Sep 16

New POTUS job requirement: “A presidential look”

What, exactly, comprises the “presidential look” that according to Republican candidate Donald Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lacks? Although he demurs when asked for specifics, stating “I’m just talking about general,” (Parker, 2016), it can be concluded based on his former comments about women in general and former female political opponent Carly Fiorina in particular that there are gender politics at play in his remarks (Estepa, 2015). Unfortunately, Trump is not alone in his doubts about whether someone who looks like Clinton (i.e. female) would be able to project the aura of authority the office of the Presidency requires. The uncomfortable truth is that hidden sexism operates in our society, and many of us are uneasy with seeing women in a powerful role.

Penn State psychology professor Terri Vescio explains the gender bias that operates in the political sphere as a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation, in which “the more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them…[because] if you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent” (Bush, 2016). This catch-22 for women in politics (and in business) undermines their support among both men and women, and because much of it is implicit bias, it is often unrecognized. For example, even within the Obama administration female staffers often had to struggle to make their voices heard until they struck upon a strategy of “amplification” whereby they mutually drew attention to each other’s significant contributions in order ensure that the proper party received credit for the idea (Eilperin, 2016). I point this out in order to be clear that sexism is an issue that transcends political party affiliation, and therefore we all stand to lose out if valuable contributions from women are silenced by oppression either blatant or subtle.

Hostile sexism is easier to recognize for what it is, but there is another side to sexism that is more insidious: benevolent sexism. For example, I would describe myself as a feminist, but when I took the “Are You Sexist” quiz offered by PBS.org, my results indicated that I hold a fair degree of subtle gender prejudice:

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-4-06-57-pmI encourage you to click the link above and see your own results – you might be surprised at what you learn about yourself. Anyone familiar with the Harvard implicit bias tests will recall that we don’t have to hold explicitly negative beliefs about others to be influenced by bias. Our implicit beliefs can lead us to behave in a manner which is discriminatory while we simultaneously think of ourselves as fair and considerate.

When you combine elements of hostile and benevolent sexism you get ambivalent sexism. We can see the interplay of these elements in Donald Trump’s statements about women, both positive and negative. Recently, professor Peter Glick, who along with Susan Fiske proposed the tripartite understanding of sexism stated, “Trump’s views are consistent with conventional ideologies that view women as wonderful…but with a catch” (Glick, 2016).

“Heterosexual men’s intimate interdependence on women (as objects of desire, wives, and mothers), fosters a ‘benevolent’ side to sexism. Benevolent sexism encompasses genuine warmth toward women, but only when they support rather than challenge men’s status, power, and privileges” (Glick, 2016).

Regardless of which candidate we choose to vote for in the upcoming election, I hope that we will all pay closer attention to our own assumptions about gender and competence. Often we hold women to different standards than men without realizing that we are doing so. In light of what I’ve learned in in this course (particularly Swim and Hyer’s (1991) research regarding women’s responses to sexist comments), I will not only strive to resist social pressure to silence myself, but will also do more to support other women as they work to make their voices heard. If enough men and women do the same, perhaps we can arrive at a point sometime in the future when saying that a female political candidate doesn’t look “presidential” will fail to cause some of us to nod in agreement.


Allen, J. (2016, July 21). Anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric has become dangerous and violent. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from American, http://www.rushhourdaily.com/anti-hillary-clinton-rhetoric-become-dangerous-violent/

Bush, D. The hidden sexism that could sway the election. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/hidden-sexism/

Eilperin, J. (2016, September 13). White house women want to be in the room where it happens. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/13/white-house-women-are-now-in-the-room-where-it-happens/

Estepa, J. (2015, September 10). Donald Trump on Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face!” . Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/09/10/trump-fiorina-look-face/71992454/

Glick, P. (2016). Benevolent sexism and the art of the deal. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-enquiry/201609/benevolent-sexism-and-the-art-the-deal

Parker, A. (2016, September 7). Donald Trump says Hillary Clinton Doesn’t have “a presidential look.” Politics. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/us/politics/donald-trump-says-hillary-clinton-doesnt-have-a-presidential-look.html

Santhanam, L. (2016, August 10). Are you sexist? Take this quiz. . Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/are-you-sexist-take-this-quiz/


Oct 15

Madonna-whore complex

According to the sexual script theory, human sexuality is largely determined by culturally-prescribed scripts, or templates for behavior.  These gender-normative scripts are typically heterosexual, where men are depicted as sexually active and assertive, while favoring nonrelational sex.  Conversely, women are described as sexually passive and seeking relational sex.  Such tendencies are learned through socialization and then acted out, thereby creating further reinforcement of the conventions, making these scripts cyclical in nature.  Despite the twenty-first century‘s advances in gender roles, the stereotype that men are generally sexually eager and women are coy, if not repressed, is still the sexual norm (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012).  Both evolutionary drives and media messaging explain this phenomenon, which is also related to social dominance theory’s view that men have more power in the gender hierarchy (PSU WC, 2015). To further complicate matters, adhering to these traditional gender roles is associated with societal rewards and punishments (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

These concepts of gender and sexuality are stereotypical and fairly obvious, yet a deeper look reveals huge and complex juxtapositions for both men and women.  The terror management theory suggests that men have a profound subconscious ambivalence towards women and their sexuality because it reminds them of their true corporeal animal nature and therefore, mortality.  This concept is woven throughout many different culture’s religions and histories.  On the one hand, men spend much of their lives lusting after women, and on the other hand men wrestle with an intense fear of women.  This contradiction is unsettling and at the mild end of the spectrum can create cognitive dissonance for men, potentially leading to sexism, misogyny, and even violence and rape, in the extreme (Landau et al., 2006).

Accordingly, Sigmund Freud developed a theory to explain men’s anxiety towards women’s sexuality, suggesting that men cast women into one of two categories to allay the uncomfortable dichotomy of fear and desire: the Madonna (women he admires and respects) and the whore (women he is attracted to and therefore disrespects).  The Madonna-whore complex views women’s desirability/licentiousness and purity/maternal goodness as mutually exclusive traits.  Love is seen as clean and virginal whereas sex is viewed as dirty and shameful.  Because healthy sexuality is sublimated, it is rerouted towards the secrecy and debasement involved in pornography where the concept of slut is outwardly despised and privately craved.  This dichotomy may contributes to many relationship issues, where men generally seek to maintain the image of their romantic partner as Madonna, but may seek the whore in the form of an affair in order to achieve both opposing idealizations that are difficult to project onto the same woman (Landau et al., 2006).

Hartmann (2009) asserts that though many of Freud’s sexual theories are now considered antiquated and sexist, his psychoanalytic notion of the Madonna-whore complex is still quite viable and pervasive in modern sexual dynamics and gender roles.  Women are given so many shaming antisexual messages suppressing the understanding and integration of their sexuality, while simultaneously being valued principally for their youth, thinness, attractiveness, and overall sexual prestige by society. The female plight is just as dichotomous as the male’s: women want to be both respected (primarily) yet desired (secondarily), whereas men struggle to reconcile these concepts that they can find paradoxical, creating cognitive dissonance.  Landau et al. (2006) indicate that men’s ambivalence towards women’s sexuality is predicated on the ambivalence about their own sexuality, again a painful reminder of their mortality.

My initial aim in writing this blog was to explore the difficulties involved in women’s gender roles and sexuality, however, after further research it seems that men’s attitudes and proclivities are just as complicated.  I think these dynamics are both fascinating and frightening.  So much of how we behave sexually it seems is based on genetic and societal programming outside of our control.  But understanding these deeply rooted tendencies and conflicts is the first step in self-actualizing to consciously create the gender and sexual roles we feel comfortable with and want to portray.  Also, I think the Madonna-whore complex does affect many relationships to varying degrees, especially married couples, and those with children most of all.  I’ve seen family and friends struggle with that dynamic, probably thinking the issue was unique to them, whereas I believe it to be a much more widespread phenomenon.


Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/a0027911

Hartmann, U. (2009). Sigmund Freud and His Impact on Our Understanding of Male Sexual Dysfunction. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(8), 2332-2339. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01332.x

Landau, M. J., Goldenberg, J. L., Greenberg, J., Gillath, O., Solomon, S., Cox, C., . . . Pyszczynski, T. (2006). The siren’s call: Terror management and the threat of men’s sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 129-146. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.129

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus (PSU WC). (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations. In PSYCH424: Applied Social Psychology (5). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.



Oct 14

Benevolent Sexism Is Not Benign

By Amy Caraballo

Benevolent sexism, discriminatory attitudes in the form of caring, complimentary, or pseudo-respectful statements, is likely one of the most surreptitious forms of sexism in our world, today. Studies have found that it is an important perpetuating factor that helps maintain gender inequality (Hammond, et al., 2014). Even more troubling is that victims sometimes pass on and encourage these attitudes believing them to be compliments or signs of respect (Hammond, et al., 2014). One only has to visit the Internet meme world to find hundreds of benevolent sexist examples, many of which are circulated by the most common victims, women and girls. It is difficult to understand how victims could spread harmful stereotypes about themselves. When one looks closer, however, the issue becomes clear; the effects of benevolent sexism are so pervasive and invisible, its victims are often completely unaware they have been wronged. Instead, it seems they sometimes believe they are empowered.

When the Powerful Dominate the Powerless

Sexist Message: A woman's purpose is to serve a man's every need.

Sexist Message: A woman’s purpose is to serve a man’s every need. Credit: lovethispic.com

Social Dominance Theory suggests that groups, including societies, are built upon group-based hierarchies with a few dominant groups controlling all the resources and power. The rest are all subordinate groups, or low-level groups that have few resources and little power. These groups are typically at the mercy of the dominant groups (Pratto, et al., 2006). In the case of gender in our society, classic males are dominant while classic females are subordinate. It is not just brute force and power that keeps the subordinates in their place, either. Helping maintain these hierarchies are more subtle tools such as legitimizing myths, otherwise known as culturally held beliefs (Pratto, et al., 2006). Much like folklore, legitimizing myths are beliefs and stereotypes about the way things are in a given culture or society. It is from these legitimizing myths benevolent sexist ideas were born and continue to be maintained. Statements like “women are caregivers” while “men are providers” and “girls are dainty and sensitive” while “boys are strong and thick-skinned” are examples of legitimizing myths about genders. These ideals are conditioned at the moment of birth by the type of words children hear at home, the influences of endless media exposure, and the influence of peers (Witt, 2000). Later, when these myths are woven into compliments and caring statements, it is harder to see the malicious intent which ultimately is to keep the genders unequal.

But It Was Meant as a Compliment

“Women are too emotionally unstable to be leaders.”

It is pretty clear, to most people, that this remark is sexist. But what about this comment?

“Women are better caregivers because they are nurturing.”

Sexist Message: A woman needs to be protected by a man and should be kept in her place.

Sexist Message: A woman needs to be protected by a man and should be kept in her place. Credit: all-greatquotes.com

It sounds a bit like a compliment to women. When we look closer, however, a sexist message is noticed; women should raise children. There is also a sexist message toward men; men are not supposed to be nurturing. If your thoughts turn toward examples of people who fit these stereotypes, thank legitimizing myths for shaping how society views and pigeonholes gender roles.

Compliments Do Not Hurt Anyone


Sexist Message: Girls are too emotional. Credit: theteenagerquotes.tumblr.com

It may be true that a real compliment is honoring. Benevolent sexist remarks, however, are not true compliments. Benevolent sexist remarks help spread the stereotype of the weak, frail, and emotionally unstable female (Tannenbaum, 2013). Additionally, studies have shown that women exposed to benevolent sexist attitudes were more likely to give in to those stereotypes thus maintaining their own gender inequality (Tannenbaum, 2013).

Where Do We Go From Here?

In order to stop the legitimacy of these cultural myths we have to do better at educating the public. We need awareness about what benevolent sexism is and how prevalent it has become. We can only fight back against such sexism once we understand what it is and how to recognize when its used. We must speak up when we hear it or see it and not condone its use by remaining silent. We must teach children to recognize this form of sexism and how to respond to its wrongful messages.

We must remove the invisibility cloak of this form of sexism and see it for what it is. Only then can we begin to aspire for gender equality. Benevolent sexism is not empowering. It is not benign. And certainly it is harmful to a society that strives for equal opportunity.

Hammond, M. D., Sibley, C. G., & Overall, N. C. (2014). The allure of sexism: Psychological entitlement fosters women’s endorsement of benevolent sexism over time. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 422-429. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550613506124

Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., & Levin, S. (2006). Social dominance theory and the dynamics of intergroup relations: Taking stock and looking forward. European Review of Social Psychology, 17, 271-320.

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., Coutts, L. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tannenbaum, M. (2013). The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly… PsySociety, Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American Global. Retrieved October 4, 2014, at: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/04/02/benevolent-sexism/

Witt, S. D. (2000). The influence of peers on children’s socialization to gender roles. Early Child Development and Care, 162, 1-7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0300443001620101

Skip to toolbar