The New Sexism

I have a horrible confession to make.

I love reality TV shows. I know, I know, as a thinking, self-respecting human being I should run from Bravo and MTV as fast as my legs can carry me, but I really just can’t help it. I turn on the TV and I can’t stop watching. I think one of the reasons I find reality TV so fascinating is because it gives me a lens into the world of some people who don’t think like me. For that reason, I am highly disturbed at what I’ve been watching lately.

Lately I’ve been watching the show The Millionaire Matchmaker, a show in which Patty (the matchmaker) finds millionaires who have trouble finding love and helps them figure out what they’re doing wrong. This show terrifies me. One of Patty’s common refrains is “let the man be the man and do the leading”. At least half of the problems with the people in the show (according to Patty) are that they are not adhering to traditional gender norms which “have worked for thousands of years”. She tells strong women that they can’t plan their own dates or initiate kissing because that’s the man’s job. And even worse, she acts as if women do not want sex, they want marriage, and so they shouldn’t give up sex until they’ve gotten what they want.

What scares me is that most of the people in this show seem to agree with her, and that she’s portrayed as the voice of common sense, as if everyone knows this is how dating should function. There are lots of problems with this.

First and foremost, gender roles simply have not worked for thousands of years. There was really no such thing as dating until very recently, so trying to point towards arranged, forced or political marriages as evidence of the benefits of gender roles is simply twisting the facts.

Second and perhaps more importantly, forcing women into a submissive role in dating undermines all the work that feminists have done. Telling women that they cannot control their own sexuality except as a way to ensnare men doesn’t recognize that women also have sexual needs and desires and that sexuality should be a partnership in which both partners enthusiastically consent. Expecting women to always withhold until they’ve been offered a high enough price is a recipe for rape and sexual violence.

Third, love, romance, a life partner, whatever you want to call it is a highly important aspect of life. If a woman is not able to take control or lead or express her opinions in this huge area of their life is to begin the process of taking away their control in all areas of life.

Beyond the fact that the show is simply sexist, it really worries me that this is portrayed as normal, common sense, intelligent and the way to get a date. It worries me that this is clearly a very popular show (Bravo plays it almost 24/7). If this is the fare that young men and women are being brought up on, how are women supposed to hold on to the gains that they have made and make new ones? If these strong gender roles are once again normalized to the extent they have been in the past, the feminist movement is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if we have the right to vote if we are treated as inferior in our daily lives and our most intimate relationships.

I hope that this show is a distorted version of reality and that men as the leaders is not simple “common sense”. I’m not even going to touch on the cissexism, the obsession with traditional monogamy and the complete ignorance towards alternative relationships and gender presentations, but even on the simple level of basic sexism this show is unacceptable. I know I could find at least 5 others that peddle these same stereotypes. I find this symptomatic of the media’s current trend towards re-normalizing sexism.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. August 29, 2011 at 4:09 pm —

    I agree with you 100%, shows like this are disgusting. But I’m not sure if this is really a “new sexism” or an emerging trend that’s undoing a previous trend of feminist progress. If anything, I see things like this as just the same Old Sexism, repackaged for a new generation. It’s the same sexist, misogynist, cissexist, heteronormative, gender-binary-enforcing silliness we’ve been seeing all along. I don’t worry “oh dang a new generation is growing up with this as their model of gender roles and sexuality instead of the enlightened feminist media I grew up with” (I certainly didn’t grow up with enlightened feminist media, after all). I just end up feeling like there’s still a lot of work to be done. That the ideas we’re working against are VERY entrenched. And it’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of patience, and a LOT of hard work, education and advocacy, before shows upholding these ideas are finally put to bed.

    • August 30, 2011 at 2:42 am —

      I agree, that probably wasn’t the best title, but I was having trouble coming up with something snappy, haha.

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