine daughter. The father is associated in the above dictionary definitions with authority – the gendered and raced natures of the term are taken to be assumed extensions that are made with white male WASPy authority.

In the Merriam Webster definition, “supplying needs” and “regulating conduct” are mentioned as the actions of this term, and that the victims are “affected at an individual level” as an effect.  OED mentions that protective paternalism “restricts freedoms” is the action performed upon the “subordinates or dependents.” Protective paternalism, then, involves a larger system of  high regulation and surveillance in which the inferior Other learns to depend upon the superior. These actions are meant to establish authority over the Other, and to ensure subordination through seemingly benevolent protection. It is claimed that this dependence on the superior is “in their best interests.” For protective paternalism to be most effective, the subordinate must genuinely believe that this dependence is in their best interests as well.

Benevolent sexism, then, involves a feminine dependence on a masculine superior that is masked as being in a woman’s best interests. It involves a larger system of gendered dependence that is evident in social structures. I gave the brief example above, and in my working glossary, of “ladies first” as an adopted cliche in popular American rhetoric. For example, in an emergency situation, women and children are usually evacuated first, as to ensure their protection. The men, assumed to be stronger and more equipped to handle the dangers of the emergency situation, are evacuated last. This, of course, has its benefits: the women are more likely to survive. Ideologically, of course, it perpetuates that men are inherently stronger, and that women are weaker, even equivalent in power to children. In the moment, women are protected, but when “ladies first” keeps being said, we have to wonder the subconscious and conscious associations of men with strength keep being perpetuated as the phrase remains in the cultural consciousness.

What we must also notice, of course, is that the term “ladies first” has been re-appropriated as an empowering term for women; we could view this re-appropriation in two ways. The first is that women are re-appropriating the term as a way of fighting against the potentially sexist practices that it implies. The second is that “ladies first” has been re-appropriated as an empowerment term, and that means that the goal of protective paternalism, to have the subordinates genuinely believe that their dependence on the superior is in their best interests, is working. Take, for example, the branding of the Keds “#ladiesfirst” movement. The branding involves sneakers made “by women, for women,” and even defines “female empowerment for the reader”: “female empowerment is all about having the self-confidence to chase your dreams even when all odds are against you…this collection was inspired by the sea’s working waterfront and was designed to stand out, just like the ladies who wear it.” These empowering designs include bright pastels and floral seaside patterns – female empowerment, branded. Women purchase the sneakers to fuel their empowerment, and further fuel the capitalist system that ensures their subordination in the first place. We could also relate this to the rhetoric of choice; women are “choosing” to fuel their empowerment (this is characteristic of postfeminist sensibility, which I will extent to later on).


Protective paternalism also extends to behavior and body movements – usually chivalrous acts. Opening the car door for women, giving a woman a coat when it’s cold, and standing up for women in the face of another masculine threat could fall under this category. As mentioned previously, the actions of protective paternalism are beneficial to women in immediate practice, and even allow women to take advantage of the system that subordinates them to a certain extent. The question is, however, why is it always women who are in these positions, and why does popular culture need and continue to romanticize it? It is this immediate, short-term benevolence that ensures long-term subordination.

(TW for image below: physical abuse, sexism)


(Pictured above: an image that opens with hostile, abusive sexism and closes with benevolent sexism)

In order for protective paternalism to be even more convincing and romanticized, an emphasis on sexual difference is needed to ensure that it is women that always will and always be “naturally” in these positions. The foundation is gender essentialism, which includes a number of building blocks. The first is that to be a man means to have a penis, and to be a woman means to have a vagina. “Male” and “female” are terms that are associated with genitalia, and in popular American culture, “male” and “man” are regarded as synonyms, as well as “female” and “woman.” At birth, babies are marked as “girl” if female, and “boy” if male (they are given appropriately colored blankets to denote this difference), and the way that the baby is socialized depends on this ritual of marking at birth. An emphasis upon sexual difference assumes that male and female are the only two sexes, and that “man” and “woman” are the only two genders, and erases intersex, genderfluid, or trans identities. Moreover, because it is presumed that there are only two genders, there is an assumed biological difference in personality between the genders, and an assumed antagonism. This difference is assumed to lie in biology rather than in cultural/social/historical conditions.


According to evolutionary views of sexual difference, in which the male intends to spread his sperm across the population by engaging in sexual intercourse with as many females as possible to ensure reproduction, the continuation of the species, and the continuation of his DNA. The female, who is assumed to eventually become pregnant with a male’s sperm, carries the child, and therefore looks for a male partner to ensure the protection of the child. This, of course, extends to a larger view of biological determinism in which all social interactions can be interpreted and coded through this evolutionary ideology, and sexual difference becomes prominent in our politics, social structures, and human interactions. Because of their reproductive abilities, females (which are assumed to be women) are assumed caretakers, and therefore assumed to be the following: compassionate, intuitive, clean, organized, soft, etc. Males, on the other hand, because of their abundance of testosterone and assumed functions as sperm machines, are assumed to be the following: promiscuous, aggressive, unfaithful, strong, etc. These assumptions not only perpetuate a social structure in which women are the caretakers and men are the providers, but also a justification for appropriately gendered behaviors (“boys will be boys”. And so, while compassion and intuition are wonderful qualities (qualities that I, as a woman, take pride in), these repeated gendered assumptions enact a continual perpetuation of the social structure that considers women as subordinates. Since these qualities are seeming compliments, women are encouraged to adopt and claim these labels as their own, enacting the psychological concept of self-fulfilling prophecy: if women are told that they are more compassionate, they will be more compassionate. If men are told that they are protectors, they will be more protective.

From this emphasis on sexual difference we can derive an emphasis on heterosexual intimacy. Because women are assumed to be compassionate maternal figures and men are assumed to be aggressive, protective paternal figures, these seemingly opposed sexes and genders are taken to be perfect complements of one another. A man needs a woman to “complete” him, and a woman needs a man to “complete” her – this is enacted at its most basic level in the heterosexual act that leads to reproduction. A man penetrates, and is inside, a woman, therefore filling a “void,” not only completing the “other sex” but ensuring the continuation of the species. It justifies heterosexual intercourse, and by extension, heterosexual intimacy. This is where our queer stereotypes arise; the butch/femme binary, for example, assumes that in a lesbian relationship one “acts” as the man, and the other acts as the “woman,” performing heterosexuality in order to make sure that all “characteristics” are covered (it is assumed that one person will not have all of these contradictions).

Benevolent sexism depends on all these characteristics, which lean heavily on and intertwine with one another. From this, we can create a portrait of the ideal woman in benevolent sexist discourse: compassionate, intuitive, subservient, fertile, heterosexual, and domestic. All of these characteristics make her “strong” in her own way. It is not my intention to denounce these characteristics or lifestyles as “bad” or opposed to women’s empowerment. What I am curious about, however, is how these characteristics, which serve a larger social structure, are repeated subtly over and over again in popular American discourse and media. I want to know how they are used and how they are justified – how is it that the perpetuation of essentializing gender roles are so easily assimilated into a more “politically correct” media culture?


The feminist ideology that most opposes benevolent sexism is liberal feminism – the “superwoman” ideology. The system is broken, and if we fix/revise it, women can be anything they want to be; they can rise to the top of the career ladder. Liberal feminism at its core is capitalism, revised: the ideal is not that women reside in the domestic sphere and that men reside in the public work sphere, but rather than women and men reside in both of these spaces. In execution, women have become more socially accepted in the workplace as a sort of compliment to masculinity – masculinity is what women strive for. On the other hand, while liberal feminism strives to incorporate men into the domestic sphere, the results of this have not been as successful – men still remain, at large, in the public work sphere and make a limited presence within the domestic sphere (if they do make a presence in the domestic sphere, they are hailed as heroes).


I hypothesize that the result of the seemingly polarized combination of benevolent sexism and liberal feminism as represented in media culture is postfeminist sensibility. This term, coined by British feminist Rosalind Gill, is represented by the following:

  • The notion that femininity is a bodily property
  • Shift from objectification to subjectification of women
  • Emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline
  • Focus upon individualism
  • Makeover paradigm
  • Resurgence in ideas of sexual difference
  • Sexualization of culture
  • Emphasis upon consumerism
  • Irony and knowingness (Gill).


As feminists attempt to reconcile seemingly polarized beliefs about women in the workplace, anxieties about masculine assimilation arise, and both women and men begin to mourn a seeming “loss of femininity.” As a result, this becomes reflected in media culture, and a sensibility characterized by an entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes arises. Think back, for example, to our Keds “#ladiesfirst” movement. “Ladies first” is a term characteristic of benevolent sexism, as unpacked earlier, and the emphasis on embracing sexual difference in the ads (“made for ladies”) also hinges on benevolent sexism. In addition, the “choice” of being a willing consumer and purchasing the shoes puts an emphasis on liberal feminism. Since this is a critical object in media culture, we can characterize it under postfeminist sensibility, as it puts an emphasis on consumerism, focuses on individualism, shifts to the subjectification of women, and emphasizes a makeover paradigm for both personality (“ladies will be radical”) and style (“oh girl is the new oh boy”). What we also have to consider here that in conjunction with “femininity being a bodily property” (it is the body which “marks” a person’s supposed femininity), it is the whiteness of a body which also makes it a feminine entity in postfeminist media culture. In the Keds ad, all of the models are white (one of them is perhaps the most infamous white liberal feminist, Taylor Swift),  despite one of the slogans reading, “there’s no such thing as an average girl.”


The problem with postfeminist sensibility, as both a combination of benevolent sexism and liberal feminism, is that it assumes that the problem with benevolent sexism is that it perpetuates female domesticity, and the problem with liberal feminism is that it perpetuates masculine assimilation – with postfeminism as a sensibility in popular culture, women are encouraged to “have it all.” Postfeminist sensibility is a resolution which emphasizes that women can enter the workplace, but women can (and must) retain their femininity. This places an emphasis on the individual personal improvement and self-surveillance that is characteristic of postfeminist sensibility. If women improve themselves individually, then they can rise within the American capitalist system and feel empowered. The emphasis is on neoliberal personal improvement rather than on an attack of the neoliberal capitalist system that subordinates women in the first place.


What does this have to do with my studies in stand-up comedy? Prejudice is at the center of my research, and that involves the entanglement of many types of prejudice, as justified by a certain amount of benevolence. As I have explored, linguist A. Peter McGraw’s benign-violation theory claims that in order for a bit to be considered humorous, it must both be a violation of social norms (this is why many comics so often incorporate some level of political incorrectness into their performances) and benign (not enough of a violation for the audience to be severely disturbed, sometimes justified with a more benevolent statement). Postfeminist sensibility, as the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes, is media culture’s gendered embodiment of benign-violation theory, as characteristics of it are both a violation and not a violation. Since comedy does not usually just adhere to one ideology or sensibility, the entanglement of different sensibilities is particularly interesting to analyze going forward in my research.


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