I was sitting in a trendy Surry Hills eatery, just trying to eat some fried chicken and deconstruct my existential loneliness with a friend, when I was distracted by this image:
Why was this image here? The obvious answers weren’t satisfactory somehow. This place was young, innovative and painfully hip – shouldn’t they know better? The fried chicken was more than a physical censor; it was being used as a proxy, a deep fried piece of irony that justified the presence of a sexualised picture of a young woman in a public space. How dare they exploit fried chicken to exploit the female body! The aesthetic was so Terry Richardson; gratuitous and ironic, as if the latter ever negates the former.
This experience fitted neatly into a category of experiences I’d been mentally cataloguing under the heading: My Confusing Run-ins with ‘Ironic Sexism’. Other experiences included: a self-identifying feminist ally turning an intellectual conversation about sleep paralysis into a fictionalised sexual encounter between me and Kevin James (a.k.a. Paul Blart: Mall Cop), which he narrated in the first person, as me, paying close to attention my “gyrating pelvis” on Kev’s “shitty body” but of course as a joke, which was kind of funny, but it was also like “please stop, I barely know you!” There was the time I noticed that the tip jar at my favourite bar had a photo of an eighties bikini babe on it, with a post-it note saying “just the tip.” It was the handsome beta male with the beard and flannel offering to buy me a drink with the wry, magnanimous promise of “don’t worry, you don’t have to sleep with me or anything.” It’s the Instagram picture of three female friends in the kitchen, as dudes compete underneath for the pithiest, most sardonic version of “make me a sandwich, babe.” It’s even the well-intentioned, sarcastic jokes that try to suggest how stupid sexism was, unwittingly leaving little space to talk about how stupid sexism still is, because despite being so desperate to appear ‘above’ it, ironic sexism actually has little interest in your experiences within it. It’s about its own image, not your reality. It exploits its awareness for attention, not solidarity. Its eyes glaze over if you start to talk about your experiences, of which there are probably many.
Alissa Quart at New York Magazine defines hipster sexism as “the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class.” In other words, it’s ironic, and this is what separates hipster spaces that use sexualised imagery from long-standing beacons of cheerful lechery like Hooters. ‘Hipster spaces’ is a murky and unfortunate phrase, but we’re talking about spaces that are marked by two dimensional, aesthetic nostalgia for times or places in which its patrons have probably never lived, as well an oppressive air of self-awareness about its image. These spaces are not problematic in themselves, but because the self-defensive mode of irony thrives in these contexts, they can be fertile soil for the slippery appropriation and reinforcement of the male gaze.
In contrast, an establishment like Hooters is categorically problematic. It is the place that classic sexism, the embarrassing, obnoxious uncle of ironic sexism, hangs out. Hooters is unself-conscious: it’s the use of ‘like a girl’ as an insult, it’s the wolf whistle that genuinely believes it’s a compliment, it’s ‘locker room talk’. It still thrives, but it’s conspicuous, and this is where differences between ironic sexism and classic sexism start to emerge.
Because just when classic sexism is looking more and more like a bloated old guy at the pub sweating with glee over an innuendo, in saunters his nephew, ironic sexism. He looks damn cool. He literally never takes off his sunglasses because he hates earnest eye contact and can’t risk someone springing it on him. He manages to appear defiant despite the fact that he powerfully maintains the status quo. He reads Vice, is in a book club with mostly women and can wax lyrical about contemporary misogyny and corporate control, all while looking like Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1999. While his uncle is harassing a young woman, ironic sexism swaggers up to her, laughs dismissively at the outdated, greasy approach, and then proceeds to continue objectifying her, but with self-awareness and a wink that make you almost forget they’re essentially doing the same thing.
These guys, along with many other masculine stereotypes, are positioned along a spectrum from overt to covert when it comes to their exercise of power. I imagine them all in a line in power poses. I see the Old White Men, the Eddie McGuires and Steve Prices, wielding blunt instruments of ignorance and belligerence. Then next to them is a Fuckboy, who treats women like sexual ATMs, authoring responses like ‘haha and then what ;)’ to even the most mundane text. He’s the embodiment of the emoji with the winky eye and tongue out. On his left there’s the Manarchist, who loves women so much he doesn’t need to listen to them, whose loud voice and ‘rightness’ mansplains you into a coma. Flanking these men, but lurking in the shadows is the Male Sentimental, who is in a constant state of emotional fugitivity and weaponised sensitivity, using passive-aggressive manipulation to maintain power over women. He is joined in the shadows by his little brother, the Softboy; an underdog with a hurricane sulk, who might not ‘weaponise’ his sensitivity but definitely leverages it to maintain control. If the Fuckboy is an unrepentant asshole, these guys are somewhat repentant, though not enough to change their behaviour. They wear women down by requiring a frankly invoiceable amount of emotional labour, with limited reciprocity or commitment, fostering insecurity and remaining inhospitable to being called out for anything. Then there’s the hipster who has two beards – one for his face and one for his latent sexism. They are united by their disdain for accountability, their diverse strategies seeking to convince women that they are always the problem.
These guys all co-exist and are positioned differently when it comes to feminism and its work: from belligerent disagreement, to defensive acknowledgement and subversion, to bargaining with it, where they can be men with feelings, pass the feminist test, and still keep power. Where it can no longer afford to operate through violence or coercion, patriarchy operates via emotional manipulation, echoing Foucault’s idea that politics uses “a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force.” I would argue that in this case, irony is that silent war, because it repositions women’s objections to sexism back toward the role historically cast for them as being hysterical, sensitive and better seen than heard.
When I am met with one of these stereotypes, occasionally I catch myself slipping to a complementary female stereotype, one typically built to accommodate the masculine. When faced with a sulky, romantic Softboy, it’s easy to play the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Zooey Deschanel, an antidote for his existential dissatisfaction and an inspirational cue for him to change his life around. Alternatively, I might allow myself to be used as a site of emotional respite, armed with my attentive listening face. Either way, my identity becomes reactionary, secondary and inevitably costs me my subjectivity, which is something that I’m learning to guard and cherish as a female. But when I’m faced with a cool guy slinging me some salty ironic sexism, he invites me to become one of pop culture’s most desirable female stereotypes: The Cool Girl. She’s the ‘dude in a hot girl’s body’, the ‘not like other girls’ girl, who is valorised at the expense of the rest of her gender. In the past, when internalised misogyny was rife and unchecked in my inner world, this was an attractive prospect. The core of this particular male fantasy is not actually The Cool Girl’s proximity to typically ‘masculine’ stuff; this fantasy actually hinges on the fact that The Cool Girl is (wait for it) ‘cool’ with everything. Whether men realise or not, her perceived indifference, complicity, and disinterest in holding them accountable if they act like rogue douchebags is vital to her appeal, as is the fact that this dynamic is somewhat obscured by her ‘tough’ exterior. So when I’m faced with ironic sexism sometimes it’s tempting, and it’s definitely easier, to return the serve with a wink; to casually aim for gold in the Blasé Olympics and emerge from the hipster landscape of competitive ambivalence and apathy wearing a gold medal emblazoned with 2016’s definitive compliment: chill.
But then I remember that ‘chill’ actually sucks, because as Alana Massey describes, it is a “sinister refashioning of ‘Calm down!’ from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude.” I had Insufficient Chill Funds when an older man at the pub harassed me, or offered my platonic male friend (assumed boyfriend/keeper) money for me. I had Zero Net Chill when his friend came to apologise to my male friend, offering him $50 as compensation, without so much as even looking at me. The exchange was a fully envisioned nightmare, an almost a comedic portrait of disrespect, with a gruesome lack of self-awareness. There were no proxies in place. It was completely unselfconscious. This was classic sexism; the weapon was blunt and stupid, and it hurt a little but it was not surprising. It didn’t ‘reinscribe’ the relationship of force, it just blustered down a well-worn path. The process of ‘reinscribing’ occurs when the dominant party has been forced to adapt, to find new ways to maintain power. I felt entitled to my anger, and confident others would too. It was easy to call out. This is a key difference between interactions with classic sexism and ironic sexism.
In hipster spaces, this brand of classic sexism is probably not welcome. I feel confident letting hipster bar staff know if I am being harassed, but I would be much less confident letting them know that the poster of the topless girl with fried chicken over her nipples made me uncomfortable. How to explain that it’s not because I’m prudishly uncomfortable with the female body, or even my own body in comparison, but because what I’m observing is the incidental reinforcement of a very specific, but increasingly pervasive male gaze that permeates hipster spaces, one that’s ‘relevant’, self-conscious, and almost defensive in its posture? It is a gaze that pre-empts criticism, preparing to bat away accusations of sexism with a cute girl swinging a deep fried chicken drumstick. There’s a studied irreverence about it, and the idea that you can simultaneously indulge and parody sexism, when really, the latter is being used to facilitate the former. The implication is that because it’s self-aware, and funny, and because we all know that what we’re seeing is a bit cheeky, that we’re in on the joke and our awareness of that negates the impact of the content. It actually flatters us into thinking that, as a culture, we’re above the base level objectification of women, and we can now quietly mock it. A prime example here is the General Pants 2014 ‘Wet Dreams’ ad campaign: smug, crude (literally about semen, ugh), ostensibly ironic, and though the Advertising Standards Board “noted that the term is a colloquial reference to an erotic dream,” they ultimately decided that this reference was “linked primarily to the competition to win an overseas trip to Dubai”. This exemplifies the danger of ironic sexism, because irony doesn’t negate sexism, it just helps it dodge accountability.
This is why a distinction between ironic and classic sexism is helpful and necessary. They might prop up the same patriarchy, but the two operate differently, and it’s essential that we recognise those differences so that as Eleanor Margolis suggests at New Statesman, we can “be vigilant when we see the culture of misogyny creeping into our notion of cool.” Ironic sexism is beholden to the specific facet of hipster culture that prefers to repurpose old things to enjoy ironically, rather than show earnest enthusiasm for anything. This can be totally inoffensive, but in this case we’re seeing the appropriation of one of history’s greatest cultural cockroaches. So, what do some of these proxies look like? Ironic sexism might hide behind a retro aesthetic. It’s loud and proud in the lecherous old American Apparel advertisements. It’s there in the self-awareness of a brand that seems to build itself around being a guilty pleasure, and treacherously links the delicious, glorious indulgence of scoffing fast food with the infinitely more damaging consumption of sexualised images of girls, as though these two ‘guilty pleasures’ are on par. It’s somewhere in the use of the word ‘cheeky’. It’s the ‘Hot Girls Eat Free’ promotion at a local pub. It’s the social media campaign that takes care of itself, with people posing under a mural of a well-endowed cheerleader doing the splits in the air, her cartoon underwear exposed. It’s the vintage Playboy magazines at the venue. It’s a step up from the bro culture of Bavarian Bier Café and Munich Brauhaus and their steady stream of base level puns about food, beer and the female body, as though someone sat down in a swanky office somewhere listing ‘jugs’, ‘racks’ (of ribs), chuffed with their dozen parallels between serving sizes and the waitresses’ breasts. Or maybe it’s not a step up at all; it just looks cooler because the graphic design is on trend and the photography makes the girls look like fashion models, not porn stars. But when you use sexualised images of women to brand your venue, you condone the male gaze and the objectification of women’s bodies, and that gaze slides down the walls and lands on the real women in these spaces.
Ironic sexism will always bring you to a frustrating, paradoxical junction, because hipster culture mocks earnestness and it takes earnestness to call this stuff out. In ‘How to Live Without Irony’, Christy Wampole suggests that to “live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to ‘secretly flee’ (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” If directness is unbearable, then earnestness might be downright excruciating, but in my experience, it’s also one of the only things that disarms and cuts through. It requires a vulnerability that the situation hasn’t earned – a personal response to a universal problem. When we meet the eye of staunch apathy with earnest sincerity, we turn the tables on it; we make it uncomfortable. We dismiss its units of measuring coolness as irrelevant. We call out its defensive indifference as a front for the discomfort caused by the revelation of its privilege, be it male privilege, white privilege, thin-privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.
Instead of valorising earnestness in the abstract, I’ll get literal and make the vulnerable, uncool admission that ironic sexism hurts me. It occurs in spaces and circles that I have ventured to expect more from. It rears its head during some otherwise enjoyable banter. It functions to remind me of the sexism I experience unironically. It asks me to laugh with it, and alienates me if I don’t, leaving me disappointed to the point of wondering if my optimism is a mistake; a naiveté I can’t afford. Does it undermine my authority as a writer? Why do I always feel like the lame little sister pestering a cool, nihilistic older brother?
I don’t want to fall into a Darth Susan, white woman victimhood mentality and take up space better afforded to other resilient women who endure far worse. But I do feel compelled to try and articulate the particulars of this specific brand of sexism, because it’s slippery and sly and contributes in its sneaky way to patriarchy’s continued hegemony, and we should be calling it out. This is not about tone-policing, or dictating ways to sensitively manage someone’s ego (see: ‘white male fragility’). It’s about posing the most productive ways to have these conversations with individuals whose behaviour should change. It’s also about requiring consistency from men who intermittently present as allies, and compelling them to vet their own motives so that women don’t have to keep doing that emotional labour for them.
A few years ago, someone close to me showed me a picture of himself at a hip, burger bar in the city. He was sitting under a cartoon mural of a cheerleader with her legs open and underwear exposed. He laughed sheepishly as he showed me, explaining that he had been unaware of the mural, and his friend told him to look up as he took the picture, positioning his face in the cartoon woman’s crotch. I didn’t want to shame him, but it made me uncomfortable. I told him (earnestly) that “this is part of a culture that has hurt me,” and it was heavy, but it resonated for him. The reason this image was on a wall, and that his friend had taken this photo, was the same reason that a man feels he can reach out and touch me on the train: nothing is discrete, it’s all connected, every act facilitates another. I managed to indicate to him the magnitude of this complex, structural issue while making it personal in a way that he could connect to. The obvious downside of this is that it requires vulnerability and emotional labour from the oppressed with no guarantee of being truly heard. Ironic sexism promotes and then thrives on that doubt, but we don’t need to bow to it. We need to drag every incarnation of sexism into the light, especially the stealthy, insidious, irony-clad version that’s masquerading as enlightened.
Emma Pitman is a writer and calendar-maker from Sydney.