The –isms of Life

-isms are a fundamental topic for critical scrutiny in sociology. And as a core professional goal, social workers combat discriminatory practices that stem from and exemplify -isms. The Social Justice Center at Washington University has crafted a list of -isms that pervade our contemporary world. They list classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, religious oppression, ableism, racism, sexism/genderism, and ageism as integral foci of the social justice movement.  My sociological and social justice interest in -isms stems from an interest in understanding the ways in which normative practices and beliefs function to oppress and discriminate those on the periphery.

I became interested in -isms during my sociology degree. Many classes shaped my worldview, but one which did so in an indelible way was a class simply called Social Inequalities. The name alone makes a tall order in terms of content for one semester, and while it was a very demanding class, it was integral to my development as a critical thinker. The textbook for the class was a book that I will keep for the rest of my life. Anyone interested in social justice would do well to acquire this book. It is called Power and Everyday Practices1, a title which alludes to the book’s agenda to illuminate the ways in which our seemingly benign and insular everyday choices and actions inevitably exert power in multiple ways. At its core, the book demonstrates how globalization has begotten a complex social structure characterized by the interconnectedness of strangers around the world. This is because more than ever before, as a result of mass consumer culture and advanced capitalism, the lifestyles of those in privileged areas perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of others in less advantaged areas. The book makes the point that we are all complicit in processes of oppression, and that to combat this we must constantly seek to be critical of normative assumptions and accountable for our choices.

Power and Everyday Practice proposes to “unpack the centre,” as opposed to simply analyzing deviance. The ‘centre’ is that in society which is normative, or that which is taken for granted as ‘normal’. This includes normative identities as well as behaviours. To occupy the centre of society means that you are in a privileged space, because you are seen as normal and can exercise privileges as a result. For example, heterosexuality has become normalized as the natural way of being, making homosexuality a deviant identity. Therefore, heterosexuality occupies the centre, the space where normative identities and behaviours are privileged. This can play out when straight people are congratulated in public for getting engaged. Meanwhile, those who deviate from the norm occupy the ‘periphery’ – a space where behaviours based on normative assumptions act to discriminate and oppress. For example, sometimes I am assumed to have a husband because I wear a wedding ring. This assumption arises when others take heterosexuality for granted because it is normative. It’s as though people ‘forget’ that same-sex relationships even exist, otherwise they wouldn’t assume I was anything; in their eyes I would be a vessel of possibility. Assuming that I’m straight renders my same-sex relationship temporarily invisible, suspended as non-existent until I point it out. This is a manifestation of heterosexism. Critically analyzing -isms involves more than acknowledging the periphery; it involves unpacking the centre, deconstructing that privileged space of normative identities and behaviour.

Inspired by Power and Everyday Practices, this post is an introduction to a series of posts where I will critically dissect -isms by unpacking the centre. For now I will offer a precursor to my first topic, ageism, with some general pondering …

  1. When she was younger, although many conservatives looked on with disdain, Madonna was heralded as a powerful woman in charge of her sexuality. She was celebrated by many for her unapologetic display of her body and desires. However, when she kissed Drake at Coachella in 2015, the internet went wild with a new kind of criticism not wielded at her during her heyday. Those deriding the kiss stated that she “sucked a decade’s worth of youth from his soul,” should “act her age” and that the experience would have been “like being snogged by an elderly relative.” This reaction implies that many are unnerved or downright repulsed by older people’s display of their sexual desires.
  2. Comedian Amy Schumer wrote and starred in a genius skit where she coincidentally runs into a tea party in the middle of a forest where Patricia Arquette, Tina Fey and Julia Louis Dreyfus are celebrating Dreyfus’ “Last Fuckable Day.” Dreyfus is overjoyed that she no longer has to put effort forth into her looks because she’s become too old for anyone to want to have sex with her – a time of life that is inevitable for women, yet apparently never happens for men. In this skit, Schumer points out the intertwined nature of misogyny and ageism. She illuminates the reality that women’s value is derived largely from their age and looks because of the media’s pedestalization of ‘young and beautiful’ women.
  3. Although men are certainly subsumed by consumer culture and targeted by anti aging marketing, generally men are deemed more attractive as they become older. As men get grey hair and facial lines, magically they become regarded as sexier. Often they are given the prestigious and coveted title of “silver fox.” They are regarded as more distinguished, debonaire, wise, and charming as they age. Meanwhile, women are less likely to attain greater value as a result of ageing. Women’s physical appearance is so policed that ageing is regarded as a shameful error that should be prevented or avoided, as if it is a choice. Not surprising, if you Google image search the term “anti aging skin cream,” 99.9% of the images are of women. My hero Sarah Silverman points out the ridiculousness of misogynistic and ageist discrimination propelled at women, stating that “my crime is not dying.”
  4. Besides misogyny and becoming older, ageism also applies to normative understandings of children, adolescents and young adults. Why do many adults impose the idea upon their kids that “they know best,” as if their children’s perspectives are not worthy of consideration in the making of decisions? Why do many people not negotiate with their children because they believe adults are more capable of deciding what’s right? Why is there an impression that youth’s romantic relationships aren’t as valid as adult relationships, as if our experiences and emotions are only legitimate after we’ve reached an elusive state of maturity? Why are “young parents” frowned upon as if they are doomed for failure and hardship? And why is abortion or adoption encouraged to young single women as if motherhood at a young age is the embarking upon a tragic trajectory into the abyss of lost opportunity?

Which -isms are you passionate about from a social justice perspective? Which -ism would you appreciate seeing analyzed on the sociological social worker? 

1 Brock, D., Raby, R., & Thomas, M. P. (Eds.). (2012). Power and Everyday Practices. Toronto, Ont.: Nelson Education.


2 thoughts on “The –isms of Life

  1. Thanks for this most entertaining post, Mara! Sarah Silverman’s comment is brilliant, sad and true. As you know I ended up taking my wedding ring off (and selling it for $80 lol!) because I actually was so overwhelmed by how much more often I had to state that no, I’m not straight, I’m in a same-sex relationship. I was used to 26 years of being that empty vessel and all of a sudden I was thrust into the centre…I guess? But the presumed straightness got to me!
    My interest in -isms shifts weekly – but lately my interest is mostly ageism and ableism. Particularly with so many dodgy horror movies revolving around plots that involve a) old women as the scary thing and b) old, disabled women as the scary thing. Why are audiences so creeped out by someone who has limited control over their body? Why is crawling on the floor so scary? Why is old, wrinkled skin scaring audiences? Why is the scary thing never a young woman? Hmm….I think I’m just looking for excuses to go and see the new movie ‘The Visit’ lol.
    I look forward to your next -ism post. xo


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