Not enjoying the enlightenment

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.

Douglas writes:

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.

6 responses to “Not enjoying the enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Not enjoying the enlightenment | the news with nipples - Enlightened

  2. Rhiannon Saxon

    Kim Chernin addresses this issue in ‘Womansize’ written in the 1980s (I think?) – she points out that when societies stop expecting women to act like helpless children, they start expecting them to conform to a typically ‘prepubescent’ look – such as during the 20s and the Twiggy and then Heroin Chic era.

    It’s an interesting premise.

    (While I am totally keen on more every-shape-and-size acceptance I must say on behalf of my slender hipless and flattish-chested friends that they are real women toooooo!)

    • Oh, don’t get me started on this “real woman” stuff. “Real women have curves”? Yeah, well real women also don’t have curves. And how DARE someone say that another woman isn’t “real” simply because of her body shape.

      • I don’t think the people who coined the term “real women have curves” were aware they were being just as obnoxious, elitist and exclusionist in their thinking as those who where trying to push the image of “herion chic” or “paedophiliac utopia” as the cultural beauty norm. also I suspect those who use it -of which I have been guilty of in the past–haven’t really thought about what that kind of exclusion means to women who fall outside the realm of curvy. Like me..who are no longer curvy, just lumpy.

        Most women are female shaped, which is this beautifully indefinable shape that never ever defines the woman inhabiting it because she is so much more than the shape she is.

        (But if we’re gonna label it…society would say girlishly slender is the preferred-because little girls are malleable and non threatening, curves are dangerous man eating husband/boyfriend stealing wanton dogs on heat and heaven forbid you should be athletic-cause that’s butch dude and the big women…they are invisible, except to bare the brunt of derision and sneering because they have no sexual currency what so ever. And lets not forget the whole subgroups of women who fail to make a stereotype at all because they just don’t rate mentioning.)

        It’s that old divide and conquer mentality. Lets get women to squabble amongst themselves about who’s more real…that will deflect them from supporting each other and the patriarchy will reign supreme for years to come yet.

        (Also, the curves thing…It may have also been a bit of a backlash to plastic surgery. However surgically enhanced or not, they are still real women. Some parts will just biodegrade slower than others)

        And I may have taken one too many bitch pills today. (And if the husband comes home and dares suggest I am PMSing -so what if I am- I WILL staple his balls over his asshole.)

        What were we talking about again?

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