Sexism: Adaptable to the 21st Century
My sophomore year of high school, a dozen freshman boys created a March Madness style bracket evaluating each girl in the school to determine who was the prettiest. The domain they used required individual input, meaning they couldn’t just copy and paste names from the directory—they had to type in all 140 girls’ names by hand. The boys made derogatory puns out of many girls’ names, making fun of the way certain names sounded, or adding in crude language just for fun. Later, they admitted that they had intentionally misspelled the girls’ names so the list would be harder to find, but as with most things on the internet, it didn’t remain hidden for long.
The day the bracket went public, I saw a girl who had been ranked 60th run into the bathroom, tears rushing down her face. Moments later, a girl who was ranked 7th followed suit. It didn’t matter where you ranked; learning your friends had been judging you solely based on your appearance hurt no matter what. But for me it didn’t just hurt to see my name on the list, it changed the way I walked through the halls. Suddenly I was hyper aware of the way I looked and the way I walked; it didn’t matter if I was in class or with friends—I couldn’t stop thinking about the ranking. My mind became a cesspool of self-criticism, and my insecurities dominated every thought. These boys’ blatant objectification had turned me into an object in my own eyes.
Equally excruciating to being placed on this list was the backlash—or lack thereof—from the student body. I figured that people who normally dispute sexism’s existence would be eating their words. Instead, most people shrugged off the incident because “these types of rankings are made all the time.” I was shocked. I thought, really? That’s your defense? Sexism is acceptable because it happens all the time? In the same breath people said sexism wasn’t real, and also that the bracket was acceptable because sexism is unavoidable. Externally, I didn’t feel comfortable explicitly questioning the hypocrisy of some of my classmates. Internally, I was suffocating, furious that I couldn’t relay how hurtful and prejudicial their dismissal of the list was. I found myself at a crossroads: do I keep quiet in my comfort zone, or do I speak out at the risk of being controversial? Looking back, I wish I had spoken out, but in the moment I felt so lost that I did what too many girls who are hurting do—I stayed silent.
I don’t think the whole school considered the bracket acceptable, but it brought out a side of the student body I hadn’t seen before. One of my closest male friends admitted to creating a ranking of all the girls in our grade and discussing it with other boys. A handful of girls were unbothered because they had gotten so used to seeing these types of lists. Many felt rightfully upset, but some misplaced their anger. In response to the bracket, one girl retaliated with a list of her own. She ranked about nine boys in the school, most of whom had participated in creating the original ranking. Although the school punished her as well as the boys responsible for the other bracket, her punishment wasn’t as harsh. The same people who had disregarded the list of 140 girls took great offense to this new list, claiming it was sexist towards men that it was taken less seriously. I don’t condone this retaliatory list, but it was clear to me that it did less damage.
I was a feminist before the list emerged. I noticed daily microaggressions towards women; I saw an underrepresentation of women in power; I knew that not all women had the right to choose; I witnessed my mother’s exposure to sexism in the workplace; I heard about my grandmother not always having the right to vote. However, I never thought I would encounter such explicit sexism from progressive kids my age. People often tell me there’s no longer a need for feminism, and at times it’s hard to disagree. But the list and the troubling responses it elicited sent me a clear message: Sexism is real, and we cannot stay silent. Progress isn’t permanent, and in order to protect the advances women have made we must be vigilant, proactive, and supportive—we must be feminists.
This article is also published on Spark Movement
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Small, Shira. "Sexism: Adaptable to the 21st Century." 4 October 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/sexism-adaptable-to-21st-century>.