Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Susan J. Douglas's Enlightened Sexism: A Review

Susan J. Douglas's Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done made a dubious impression on me. On the one hand, it offers an intelligent and well-written analysis of the gains feminism made in the past 2 decades and of the different forms the backlash against these feminist achievements took. The main strategy that the patriarchal system uses today to combat feminism, says Douglas, consists of convincing us that feminism has already achieved everything and for this reason is not needed any more.

In spite of these interesting points Douglas makes in her book, I found Enlightened Sexism to be very unconvincing in many respects. One of them was the tired insistence (so enjoyed by many feminists) on the debasing nature of shows like Girls Gone Wild. In their endless criticisms of such shows, Douglas and Co demonstrate how deeply ingrained patriarchal stereotypes are even in the minds of feminists. Douglas apparently believes that baring her breasts in public is demeaning to a woman. Nobody ever suggests, however, that men are debased by revealing their body parts. This is a consequence of the old patriarchal stereotype that sees women as "sullied" by sexual activity.*

In a similar way, Douglas keeps bemoaning the fact that women are forced to perform their gender on a daily basis. This is obviously true. However, she forgets to mention that men have to perform their gender identity just as much.** It is, of course, true that many people still erroneously believe that gender is one's biological destiny, instead of seeing it for what it is, namely, a social construct. It is true that people who do not manage to perform their gender successfully are punished by society in a variety of ways. Stating, however, that this sad reality only has to do with women is extremely wrong. Men are forced to perform their gender just as much, and woe betide any man who fails to do so convincingly.

Douglas keeps criticizing shows like Bachelor, where women humiliate themselves by competing for the affections of some dumb guy. She forgets, however, that there are also shows like Bachelorette, where men make idiots out of themselves by competing for the attention of a woman. And how about that show where geeky, unattractive, socially awkward men had to compete for women with a group of muscular, super popular, tall, and extremely attractive guys? Reality TV humiliates men and women equally, that's the way it works.

In a similar way, Douglas criticizes entertainment products such as Buffy, Zena, Lara Croft and others that present female warriors who are at the same time thin and gorgeous. True, but movies and shows about male heroes also star super attractive and incredibly ripped main characters who are similarly expected to strut around half naked most of the time.

I wish Douglas were honest enough to recognize that anti-feminist backlash cannot possibly be 100% manufactured by some mysterious and all-powerful forces that manipulate women into something they are nor aware of. I said it before but I need to say it again. What feminism has to do right now is recognize that the patriarchal system brings a lot of suffering as well as many benefits to both men and women. The kind of feminist analysis that presents women as constant victims of men and/or 'society' is outdated. More than any other cultural phenomenon, including the enlightened sexism Douglas talks about, this reluctance to include both men and women among beneficiaries and victims of the patriarchy is what has brought feminism into a dead-end.

In spite of these objections, I am not in the least sorry I read Enlightened Sexism. Douglas writes extremely well and some chapters of the book (especially the one where she makes fun of the incredibly stupid Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex) are beyond hilarious. Douglas talks about the overwhelming sexism of shows like Ally McBeal***, and even though she finds some non-existent "nuanced range of attitudes and opinions about women's place" in this sexist piece of humiliating drivel, still her analysis is always fun to read.

* Douglas betrays the extremely uneasy relationship she has with her own sexuality when she echoes Wanda Sykes's dream of a detachable vagina. Life would be so easy if women could leave their vaginas at home when going out, she agrees. For one, this would supposedly protect women from rape. In a strange moment of feminist blindness, Douglas never realizes that a) this would not protect women from being raped orally or anally and b) keeping a female vagina at home, under a lock and key, symbolizes the patriarchal attitude of sexuality like nothing else. Seeing public space as a locus of permanent danger for women is also hardly very feminist. Women get raped not because they have vaginas (which they fail to leave at home, thereby deserving whatever happens to them) but because rapists choose to violate them. I understand that Douglas and Sykes make this point in jest, but even so the fantasy of detachable vaginas sounds disturbing.

** Only last night I was watching Last Comic Standing. A very geeky looking skinny male comic came on stage and started his joke by saying: "So my girlfriend told me..." And the audience erupted in laughter without letting him complete the joke. While there is obviously no reason why he couldn't have a girlfriend or be hugely popular with women, the audience was demonstrating with its laughter that the way he looks and talks is a reflection on his masculinity (or, rather, its lack).

*** When I first moved to North America 12 years ago, I was eagerly expecting to encounter some sort of a feminist nirvana on this continent. The image of the US and Canada as places where feminist values had won a definitive and resounding victory was an important part of what I thought I knew about this continent. And then I saw Ally McBeal. In my entire life, I hadn't seen a show that would be quite as degrading to women. I was curling my toes in shame all the time I was watching it. I kept expecting a punch line but it never came. It was horrifying to realize that I ended up living in a place where it was considered possible - and even funny - to present women as this needy, stupid, desperate, and pathetic. Later on, I would feel equally humiliated by the image of pathetic women on Sex and the City.


Melissa said...

You make a lot of great points in this (as always), but I'm gonna have to disagree with you about Girls Gone Wild. Baring breasts in public isn't inherently demeaning to women--it's the context of Girls Gone Wild that's the problem. (I think you'd be hard pressed to find a feminist who claims that, say, breastfeeding in public, or going to a nude beach is demeaning.) But Girls Gone Wild takes pride in coercion. The whole point of the series is letting men get off NOT just on the sight of breasts (this is 2010. They could see breasts anywhere), but on the idea that these very young girls can be forced and coerced to submit to them. You mention that "nobody ever suggests, however, that men are debased by revealing their body parts." While this is true, I think it's important to consider that, unlike in your other examples, there is no parallel context to Girls Gone Wild. If there were, it would be demeaning to men. (Although probably not as demeaning because at the end of the day, the men would still have patriarchal privilege, and it would be extremely difficult to coerce someone who has genuine power.)

Clarissa said...

I have to confess that I do not watch shows like "GGW." All I know about them comes from advertisement (where nobody looks coerced) and books by Levy, Valenti and Douglas (where coercion is not mentioned as one of the reasons to criticize the show.)

If Douglas or anybody else explained this point to me the way you did, I would get it and agree. But they talk about breast-baring and being ogled and not about the context of coercion, submission, and force that might be present in those shows.

So thank you for explaining this to me. I finally get what the problem with these show is. I wonder why so many books on the subject danced around the issue but never actually explained it.

Joy-Mari Cloete said...

Stating, however, that this sad reality only has to do with women is extremely wrong.

Does she state that it only has to do with women?

Douglas also forgets that men sometimes rape women at home, in their own beds. It's a sad, grim reality.

Zelda del West said...

Oh, lordy, I do hate Sex and the City. I kept hearing about it, and finally I decided to watch a few episodes. Oh, if I could only bleach those few hours out of my brian.

Joy-Mari Cloete said...

Why do you hate it?