In a misogynist society, many of the favourite characters in film and television are women who hate women. According to most dictionaries, misogyny is the feeling of hostility, distrust, hatred or contempt for women. It is, therefore, an important basis for the exercise of sexism and female oppression and can manifest itself in several ways – from seemingly harmless jokes to social exclusion, discrimination, sexual objectification, control and violence against women.
From the definition of the word, one would expect that misogyny was a feeling shared only by men, right? After all, why would women hate and avoid themselves? Internalized sexism is the internalization, practice and reinforcement of misogynist and sexist beliefs by women against themselves and others. It happens because in most cultures women are created to believe that they are inferior to men, with an existence subordinate to theirs.
For example, if a woman automatically gives more moral to a professional man than to a woman. Or if she is proud to be a “no-frills” woman, “different from other girls”, “more mainly than many men”, in both cases there is a certain level of internalized misogyny in the women that think like that all people are affected by internalized misogyny to some extent.
‘Ah, but no one ever told me that boys are better than girls or that I am less important than them!’ – someone, there may be saying. Some women declare that no one ever told them that directly, but unfortunately indirect people spread this message constantly. Women are constantly reminded about the expectation society has on them regarding their future: mothers, wives, objects and rivals to each other. Even though there is no problem in being any of these, the problem is in fact when people limited girls to only that, don`t allow them to follow any other type of carrier.
The media is a powerful tool in this sense, with a unique ability to make us internalize all kinds of messages. As the society in which we live is misogynistic, much of its media and the messages it reinforces are also, even if we do not realize it right away. The internalization of the message is so effective precisely because it is subliminal. We absorb everything, even between the lines.
In the animations and cartoons, for example, most of the heroes and protagonists are male. In movies and series too, and it’s hard to see female characters talking about anything other than men or futilities. If girls are the protagonists, usually their trajectories and goals are often associated with men’s, for example, finding a male partner or helping him to achieve his goals. Advertising is also an area that portraits women badly, with them being repeatedly portrayed as sexual objects.
It is no wonder, therefore, that girls grew by internalizing the message that women are eternal supporting men in the lives of men, with importance and value tied to their existence and needs. Art imitates life, and vice versa. As a result, women are always fighting a constant and incredibly contradictory battle within themselves.
This results in many of the psychological disorders that commonly women face in their life. Females suffer from low self-esteem, depression, eating disorder, much more often than men. Of course, that depends a lot and is not every woman that confronts these issues. They are all affected, but there are differences in how much each one absorbs and acts when facing this pressure imposed by society. As mentioned in a research made by the National Institute of Mental Health “Eating disorders were more than twice as prevalent among females (3.8%) than males (1.5%).”
And as is expected, fiction reflects real life, although many of the characters severely affected by internalized misogyny are presented as empowered women. Media is misogynistic, just look at how many of these favourite “badass” characters from cinema and television are women who hate women. Arya Stark, from the Game of Thrones series, for example. In addition to the famous phrase said above (one of the fan favourites), the character makes it clear that she despises everything that is traditionally feminine. In the seventh season, she even ridicules all of her sister’s feminine characteristics, from her skill with embroidery to the perfect cursive handwriting.
Her machismo is also presented in a benevolent format when, also in the seventh season, she spares Frey women from the slaughter she promotes in the first episode. Arya disregards women so much that she doesn’t think that some of them could have played a role in the Red Wedding, or even that they could seek revenge for the murdered family. Which is bizarre, since she is a girl who had her family murdered and now seeks revenge.
It is worth noting that the series made a wrong reading of the original character of the books. In them, Arya is a girl who suffers a lot for not fitting into the feminine ideals of the society in which she lives and turns away from them as a form of self-protection. Every girl who can’t be as “feminine” as we are expected to know how much it hurts and how it can lead us to practice misogyny against other women, although Arya’s internalized misogyny in the books is much more mitigated than in the series. Her biggest conflicts happen within herself, and many of them have to do with her idea of femininity and the contradictions of her actions, feelings and vulnerabilities. The main issue in Arya’s arc is that of identity, but the series reduced the character to a ninja thirsting for revenge.
The curious thing is that the character that has internalized misogyny running down the ears in the books ended up being greatly attenuated in the series. Cersei Lannister is a terror in The Chronicles of Ice and Fire. Jaime’s twin and raised by her father, the character learned from a young age how women are inferior and underestimated and internalized the idea that they are inferior and weak – being the exception herself. So her great resentment is not even the way women are treated, but the fact that she was born a woman.
“If the gods had given her the strength that they gave to Jaime and that swashbuckling Robert, she could run. Oh, for a sword and the ability to wield it. She had the heart of a warrior, but the gods, in their blind malice, had given her the weak body of a woman. ”
Cersei is extremely cruel to other women and distrusts them all. Use them when you need them and discard them – often to a destination of death and torture – without an ounce of pain in your conscience. However, instead of working for her, her misogyny works against her and causes her to decay in a spiral of chaos, destruction and terrible decisions that is remarkable (a criticism that, I believe, is deliberate on the part of the author).
Perhaps such a trajectory did not please the writers of the series since they seem to believe that despising women make strong female characters. What we do know is that the Cersei in the series has been greatly toned down, with her identity largely defined by her motherhood. It seems that Cersei of the books confronted the worldview of the writers, who instead of basking in the complexity of the character, preferred to plan it to make it more palatable.
Finally, I wanted to talk about another representation of internalized machismo and misogyny that, for a change, was very well done on television. Last year, The Handmaid’s Tale took us to a dystopian reality in which women lost all their rights. Interestingly, however, some of the most terrifying characters in the production are precisely women. Aunts control and indoctrinate young women based on humiliation and violence; Wives and Marthas despise the Maids, and even the maids are suspicious and sometimes rival each other.1
However, all are subordinate to male power, and the series is brilliant at showing how maintaining female rivalry benefits patriarchy immensely. Disunited, we become weaker and more vulnerable after all. Margaret Atwood, the author of the book on which the series is based, has talked about this issue and how this misogyny rivalry can be exercised as a dispute for power and even protection. Especially in societies where women die daily simply because they are women.
“Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favour: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their advantage. As I say: real life.”
Unfortunately, such care in representing the complexity of the situation of women and the relations between them is still a rarity in the media and pop culture. As we have seen, the stereotype of the empowered misogynist and isolated woman still prevails. May we have a keen eye and a critical sense to reject such representations. For, in reality, the more united, the stronger we become.