Tag Archives: enlightened sexism

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.

The sexist postcode

As a teenager I watched Beverly Hills 90210. I loved it. To the point where I’d chuck a tantrum if I couldn’t watch it. (Mind you, that’s not sayin’ much because I threw a lot of tantrums in my teens – I had a lot of unresolved anger and frustration that would just explode out of me, and without a strong relationship with my family, I felt utterly alone. I knew there were different lives outside of our shitty little town but they just seemed so very far away. I imagine a lot of teenagers feel like that.)

Anyway, as you can see in the little widget way down on the right, I’m reading Enlightened Sexism: the seductive message that feminism’s work is done, by Susan J. Douglas. In the first chapter, she traces the start of enlightened sexism – using the idea that we’ve achieved true gender equality to put women back in their place, as sexually attractive playthings for men – back to this show:

So 90210 was an important early building block of enlightened sexism because it insisted that the true, gratifying pleasures for girls, and their real source of power, came from consumerism, girliness, and the approval of guys…

What was really retrograde about 90210, then – aside from the fact that there were no people of colour except for African American athletes who, duh, needed tutoring (and, briefly, Andrea’s Latino husband) – was how it magnified the absolute centrality of thinness, beauty, fashion, sexual objectification, and boyfriends to teen girl happiness… Whatever the plot lines, these young women were, first and foremost, sexual objects on display who maintained their attractiveness by buying things.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the show. Which isn’t surprising when you consider the amount of alcohol and drugs I consumed in my teens and twenties. Sheesh, it’s amazing I can still string a sentence together. (And shit, wasn’t it fun? As the tail end of Gen X ages, I suspect we’ll see a lot more dementia from all the shit we put in our bodies because we didn’t have mortages and children.)

What was I writing about? Oh yeah, 90210. There wasn’t really any “fashion” at my high school. It was always the same look – almost everyone wore surf brands (remember ripple sole desert boots and Kuta Lines streaky jackets?) and I wore a lot of Vinnies stuff but no one ever gave me shit about it. I do remember one particularly special pair of new jeans that featured wide stripes of white, maroon, green and navy. Nice. Oh, and a blue gingham bodysuit that I made. Can you believe bodysuits are back? In summer? Because nothing says sexy like a row of moist press studs on a gusset that will eventually be hanging out the back of your jeans because you’re too drunk to remember you’re wearing it.

So, not being a girly-girl in my teens (or my twenties and early thirties for that matter – I’ve only recently got into eyeliner and lipstick), I didn’t notice the hair and fashion and sex and consumerism. For me, 90210 was about escaping, albeit briefly, from my boring life in a log cabin 50km out of a town where teenaged girls were judged by the deepness of their tans and the whiteness of their socks and how long they could lie on the beach while the boys surfed (hence the deep tan). It was the only show that no one else in my family wanted to watch, so I had the living room to myself. And in a family of seven, that was pure bliss. So I didn’t pick up on any of the stuff that Douglas is writing about. But that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? We’re not supposed to notice.

I’ll write more about this book later – and make it about the book rather than just about me – but I’ll leave you with this gem from The Fauves. They were my favourite band in the 90s, I must have seen them a hundred times and I even own the hard-to-get Drive Through Charisma and The Young Need Discipline.