“Didn’t Listen to Your Speech But You Looked Pretty”: Is It a Compliment or Is He Just Being Sexist?


“Didn’t Listen to Your Speech But You Looked Pretty”: Is It a Compliment or Is He Just Being Sexist?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

It was Women’s Day. Someone on my timeline was singing paeans to his mother. “She woke up at 4 am every morning unfailingly to fix tiffins for us” was all he could think of. It was well-intentioned. Perhaps a part of him even acknowledged the sacrifices she made. But it made me cringe. I imagined myself as the mother. Enslaved to a monotonous dullness to mute the voices in her head that wouldn’t stop screaming, “You could have had a better life if it weren’t for the vermin you birthed.” But I am a woman. Centuries of social conditioning have convinced me, my womb is my road to fulfillment. I am the creator and nurturer. I can scale Everest, do 100 squats on the summit, discover the double helix structure of DNA and will still come home to “Hey, can you go and get some milk?” Indra Nooyi had to when she rushed home to share the news that she’d just been appointed president of PepsiCo. But her mom couldn’t care less and insisted she get the milk first, despite the existence of house-helps and a husband who had returned earlier from work.

That’s sexism in your face. And it’s easier to call out. But the bigger problem is when sexism sounds so friendly that it leaves you confused.

At a corporate gathering, the CEO of the company concluded his speech by thanking all the women who silently stood behind their men with piping hot dinners; the rock-solid support to the soldiers who toiled ceaselessly to make capitalism succeed. He had just reduced women to useful accessories, yet not a single woman in the room batted an eyelid. They were all smiling.

The truth is that not all compliments are equal. Some of them are veiled in misogyny. They come your way from men as well as women.

Not all compliments are equal. Some of them are veiled in misogyny.

A young woman debates on the future of India’s foreign policy and her male colleague responds with “I have not even listened to any of your points but I am so excited for the future of women’s representation in this organisation!”

The new hire, who presented on “Green transitions and carbon sequestration” before her team, gets cornered by one of her colleagues. She’s expecting questions. She gets complimented for her glossy hair instead.

The tech policy expert whose paper on lethal autonomous weapons gets shared widely in academic circles, yet someone on LinkedIn chooses to tell her how pretty she looked at her panel discussion.

Is this really a compliment? No, there’s a term for it, “benevolent misogyny”, and it’s even more insidious than its overt counterpart. It is a shape-shifting beast. Sometimes it places you on a highest pedestal and proclaims you are a goddess while taking a good look under your skirt. Sometimes it manifests as the “abla naari syndrome”. You are told you are wonderful, pure, fragile flowers. You need to be shepherded by men; marked as territory so that other men can’t eye you like you were a prime cut of steak. Before you can scream, “What the fuck”, you have signed up for a lifetime of diktats on how you should be conducting yourself in the public sphere to keep yourself safe.

In India, sexism often masquerades as “help” or “concern”.  Only recently, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan went a step ahead and announced a new system that will “track women’s movements” like they are criminals to ensure their own safety. It perpetuates the belief that women need to be under surveillance all the time for their protection instead of those who make women feel unsafe. In short, they are not equal to men.

In India, sexism often masquerades as “help” or “concern”.

We don’t talk about benevolent sexism enough. We let it slide because we think it is harmless. Why do your eyes roll so hard that they exit from the back of your head when you are being told ‘You are being heard’’ with utmost insincerity, just like the new head of diversity and inclusion who knows they have been appointed to make the right noises? How many times have you actually said it out loud that it is not every woman’s dream to be “protected” by some saviour, or to be reduced to her waist size, the fine lines on her face, the dress she’s wearing when she has worked as hard as – if not harder – than her male counterparts to realise her ambitions?

While overt sexism is easier to identify and address suitably, its ambivalent version leaves you confused because it sounds friendly. However, it eats away at your sense of autonomy like a slow poison. The many stereotypes that we have been anointed with – of women being the more compassionate, kinder, principled, obsessively cleaner of the sexes, not only holds us to impossible high standards, but they also make us feel like an insect under a giant microscope.

So the next time, if someone compliments you for your glossy hair instead of your presentation, you don’t have to be gratuitous. If that the public policy expert changes her DP to that of a cactus, she’s not overreacting. She’s simply decided to mark herself safe from your constant efforts to undercut her.