When did female empowerment become female infantilization?
Women once were encouraged to be strong and independent, to brush aside insensitive words and actions and to emerge stronger. But now, politicians, pundits, even celebrities are feeding an outrage machine by telling women they should be offended by anything and everything.
The latest example comes from actress Lena Dunham, famous not only for her HBO show “Girls” but also for a 2012 political ad comparing voting for the first time to losing one’s virginity. Last week, Dunham told NPR that the phrase “too much information” — “TMI” for short — is a sexist phrase that “trivializes female experiences.”
What Dunham doesn’t appear to realize is that by claiming common phrases are sexist, women are actually being told that they need to be protected from free speech and that they should be offended more often because they are somehow being oppressed by that speech. This reinforces the idea that women are overly fragile and sensitive — an image that feminists supposedly have been fighting for decades.
TMI is just the latest word or phrase being flagged as sexist. In 2012, the Women’s Media Center created a list of more than 100 words and phrases that are harmful to women, including “aggressive” and “complain.”
Singer Beyonce and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg added a new word to that list in March — “bossy.” Suddenly women were told they were being marginalized if they were called bossy, even though some men are called far worse (far too colorful to mention here).
This need to protect women from even reading or hearing about the ills of society has become so pervasive that some colleges are including “trigger warnings” on class syllabi to caution students that they might be offended or feel uncomfortable about some of the subject matter.
Even more detrimental to women than telling them words can hurt is the recent feminist trend of giving them mixed signals about sexuality. Modern feminists are arguing that it is "slut-shaming" to suggest that women should avoid drunken sex, but they also are pushing colleges to adopt a definition of rape in which women under the heavy influence of alcohol cannot give consent.
The perceived need to coddle women is not exclusive to liberals. In July, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., told an audience of women that her male colleagues needed to bring the discussion “down to a woman’s level.” She meant that Republican men need to learn how to relate to women, but the implication was that women can’t understand things the way men can.
There are even bills in Congress codifying the new belief that women are delicate flowers who need help to succeed in this terrible, terrible country. These include equal-pay bills that don’t actually reduce the mythical wage gap but do serve to tell women they need help to become equal to menfolk; campus sex assault bills that tell women they can’t handle alcohol and that if they regret a drunken hookup they have been raped; and a slew of abortion bills claiming the procedure is about “women’s health.”
Women are even being told flat-out that they aren’t making their own decisions but are following a path set for them by a patriarchy. When challenged on the wage gap, a common response from those pushing this myth is that the only reason women choose less lucrative, more flexible careers such as teaching and nursing is because society pushes them toward those jobs. As if no strong woman would willingly choose a path that defies the feminist vision.
Add this all up and you have today’s “thought leaders” telling women they need to be spoken to gently, need the government to guard them from harsh words and uncomfortable topics, that their setbacks are always someone else’s fault and that they aren’t in control of their own lives.
This shift toward telling women they need help at every stage of their lives (remember the Obama campaign's “Life of Julia”?) might raise funds for feminist causes or gain votes for politicians, but it’s not empowering. It’s infantilizing.