Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Enlightened Sexism. A Book Review

Susan J. Douglas has written a book about American pop culture and its negotiations or wars with feminism. The full title of the book is Enlightened Sexism. The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done.

But it really is mostly about pop culture and the paradoxical messages it offers about the role of women. Like "you can be anything you want as long as you have big tits."

That's my summary of the book. It has much more than that, including theories about enlightened sexism and embedded feminism and how they interact. Here's Douglas's definition of the two concepts:

One force is embedded feminism: the way in which women's achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply part of the cultural landscape.


So the female characters created by Shonda Rhines for Grey's Anatomy, to choose just one example, reflect a genuine desire to show women as skilled professionals in jobs previously reserved for men. Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer because he embraced feminism and was tired of seeing all the girls in horror films as victims, instead of possible heroes. But women whose kung fu skills are more awesome than Jackie Chan's? Or who tell a male coworker (or boss) to his face that he's less evolved than a junior in high school? This is a level of command-and-control barely enjoyed by four-star generals, let alone the nation's actual female population.

But the media's fantasies of power are also the product of another force that has gained considerable momentum since the early and mid-1990s: enlightened sexism. Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism -- indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved -- so now it's okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.

I'm not sure that those stereotypes needed much resurrecting. They were fully alive all along, though perhaps sleeping in their crypts during the daylight hours.

But these are the major concepts Douglas applies in a tour through the popular culture of the last thirty years or so. It's a fascinating tour to take, and I recommend it quite strongly, even if I'm not quite certain how we are to make it all into one tight theory. That would require that the same audiences were watching all the different shows, wouldn't it?

Still, I learned a lot during that tour, not being a fan of television or movies, either (they are too slow for me). I even had several a-ha! experiences while reading the book.

One of those was a much better understanding of the third leg of the new anti-feminist armchair: popular culture. (The other two legs are fundamentalist religions and the evo-psycho branch dangling off real evolutionary psychology. And yes, there is a fourth leg, too, but that one I talk about elsewhere.) This is what I realized when reading Douglas:

The sexual liberation of women can be a great thing, a wonderful thing. But it also can be subverted and turned into the sexual liberation of the female body, almost absent its owner, or perhaps owned by others. It is that body which has become a signifier of sexuality for everyone, including heterosexual women, and the shape of that generalized sexy body is now more stringently controlled than ever before. Hence the need to shave the pubic area and the need to have large and perky breasts. The Female Body in that detached sense is now a mythical body, an impossible body, with fixed labia and enhanced breasts. At the same time many view it as an achievable body. A normative body type, if you like.

And you can have a career if you also have that Female Body. Or so I interpret Douglas' argument about the contradictory messages in popular culture. It's almost like a new version of what one Pope said about women in the public sector: Sure, women can have a role in the public sector as long as they carry out all the same old chores at home, though this version is more about the sexual position of the human female than her domestic obligations.

But of course nobody planned it like this. The creators of various television series and movies simply wanted to attract different viewer groups: Eye candy for some, career women for others. To save on hiring costs, make it an eye candy with a great career. And there you are!

I may be overstating Douglas's point here, because I include the widespread use of porn in popular culture and her book doesn't cover pornography at all. Since the shaving and the fixing of the labia and even the artificial breasts have their first home in porn it should have been covered. But then perhaps other people don't see it as part of the current popular culture?

My second a-ha! moment was about the treatment of teenage girls in pop culture and also in pseudo-psychological advise giving. We are worried about teenage girls. Either they are poor Ophelias, considering jumping into the lake and ending it all or they are Mean Girls destroying everyone else or they are Shameless Hussies who will never get a husband. None of that sounds like any of the actual teenage girls whom I know.

Popular culture does have the tendency to veer from one extreme to another, to leap from worrying about the evaporating teenage girls to worrying about the evil teenage girls and so on. Still, a more balanced view would be good for, you know, teenage girls. Even more generally!

My third a-ha! moment had to do with Douglas' discussion of Janet Reno and why she provoked a certain kind of hatred. I'm not talking about criticizing what she did as the Clinton administration Attorney General but about the way her looks were covered in the media:

The jokes were incessant. And Will Ferrel's ongoing drag impersonation "Janet Reno's Dance Party" on Saturday Night Live featured the nation's first female attorney general as a pathetic, love-starved nerd who threw herself at men and danced like a robot on angel dust. A giant; too butch; unloved; a freak.

The reason is that Reno refused to perform femininity. Indeed, she refused to perform gender at all. That, my friends, may be more threatening and frightening than Hillary Clinton as a nutcracker. Which is plenty frightening for many people.

One final point in the book is worth making: Women and people of color often have quite exalted roles on television and in the movies. Black women, for instance are much more likely to be judges on television than in meat-space.

I knew this, of course, but I assumed that it came from a desire to show diversity in the good jobs and perhaps to make the society more accustomed to diversity on top. But Douglas points out a possible negative consequence of this over-representation: Viewers may take the situation on the screen as reality! No further action needed, because Everyone Has Already Arrived.