Ned Barnett

Student’s essay on subtle sexism nothing to cringe about

By Ned Barnett

Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a student-athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Blake Dodge of Beaufort is a student-athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The News & Observer’s op-ed page carries hundreds of informative and revealing essays and columns throughout the year. But there are always a few – and sometimes it’s hard to predict which ones – that spark a huge response.

A sensitive essay about the effects of low-key but pervasive sexism was the latest to draw a giant audience. It was written by Blake Dodge, a 19-year-old Morehead scholar and track and cross country athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill. At West Carteret High School, she set 3-A state records in the 800- and 1,600-meter runs and was named the 2014 female Athlete of the Year by the N.C. High School Athletic Association.

Dodge has plenty to be proud of and grateful for, but her essay focused on daily encounters that can sand away a young woman’s self-esteem and weaken her resolve to achieve her full potential. She described events of one day in which male students alternately made her feel overlooked and looked over, patronized or desired. The instances were subtle – a male friend greeting another man before she is acknowledged. Or uncomfortable, sensing the eyes of men assessing her body in the gym. Or clumsy, a classmate jokingly telling her, “You can’t be pretty and smart.”

The essay had an awkward line in which Dodge seemed to imply even her father was part of the problem when he responded to her plan to start a nonprofit that redistributes collegiate athletic shoes by saying, “Isn’t that a bit much?”

Dodge’s writing had a quiet tone, and it ended with, “I’m sorry if I’m wrong.” But the response was loud and mostly unforgiving. On the N&O website, the essay drew 363 comments and rose to the top of the most-read list. Then it exploded on Facebook, and conservative commentators pilloried Dodge as an example of campus political correctness and victimization gone over the edge. Dodge’s account was jeered online at the American Conservative, National Review and The Federalist and became fodder for Rush Limbaugh.

Even yours truly took a hit. Wrote one commenter on the American Conservative website: “Don’t newspaper editors have some ethical responsibility to refrain from printing the neurotic ramblings of immature undergraduates? … This poor kid is gonna look back at this in twenty years and cringe. Assuming she does in fact grow up, which most of us do sooner or later.”

Blake Dodge has nothing to cringe about today or in 20 years. The best essays require that the writer be brave enough to be vulnerable, to move past the mask of confidence and admit fears and doubts. Dodge showed that courage. She paid for it on one level and was rewarded on another.

“There has been this tidal wave of criticism, but I feel validated by the responses people aren’t aware of. People messaged me privately, and I’ve had conversations about it,” Dodge said by phone last week. “I got upward of 30 emails from other women who said they’ve never been able to verbalize what they were feeling and the column was able to do that.” Women who work in predominantly male fields, several of them in athletics, were especially aware of what our headline called “subtle sexism.”

Dodge said the responses from women in college and women well into their professional careers cleared any doubts that she was seeing a problem that wasn’t there.

Some of the criticism the essay provoked might have been triggered by people misreading her concern. Dodge said the point wasn’t that “subtle sexism is the worst thing that ever happened to me. That’s absolutely not what I intended.” She added, “I’m not asking for a new bill of rights or a long-term plan for people to correct their behaviors. I just think it exists, and a lot of people, men and women, aren’t aware of it.”

She said subtle sexism is usually the result of trivial and unconscious acts. “It’s inadvertent, and it’s no one’s fault,” she said.

But even if subtle sexism is not a major issue, it is an issue that deserves to be noticed and discussed. It’s not nearly as potent as racism, Dodge said, but it is similar in the sense that an accumulation of daily slights and assumptions can wear a person down.

On the other hand, the overt abuse she received for the piece has heartened rather than wounded the young writer.

“I’m actually a pretty confident individual. I haven’t been shedding any tears over the reaction. I appreciate the criticism, I really do,” she said. “It was a good lesson for me as a writer, and I wouldn’t change a single comma of the column. It was productive for me. It shed light on an issue that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention.”

Dodge said she has no interest in having the last word on this debate, but there were words she wanted last in this column. “Could you perhaps finish the piece with a sentiment from me saying how much I love my dad?” she asked. “That would be really cool.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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