Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book: "Enlightened Sexism" by Susan J. Douglas

Susan J. Douglas has a real knack for using pointed examples from pop culture to illustrate her arguments -- which generally focus on feminist-related themes.

About 15 years ago, I stumbled onto her book Where the Girls Are, which analyzed how women have been portrayed in mass media. How could I resist a book that discussed all my childhood cultural icons -- including Mary Ann & Ginger ("Gilligan's Island"), Samantha Stevens ("Bewitched), I Dream of Jeannie and Ann Marie ("That Girl") -- as serious subjects of study, not to mention from a feminist angle?

So when I saw that she had a new book out, I scooped it up and read it while I was visiting my parents recently. "Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done" once again uses examples from pop culture to make Douglas's point -- which is, as the jacket of the book describes:
"Revisiting cultural touchstones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Survivor to Desperate Housewives, Douglas exposes the women in these shows as mere fantasies of female power, assuring women and girls that the battle for equality has been won, so there’s nothing wrong with resurrecting sexist stereotypes—all in good fun, of course. She shows that these portrayals not only distract us from the real-world challenges facing women today but also drive a wedge between baby-boom women and their “millennial” daughters."
I grew up in the 1960s & 1970s, proud to call myself a feminist (then & now). I've found it disheartening that many younger women today tend to shy away from the "f" word and seem unaware of both how far we've come & how far we still have to go. Douglas makes a compelling (albeit sometimes convoluted) case for how the media has helped to bring this situation about.

Of course, I was particularly interested in Douglas's observations about the media's current fascination with pregnancy and babies,as well as its portrayal of childless women. On p. 245, she writes that "hypernatalism... has become thermonuclear." Later, on p. 259, in a chapter about the rise of celebrity culture, she says:

"Losing your man is a tragedy, but remaining childless is a thermonuclear disaster. It's as if the makers of Pampers, Gerber's, and Legos owned these magazines. Babies are always "a bundle of joy," only produce "baby bliss," bring "new meaning to life," and make the man love the mother "even more now than he did before." Babies always bring couples "closer together." Clearly, no projectile vomiting, sleep deprivation, thwarted adult conversations, or fights over whose turn it is to go to the playground in these households. If you have twins, you get "Twin Bliss!" "Twins are double the work but twice the fun," confides In Touch; here, Charlie Sheen, former party animal and client of Hollywood hooker Heidi Fleiss, announces, "The Twins Made Me a Better Man."

After a discussion of "the hypernatalism of celebrity journalism," and the "bump patrol," she observes:
"...pregnancy has now become compulsory for female stars: they must have a baby to fulfill what is allegedly every woman's dream to be a mother. If they don't have children yet, we are assured they desperately want to in the future. If they have one, when is the next one coming? If they have two, what about three? Julia Roberts was constantly hounded about having kids until her twins arrived. George Clooney, by contrast, is not hounded about when he will reproduce. Jennifer Aniston's breakup with Brad Pitt was blamed on her alleged refusal to have children, as was her breakup with Vince Vaughn. We are back to the 1950s -- you are not a real woman if you don't have kids."
Douglas's argument tends to take some convoluted twists & turns at times and, as one reviewer I read said, I sometimes felt like I was being bombarded with one example after another. Nevetheless, it's an interesting theory and, as with her previous book, it's fun to get a new take on your favourite old shows.

Douglas has authored another book: The Mommy Myth. It has long been on my "to read" list. I have some more vacation time coming up shortly -- perhaps it's time to unearth this one from the depths of the pile...!


  1. Thanks for the review. I'll add it to my list. I have "The Mommy Myth" and think it's very good.

  2. I really want to check this book out. Thanks for blogging about it.

  3. Most excellent observations by yourself and Susan Douglas. You're now officially my #1 go-to woman for book recommendations!

  4. I remember how it used to drive me nuts (it still does) to wait at the checkout at the store and glance at all those gossip magazines pictures of yet another baby bump. Or worse, reports about how great women looked 2 weeks after giving birth. Honestly, now you gotta be a madonna/whore simultaneously.