“C’mon, sweetie, can’t you take a joke?”
“Lady, if you’d just shut up for a minute then I can explain why you’re wrong.”
“Miss, bring me some more coffee and this time give us a smile!”
“What do you mean, you don’t want children? That’s unnatural.”
“Do you know how pretty you’d be if you just used some makeup? If you lost 15 pounds? If you let your hair grow? If you wore dresses?”
“We need to hire a guy this time. The last two hires were both females.”
Most of us didn’t know there was a word for it and once we did, we learned not to say it out loud. The very silence surrounding it is evidence of it. Yet misogyny is like the air around us: unseen, full of pressures, exerting influences we have trouble charting and therefore don’t question.
How can we escape the influence of the culture’s insistence on subordination for every woman, which is the equivalent of a chicken in every man’s pot? There’s almost no way to evade these images; even if we decide to reject and dismantle them, we have to face them and define them first.
Derived from the Greek, misogyny means “woman-hater.” It’s not a tough term to explain, but, like racism and homophobia, a lot of people argue that it doesn’t exist even when the lives of millions are shaped by it daily. “We had that black president — what else do you want?” and “Anderson Cooper and RuPaul both have their own shows” are phrases which might clue you into the fact that you’re talking to folks who are racists and homophobes.
These phrases could cozy right up to their misogynist brethren, which include but are not limited to, “It’s scientifically proven that women lose their minds once a month,” “If they’re really smart, girls will keep their intelligence to themselves,” and “A man has to be older, taller and earn more money than his wife or else the marriage will never work.”
Ironically, misogyny is an equal-opportunity affliction: women can express loathing and contempt for other women at least as effectively as men. In this arena as well, I would argue, women can surpass their male colleagues.
So, how can you tell if you’re dealing with a misogynist?
If he or she refers to adult women who work in a professional setting as “the girls,” says my Facebook friend Nancy P. Thompson, then you’re dealing with somebody who has a problem with women.
My former student Burton Phillips writes, “In my experience, use of the word ‘female’ as a noun rather than an adjective is a pretty reliable red flag.” Now an attorney working for New York’s first female (note the adjectival use) attorney general, Barbara Underwood, Burt makes an excellent point.
Three other former students, now all successful professionals, make similarly poignant observations: Ebony Murphy-Root, a teacher in California, suggests that you can discover a person’s philosophical underpinnings by asking their opinions about “women who don’t change their surnames at marriage. Misogyny will out.”
Argues Melissa Batista, who works in Manhattan, “When they puff out their chest and pat you on the back” but “stop you before you’re finished going over a report because they’ve ‘heard enough’” you’re dealing with men who don’t give women the respect they automatically award men.
Caitlin O’Donnell, in Boston and working in academia, says, “If he rolls his eyes, laughs or raises his eyebrows when I express important opinions, ideas or feelings,” then he’s a misogynist. He might just think he’s a witty, natural, heart-on-his sleeve kind of guy who just wants gals to lighten up, but he’d be wrong about that.
It’s not that women can’t take a joke. It’s that misogyny isn’t funny. No kidding: it really isn’t.
Finally, when hearing that a woman or girl has been sexually harassed or assaulted, if the first three questions are “What was she wearing?” “What was she doing there?” and “Well, what did she think would happen?” that person is a misogynist. That person believes that Adam would’ve been better off keeping all his ribs.
Don’t ignore misogynists. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t appoint them, don’t support then and don’t elect them.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.