Thursday, 5 December 2013

Feminist Crib Sheets - Living Dolls

Swot up on your fem-lit with our fortnightly Feminist Crib Sheets! This week we take a look at Natasha Walter's account of the challenges faced by modern feminism. 

Book: Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism
Author: Natasha Walter
Date: 2010
Pros: Explodes the modern pernicious myths of innate biological differences between the sexes and that ‘raunch’ culture and the idea of sexualisation empowers women, while never judging the women who participate.
Cons: Emphasis on the personal sometimes fails to address other structural factors like class, and little discussion of the growing assertion and diversity of LGBT culture into the mainstream.

What’s it all about then? The cover is slightly disconcerting…

Don’t be put off by the cover, which looks disturbingly like a plastic woman’s vagina has been replaced by a Barbie doll. It is actually quite an effective representation of what the book is about.

Which is?

It’s essentially made up of two separate yet interlinked sections. The first part of the book, ‘The New Sexism’ addresses the increasingly pervasive sexualisation and objectification of women in today’s mainstream culture. Though the book was published in 2010, if anything it is more relevant today in light of current trends: the only way a former child star can now signal that she is ‘all grown up’ is to strip down and/or engage in sexually suggestive dancing or photo shoots a la Miley, and all female musicians seem to be in a collective race towards nakedness.

Walter aptly delineates how growing sexual liberation and permissiveness has twisted in on itself and instead created a new cage for women, one constructed of thongs, nipple tassels and waxing strips. The freedom for women to be sexual beings has transformed into a compulsion to be seen as ‘sexy’ and ‘desirable’, according to the narrow mores of mainstream culture’s idea of ‘what men want’. Though not really addressed by Walter (she has bigger fish to fry) the picture she paints seems a thoroughly depressing place for the menfolk too. Though she (understandably) concentrates on interviewing the female strippers and sex workers - who have invariably realised that undressing for money isn’t as ‘empowering’ as they were led to believe - it seems to be that the ‘men in suits, with money’ one stripper describes are as trapped in a monochrome sexual vista as the women, mindlessly paying money to be fed with a one-tone idea of what ‘sexy’ is, regardless of what they might independently find attractive.

The poor diddums…

I can sense your sarcasm, but the second section of the book, ‘The New Determinism’ more clearly highlights how feminism is not just a ‘girl thing’; it affects all of us. Even as women are (slowly, slowly) becoming a feature of all professions, even the most manly, there has been a growing clamour of voice in recent years asserting that men and women ARE just different y’all. You can ‘lean in’ all you want, but the girl will always be too distracted by fluffy kitten Tumblrs and the siren call of motherhood, as opposed to hard-headed and purposeful males. Walter’s discussion of the attention lavished by media outlets on questionable academic studies seemingly ‘proving’ gender differences struck a wholly true note. As a matter of fact, I was reading only yesterday in the ol’ Evening Standard how a study at the University of Pennsylvania has apparently found that men are more ‘action-oriented’ while women are predisposed to ‘heart and mind’ thinking, whatever that means. I gave the old gentlemen next to me also on his evening commute a bit of a start with my incredulous snort.

This is again a key area in which feminism should emphasise that such biological determinism limits both genders. If I have a son who wants to play with dolls or a daughter who likes trucks, I bloody well want them to be able to do so without feeling that they are ‘weird’ and somehow doing something wrong. Walter points out that far from such ideas going the way of outdated theories such as eugenics, they remain entrenched and ‘common sense’ in today’s society.

Sounds a bit depressing really, does it leave you wanting to hibernate in a slanket?
The interviews with sex workers and glamour models are depressing but enlightening reading, but you will leave with a feeling of righteous anger and some good arguments to counter the ‘oh but men and women are different, innit’ idea, that seems to be more and more commonly held. Personally, I would see the slanket as a personal act of defiance against the idea that even ‘loungewear’ now be flattering and desirable, even better if it’s covered in the wine stains and cheese crumbs of a life well-lived.
It would have been even more empowering if the book had discussed some positive aspects of modern culture, such as the growing presence of LGBT views that counters such gender-normative thinking, or she had addressed how factors like class also effect female aspirations and methods to counter this. But ‘Living Dolls’ still makes for stirring reading in modern culture’s maelstrom of sexist chatter.

In conclusion, read this book proudly on the Underground for an effective dissection of the limiting effects of modern culture on female roles and aspirations.


1 comment:

  1. Just finished reading it and even for someone slowly starting to see herself as an actual feminist rather than someone with feminist sympathies, it makes you stop and think. Especially the second part about the new biological determinism is important to be aware of as we so easily take for granted or for The Truth what is written in newspapers. But I too find that we are increasingly confronted with articles stating that men and women are just different. Even in rather left-wing and quality broadsheets we hardly find another message challenging this particular view both in the UK and in other parts of Europe. I also think she makes a valid point when highlighting the differences in treatment between successful men and women. Apparently however high you reach as a woman, whether in politics or in business, you will always be assessed on the way you dress, laugh or talk. So indeed, a book to be read in public and to be honest, personally I quite wanted to be seen with it.