Gender-based inequality is pervasive. Historically and cross-culturally, men have held more resources, power, and status than women. Despite general trends toward gender equality, male dominance remains a global reality. As of 2014, the global gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, which includes gender gaps in income, labor force participation, and professional advancement, stood at 60% (Hausmann, Tyson, Bekhouche, & Zahidi, 2014). If progress toward gender equality continues at the same pace, it will take until 2095 to completely close this gap. Yet in contrast to characterizations of intergroup relations as hostile and competitive, gender relations are predominantly cooperative – individual men and women consistently engage in and sustain close relationships with members of the other sex, whether friends, parents, siblings, or significant others. Herein lies the gender relationship paradox. How is the tension between male hegemony and male-female intimacy reconciled?
Ambivalent sexism theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996) recognizes that sexism entails a mixture of antipathy and subjective benevolence:
corresponds to classic definitions of prejudice as antipathy (Allport, 1954) and reflects the hostile derogation of women who pose a threat to the gender hierarchy (e.g., feminists).
is “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling (for the perceiver)” (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491). Benevolent sexism bestows affection on women who embrace limited but traditional gender roles (e.g., housewives). Hence, although benevolent sexism may appear positive, it presumes and reinforces women's subordinate status.
Ambivalent sexism theory argues that hostile and benevolent sexism are, in fact, not conflicting but complementary ideologies that present a resolution to the gender relationship paradox. By offering male protection and provision to women in exchange for their compliance, benevolent sexism recruits women as unwitting participants in their own subjugation, thereby obviating overt coercion. Hostile sexism serves to safeguard the status quo by punishing those who deviate from traditional gender roles.
This chapter discusses ambivalent sexism as a coordinated system of control that serves male dominance and limits women's power across personal, economic, and political domains. First, we review ambivalent sexism theory, focusing on ambivalent sexism's system-justifying functions. The second section addresses how ambivalent sexism polices women's bodies through the threat of rape, sexual harassment, and violence, as well as oppressive beauty ideals.