It’s always so disappointing when I don’t enjoy a book as much as I thought I would. That was the problem with Jonathan Franzen’s How to be alone, and it’s happening again with Enlightened Sexism by Susan J Douglas. It doesn’t help that I only know half of the popular culture references in it. Sure, I watched 90210 as a teenager, but didn’t get into Melrose Place and have never seen an episode of Ally McBeal or Grey’s Anatomy or that show where hot young women compete with hot older women for The Poo.
What so much of this media (especially advertising) emphasises is that women are defined by our bodies, our identities located in our bodies, and those must be sexually alluring (now, even when we’re pregnant – thanks a lot, Demi Moore!) and conform to a very narrow fashion-model ideal of beauty. This is nothing new, of course, but it was something millions of women hoped to deep-six back in the 1970s. Indeed, it is precisely because women no longer have to exhibit traditionally “feminine” personality traits – like being passive, helpless, docile, overly emotional, dumb and deferential to men – that they must exhibit hyperfeminine physical traits – large boobs and cleavage, short skirts, pouty lips – and the proper logos linking this femininity to upper-class ranking. (pp. 16-17).
That’s quite an interesting point. I hadn’t linked the pornification of popular culture to this, but it surely has to be a part of it, along with reality tv (and its ability to create celebrities out of “normal” people) and the general relaxing of public morals so that we see sex scenes on tv, cleavage in ads for everything, and the FHMing of pretty much all photo shoots.
But sensationalism, titillation, and ridicule, all reminding girls and women that they will always be defined by and reduced to their sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof) and their sexual behaviours – now that’s an effective form of social control. (p. 57)
For enlightened sexism to convince most women, especially girls and young women, that feminism is unnecessary, irrelevant, or horrid, the media had to make clear what would happen if the advance of feminism were not halted. They had to make it clear that feminism, if taken too far, would turn girls and women into monsters or ridiculous, unlovable freaks. (p. 74)
But there’s something running through the book that makes me uncomfortable: the subtle judging. Demi Moore is blamed for pressure to be sexy while pregnant; Sandra Oh is called “flawless”; the Living Single character Synclaire is called a “dimwit”. The thing is, I do agree with her premise, that we’re all being sold this idea that we’ve achieved true gender equality, so women should stop being political and go back to being pretty things to look at and fuck. That it’s only ugly, hairy, humourless feminists who say there is still work to be done. Indeed, that young women should avoid feminism because it will make them ugly, hairy and humourless. But I’m surprised that in a book criticising the policing of women’s bodies, the author has failed to notice that she also polices women’s bodies.