Susan Douglas wrote the most important book of the year. In book-reviewese, “important” is usually code for boring, but not in this case. Douglas’ book is anything but. It’s exciting and it’s relevant and it’s sassy. It’s the Wanda Sykes of semi-commercial nonfiction.
Here are the two main arguments in Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done:
1. Because we see so many successful female characters on TV, we overestimate equality in the workforce.
“Ironically,” Douglas notes, “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 housewives who need advice from Mr. Clean about how to wash a floor obscured the exploding number of women entering the workforce ... 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.”
2. Even though we watch sexist TV shows through a lens of irony, and even though we unfavorably judge the stereotype-perpetuating female characters on these shows, we can’t help but adopt the shows’ underlying value system, under which a woman’s worth is measured solely by her appearance and her sexuality.
“[S]ensationalism, titillation, and ridicule,” Douglas writes, “all reminding girls and women that they will always be defined by and reduced to their sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof) and their sexual behaviors—now that’s an effective form of social control.”
Douglas argues these consequential points convincingly, and she obliterates anybody who stands in her way. These obliterations are the biggest draw; her attacks are sharper than a scalpel:
Douglas on Sarah Palin: “So here was a woman who was anti-choice, anti-sex education (that worked out well), anti-day care, using the gains of the women’s movement to run for office, and to silence those who might have a few questions about her qualifications.”
Douglas on Abercrombie & Fitch stores: “The blow-up black-and-white shots of muscular self-satisfied blond pretty boys in low-slung boxer shorts may have been attractive to my daughter, but all I kept thinking was ‘Hitler youth.’ And ‘statutory rape.’”
Douglas on ostensibly “post-feminist” films like Clueless, Legally Blonde, and Miss Congeniality: “Feminism was, like, so yesterday—hostile to the fun of the new girliness and unnecessary because equality had, like, so totally been achieved.”
I have some small issues with Douglas’ issues, but my attacks aren’t nearly as pointed as hers. For example, in arguing that the media unjustifiably labeled Michelle Obama as “angry,” Douglas writes, “She said she was proud of her country and all of a sudden she’s ‘angry’?”
If you remember, Michelle Obama’s actual quote was, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Now, I think Michelle is great, and I’m sure she didn’t really mean what she said (that she didn’t feel proud of her country until “hope made a comeback” [i.e., until her husband gained momentum in the polls]), but she did say it.
The right defense of Michelle’s comment should be: Cut her some slack! So what if she messed up and said something dumb? Everybody does that. But Douglas deeply mischaracterizes Michelle’s quote in attacking those who attacked it. I caught this mischaracterization because the quote was fresh in my mind. But I’m left to wonder how many mischaracterizations I didn’t catch.
Next issue: In discussing the films Miss Congeniality, Down With Love and Legally Blonde, Douglas writes, “Women may be Harvard-educated lawyers, or publicists, or FBI agents, but such professions offered precious little satisfaction or fulfillment compared to the love of a man.” Douglas implies that there’s something wrong with putting romantic love above a career. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing for a woman or a man to do, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. I think you should prioritize your life however you want.
Call me old-fashioned, but don’t call me an enlightened sexist.