Research has shown that, on average, hurricanes with female names “cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness” than do their masculine-named brethren.
So when hurricane Penelope approaches, people will intuitively deem her to be weaker—more incompetent, as it were, in terms of discharging her demolitionary duties as a cyclone—which leads to fewer hatches getting battened down than when, say, Peter looms ante portas.
Ergo, irrespective of core strength, Penelope will likely leave a mightier trail of destruction in her wake than Peter.
In a New York Times editorial titled She Gets No Respect – Sexism Persists Even Among the Enlightened, Nicholas Kristof laments this disparity in perception:
We often assume that racism or sexism is primarily about in-your-face bigots or misogynists, but research in the last couple of decades — capped by this hurricane study — shows that the larger problem is unconscious bias even among well-meaning, enlightened people who embrace principles of equality. […] This deep bias is as elusive as it is pernicious, but a start is to confront and discuss it. Perhaps hurricanes, by catching us out, can help us face our own chauvinism.
According to Mr Kristof, our deep and elusive bias toward associating masculinity with greater physical strength—and hence with the capacity to pose greater physical danger in certain scenarios—signifies a belief, covert or otherwise, in male over female superiority, which proves that sexism and chauvinism are alive and well in our supposedly so advanced and egalitarian society.
Next time a woman hands me a jar of peppers with an intractable screw top, in lieu of assisting as requested, I’ll ask her to defenestrate, once and for all, this invidious brand of sexism that gives rise to the chauvinistic bias that men might somehow be more effective at operations that require naught but brute brawn.
Of course, common sense dictates that there’s nothing sexist or chauvinistic about acknowledging that men, on balance, are more powerful jar openers than are women; and that, assuming maximum impact is intended, the Everlast bag at your local gym will incur deeper dings when struck by the average male fist than when struck by the average female fist.
In fact, to deny this would make a mockery of the whole concept of sexism.
Therefore, there’s also nothing inherently chauvinistic about associating a male first name with greater destructive force (leaving out of account, for the sake of this debate, the manifest stupidity of actually tailoring one’s hurricane preparations to the randomly assigned name of the impending event, be it Godzilla or Bambi).
Enter one Zaron Burnett, who, in a recent Huffington Post piece titled A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture, in which he aims to enlighten as to the unfortunate realities of life that render women the primary victims of sexual assault in this world (our own culture included), likens men to squamata:
[H]ow do you treat a snake you come across in the wild? …You treat it like a snake, right? Well, that’s not stereotyping, that’s acknowledging an animal for what it’s capable of doing and the harm it can inflict. Simple rules of the jungle, man. Since you are a man, women must treat you as such.
Frankly, this man-reptile analogy set me smirking, as I, in the context of making a point about my sexual orientation, once drew a similar comparison by likening the thought of kissing a man to kissing a lizard, which, as I recall, didn’t go over too well with the gay gentleman I was talking to.
In any case, putting himself up as an example to be emulated, Mr Burnett urges us men to be extra mindful of the danger we exude (and, presumably, pose) as a result of our general superiority in the physical strength department:
I accept that any woman I encounter in public doesn’t know me, and thus, all she sees is a man — one who is suddenly near her. I have to keep in mind her sense of space and that my presence might make her feel vulnerable. That’s the key factor — vulnerability.
Well put. I couldn’t agree more.
Trouble is, this attitude seems to make us who practice it chauvinists in the eyes of the aforementioned Nicholas Kristof and the sexism police, as it springs from the recognition of at least some measure of inequality between men and women with regard to their disparate ability to do harm in specific situations.
So yes, call me sexist, but hurricane Alexander certainly sounds like it might uproot a few more trees and set a few more front loaders sailing wider through the air than does hurricane Alexandra; although, on second thought at the latest, even the dimmest coastal resident ought to twig it that names given to such weather events have zero predictive value in practice.
Just as sexist me expects the Everlast bag to exhibit a deeper dent after being hit by Alexander than after being socked by his sister. If this expectation were unfounded, how come there are so few coed boxing matches on TV? Purely for reasons of sexism in our society? Or maybe because the gals would get pummeled to a point that staging such events would strike even the most fervent equality advocates as flagrantly irresponsible? (Naturally, a female pugilism or martial arts master will dust off a male lay fighter. I’m referring to bouts where both contenders would be trained professionals).
I once had a girlfriend freak out on me in a jealous paroxysm that no doubt would have sent me to the E.R. had the gender roles been reversed, all other things being equal. Luckily, being a guy, I was able to parry or absorb her kicks and punches until I managed to grab hold of her wrists and pin her down on the sofa until she regained her composure. Hard to imagine being a female alone in a room with a man this furious that has no compunction to strike. (Ironically, the lady in question moved on to go to law school and ultimately became an attorney specializing in family law, and, that’s right, domestic violence. I wonder whether she ever highlights her personal experience in that area and the precise nature of that experience.)
If this type of inequality were but a figment of chauvinistic imagination, then why, for instance, would women be more vulnerable to being raped and sexually assaulted than men? Why shouldn’t a woman on the verge of invading my space in a deserted alley keep in mind that her presence might make me feel vulnerable in that regard just the same?
If men, on average, weren’t more physically ferocious than women in consequence of their physical capacity to be just that, then how could we be living in a male-dominated “rape culture”—as has, of late, been en vogue to suggest that we do—in the first place? Who’s doing all that raping if not those who can?
And who are those who can? Those with the muscles, obviously.
Unless, of course, one were to ascribe moral superiority to women: perhaps women rape on a lesser scale than do men not because they couldn’t if they wanted to, but because they are simply the nobler sex.
Yet that would, once again, presuppose the existence of a disparity between the sexes in the way of one being better than the other in some respect, which is, in essence, no different than saying that men are better at doing what hurricanes do, i.e., at wreaking brute-force-style havoc.
In the end, if the fact that hurricanes named after females are taken less seriously is indeed a sign of sexism, then so would be if news of a serial rapist named Jessica on the loose in the neighborhood caused less concern in the community than would news of a serial rapist named George. (The concept of statutory rape of minors aside, I’d be surprised if the specter of a female rapist roaming the streets were to elicit anything but shrugs and giggles, let alone genuine trepidation.)
Bottom line, we can’t have it both ways. We cannot impute equal destructive power to males and females in one area (as do those that bemoan the disparity in the perception of male vs. female-named hurricanes as “sexist” in origin), yet at the same time take for granted the greater potential for men to do physical harm in another (as do those that claim we live in a male-dominated “rape culture,” which implies that men routinely abuse their physical-strength dominance over women).
So which is it?