#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Why oh why do I not keep a stack of little sticky notes next to the bed, especially when I’m reading a book like this?  I kept thinking “Oooh, I’m going to want to talk about this part!” and then I guess I thought I’d magically remember the page when I sat down to write my review.  I’m awesome, but I’m not that awesome.

I love non-fiction books that are solidly researched and then written in a conversational tone.  There’s a time for textbook-like writing, but I prefer non-fiction where the author’s voice comes through.  Sarah Vowell does it and whenever I read her historical books I feel like we’re hanging out and she’s all “Oh, hey!  Did I tell you about President Lincoln getting assassinated?  Check this out…” and then we laugh and laugh and are best friend forever.

Douglas writes in this same way here and I really enjoyed it.  A different author could have easily made this a book of facts and I would have zoned out quickly and put it aside as things I sort of already knew, but am not interested in reading about in terms of numbers and percentages.  Instead, Douglas pulls from the research and applies it to pop culture and media and says “OK, look.  Here’s what the data tells us, but let’s look at what’s happening on TV.”  I appreciated this approach, and while it still didn’t make for a quick read over a day or two, it was a pleasure to spend time with it and think about my own stance on feminism.

Back in March of 2011, I wrote a review for Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More by Marina Warner.  As I was reading I was already formulating how I would talk about this book in a way where I could refer to being a feminist without sounding like That Type of feminist.  Here’s what I managed to stammer out:

It’s a huge pain in the ass that I can’t just be a feminist anymore.  I have to be a humanist.  Or I get to be a “feminist AND” or a “feminist BUT”. Everything is so watered down and angry that you have to explain what you are by immediately pointing out what you aren’t.

So…I’m a feminist BUT I don’t hate men.  I’m a feminist AND I think we need to work to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Mostly I just hate people.  But I try to do it equally.

I think I really nailed it with those last two sentences.

So here we are again.  The conservative right wing has infiltrated the media so thoroughly that feminists back away from the word and try to come up with something more politically correct and not off-putting.  We all know that feminists hate men, don’t wear makeup and wear ugly shoes.  They have no sense of humor and will drag your ass to HR if you only use male pronouns.  And of course they are all exhausted from killing their children, practicing witchcraft, and becoming lesbians.

This really pisses me off.  Not only has “feminism” become a bad word, but I’m totally on board with trying to find a new word!  Why do we have to reclaim our own word?  For fucks’ sake people!

However, this isn’t a book arguing about the merits of defending feminism.  It is a book about how many of us have been tricked into setting that term aside, and now we can put on booty shorts and beat the shit out of each other on reality TV because it’s our choice, not any man’s.

We won, you guys women!  We totally won!!!

There’s so much to talk about with this book, but I think I’m going to stick with reality TV.  Douglas brilliantly deconstructs the roles women play on reality TV and I was pretty pissed that I didn’t always realize what was happening.  There are shows where women are put together for the sole purpose of getting drunk and ripping out each other’s hair.  The producers carefully pick girls who they know will be combative, then fill the house with booze and cameras, sit back and wait.  These shows are easy to identify and can be avoided.  After all, we’re not all those kind of girls and we can roll our eyes at immaturity and location.  It sucks that girls aspire to get onto that kind of show, but we know what we’re getting into if we stumble onto a marathon.  And we can laugh about how much better we are than the participants.  Need examples?  The Bachelor, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, Bad Girls’ Club, Super Sweet Sixteen, later seasons of The Real World… I don’t want to continue.

But then there are the supposedly balanced shows, and here’s where things get scary.

The Survivor and The Apprentice, chose to show women and men equally.  Here was a reality where everyone came in at the same level and anyone could win.  But what happens?  The women all turn on each other.  Women are “emotional”.  They are “bitches”.  They are “two-faced”.  They criticize each other using women-only terms.  And there’s always the double standard where men are aggressive and powerful but when women behave the same way they are ball busting bitches.  There’s a way to win, ladies, and you don’t do it by behaving like a man.  Say “please” and “thank you” and guide activities.  Don’t ever demand and don’t be too assertive.

The message these “balanced” shows teach us is that reality always ends up with women backstabbing each other and refusing to work together.  Even if all-female teams win challenges, they do it with name calling and are dysfunctional.  And since this is a reality show, this what all women are like.  No one scripted these fights.  No one told a woman what to say.  These are real women behaving in real ways that happen in real life.

This is reality.

And how frustrating is it that real women watch these “reality” women and cringe when they act this way?  “Oh me?  Well… I wouldn’t call myself a feminist…  At least not that kind feminist.  I mean, I wouldn’t ever act like she does.  It’s so… off putting.  She should be nicer.  People would like her if she would just be nicer.”

There’s so much more to talk about with this book, but I really want everyone to just get it and read it.  If you’re turned off by the term “feminist” then this book is for you.  If you identify yourself as a feminist, then this book is for you.  If you’re curious about how mass media shapes decisions women make and how males view us, both positively and negatively, this book is for you.  Especially the sections where women are in power positions on TV dramas.  If you hate women and think we should all be having babies and making sandwiches, well… first, you’re going to get voted out of office, and second, you’re probably not reading this.  But you should, because you’re ignorant and should be embarrassed.  And stop talking about vaginal ultrasounds and deciding what the true definition of rape is.

This book is smart, funny, incredibly well-written, unapologetic and thoroughly researched.  Even if you only have time to flip through it the next time you’re in the library or a book store, check out the table of contents and find something you’re curious about.  We need to get this reality out there.


4 responses to “#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

  1. Pingback: pyrajane’s review#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas « Cannonball Read IV

  2. Oooh, this sounds interesting and maddening. I’ll check it out. Great review!

  3. You might also want to check out Reality Bites Back by Jennifer Pozner – parts of it get a bit repetivite, but she definitely addresses the evolution of reality TV (yes, it has evolved in ten years), and women’s portrayal in them. One particularly interesting point was regarding viewers – ten years ago when The Bachelor started, her students would discuss how the show was attempting to feed into certain views, while now, students who have grown up with those kinds of portrayals are more accepting of them at face value.

  4. A big thank you for your article.Really thank you! Cool. eccgfdkekddd

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