The article “When Chivalry Backfires: Benevolent Sexism and Attitudes Toward Myra Hindley” by G. Tendayi Viki, Kristina Massey, and Barbara Masser is an empirical examination of chivalric attitudes towards women in the context of female criminals. “Chivalry” is the long-established concept that men should be respectful and deferent to women in certain societal cases, due to the fact that women are physically weaker than men and require more protection as a result.
Implicit in the assumption of chivalry is that women are less capable than men and have less agency, and need special protections because they are not capable of the full range of actions and emotions that men are. Thus, chivalry is sometimes known as “benevolent sexism,” discrimination on the basis of gender with the intent of helping women, contrasted with “hostile sexism,” which is discrimination intended with malice. The researchers sought to examine this problem in the context of Myra Hindley, a British woman who helped carry out the Moors murders alongside Ian Bradley and was given a life sentence for her crimes. Dubbed “the most evil woman in Britain,” the researchers sought to establish a relationship between views of Hindley and her actions and the prevalence of benevolent or hostile sexist attitudes. The researchers were able to show that individuals who possessed benevolent sexist attitudes had more negative views of Hindley, while there was no correlation with hostile sexist attitudes and views on Hindley. I find the study fascinating and a good look at how sexism functions in Western society and how it can affect the perception of someone who has committed objectively heinous acts.
To determine the relationship between a subject’s view of Myra Hindley and their view of women’s role in society in general, a number of questionnaires were used to determine specific views on certain gender-related topics. The researchers concluded that benevolent sexism was correlated with negative views on Hindley, with subjects more likely to have a poor view of the woman the stronger their benevolent sexism was. Conversely, subjects who were identified as possessing hostile sexist attitudes did not exhibit a strong preference in regards to attitudes about Hindley. The researchers explained this by pointing to the nature of Hindley herself: her crimes and actions seemingly violated the traditional roles that are expected of women. Thus, individuals with benevolent sexism are more likely to view Hindley negatively due to the fact that she openly transgressed the role that benevolent sexists expect women should play. However, because hostile sexists possess antipathy for women regardless of what they do or what role they have, Hindley’s “unfeminine” behavior would not have had as strong an effect on them as it would have on someone who views women as having to act in a certain way.
My view is that the article is an accurate and piercing look at gender relations in the context of health psychology and criminal psychology. Understanding the effects of benevolent sexism is important because of the patriarchal nature of Western societies, and this article quantifies how benevolent sexism can affect the perception of women who commit heinous crimes. Benevolent sexism is a force that is present in the health and psychology fields as well, and it is a force that needs to be rooted out if society is to progress in any substantive way. By analyzing how people respond to Myra Hindley depending on their view of women, the researchers have provided clues as to how benevolent sexist attitudes can be combated in the health psychology field. Because of this, this particular study is an extremely important and relevant piece of work.
- Huang, Y., Osborne, D., Sibley, C. G., & Davies, P. G. (2014). The precious vessel: Ambivalent sexism and opposition to elective and traumatic abortion. Sex roles, 71(11-12), 436-449.
- Masser, B., Lee, K., & McKimmie, B. M. (2010). Bad woman, bad victim? Disentangling the effects of victim stereotypicality, gender stereotypicality and benevolent sexism on acquaintance rape victim blame. Sex Roles, 62(7-8), 494-504.
- Viki, G. T., Massey, K., & Masser, B. (2005). When chivalry backfires: Benevolent sexism and attitudes toward Myra Hindley. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 10(1), 109-120.