Friday, March 5, 2010

Enlightened Sexism: "Women's Success" Means It's Fine to Resurrect -- Even Celebrate -- Sexist Stereotypes

The title is misleading - this comes from In These Times, a progressive lefty magazine. So this article is really looking at the issues still facing women - the lack of equality in income and in other realms.

As progressive men, we need to have women be our equals, our partners - and this cannot happen if they are still "The Second Sex."

Enlightened Sexism: "Women's Success" Means It's Fine to Resurrect -- Even Celebrate -- Sexist Stereotypes

Enlightened sexism tells women that they gain "true power" through the calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire and sexuality.

March 1, 2010 | Spring 1997

Photo Credit: Dreamglow

This was the Spice Girls moment, and debate: Were these frosted cupcakes really a vehicle for feminism? And how much reversion back to the glory days of prefeminism should girls and women accept—even celebrate—given that we now allegedly had it all? Despite their Wonderbras and bare thighs, the Spice Girls advocated “girl power.” They demanded, in their colossal, intercontinental hit “Wannabe,” that boys treat them with respect or take a hike. Their boldfaced liner notes claimed that “The Future Is Female” and suggested that they and their fans were “Freedom Fighters.” They made Margaret Thatcher an honorary Spice Girl. “We’re freshening up feminism for the nineties,” they told the Guardian. “Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a ’90s way of saying it.”

Fast-forward to 2008. Talk about girl power! One woman ran for president and another for vice president. Millions of women and men voted for each of them. The one who ran for vice president had five children, one of them an infant, yet it was verboten to even ask whether she could handle the job while tending to a baby. At the same time we had a female secretary of state, and the woman who had run for president became her high-profile successor. And we have Lady Gaga, power girl of the new millennium. Feminism? Who needs feminism anymore? Aren’t we, like, so done here? Okay, so some women moaned about the sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton, but picky, picky, picky.

Indeed, eight years earlier, career antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers huffed in her book, "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men", that girls were getting way too much attention and, as a result, were going to college in greater numbers and much more likely to succeed while boys were getting sent to detention, dropping out of high school, destined for careers behind fast-food counters, and so beaten down they were about to become the nation’s new “second sex.” Other books like "The Myth of Male Power and The Decline of Males" followed suit, with annual panics about the new “crisis” for boys. Girl power? Gone way too far.

Fantasies of power

In 1999, one year before Sommers’ book came out, the top five jobs for women did not include attorney, surgeon or CEO. They were, in order, secretaries, retail and personal sales workers (including cashiers), managers and administrators, elementary school teachers and registered nurses. Farther down among the top 20 were bookkeepers, receptionists, cooks and waitresses. In 2007, when presumably some of the privileged, pampered girls whose advantages over boys Sommers had kvetched about had entered the workforce, the top five jobs for women were, still, secretaries in first place, followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers, cashiers and retail salespersons.

Farther down the line? Maids, child care workers, office clerks and hairdressers. Not a CEO or hedge fund manager in sight. And, in the end, no president or vice president in 2008. But what about all those career-driven girls going to college and leaving the guys in the dust? A year out of college, they earn 80 percent of what men make. And 10 years out? A staggering 69 percent.

Since the early 1990s, much of the media have come to overrepresent women as having made it— completely—in the professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the Tiffany’s-encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of dreck clogging our cultural arteries—The Man Show, Maxim, Girls Gone Wild. But even this fare was presented as empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.

What the media have been giving us, then, are little more than fantasies of power. They assure girls and women, repeatedly, that women’s liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless and more held in awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional and political parity with men, and we can expunge any suggestion that there might be anyone living on the national median income, which for women in 2008 was $36,000 a year, 23 percent less than their male counterparts.

Yet the images we see on television, in the movies, and in advertising also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff—the right stuff, a lot of stuff—emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves. Women in fictional settings can be in the highest positions of authority, but in real life maybe not such a good idea. Instead, the wheedling, seductive message to young women is that being decorative is the highest form of power—when, of course, if it were, Dick Cheney would have gone to work every day in a sequined tutu.

Enter enlightened sexism

Not that some of these fantasies haven’t been delectable. I mean, Xena single-handedly trashing, on a regular basis, battalions of stubblefaced, leather-clad, murdering-and-raping barbarian hordes? Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer letting us pretend, if just for an hour, that only a teenage girl can save the world from fang-toothed evil? What about an underdog law student, dismissed by her fellow classmates as an airheaded bimbo, winning a high-profile murder case because she understood how permanents work, as Elle did in Legally Blonde? Or let’s say you’ve had an especially stupid day at work and as you collapse on the sofa desperately clutching a martini (hold the vermouth), you see a man on TV tell his female boss that the way she does things is “just not the way we play ball,” and she responds drolly, “Well, if you don’t like the way I’m doing things, you’re free to take your balls and go straight home”? (Yes, The Closer.) Oooo-weeee.

So what’s the matter with fantasies of female power? Haven’t the media always provided escapist fantasies; isn’t that, like, their job? And aren’t many in the media, belatedly, simply addressing women’s demands for more representations of female achievement and control? Well, yes. But here’s the odd, somewhat unintended consequence: These demanded-and-delivered, delicious media-created fantasies have been driven by marketing, and they use that heady mix of flattery and denigration to sell us everything from skin cream to glutes-toning shoes.

So it’s time to take these fantasies to the interrogation room and shine a little light on them.

One force at work is embedded feminism: the way in which women’s achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply part of today’s cultural landscape.

But the media’s fantasies of power are also the product of another force that has gained considerable momentum since the early and mid-1990s: enlightened sexism. Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality, has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. Enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power— power that is fun, that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace. True power here has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you. Enlightened sexism is especially targeted to girls and young women and emphasizes that now that they “have it all,” they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.

Enlightened sexism is a manufacturing process that is constantly produced by the media. Its components—anxiety about female achievement; renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces; dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality; dividing of women against each other by age, race and class; and rampant branding and consumerism—began to swirl around in the early 1990s, consolidating as the dark star it has become in the early 21st century.

The seed of feminism’s demise

Some, myself included, have referred to this state of affairs and this kind of media mix as “postfeminist.” But I am rejecting this term. It has gotten gummed up by many conflicting definitions. And besides, this term suggests that somehow feminism is at the root of this when it isn’t— it’s good, old-fashioned, grade-A sexism that reinforces good, old-fashioned, grade-A patriarchy. It’s just much better disguised, in seductive Manolo Blahniks and a million-dollar bra.

* * * * *

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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Unknown said...

Yo, William.

While I agree with Susan Douglas that the "empowerment" of women still has miles to go, the equality of women includes achieving a society where individual women (and men!) are comfortable playing a part (if they want to) that suits a (soon to be, hopefully) discarded stereotype.

Shouldn't Black people be comfortable driving a Cadillac or eating watermellon?

Ultimately, might not it be all right for a woman to want a man (or "her man") to lust after her? I mean, gee wilikers.

william harryman said...

Yo, Thomas,

I agree with you

BUT, it seems that when any socially / culturally oppressed group (and women have been that, historically) begins to create a self-identity, one of the first steps is to define themselves in opposition to the oppressor or the oppressor's view of them

It's only later, as we have seen in the GLBT community, that they begin to reclaim the vital parts that get lost in basing a self-definition on an opposition stance

so many more women are only now reclaiming some of those sex stereotypes that we hung of them - owning the ones that fit (while others are still finding themselves in opposition and anger, and have a ways to go)