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Book Review: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

March 15, 2010

The next time you hear someone say “I’m not a feminist, but…” put this book in their hands, sit them down, and don’t let them get up until they’ve read it. (Bathroom breaks are allowed. It’s 300+ pages long.)

Sadly, I was already well aware of many of the disturbing phenomena Douglas describes in the book- namely the rise of eating disorders, the dissociation with the word “feminism” among younger women, and an increased focus on a hyper feminine, white, rich, hetero  appearance for all women at the expense of personal happiness. Through examining different radio and TV shows, commercials, print ads and other social media, however, Douglas argues quite persuasively that these trends are all connected to the grotesquely warped portrayal of women in the media. Reading this book is an even more concentrated version of the usual onslaught of images. So much so that I, emerging after hours without putting it down, went to catch up on the news and had to forcibly redirect my outraged energy from depictions of women in reality TV shows to, for example, the systematic rape of women in the DRC.

The crux of her argument is that enlightened sexism is a newer, smarter, more discreet but equally destructive form of sexism that acknowledges the gains of feminism over the years and folds them into its rhetoric to truly strip women of any outlet, solidarity, or empowerment. Take, for example, the TV show “The Swan”, which Douglas dissects (pun intended) in great detail. On the show, “ugly” women beg altruistic plastic surgeons to fix them. Emerging after several painful surgeries, including, for almost all of them, breast augmentation, the women commonly react by saying “That doesn’t even look like me” to their reflection. Success!

If you are a Western feminist (this book mostly concerns Western, specifically American, women) you might find yourself with a feeling of “guilty as charged” after reading the book. Did I sometimes feel so defeated by Bush’s anti-woman policies that I checked out at Absolutely. Did I obnoxiously inform my mother that Sex and the City touted a new form of feminism that she was just out of touch with and scoff when she suggested that Carrie’s form of “empowerment” was quite convenient to chauvinists? Yup. (Sorry Mom!)

At times I felt like Douglas was trying a little too hard to reach young readers specifically with words like “backassward”. I imagined her fantasizing about lighting a fire under the asses of her indifferent undergrads, stirring them to rise up and torch patriarchal institutions. Just a reminder- there were plenty of indifferent women during the 1970s as well. Plenty of women opted out of the movement that directly empowered and benefited them. That will always be the (unfortunate) case. A good thing to remember when we start to romanticize the 2nd wave feminist movement. Another issue I had with the book was Douglas’ lack of lip service to the many young feminists using media to continue to promote feminist causes. (On the last page I actually winced when she mentioned “missing feminism”. It’s still here!!)  She briefly mentions Jessica Valenti (the patron saint of media savvy feminists) in the last five pages of the book, but the point of the omission, I gather, is specifically to scare the living bejeezus out of the reader, not placate her/him with the thought that someone else is already doing the hard work of fighting back.

I chuckled and even laughed out loud several times while reading this book, but the final message is sobering: a strange parade of both feminist and anti-feminist characters have created a charade that has taken attention away from the scary realities of pay inequity, violence against women, misogyny in the media and sexual discrimination in the work place. We are expected to do and have it all because characters like Brenda Lee Johnson and Buffy the Vampire Slayer do. Women are still held to unreachable standards while being subsequently robbed of the resources to have a productive existence. This book will leave you entertained, enlightened, and eager to fight back.

  1. March 15, 2010 9:48 am

    Interesting review. Thanks!

    I’m not too far into it – through about 3 chapters – but I’m thinking it leaves something to be desired. I’m still waiting for a thesis, and I’m actually finding her language tangential and a bit condecending at times. There is quite a bit of great information, but it doesn’t seem to gel to me. I’m hoping it gets better!

  2. March 16, 2010 3:09 am

    Fantastic review. I’ve ordered this book and can’t wait for it to arrive. Living in Saudi Arabia that could take some time, but I hope it’s quick because I’m impatient to get started. I am often frustrated by how many women (the majority that I’ve come across) do not identify as feminists. Feminism is typically seen as irrelevant, or that we are looking for something to be mad about. Maybe I should order more copies of this book so I can pass it around…

  3. Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
    March 16, 2010 3:32 pm

    Natasha and Ashley- great to hear your thoughts! If you’re interested in more book reviews be sure to check back on April 1st (and the first of each subsequent month) when Elizabeth will be discussing Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.

  4. March 18, 2010 6:47 am

    Hmm. I haven’t read the book, but this seems off – “We are expected to do and have it all because characters like Brenda Lee Johnson and Buffy the Vampire Slayer do.”

    Buffy, even with superpowers, isn’t able to do it all. She relies quite heavily on her friends and, after her mom dies, she realises just how much work goes into maintaining a household and how exhausting it is. It’s only because she has a community that is constantly expanding that she is able to survive at all (and survive much longer than most historical slayers).

    • Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
      March 22, 2010 7:03 am

      Douglas does give Buffy props as the “feminist action hero” that many fans also hail her as, but points out that despite her significantly more empowered ways, she still has perfect hair, stylish clothes, and a cute (albeit non-living) boyfriend. These are just two examples of characters in pop media that live in a culture much closer to a feminist ideal than our reality. I encourage you to read the book, and Douglas’ wider argument, to see if you still disagree.


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