I’ve always considered myself an outspoken, independent woman but I’ve never referred to myself as a “feminist.” To me, the word is slightly outdated. It conjures stereotyped images of hairy-legged, bra-burning man-haters intent on never wearing mascara, striding forth in unattractive boots to scare men into the idea of gender equality. In the 90’s “feminism” was repackaged as “girl-power,” which I also never really subscribed to. It had the same vibe a clothing line would if it were produced by Hot Topic and Lilly Pulitzer: lots of pastel flowers trying to be hardcore. It didn’t emphasize gender equality so much as independence through gender identity. That sounds just fine, except it also mass-interpreted the female identity as obsessed with the color pink, spiked choker necklaces,, and The Spice Girls. I mean, I knew girls who fit that description perfectly…but they were all in middle school.
On that note, I was reading this month’s issue of Elle magazine and I came across a review for a new book: “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done.” My first thought was, “That’s quite a long title,” quickly followed by, “I’m intrigued!” The author is Susan J. Douglas, a communications professor at The University of Michigan, and the review itself was mostly neutral. It simply explained the book’s premise: how false representations of women in the media are “peddling false ‘fantasies of power’ that make men anxious and keep women complacent.” Apparently, Douglas points a finger at television shows, magazines, advertisements, and even Oprah. The whole premise sounded like a conspiracy theory…so I had to know more.
Douglas explains in her book that there are two types of remaining sexism: enlightened sexism and embedded sexism. Enlightened sexism is a relatively new development. It is a manufacturing process produced by the media that takes the progress made by the women’s movement then throws it into retrograde. Women have the freedom to do anything now, so let’s focus on how most women prefer to be sex objects and define themselves by the clothes they wear, the amount of shopping they do, and the men they are with. In this category, Douglas skewers shows like The Bachelor, The Real World, and The Jersey Shore because of their depiction of women. These shows, she says, quietly insist on being viewed with a tongue-in-cheek sense of irony: “Look at these silly women making fools of themselves! Of course, women aren’t really like that…are they?”
Embedded sexism, Douglas explains, is the result of the 60’s and 70’s when feminism was not mainstream and therefore more thoughtfully considered. Now, the goals and achievements of women are seen as a given, subtly implying we no longer need to demand gender equality because we already have it. Even though we don’t. For those that would argue that matter, Douglas makes some intriguing points. Currently, freshly-graduated college females who join the workforce begin by making 80 cents to every man’s dollar. Ten years down the road, that will decrease to 69 cents. Not to mention the other decreases found amongst the African-American and Latina female populations. Also, out of the top 500 companies identified in 2008, only 15 of them had female CEO’s. The top jobs held in 2008 by women were secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school and middle school teachers. I initially found that information shocking, even though deep down, I believe I knew those facts already. That revelation demanded I give Douglas some points. It is too easy to forget statistics like those and fall into complacency.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I’m totally sold on the idea of enlightened sexism. I can see a glimmer of truth in Douglas’ claims against the media, but essentially it feels like a never-ending round of the Blame Game. It’s just too easy to pinpoint the media and say they are encouraging gender stereotyping…who hasn’t done it? But also, the women on those reality shows are real women, not robots. No one twisted their arms or shoved needles under their fingernails to get them to go on television and act superficial. Those grown women decided to do that all on their own. Technically, it’s not the media perpetuating a stereotype of women, it’s women perpetuating a stereotype of women. And you know what, I still find those shows entertaining. Besides, we forget that there are plenty of reality shows that perpetuate negative stereotypes of men as being big, dumb, sex-obsessed Neanderthals. Going back to Douglas’ statistics on the jobs held by women in 2008: what were the top jobs held by men? Well, they were electricians, automotive mechanics, and postal service clerks. Hardly more glamorous than the jobs held by women. Besides, most of the women I know would much rather be a secretary than an electrician. There are two sides to every coin, and if we are going to target an entire industry for sexism, let’s do it for real and for the benefit of both genders.
I have one more bone to pick with Douglas. For someone with views so strong and well-defined, she fails to offer any advice to women on how to move forward and fight the sexism that still exists. Her only advice (see her interview with Time Magazine) is to “be indignant.” Honestly, that is the worst advice I’ve ever heard. That advocates blaming the media instead of questioning it, sitting back and fuming while we do nothing. As far as I can see, progress comes one woman at a time. Every woman who finds herself in a sexist situation and finds a way to handle it gracefully is progress. Every woman who isn’t being paid equal rates because of her gender that tries to take a stand is progress. The Elle book review I commented on earlier had one more pertinent thing to say which I will close with: “(Douglas) doesn’t give enough credit to the women-run blogs that have already embraced this challenge.”
This is why I write.