Sunday, March 21, 2010

Susan Douglas's "Enlightened Sexism"

Susan J. Douglas is the author of Where the Girls Are, The Mommy Myth, and other works of cultural history and criticism. She is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies and chair of the department at the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 1996. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Ms., The Village Voice, and In These Times.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done, and reported the following:
I lucked out on this assignment—which, like many of the other authors, I was wary about, given the randomness of the page number—because when you open Enlightened Sexism to page 99, you find yourself at the end of the chapter titled “Warrior Women in Thongs,” and so there are concluding paragraphs that summarize the book’s themes. Enlightened Sexism provides a somewhat irreverent tour through the changing media images of girls and women from the 1990s to the present, and lays out what I found to be a striking irony. With of all those super heroines, high-powered female attorneys, surgeons, judges, and police chiefs in prime time, not to mention prominent news anchors, reporters and pundits, much of the media have come to overrepresent women as having made it—completely—in the professions, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the Tiffany’s-encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach. So there is a rather large gap between how the vast majority of girls and women live their lives and what they see—and don’t see—in the media.

What the media have been giving us then, are fantasies of power. They assure girls and women 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. Because full equality allegedly has been achieved, it’s now acceptable to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women because supposedly they can’t undermine us anymore. Thus, what has emerged is a new, subtle, sneaky form of sexism that seems to accept—even celebrate—female achievements on the surface, but is really about repudiating feminism and keeping women, especially young women, in their place. Girls and women are torn between impossibly contradictory images of the importance of femininity on the one hand and empowerment on the other. Lurking in most of this media fare is the message that feminist politics is no longer necessary, is even dangerous to women, when a host of issues from pay inequity, poverty and violence still affect millions of us.

“Warrior Women in Thongs” is about the rise in the 1990s of the sexy, mouthy, butt-kicking heroine—think Buffy, Xena, Lara Croft, et al. at the height of the “girl power” movement. Here’s an excerpt from p. 99 (with a few sentences from the bottom of p. 98 so it makes sense).
The warrior women in thongs insisted that females could, and should, combine force and aggression with femininity and sexual display. On the one hand, this was welcome, given how often our culture emphasizes that female sexuality is dangerous and shameful. On the other hand, they also reaffirmed the sexual objectification of women and girls, and suggested that women could be as strong as any man as long as they were poreless, stacked, and a size two. No matter how strong we got, it was more important to be slim and beautiful and to know how to deploy femininity as a weapon. And for most of the warrior women, their sexuality got them into trouble with the wrong men and even endangered those closest to them.

Finally, and obviously, these female heroes could only be kick-butt strong in fantastical other worlds either in some mythic past, in a place over a Hellmouth, or in a nether world or parallel universe of spying. In the real world, there’s the question of whether it’s all that great for girls to feel empowered primarily through the use of physical violence against others. But it was precisely because the settings of warrior women fare were mythological that they provided ideal metaphorical realms for exploring the increased fluidity and uncertainty of gender roles in the 1990s and beyond.

Warrior women were both transgressive and conformist. They fought like Jackie Chan but cried over romantic betrayal or injury done to others; they were physically dominating yet caring. While they suggested, on the one hand, that with enough Tae Kwon Do lessons women could reduce the differences between the sexes even further, their form-fitting, skin-baring outfits made clear that gender differences were here to stay. In addressing, however campily, our culture’s anxieties about changing gender scripts at the turn of the century, the warrior women in thongs asserted that to exert power, women had to be a lot more like men (hardly the feminist hope of the 1970s) and, at the same time, true to their socialized female selves that were not like men at all. They insisted that women were and could be comprised of a complicated, daunting bundle of roles, skills and emotions that drew from both sides of the old gender divide. In particular, increased physical strength matched by a defiant rhetorical toughness might be necessary now for women, but the traditional male emotional repertoires of aloofness and insensitivity were not. This was a very different and more complicated and ambiguous kind of female persona from those on Dallas, thirtysomething, or Touched by an Angel.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan Douglas's website.

--Marshal Zeringue