We could use an exclusive definition. A work isn't sexist if it include the following. If any of the items below aren't met, the work is sexist.
- Women have their own agency.
- Women have their own agendas.
- Women are not dependent on men.
At first, that sounds good, but it turns sexism into a binary, which isn't useful. This definition binds more than it grants, especially as many stories have legitimate artistic reasons for choosing to curtail one or all of those criteria. In addition, this definition only identifies sexism against women, not against men or any other gender. The limited definition is applied regardless of the story's structure or applicablity to the criteria. Finally, the definition is so over-broad that it winds up encompassing everything regardless of any other merits, providing too many false positives, which makes tackling sexism an impossible task.
For example, it's WWI and a group of English soldiers meet a French woman on the road with her children. They don't speak French and the woman is in shock, so they divert to escort the woman to a safer place, amusing the children along the way. By the definition above, this is a sexist narrative, yet objectively, the soldiers act with basic decency and humanity.
I prefer a more limited definition of sexism, one that identifies sexism without pre-defining the narrative.
- Men and women have natural spheres.
- Men and women are happiest in their appropriate natural spheres.
- The world is restored to rights when each gender is in its natural sphere.
- Each gender respects the sphere of the other.
- Women and their interests are subservient to men.
- Men and women don't have ambitions outside their gender perspective.
- Acting outside your sphere causes conflict and social breakdown.
- Men are humiliated when acting in a woman's role. (He moves down in respect.)
- A woman is presumptuous when acting in a man's role. (She attempts to move up in respect beyond her gender.)
To me, this is a much more useful narrative to identify sexism. It works for any gender. I can open up a story and see that it's sexist for both men and women. Most importantly, it exists independent of structure and metrics. Simply because a story contains elements commonly associated with sexism doesn't make it sexist.
Sexism affects men because it reduces the stories that we get to hear. A princess is kidnapped and ... 1) Only the strong hero gets to save her. That's restrictive. In a non-sexist world, 1) her brother gets to rescue her, 2) her father gets to rescue her, 3) her mother gets to rescue her, 4) her sister gets to rescue her, 5) her daughter gets to rescue her, 6) her grandparent gets to rescue her, 7) her neighbors get to rescue her, 8) and so on, 9) and the rescued somebody doesn't need to be a "her" at all.
Sexism means that only alpha-males get to have stories. Allowing other meta-narratives mean that other people get to act and have stories, people more like everyone else. We aren't restricted to just one kind of man, or woman, or anybody. Even simple variations put entirely new spins onto stories even though they have assumed sexist elements. This means that we can still have men saving women stories, which is important, as I believe that men genuinely want and need such stories where they express their emotions through their actions. (Men do that.) Men now get to save women, children, friends, parents, and colleagues. Men get more range of relationships out of rejecting sexism. We are no longer stuffed into a box where we only have worth if we have a woman.
When we return to the example of the soldiers, the story utterly fails to match any of my revised criteria. It's not a sexist story because the meta-narrative has nothing to do with enforcing gender roles. If anything, the soldiers act outside of gender roles by assuming the roles of caretakers and nurturers when the woman is no longer able to undertake her responsibilities. Nobody gets the woman in the end. In fact, the entire story feels a bit like a respite from war because the men get to leave the soldier narrative for a while, get to walk away from being alpha-males and killers, and act as nurturers. This is the kind of story that we really want.