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#268 Benevolent Sexism in the Media

The media still portrays women as adorable but a little ditzy. In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017), Dr. Doris Silverman describes the images that describe them in a benevolent and yet demeaning way. She writes as follows: Items from advertising and movies capture both the regressive and progressive pulls for women. Consider ads for Cialus, a product that deals with male erectile dysfunction. What is noticeable in the interactions of heterosexual couples in the ads are the marked hierarchical differences in the couple. For example, one ad depicts a woman as enjoying hopping on one foot as she enters the room where he husband sees her hopping. She is caught by surprise apparently because she did not anticipate his presence. The “understanding” husband sees her hopping as a cute, quirky feature and she shyly enjoys his response. A second ad shows a couple playing checkers. The woman jumps a checker and looks up at her husband and beams, while the man follows with jumping two checkers. He is the much smarter and better player but he enjoys her adorable qualities. A third ad illustrates a women cheating at golf. Her man catches her at it, but finds her endearing nevertheless. These ads apparently serve to preserve the power and competence of males, especially since Cialus use represents a loss of virility for them.
One way of safeguarding phallocentric behavior and men’s esteem, while hiding their narcissistic vulnerability is by minimizing females—depicting them as the shallow, silly, and feckless ones. Not all ads are like this and they are slowly changing. Yet it is important to recognize that it is still with us. The women in the cialus ads are depicted as younger and less mature; they are not equal to their older male partners… It maintains what Glick and Fiske (1996) have labeled benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is a subtle view of the interactive relationship. It is defined by the authors as “characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete” (Glick and Fiske, 2001, p. 109). Men demonstrate idealization of the woman in their benevolent sexism attitude and, according to these authors; men view this role as “cherishing” of women. Nevertheless, it continues a hierarchical relationship in which women are seen as unequal and less competent; thereby needing and accepting male superiority and protection. Many women experience benevolent sexism, as comforting and satisfying .and are willing to be in a subordinate position; they appreciate and foster such arrangements. Culturally, such a position is sanctioned. It reflects what Glick and Fiske label as the “good woman”. It is a conventional view of women as selfless caregivers, ones who focus on the needs of others whether it is a spouse, children, parents, or friends. Such a stance resists Cicous’ interest in overturning traditional views and writing a unique story of individuality and competence.
Switching to film I want to compare a film from 1989 “The Little Mermaid” with the 2013 film “Frozen” that presents a new and distinctly different version of a woman and her love object. Since my own children are grown I’m no longer accustomed to visiting Disney movies. However, I was informed about “Frozen” by my 5 year old grandson who told me about the movie in great detail and encouraged me to see it.
The Little Mermaid seems a typical fairy tale story of a princess yearning for the love of a handsome, strong prince. The mermaid initially defies her father, Neptune, the king of the seas, because she is curious about the world. She finds items from the human world that interest her, but above all the attractive, young sailor prince with whom she falls in love. Her father forbids her to pursue anything human; after all she is a mermaid. She risks hazards and the depths of hell to contact an evil sorceress. She wishes to become human so she can be with her gorgeous guy. As is typical there is great testing for both characters. There are turmoil, storms, near-death experiences, and finally romance and the uniting of the mermaid as human with her beloved prince. Even Neptune accepts that his daughter is in love and nothing can be done to sunder this love match. However, forgoing her mermaid hood and becoming human, she gives up her voice and now is a silent woman, the ancient role of females subservient to their men.
Next week we will compare The Little Mermaid to the more recent movie Frozen.

#268 Benevolent Sexism in the Media

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2017). #268 Benevolent Sexism in the Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Nov 2017
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