A new definition of the word sexism has taken hold in the English-speaking world, even to the point where it’s showing up in official definitions. No longer used merely to describe the belief that women are somehow inferior to men, sexism can now refer to any belief in gender differences. Case in point: when Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield fielded a question from a young boy about how the superhero came by his iconic costume by explaining that he sewed it himself, even though sewing is “kind of a feminine thing to do,” Emma Gray and The Huffington Post couldn’t resist griping about Garfield’s “Casual Sexism” and celebrating his girlfriend Emma Stone’s “Most Perfect Way” of calling it out. Gray writes,
Instead of letting the comment—which assumes that there is something fundamentally female about sewing, and that doing such a “girly” thing must be qualified with a “masculine” outcome—slide, Stone turned the Q&A panel into an important teachable moment. She stopped her boyfriend and asked: “It's feminine, how?”
Those three words are underwhelming enough to warrant suspicion that Gray is really just cheerleading for someone she sees as playing for the right team.
A few decades ago, people would express beliefs about the proper roles and places for women quite openly in public. Outside of a few bastions of radical conservatism, you’re unlikely to hear anyone say that women shouldn’t be allowed to run businesses or serve in high office today. But rather than being leveled with decreasing frequency the charge of sexism is now applied to a wider and more questionable assortment of ideas and statements. Surprised at having fallen afoul of this broadening definition of sexism, Garfield responded to Stone’s challenge by saying,
It’s amazing how you took that as an insult. It’s feminine because I would say femininity is about more delicacy and precision and detail work and craftsmanship. Like my mother, she’s an amazing craftsman. She in fact made my first Spider-Man costume when I was three. So I use it as a compliment, to compliment the feminine in women but in men as well. We all have feminine in us, young men.
Gray sees that last statement as a result of how Stone “pressed Garfield to explain himself.” Watch the video, though, and you’ll see she did little pressing. He seemed happy to explain what he meant. And that last line was actually a reiteration of the point he’d made originally by saying, “It’s kind of a feminine thing to do, but he really made a very masculine costume”—the line that Stone pounced on.
Garfield’s handling of both the young boy’s question and Stone’s captious interruption is far more impressive than Stone’s supposedly perfect way of calling him out. Indeed, Stone’s response was crudely ideological, implying quite simply that her boyfriend had revealed something embarrassing about himself—gotcha!—and encouraging him to expound further on his unacceptable ideas so she and the audience could chastise him. She had, like Gray, assumed that any reference to gender roles was sexist by definition. But did Garfield’s original answer to the boy’s question really reveal that he “assumes that there is something fundamentally female about sewing, and that doing such a ‘girly’ thing must be qualified with a ‘masculine’ outcome,” as Gray claims? (Note her deceptively inconsistent use of scare quotes and actual quotes.)
Garfield’s thinking throughout the exchange was quite sophisticated. First, he tried to play up Spider-Man’s initiative and self-sufficiency because he knew the young fan would appreciate these qualities in his hero. Then he seems to have realized that the young boy might be put off by the image of his favorite superhero engaging in an activity that’s predominantly taken up by women. Finally, he realized he could use this potential uneasiness as an opportunity for making the point that just because a male does something generally considered feminine that doesn’t mean he’s any less masculine. This is the opposite of sexism. So why did Stone and Gray cry foul?
One of the tenets of modern feminism is that gender roles are either entirely chimerical or, to the extent that they exist, socially constructed. In other words, they’re nothing but collective delusions. Accepting, acknowledging, or referring to gender roles then, especially in the presence of a young child, abets in the perpetuation of these separate roles. Another tenet of modern feminism that comes into play here is that gender roles are inextricably linked to gender oppression. The only way for us as a society to move toward greater equality, according to this ideology, is for us to do away with gender roles altogether. Thus, when Garfield or anyone else refers to them as if they were real or in any way significant, he must be challenged.
One of the problems with Stone’s and Gray’s charge of sexism is that there happens to be a great deal of truth in every aspect of Garfield’s answer to the boy’s question. Developmental psychologists consistently find that young children really are preoccupied with categorizing behaviors by gender and that the salience of gender to children arises so reliably and at so young an age that it’s unlikely to stem from socialization. Studies have also consistently found that women tend to excel in tasks requiring fine motor skill, while men excel in most other dimensions of motor ability. And what percentage of men ever go beyond sewing buttons on their shirts—if they do even that? Why but for the sake of political correctness would anyone deny this difference? Garfield’s response to Stone’s challenge was also remarkably subtle. He didn’t act as though he’d been caught in a faux pas but instead turned the challenge around, calling Stone out for assuming he somehow intended to disparage women. He then proudly expounded on his original point. If anything, it looked a little embarrassing for Stone.
Modern feminism has grown over the past decade to include the push for LGBT rights. Historically, gender roles were officially sanctioned and strictly enforced, so it was understandable that anyone advocating for women’s rights would be inclined to question those roles. Today, countless people who don’t fit neatly into conventional gender categories are in a struggle with constituencies who insist their lifestyles and sexual preferences are unnatural. But even those of us who support equal rights for LGBT people have to ask ourselves if the best strategy for combating bigotry is an aggressive and wholesale denial of gender. Isn’t it possible to recognize gender differences, and even celebrate them, without trying to enforce them prescriptively? Can’t we accept the possibility that some average differences are innate without imposing definitions on individuals or punishing them for all the ways they upset expectations? And can’t we challenge religious conservatives for the asinine belief that nature sets up rigid categories and the idiotic assumption that biology is about order as opposed to diversity instead of ignoring (or attacking) psychologists who study gender differences?
I think most people realize there’s something not just unbecoming but unfair about modern feminism’s anti-gender attitude. And most people probably don’t appreciate all the cheap gotchas liberal publications like The Huffington Post and The Guardian and Slate are so fond of touting. Every time feminists accuse someone of sexism for simply referring to obvious gender differences, they belie their own case that feminism is no more and no less than a belief in the equality of women. Only twenty percent of Americans identify themselves as feminists, while over eighty percent believe in equality for women. Feminism, like sexism, has clearly come to mean something other than what it used to. It may be the case that just as the gender roles of the past century gradually came to be seen as too rigid so too that century’s ideologies are increasingly seen as too lacking in nuance and their proponents too quick to condemn. It may even be that we Americans and Brits no longer need churchy ideologies to tell us all people deserve to be treated equally.