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'Girl Power' From Botox And A Bustier ... Really?

Formed in 1994, the Spice Girls made "Girl Power" a pop rallying cry, but author Susan J. Douglas wonders if the group's brand of feminism obscured the gap between men and women in power.
Bertrand Guay
AFP/Getty Images
Formed in 1994, the Spice Girls made "Girl Power" a pop rallying cry, but author Susan J. Douglas wonders if the group's brand of feminism obscured the gap between men and women in power.

It's Saturday morning 1997. A "feminist mom," who looks like she has "a cheap chardonnay hangover," is making pancakes for four 8-year-old girls." From the other room, the Spice Girls are singing their global hit "Wannabe." The four little girls sing and dance along with abandon.

Mom feels apprehensive: Is this really "Girl Power," she wonders, in hot pants?

'Enlightened Sexism' Cover

So begins Susan J. Douglas' whip-smart new book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done.

Douglas is a communications professor — with attitude. Her book deftly probes American pop culture to reveal how the media promote false images of women in power and how these images undermine real women's progress.

Sometimes, these "fantasies of power," as Douglas calls them, take the form of female superheroes. Dr. Bailey of Grey's Anatomy, Brenda Johnson on The Closer, Lt. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order.

Others embody the exact opposite: retrograde stereotypes of women obsessed with shopping, beauty and men: Laguna Beach,The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Bachelor.

Both are equally disingenuous, Douglas argues: In 2007, the top five jobs for women were secretary, nurse, elementary and middle school teacher, cashier and retail salesperson. Women's median salary is $36,000 — 23 percent less than their male counterparts. In real life, most women are neither Hillary Clinton nor Paris Hilton.

And so, what these media images do, she says, is perpetuate "enlightened sexism." This is the dangerous, two-pronged idea that feminism is no longer necessary and that "because women are now 'equal' and the battle is over and won, we are now free to embrace things we used to see as sexist, including hypergirliness." Enlightened sexism, Douglas writes, encourages young women to "focus the bulk of their time and energy on their appearance, pleasing men, being hot, competing with other women and shopping."

Dissecting our popular culture with gusto, she reveals how this happens. She explores how Janet Reno was demonized, highlights the creepiness of the "bump patrol" in tabloid magazines that scrutinizes celebrities' bodies to determine whether they're pregnant, and picks apart reality television, MTV and news shows. She drives a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style stake through the heart of a multitude of culprits, challenging their insistence that feminism is outmoded, that strong women are scary and unlovable, and that "real" girl power comes from Botox and a bustier.

The fact that the media can be sexist and unrealistic is hardly news. At times, Douglas' book states the obvious. But her critiques are scathing, fresh, insightful — and often very funny. This is a woman who has probably seen every episode of Gossip Girl. She loves the deliciousness of our escapist culture, even while sounding the alarm. Best yet, at its very end, Enlightened Sexism offers solutions to the predicaments it highlights. It's a brilliant call to action and a blueprint. Enlightened? Indeed.

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Susan Jane Gilman
Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.