A few days ago, we got a question about the third presidential debate sent to us through the contact form. With permission from the author, I am providing the question and answer I gave below, slightly edited for grammar and my answer is slightly edited to elaborate and include some links.
Feel free to chime in with your view in the comments!
My husband and I have had a lot of debates about the presidential debates. He himself is not sexist, our relationship is 50/50 and he never does sexist things himself, but as a white male, he doesn’t see the privilege he lives under. In fact, he feels like he has to walk on eggshells while minorities are granted more “freedom of speech.” Specifically, the “nasty woman” comment was difficult to explain why it was wrong and sexist. He said if Trump had said “nasty person” would it have been ok? Why is stating the fact that she is a woman sexist? I had a hard time explaining what that meant to me as a woman, a woman who has been talked down to in such a way.
How can I adequately explain why that was a sexist remark to someone who’s never known bias like that? How can I help me open-minded husband see that it really is a problem and why?
I’m not a woman and I don’t face sexism and misogyny like women do, but I can give you my take as a person who is eyeballs deep in gender studies and feminist theory.
It seems to me that the issue isn’t as much with “nasty woman” itself, but with the intended effect of “nasty woman” as well as how it fits into broader patterns of sexism. When Trump made that comment, Clinton wasn’t actually doing anything nasty. She was a politician engaged in politics, she made a sarcastic comment about Trump not paying taxes:
CLINTON: Well, Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund…
TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.
It was a zinger, meant to highlight hypocrisy. If you compare Clinton’s remark to the things Trump was saying at the debate and has been saying for months, Clinton’s comment is really mild in comparison, not to mention it highlights an actual problem with Trump rather than an imagined one like Hillary’s failure to single-handedly changing the tax code. Why did Trump call her a “nasty woman”? Well, it plays on the gender normative trope that any time a woman isn’t being “sugar and spice and everything nice,” she’s a bad person who lacks character. It’s a double-standard. Men are allowed to be nasty—in fact, as we see with Trump, men are given the benefit of the doubt and their nastiness gets chalked up to being “boys just being boys” while women are expected to maintain their composure at all times and even the slightest hint of going off the normative gendered script is met with disdain and scorn.
Of course Trump says all kinds of awful things to all kinds of people, but the thing about sexism is that it’s not so much about the individual instances as it is about the patterns, such as how powerful men insult powerful women in an effort to play up our society’s sexist discomfort with powerful women (h/t Courtney for the link). I’m guessing the reason that “nasty woman” bothered you is because you instantly recognized it for what it was: an insult that was meant to have the particular effect of disparaging a woman’s character when she was doing something men do without comment all the time. Even if he had said “nasty person,” it still would have been sexist because the issue isn’t whether he called her a woman or a person, but his insulting of her character is typical misogyny that women, both in and out of positions of power, are subjected to all the time.
I would encourage your husband to stop thinking of such things in isolation and start trying to recognize patterns. It is, of course, more difficult when one isn’t subjected to these things constantly, but if he’s open-minded and believes you when you say it’s sexist and it bothers you, he should try to see why it’s part of a larger ongoing pattern and not fall into the trap of thinking it’s just women being oversensitive to one specific comment (which would be a sexist response).