Touted as “epic” by the Huffington Post, Lisa Kudrow’s speech, as Congresswoman Josie Marcus in the most recently aired episode of the hit show Scandal (written by series creator and seasoned TV force behind Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes), was a powerful and perhaps unprecedented TV moment. First, it exposed a series of subtle, often-overlooked ways in which sexism can diminish and undermine ambitious women with non-traditional career goals. And second, Kudrow’s delivery was decidedly not subtle; she wasn’t coy or cute, she didn’t temper her accusations with an apologetic smile; she looked and sounded furious. This was, in fact, a double triumph in the face of an all too common double bind that women face when confronted with sexism—to be silent is to offer tacit acceptance, to speak out is to risk being pegged an “oversensitive female” (at best). Third, and critically, Marcus's heated critique was not considered political suicide: on the contrary, it was considered a successful attempt to position herself as a serious presidential contender who could inspire confidence among wealthy campaign donors as well as voters. What a remarkable flip of a destructive stereotype, to see a female politician who bucks traditional gender norms elicit something other than mocking or derision (have you seen this horrifying case in point?!).
Research on backlash and gender role incongruity generally suggests that when women (and, to a lesser extent, men) step outside traditional gender roles, they are penalized. Because leadership and agency tend to be stereotypically associated with the male social role, women who exhibit leadership-relevant traits such as ambition and assertiveness are often perceived as unlikeable or cold. Moreover, women are aware of these negative consequences; some recent work suggests that one of the reasons why a gender wage gap persists is that women avoid self-promotional or assertive tactics when negotiating for fear of seeming “pushy” (Amanatullah & Morris, 2010).
Individuals also vary in their attitudes toward non-traditional women. The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (Glick and Fiske, 1996) captures two related but seemingly contradictory sets of sexist attitudes that are hostile and benevolent in nature. Whereas hostile sexism manifests in dismissive attitudes about women who step outside of or dare to critique traditional gender roles (e.g., “Women are too easily offended,” “Women exaggerate problems they have at work”), benevolent sexism manifests as explicitly positive attitudes about women who remain in traditional role boundaries (e.g., “Women should be cherished and protected by men,” “Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste”).
Benevolent sexism is the sneakier, and hence potentially more pernicious construct. It sounds nice, but is in fact premised on patronizing assumptions about women’s inferior status. It is sexism cloaked in chivalrous clothing. Rhimes via Marcus/Kudrow is 100% on target when she says of the various media conventions of setting and language that implicitly conjure a traditional female role, “I get that and I'm sure you think it's innocuous, but guess what? It's not." In fact, people who endorse benevolent sexism also tend to endorse other problematic attitudes such as blaming rape victims or endorsing policies that disadvantage women. Further, benevolent sexism may mean different things to men and women. Research I conducted on sexist humor revealed that men who hold benevolently sexist attitudes found dumb blonde jokes more amusing and less offensive than women who hold the same benevolently sexist attitudes. Whereas women may think that subscribing to more traditional attitudes about gender roles protects them (all women) from derision, men who subscribe to these same attitudes may yet believe that some women are fair game for mocking. Thus, while it may sound benign, believing that some women should be placed on a pedestal is not necessarily at odds with believing others should be knocked down.
In some cases, one woman may inspire both hostile and benevolent reactions depending on whether she moves outside of traditional boundaries. A female politician may arouse this form of conflicted ambivalence; her gender role is at odds with her career aspirations, which may threaten the status quo of male dominance (note that the current record high number of women in the Senate is 20%, not 50%). Female politicians may be expected to navigate this tension by reminding voters that they conform to traditional female roles in spite of their ambitions. What is particularly groundbreaking about the Scandal scene is that Kudrow’s character refuses to play along. She exposes and criticizes the news media for perpetuating benevolent sexism and thus sets herself up as a potential target for hostile sexism (e.g., “Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist”). However, the show does not pull for that “read” (thank you, Shonda Rhimes). Josie Marcus was clearly the victor, an outcome punctuated by the awed and quietly triumphant expression on ostensibly brilliant political strategist Olivia Pope’s (actress Kerry Washington's) face.*
Why does the outcome of her behavior matter so much? Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory suggests that we are adaptively wired to learn vicariously rather than by trial and error, by watching others in our social/media environment. (Bandura conducted the well-known “Bobo Doll” studies in which young children emulated an adult who behaved aggressively toward a blow-up doll, even when the behavior was televised vs. in real life.) Importantly, we are more likely to emulate others when their behavior is associated with positive outcomes or rewards (hence the danger of glorified or morally justified media violence). Marcus’s impassioned speech may have thus sent a new provocative message to viewers: it is okay to call out sexism when you see it, and it is okay to be angry as hell about it. Instead of asking women to duck and parry to avoid the social sanctions that accompany sexism, this scene places the burden of redress on less tangible but incredibly powerful social and institutional practices of sexism that typically go unacknowledged.
Also important is Marcus’ opening comment referencing her grandmother’s racism (“…whenever I'd start dating someone. I would tell her his name and she would say, 'Oh, what part of town does he live in?' That was her way of asking if my boyfriend was white.”). Not only does racism, like sexism, occur in a myriad of subtle but serious ways these days, but people who hold prejudicial attitudes about one group of people are more likely to hold prejudicial attitudes about others. That is, individuals who hold sexist views are also more likely to hold racist views (and homophobic views, etc.). Turns out that once you subscribe to the idea that some groups of people deserve more status and power than others, that ideology easily bleeds across social categories.
Although fictional programming is hardly a foolproof corrective for social injustice, and often comes with its own set of contradictions and problems, there are now a host of female characters on television who are outspoken and passionately involved in their careers, who are not forced to choose between being competent and being liked, or between having intimate relationships and being absorbed in their work. Julianna Margulies’s high-powered attorney Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, Amy Poehler’s endearingly enthusiastic and explicitly feminist city councilwoman Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, and Emily Deschanel’s socially awkward but brilliant forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan in Bones are just a few examples from my own viewing queue. One could argue that these fictional role models serve to obscure the very real obstacles facing women balancing career and family, but the shows also often focus on these very obstacles. Kudrow’s Marcus is the latest and perhaps most hard-hitting example. These are characters that we may feel we come to know and feel attached to, and who may function as empowering possible selves for female viewers in particular.**
We obviously don’t know where the show is heading and which land mines loom ahead for Kudrow’s character, but for now, it seems useful to pause and laud the refreshing disruption of business as usual. The more normative and celebrated it becomes to both identify and rail against sexist institutional practices, in both real world and fictional settings, the more difficult it may become to justify their existence.
* The fact that Pope and her team faked a sexist political ad to elicit the “temper” they had noticed in Kudrow’s character is a slightly more dubious plot turn but I’ll leave that alone for now.
**The fact that this pivotal scene played out courtesy of not one but two talented Vassar alums (Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky) provides additional empowerment and affiliative pride for the author!
Amanatullah, E. T., & Morris, M. W. (2010). Negotiating gender roles: Gender differences in assertive negotiating are mediated by women’s fear of backlash and research: Conceptual, strategic attenuated when negotiating on behalf of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 256-267.
Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In Media effects: Advances in theory and research (2nd ed. pp. 121-153.), J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.) Mahwah, NJ, US:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573–598.
Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.
Greenwood, D., & Isbell, L. (2002). Ambivalent sexism and the dumb blonde: Men’s and women’s reactions to sexist jokes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 340-349.
Rudman, L. A. (1998). Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 629–645.