Nice Guys With a Dark Side

When women dream about their ideal man, some conjure up a guy who will take care of them, admire them, and put them on a pedestal. In other words, treat them like a princess. There is appeal to this, especially for modern women who make a million decisions a day and feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. However, what happens when the princess decides that she wants to leave the castle, to pursue an important job opportunity or just for drinks with friends? The flip side of her being seen as delicate and deserving of protection is that she also is seen as too fragile to navigate the outside world on her own. So being treated like a princess could be nice . . . until it’s not.

Men who perceive women positively in many ways, but also as the fairer sex in need of protection, can be described by the Ambivalent Sexism Theory, proposed by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske in 1996. The theory differentiates between hostile sexism (HS) and benevolent sexism (with its not-so-subtle abbreviation, BS). Hostile sexists see women as less competent and intelligent than men, too emotional, and manipulative. They see women’s sexuality as their main (or only) desirable trait, which they use to gain control over men. Although some hostile sexists may be motivated to hide their views in certain contexts, when they do express their views, hostile sexism is easy to recognize.

In contrast, women may unknowingly find themselves vying for the attention of a benevolent sexist. The guy who opens the door, takes her coat, and gets her a drink could be an undercover benevolent sexist. The main difference between hostile and benevolent sexists is that benevolent sexists view women more positively than do hostile sexists. In fact, benevolent sexists see themselves as holding women in very high regard. The problem is that the network of beliefs held by benevolent sexists conflicts with gender equality.

Benevolent sexism has three main components. Idealized romanticism is the idea that, despite a man’s worldly accomplishments, he cannot feel complete without the love of his woman. The idea of complementary gender roles is that women are kinder, more sensitive, more thoughtful, and more caring than men, which makes them ideal wives and mothers. Third, protective paternalism stems from the first two components and suggests that, as the fairer sex, women should be cherished, protected, provided for, and put on a pedestal.

What is tricky about benevolent sexism, then, is that the same set of beliefs that make women feel flattered also constrain their behavior. For instance, women might like that their boyfriend or husband wants to walk them to their car at night; however, they may not like their partner telling them not to apply for a job that involves travel, because it is too dangerous. Or, they may appreciate their partner intervening at a bar when a drunk guy hits on them, but not appreciate being told that they should not go to the bar on their own.

Moreover, while the characteristics that benevolent sexists perceive women to have are flattering, they also lead to harsh judgments for women who do not fit their ideal. Consider women who do not match this ideal, because they are assertive, dress sexy, and do not long for children. The Madonna/whore complex describes the tendency to classify women in one of two categories. From the benevolent sexists’ perspective, if those women are not Madonnas, there is only one option left.

Given that people are pretty good at detecting hostile sexism, why is it that women often fail to recognize benevolent sexists? A recent set of studies by Aife Hopkins-Doyle and colleagues from the University of Kent addresses this question. The research suggests that women perceive benevolent sexists as warm and as having positive views of women. This creates a halo effect, which leads them to extrapolate or assume that benevolent sexists also support gender equality and hold no hostile or negative views of women. As discussed, though, the positive views of women as delicate and fragile lead to restricting women’s freedoms, and perceptions of women as moral and pure lead to derogatory views of women who do not match that ideal.

Is there any surefire way, then, for women to recognize a benevolent sexist? Probably not on the first date. Plenty of men who hold doors, pick up the check, and walk women to their cars hold gender-egalitarian values. As time goes by, however, red flags may pop up, such as if he bristles at her paying or wanting to drive. Honest conversations will be important. Reactions to brassy, assertive women and women who make more money than their husbands may be especially telling.

In closing, then, when it comes to the chivalrous fellow who insists on carrying the heavy box, buyer beware. Only time will tell whether he is simply a nice guy trying to help or one who is full of bs.

Copyright, Amanda Rose, reprinted from Psychology Today, April 22, 2019

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