Monday, January 27, 2014

The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

2010, undated later edition, from St. Martin's Griffin
Susan J. Douglas
The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild
Bought newish for $16.99
Slightly worn paperback

This disappointing follow-up to Douglas's Where the Girls Are (1994) is not without its merits, but I do need to talk about its flaws first and foremost.  To begin with, the earlier book was written from her perspective as a fortysomething Baby-Boomer, while this time she's a "Vintage Female" and the mother of a then-twenty-year-old daughter.  She often writes here as if there was no generation of feminists in between, except for the riot-grrrls who produced music and zines.  Well, I was born in 1968, and I can't relate to any of the TV covered here, from Xena and Buffy to Survivor and The Real World, or even ER.  (I've seen more of the Elliott Gould sitcom of the same name!)  I have seen several of the movies she discusses, and I do appreciate, for instance, her appreciation of Clueless, but I think she missed the boat on Mean Girls and most definitely Down with Love.  I have seen a few celebrity magazines with the "baby bump" pictures.  And I sort of followed the way Janet Reno, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin were covered.

But this all may be a flaw in me as a reader, rather than her as a writer.  So let's take a look at her title, which was changed from the hardcover edition, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done.  Douglas's thesis is that the American media present the following intertwined messages:

  • Women have achieved all of feminism's goals, as evidenced by all those women in power in real life and more particularly on TV.
  • Therefore, we can now relax and enjoy sexism "ironically," by showing retrograde images, like of scheming, skinny, large-breasted blondes.  (Like in Marcotte's It's a Jungle out There.  Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

The first part is what she calls "embedded feminism," where female bosses, judges, and even presidents appear as characters.  She has a problem with this, because it doesn't reflect most women's lives.  Well, no, neither did Bewitched, but she seemed to appreciate that in the previous book.  Is the problem that what's shown on TV in recent decades, as opposed to the '50s and '60s, is meant to be real, even when it's contrived "reality TV"?  

And, yes, as the more recent subtitle indicates, she does discuss the Spice Girls, and the ambiguity of their message.  She doesn't even mention the equally British Hermione Granger, despite my earlier hopes, although there's quite a bit on Bridget Jones.  It's as if she doesn't want to include any recent positive images of girl culture.  Where the Girls Are was much more balanced.

Still, when she does what she does best, like examining the devolution of Cosmo or mocking Mel Gibson, the book is funny and, well, enlightening.  If she does another follow-up, some fifteen or twenty years down the road, I hope that either I'll be more into the pop culture of that time than I am now, or she'll pick a wider range of examples.

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