Saturday, April 09, 2011

Enlightened Sexism: Is Feminism's Work Done?

At age 15, I was part of a sit-in. One morning in 1969, I crowded with other girls into the lobby of my high school, sat down and refused to move until I had what we wanted: the right to wear pants to school.

And get this. The blue jeans I wore to school that day? They were boys’ jeans. Because back then no manufacturers made dungarees for girls.

In a speech Wednesday at JMU, Susan J. Douglas recalled that when she was 18, women could not get credit cards or take out mortgages. So things have changed a lot for women, she admits.

Douglas, author of “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done,” says our culture gives girls and women some very mixed messages about who they are. On the one hand, you have women playing powerful roles on TV shows, starring as news anchors, lawyers, doctors, police chiefs and judges. In the last presidential election, a woman ran for the top seat and another ran for vice-president.

The reality is that not many women really work in those roles. Women today fill the same jobs they did 100 years ago, as secretaries, nurses, maids, waitresses and schoolteachers. Does college make a difference? A year out of college, Douglas cites, women earn 80 percent of their male counterparts. Ten years out, they earn 69 percent of what men make.

“And if girls and women really have come so far,” says Douglas, “and full equality has truly been achieved, why is it that K-Mart sells outfits for four-year-old girls that look like something out of Fredericks of Hollywood?”

Douglas says much of the media is over-representing women as having made it in the high-profile professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort. At the same time, there’s a “resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries,” like The Man Show, Girls Gone Wild and TV specials featuring Victoria’s Secret bras and panties.

“But even this fare,” she writes in her book, “which insists that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacities of a vole, 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.”

By some strange twist in logic, in the 1960s, girlie magazines were sexist, but now pornography empowers women?

Douglas writes, “In Sex and the City, with its characters who were successful professionals by day and Kama Sutra masters by night, there was no such thing as the double standard: women had as much sexual freedom, and maybe even more kinky sex, than men. Cosmo isn’t for passive girls waiting for the right guy to find them; it’s the magazine for the ‘Fun, Fearless Female’ who is also proud to be, as one cover put it, a ‘Sex Genius.’ Have a look at O! The magazine is one giant, all-encompassing, throbbing zone of self-fulfillment for women where everything from pillows to celadon-colored notebooks (but only if purchased and used properly) are empowering and everything is possible.”

Oh, and in addition to being a “sex genius,” the other most powerful thing women can do is shop. “Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves,” writes Douglas. Does shopping make you feel powerful?

Douglas contends that the media offers women fantasies of power. But, ah, seeing the irony in all this also offers a fantasy of power. Watching a show like Jersey Shore and ridiculing the girls also feels empowering, says Douglas. It offers women a form of pleasure in that oh-so-feminine catty sort of way. So you think you’re not being seduced by it but … you are still watching it, aren’t you?

So all this is driven by two premises, says Douglas. One is “embedded feminism” that’s woven into our culture. We’ve made so much progress in 40 years and there’s no more to be done. We’re equal. That’s it.

The other is “enlightened sexism,” which keeps women in their place. Because in spite of all our professional, academic, athletic, artistic and you-name-it success, if our faces (well made-up), hair (straight, shiny) and body (thin, large-breasted) are not perfect, we are failures.

Isn’t that what most of us think?

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