The Difference Between Sexism and Misogyny, and Why It Matters
As the feminist movement gathers momentum, words such as ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ have entered mainstream vocabulary, with the two often being conflated in usage. The oversimplification of feminist discourse by capitalism, pop culture, and social media has led to a haze around the two words, where they roughly mean the same in our heads, but they actually don’t.
If patriarchy is the overarching social organization in which men hold the power, and from which women are largely excluded, then misogyny and sexism are the two drivers that uphold this system. If patriarchy is the state with a capital S, the sexism is the ideology, the legislative pillar: it is a form of prejudice made up of assumptions, theories, and stereotypes that normalize and justify patriarchal norms as the most inevitable and desirable. Misogyny, then, is the method. It is both the executive and the judiciary, in that it enforces the ideology and reprimands where there is a breach of law. It is the hostile policing of those women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, thereby setting a precedent for the cost of feminist transgression.
Sexism synthesizes a disregard of women; misogyny, then, acts out that disregard.
To say ‘boys will be boys’ and therefore, a woman should not wear certain clothes while venturing out at night — is sexism. But, to make ‘she had it coming’ rape jokes — that’s misogyny. The difference is more than just about splitting hairs. Our approach to fighting definitional elements of feminist discourse parallels our treatments of words like ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny.’ To know the difference between the two — sexism is academic; misogyny is spoiling for a fight — is to know how to recognize it, and how and when to resist both adequately.
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Sexism is defined as economic, political, and social discrimination against women based on the belief that the male sex is superior to the female sex. It requires hyperfocus on the perceived differences between the two sexes and hence, includes stereotyping based on a preconception of gender norms. It demands that people be primed to identify with the gendered expectations of their sex. While the oppression of women has existed for millennia, the word ‘sexist’ only came to be during the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s. It was used analogously to the word ‘racist’ in that both words judge someone’s value by weighing factors (sex, race).
The treatment of female politicians effectively describes how sexism works. Besides being female, these politicians face double sexism: leadership is considered the domain of men, a domain of power, and sexism exists to ensure that women don’t have that power. During the last U.S. Presidential elections, Hillary Clinton’s laugh was branded as “The Clinton Cackle”; her voice was branded as shrill and her delivery, loud. Meanwhile, then-presidential candidate and now-but-how President Donald Trump fabricated and fumbled his way through, with incoherent statements and even confessions of sexual assault, and it was all but labeled ridiculous and glossed over as a vile idiosyncrasy. This is an example of a sexist bias: the gender incongruence bias — a theory that posits people expect women to act in ways congruent to femininity; if a woman doesn’t, they won’t accept her.
This is where misogyny comes into play. (As Clinton faced during her presidential campaign.) It is contempt for women — but the nuance is, it is contempt specifically for those who don’t adhere to the status quo, who challenge male dominance — and then, involves the punishment of these women — through words and actions, sometimes outright violence.
There is a tendency to define misogyny as this visceral hatred of women and girls, holding tight to etymological roots of the word (misein means “to hate” and gynē means “woman” in Greek), but, really, it is a method — the law enforcement arm — by which the social system reprimands the women it deems as morally objectionable, too shrill, too pushy, too promiscuous. But women only appear this way because we expect the opposite from them, we expect them to be passive. This expectation is rooted in sexism; but, the denigration of and violence against women who don’t fulfill that expectation — that’s misogyny.
Not all sexists are misogynists: you can believe women are fragile creatures just waiting to experience the joy of motherhood (sexist), without being hostile towards women (misogynistic). But all misogynists are sexists. They hope sexists are right about gendered roles and the superiority of men, and when it turns out these ‘rules’ are breakable, they act out in fear that the patriarchal system that benefits them might go away.
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This fear embedded within patriarchy has found new names as the feminist movement expands to include the LGBTQIA+ community. ‘Homophobia’ and ‘queerphobia,’ or the fear of homosexuals and queer people, respectively, have found a space of their own in the movement’s lexicon, and yet essentially parallels the phobia that drives misogyny: hostility, born out of fear, of women, homosexuals, and queer people upsetting the heteronormative cis-gendered male’s sexist dominance. In that sense, sexism is self-assured to the point of smugness; misogyny is anxious.
It is important we pry apart the patriarchal superstructure with this precision and nuance. George Orwell argued that unclear political language is both a symptom and a cause of unclear political thinking. While the words sexism and misogyny may seem similar, they are different in the roles they play in the systemic oppression of women, and in the manner and urgency with which they should be fought. If all goes according to plan, hopefully, misogyny will be eradicated from society first and soon, and more insidious forms of sexism can be tackled persistently over a longer period of time. By conflating the two, we risk doing a disservice to language; we risk oversimplifying it — and that Orwell argued, is the way toward tyranny.