Book Review: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas
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 people.com? 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.