Review: Living Dolls

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

In 1998, Natasha Walter’s book The New Feminism - which dealt with the gains made by feminists in the 20th century and the state of feminism in the 90s - was published. In her new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, she brings us up to date on the situation and has an altogether more depressing tale to tell.

Walter argues that despite cries of 'empowerment', 'liberation' and 'choice', women are increasingly restricted by a culture obsessed with appearance, sexual availability and a narrow definition of femininity, while being made to believe that gender inequality is a product of biology rather than society.

The book is dvidied into two parts, the first of which - 'The New Sexism' - focuses on some of the most misogynist aspects of 21st century culture. Chapters with names such as 'Babes', 'Pornography' and 'Choices' catalogue lads' mag competitions in nightclubs where young women strip in front of a crowd of baying men, the realities of prostitution, the pressures on young girls to lose weight or to be 'sexy'.

If you’ve read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, you'll see that the message and facts are pretty similar but address the issues from a more UK-orientated point of view. Walter talks to women who have worked in lap-dancing clubs, women whose partners are addicted to porn and women who are outraged at the way they’re being sexualised. The overriding message is that personal fulfilment lies in looking ‘perfect’ and being desirable to men. Walter says:

“Since the idea has taken hold that women and men are now equal throughout society, it is seen as unproblematic that women should be relentlessly encouraged to prioritise their sexual attractiveness. The assumption is that it is a free choice by women who are in all other ways equal to men.”

As she points out by referring to economic inequalities, rape conviction rates and women who say they can’t eat without feeling guilty, it’s painfully obvious that much of this ‘choice’ is nothing more than an illusion.

“I once believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away,” admits Walter. Looking at society today it’s hard to believe.

Some criticism of Living Dolls has centred on its almost exclusively middle-class, UK-centric position which is pretty evident here. I have to say that if you follow feminist issues in the news and the blogosphere you probably won’t learn anything new from the first half of the book, which could have been a bit more hard-hitting.

It’s in the second half, entitled’ The New Determinism’, however, that Living Dolls really comes into its own. In the last decade there has been an explosion in newspapers reporting how women are ‘hardwired’ to love pink or have no spatial awareness or be bad at maths – ‘new studies’ and ‘fascinating research’ claim to show that it’s ‘all in our genes’.

Right-wing newspapers in particular, reports Walter, love these stories as they reinforce the traditional stereotype of women who need protection from men, can’t do certain things because of their gender and are probably best off just keeping quiet and staying at home.

She delves into these ‘studies’ in great detail, showing that most of their findings have been disproved by further research and that the media conveniently ignores any research that shows no significant difference in male and female personality, skills and aptitude.

She also discusses the fact that both women and men tend to ‘play up’ to stereotypes when they know they are being assessed according to gender. Even making women aware of stereotypes – such as telling them that they are ‘naturally’ worse at driving than men or ‘naturally’ do worse on maths tests – has been shown to negatively affect their performance.

“If we move away from biological determinism,” writes Walter, “We enter a world with more freedom, not less, because then those behaviours traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity could become real choices for each individual.”

The in-depth analysis of stereotyping and biology is interesting and enlightening, showing why it’s important to question the ‘science’ we see promoted by the media and why it’s not unnatural to deviate from traditional gender roles.

I would like to have seen the somewhat depressing messages of the book’s first half conveyed with a bit more passion and the anger they deserve, but as a portrayal of life as experienced by countless young women today, I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to many.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz.


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