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Excerpt: 'Enlightened Sexism'

'Enlightened Sexism' Cover


Spring 1997. It is 8:12 a.m. Saturday. The feminist mom, who looks like she just got shot out of a wind turbine and has a cheap chardonnay hangover, is making pancakes for four eight-year-old girls who have had a sleepover party. Let's just say that she's not in the most festive mood. Then, blasting from the other room, she hears what had become the faux-rap anthem of that spring: "I'll tell ya what I want, what I really really want . . ." She peeks around the corner to see the four girls singing and dancing with abandon, sucking in "girl power" with every breath. At that instant, she saw the postfeminist zeitgeist that would envelop her daughter's generation and wondered: Should she be happy that they're listening to bustier feminism instead of watching Barbie commercials on Saturday morning TV? Or should she run in, rip the CD out of the player, and insist that they listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter or Ani DiFranco instead?

This was the Spice Girls moment, and debate: Were these girly, frosted cupcakes really a vehicle for feminism? And how much reversion back to the glory days of prefeminism should girls and women accept — even celebrate — given that we now allegedly "had it all." Despite their Wonderbras, bare thighs, pouty lips, and top-of-the-head ponytails (of the sort favored by Pebbles on The Flintstones), the Spice Girls nonetheless advocated "girl power." They demanded, in their colossal, intercontinental hit Wannabe, that boys treat them with respect or take a hike. Their boldfaced liner notes claimed that "The Future Is Female" and suggested that they and their fans were "Freedom Fighters." They made Margaret Thatcher an honorary Spice Girl. "We're freshening up feminism for the nineties," they told the Guardian. "Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a 90s way of saying it." They proclaimed that New Age feminism meant "you have a brain, a voice and an opinion." And hot pants. Hmmm.

Fast-forward to 2008. Talk about girl power! One woman ran for president and another for vice president. Millions of women and men voted for each of them. The one who ran for vice president had five children, one of them a four-month-old infant, yet it was verboten to even ask whether she could handle the job while also tending to a baby. (Other issues, like whether she ever read a newspaper or really could see Vladivostok from her window seemed a tad more pressing.) At the same time we had a female secretary of state, and the woman who had run for president became her high-profile successor. There were female CEOs, a woman anchoring the CBS Evening News, and female attorneys, surgeons, police chiefs, and judges all over dramatic TV. On reality TV shows like Survivor, female contestants battled fire ants and iguanas the size of golf carts right alongside the men. Remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, supposedly scandalizing a nation and then having her sitcom canceled? By 2008 she and Rachel Maddow hosted their own talk shows and it was no big deal at all; in fact, millions of us loved them, and DeGeneres's wedding to her girlfriend was splashed all over the cover of People just like that of any straight celeb.

Feminism? Who needs feminism anymore? Aren't we, like, so done here? Okay, so some women moaned about the sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton, but picky, picky, picky.

Indeed, eight years earlier, career antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers huffed in her book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, that girls were getting way too much attention and, as a result, were going to college in greater numbers and much more likely to succeed while boys were getting sent to detention, dropping out of high school, destined for careers behind the counter at Arby's, and so beaten down they were about to become the nation's new "second sex." Other books like The Myth of Male Power and The Decline of Males followed suit, with annual panics about the new "crisis" for boys. Girl power? Gone way too far.

So wait a minute — in 1999, one year before Sommers's book came out, the top five jobs for women were not attorney, surgeon, or CEO. They were, in order, secretaries, retail and personal sales workers (including cashiers), managers and administrators, elementary school teachers, and registered nurses. Farther down among the top twenty were bookkeepers, receptionists, cooks, and waitresses. Eight years later, in 2007, when presumably some of the privileged, pampered girls whose advantages over boys Sommers had kvetched about had entered the workforce, the top five jobs for women were, still, secretaries in first place, followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers, and retail salespersons. Farther down the line? Maids, child care workers, office clerks, and hairdressers. Not a CEO or hedge fund manager in sight. And, in the end, not a president or vice president either. But what about all those career-driven girls going to college and leaving the guys in the dust? A year out of college, they earn 80 percent of what men make. And ten years out? Sixty-nine percent. And if girls and women really have come so far, and full equality has truly been achieved, why is it that K-Mart sells outfits for four-year-old girls that look like something out of Fredericks of Hollywood? Why did the Ladies Professional Golf Association (of all groups!) in 2002 feel compelled to call in hairstylists and makeup artists to enhance the players' sex appeal? And why is it that pundits felt free to comment on Hillary Clinton's cleavage but not John McCain's — well, let's so not go there.

How do we square the persistence of female inequality with all those images of female power we have seen in the media — the hands-on-her hips, don't-even-think-about-messing-with-me Dr. Bailey on Grey's Anatomy, or S. Epatha Merkerson as the take-no-prisoners Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order, Agent Scully on The X-Files, Brenda Leigh Johnson as "the chief" on The Closer, C. C. H. Pounder on The Shield, or even Geena Davis as the first female president in the short-lived series Commander in Chief? Advertisements tell women that they have achieved so much they should celebrate by buying themselves their own diamond ring for their right hand and urge their poor, flaccid husbands, crippled by an epidemic of emasculation and erectile dysfunction, to start mainlining Viagra or Cialis. Indeed, in films from Dumb and Dumber (1994) to Superbad (2007), guys are hopeless losers. In Sex and the City, with its characters who were successful professionals by day and Kama Sutra masters by night, there was no such thing as the double standard: women had as much sexual freedom, and maybe even more kinky sex, than men. Cosmo isn't for passive girls waiting for the right guy to find them; it's the magazine for the "Fun, Fearless Female" who is also proud to be, as one cover put it, a "Sex Genius." Have a look at O! The magazine is one giant, all-encompassing, throbbing zone of self-fulfillment for women where everything from pillows to celadon-colored notebooks (but only if purchased and used properly) are empowering and everything is possible. And why not? One of the most influential and successful moguls in the entertainment industry is none other than Oprah Winfrey herself.

Something's out of whack here. If you immerse yourself in the media fare of the past ten to fifteen years, what you see is a rather large gap between how the vast majority of girls and women live their lives, the choices they are forced to make, and what they see — and don't see — in the media. Ironically, it is just the opposite of the gap in the 1950s and '60s, when images of women as Watusi-dancing bimbettes on the beach or stay-at-home house wives who needed advice from Mr. Clean about how to wash a floor obscured the exploding number of women entering the workforce, joining the Peace Corps, and becoming involved in politics. Back then the media illusion was that the aspirations of girls and women weren't changing at all when they were. Now, the media illusion is that equality for girls and women is an accomplished fact when it isn't. Then the media were behind the curve; now, ironically, they're ahead. Have girls and women made a lot of progress since the 1970s? You bet. Women's college basketball, for example — its existence completely unimaginable when I was in school — is now nationally televised, and vulgar, boneheaded remarks about the players can get even a money machine like Don Imus fired, if only temporarily. But now we're all district attorneys, medical residents, chiefs of police, or rich, blond, So-Cal heiresses? Not so much.

Since the early 1990s, much of the media have come to over-represent women as having made it — completely — in the professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the Tiffany's-encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries — The Man Show, Maxim, Girls Gone Wild. But even this fare, which insists that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacities of a vole, was presented as empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.

What the media have been giving us, then, are little more than fantasies of power. They assure girls and women, repeatedly, that women's liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless, and more held in awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional, and political parity with men, and we can expunge any suggestions that there might be some of us who actually have to live on the national median income, which for women in 2008 was $36,000 a year, 23 percent less than that of their male counterparts. Yet the images we see on television, in the movies, and in advertising also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves.4 Of course women in fictional TV shows can be in the highest positions of authority, but in real life — maybe not such a good idea. Instead, the wheedling, seductive message to young women is that being decorative is the highest form of power — when, of course, if it were, Dick Cheney would have gone to work every day in a sequined tutu.

And not that some of these fantasies haven-t been delectable. I mean, Xena single-handedly trashing, on a regular basis, battalions of stubble- faced, leather- clad, murdering-and-raping barbarian hordes? Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer letting us pretend, if just for an hour, that only a teenage girl (and a former cheerleader to boot) can save the world from fang-toothed evil? What about an underdog law student, dismissed by her fellow classmates as an airheaded bimbo, winning a high-profile murder case because she understood how permanents work, as Elle did in Legally Blonde? Or let's say you've had an especially stupid day at work and as you collapse on the sofa desperately clutching a martini (hold the vermouth), you see a man on TV tell his female boss that the way she does things is "just not the way we play ball," and she responds drolly, "Well, if you don't like the way I'm doing things, you're free to take your balls and go straight home"? (Yes, The Closer.) Oooo-weeee.

So what's the matter with fantasies of female power? Haven't the media always provided escapist fantasies; isn't that, like, their job? And aren't many in the media, however belatedly, simply addressing women's demands for more representations of female achievement and control? Well, yes. But here's the odd, somewhat unintended consequence: under the guise of escapism and pleasure, we are getting images of imagined power that mask, and even erase, how much still remains to be done for girls and women, images that make sexism seem fine, even fun, and insist that feminism is now utterly pointless, even bad for you. And if we look at what is often being said about girls and women in these fantasies, what we can and should do, what we can and can't be, we will see that slithering just below the shiny mirage of power is the dark, sneaky serpent of sexism.

Reprinted from Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas. Copyright 2010. With permission of the publisher, Times Books.

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Susan J. Douglas