May 2010

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Enlightened Sexism critiques the embrace and refusal of sexism and feminism from the 1990s to today, a time that is known variously as an age of girl power, post-feminism, sex-positive feminism, and third-wave feminism. At times the book suffers from an excess of plot summary, redundancies, and ‘90s irrelevancies -- one can’t help but not care about Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher, and The Rules. Twenty years ago, Susan Faludi’s Backlash skewered misogynistic pop culture to better effect. Susan Douglas mentions the book, but says that today we are experiencing something more insidious than a backlash, that consumers, feminists even, are participating in so-called empowering escapism with the “cultivation of the ironic, knowing viewer and the deployment of ironic sexism.”     

Douglas is charting enlightened sexism -- the permission of sexist stereotypes after the illusion of gender equality and coexisting attitudes of defiance and acquiescence -- from its early ‘90s inception to the present. The already exhaustively covered personalities and events from the ‘90s smother the text. Douglas traces the beginnings of extreme celebrity journalism to the fatalism and shallowness of the Bush era, the injunction to go shopping to defeat terrorism. Yes, the Bush era presided over the chipping away of women’s rights, and let’s not forget that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claim many women’s lives while also playing into an Islamophobic discourse of freedom from hijab. Sorry for killing you, we will save you from yourselves and your culture. However, tabloid excess is less of a Bush legacy than it is an effect of media consolidation, actors replacing models on magazine covers and the subsequent need for actors to fit into sample sizes, and the Internet’s pervasive, constantly updated, watchful eye.

In The Female Thing, Laura Kipnis utters a hard truth about the mutual exclusion of feminism and femininity: “The main reason that feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to eliminate female inadequacy, to trounce it as a patriarchal myth, then kick it out of the female psyche for good.” Douglas approximates this theme but never becomes as rallying and incisive as Kipnis.

For an academic, Douglas uses a chatty tone, sarcastic asides, and fratty vulgarities like “douchebag” that get tiresome. She repeats signifiers including “size two,” “Oil of Olay,” “D cup,” and “breasts the size of watermelons” many times. It seems that she wants to appear to be a bigger pop culture junkie than she is, that she wants to be as ingratiating to her reader as pop culture is to its consumers. It is true that feminism is unpopular and that she is writing to a white middle-class mainstream audience, but the mentions of Sephora and her love for movies like Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality seem designed to appeal to readers. Douglas sometimes seems to pick on individual women who uphold the standard of beauty. She implies that Kate Moss does cocaine in order to stay thin: “Is it worth snorting coke to stay at ninety five pounds? Sure sounds like it.” Calling out Kate Moss for being too thin just feels really 1993. And it’s possible to have a drug problem for reasons other than weight control. She sanctions “hurling Krispy Kremes at Tyra Banks” on the television screen, at least. But blame shouldn’t rest with a few hyperthin women, but with systems. Douglas misspells Erykah Badu’s name and she deems the oftentimes spindly Sarah Michelle Gellar to be formidable as Buffy, mentioning her tae kwon do training, which I thought had been debunked long ago as so much publicity hype. Douglas seems to have watched most of these television shows as research for her book without being very familiar with them beforehand. Most of the writing focuses on the pilot episode or the first season, which can throw off a reader’s encyclopedic knowledge of a show run. Unfortunately, readers eager to hear her opinions of shows and movies like Juno, Mad Men, Twilight, and the Judd Apatow oeuvre will not read them here.

The attention and panic about girls, rich white girls, was born from a new market. Douglas asserts that enlightened sexism began with Beverly Hills, 90210 because it was the first television show that took teenagers, especially teen girls, seriously. The show was a frightening 1950s throwback (not the real 1950s with the rock and roll and beatniks, but the 1950s we’ve culturally mythologized of happy housewives and courtship and hanging out at the malt shop) of aspirational consumerism and white man moralizing. 90210 helped to create a dominant youth market in which kids rule because parents are absent and loser authorities are castrated. Who can tell Steve Sanders what to do? 

Douglas, who wrote Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, a great book about coming of age in the 1950s, asserts that “girls in the ‘50s and ‘00s are opposite in terms of the media portrayal and the actual lives of women.” The fantasy of equality is portrayed as reality and it silences women who argue that they are unequal. How can they be when there are so many representations of women (fictional and the few real-life elites) with agency, especially in the form of sexual freedom and self fulfillment? Men, the poor dears, are rendered weak-kneed by the hot women empowered by their sexuality as portrayed by the “retrograde dreck” of Maxim, The Man Show, and Girls Gone Wild. And what about musicians?  In the ‘90s, there was lots of rad music, especially in the indie world. And much of it was women fronted. This halcyon time of creative and independent women, ended around the time of the Spice Girls and then the popularity of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ushered in a supergendered age of neo-bubblegum sexy girl pop and boy bands. It seemed like the art of music and film ended for the dominance of pop culture.

Douglas says middle-class white women “are not supposed to be too tough” while black women (here she is talking about Wanda Sykes) have the dubious “freedom” of being aggressive and sassy. Yet, white women often talk over the voices of women of color, they privilege their own experiences, they express themselves. Douglas considers Sykes’s code-switching to be a “delicious performance” that expresses all women’s frustrations, including her own. She sees herself living through Sykes’s toughness even as she acknowledges the “sassy black woman” stereotype as not necessarily being affirming, and her enjoyment of it being fetishizing. Douglas mentions the racism of 1970s feminism which alienated women of color. Unfortunately, though Douglas strives to understand the struggles of women of color, this book may perpetuate white feminism’s insularity.

One of the more cogent parts of the book is “Lean and Mean.” Douglas shows how in five years girls were transformed in media images from depressed victims in Reviving Ophelia to bitchy bullies tormenting other girls in Mean Girls and Queen Bees and Wannabes. Girl-on-girl violence is emphasized despite the many girls harassed, assaulted, and raped by boys. At the public library where I work, boys and girls gather around computers to watch Youtube girl fight videos. Girls fighting each other is a lot more captivating than the more prevalent reality of boys hurting girls. Douglas makes a very important point here. First, girls are too anorexic, too compliant and then they become too aggressive. Like the tabloids that obsess over an actor’s weight -- too thin yesterday, too fat today -- the media can’t seem to decide whether girls need to act up or quiet down. And famous girls like Jamie Lynn Spears and Miley Cyrus are set up as wholesome good girls, as contrasted with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, former good girls themselves, only to be blamed for acting out, and the cycle continues.

Not only are girls in the crosshairs, but the obsession over pregnancy and motherhood and the assault on reproductive freedom -- yay abstinence! -- make women, pregnant or not, vulnerable to the “new momism,” the creepy obsession over baby bumps and the fixation on being a perfect mom. Thank you, Centers for Disease Control, for recommending that all women of reproductive age treat their bodies as pre-pregnant!

A lot of what appears to be objectification or a return to oppressive roles is presented as choice -- yet we don’t make choices in a vacuum free of representations and pressure. As Nicole Richie said, “Why grow old gracefully when you have the technology to prevent it?” If you have the means, why not aim to look young and hot forever, instead of dismantling the system that demands so much body policing.

Like every countercultural movement, feminism has been decapitated to become girl power, feminism lite, to sell shit and offer a fun, fulfilling credo on the ass of your sweatpants. As Douglas says, “Feminist gains, attitudes and achievements are woven into our cultural fabric.” Now that it is inside the system, the principles are eroding, Douglas says. How can we preserve the meaning in important movements and evolve them to be more radical and inclusive while creating real social change especially when feminism can mean, “please men, be hot, go shopping,” if you choose it to be.

In her epilogue, Douglas imagines a hypothetical F-Girl magazine that sounds a lot like websites such as Jezebel, Feministing, and Feministe. In a chilling but funny way, she imagines a future of baby thongs and a pole dancing game, Maxim, Jr., and a Celebrity Gynecologist television show. She also reviews the effects of the recession, that men lost more jobs than women, but women make less and work more part-time jobs, and they still have to do the majority of childcare and housework, while also dealing with men who get angry and violent when they’re out of work. Enlightened Sexism won’t make you feel better, but it will illuminate the seriously shitty situation we are all in, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention.

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas
Times Books
ISBN: 080508326X
368 Pages