Monday, January 25, 2010

"Living Dolls" could generate big conversation

Author and writer Natasha Walter has a new book coming out (Feb. 4, I believe), called "Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism." If you pay attention to UK newspapers, you know it's already generating a number of columns and stories in the press.

Obviously I haven't read it yet, nor have I read Walter's previous book, "The New Feminism." What I have read about the book, though, makes me a curious. I feel like this might be a bridge to a bigger conversation (which I'm getting to).

The Daily Mail has an excerpt from the book (I think? If it's not an excerpt, maybe it's an introduction?). The Guardian has an article about/interview with Walter, which perhaps gave me a better sense of the book than the former link did. I wish I could summarize what the book is about, but I'm not entirely sure. I think a lot of it has to do with younger women who are obsessed with their looks, their bodies, and being attractive, convinced they need to look like a centerfold to get anywhere in life, even if that "anywhere" leads them to taking off their shirts in a nightclub contest or to lapdancing. (Though to be sure, there is much more in the book than that, including, apparently, a second half about gender and biological determinism, quite a different subject than what I'm talking about here.)

Walter's piece in the Daily Mail says:
It was indeed an aim of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s that women should be released from conventional morality around sex, which had confined them to idealised chastity on the one hand or contemptible promiscuity on the other.

The fact that women can now be sexually active and experienced without being condemned is a direct result of that feminism - and all aspects of the current 'hypersexual' culture are seen as proof of women's growing freedom and power.

Glamour modelling is seen by many who participate in the industry as a marker not of persistent male sexism, but of women's new confidence.

This equation of empowerment and liberation with sexual objectification is now seen everywhere, and is having a real effect on the ambitions of young women.
And this in the Guardian article that caught my eye:
"In Living Dolls, Walter takes on the ­notion that, for example, stripping and pole dancing are ­empowering, ­liberating choices; instead, she ­suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for young women to opt out of this culture, to take any path other than that which leads inexorably to fake nails, fake tan and, finally, fake breasts. And, if they do, there are ­serious social penalties."I think there are generally exceptions to everything, but I can't help but wonder how much truth there is in this. Perhaps a lot. I think we can all remember how much peer pressure there was in our teenage years (for me that was about 15ish-maybe-more years ago), and even though "times have changed," I'd guess there's more pressure now to fit into a sexually-charged culture than, say, the grunge-rock culture of my teen years.

I can't tell if this is supposed to be a "feminism failed" or "feminism succeeded" tale, or if it's "feminism led us somewhere we might not have wanted to go." Ceri Radford at the Telegraph says (emphasis mine):
"I feel far more sympathy and concern for the woman trapped in a miserable marriage by a culture untouched by feminism than I do for the British girl shivering in her skimpy outfit on her way home through the snow because she’s too vain to wear a coat. If some women don’t make the best use of the choice that the emancipation movement gave them, that doesn’t diminish the triumph and importance of winning it in the first place."I think that's an excellent point. I also think Michael Deacon of the Telegraph makes a great point, too (again, emphasis mine):
"A female journalism student once asked me how I'd feel if a daughter of mine became a glamour model. I said if she were 18, she could do whatever job she chose, no matter what I felt. And that's the difficulty facing today's feminists. If women are to have the same freedoms as men, feminists can't easily complain when some women exercise those freedoms in a way feminists disapprove of."I think that is the conversation this book could bring about: Can feminists, self included, complain about this? Should we be complaining? ("This" being, to me, women perpetuating the cliche that you have to be "society attractive," that looks are what get you to where you're going in life, that boob jobs are necessary, etc.) What is the complaint, exactly? Or should we be worried? Or should we say "Hey, if that's what she wants to do, that's what she wants to do?"

For me, there's a difference in the individual and society here, and I guess that's the bigger picture. I don't care at all if a woman wants a fake tan and fake boobs and to wear underwear in public. I do care that she might think it's expected of her. I care that society expects it, 24/7. In these days of instant access to naked photos online, on your phone, on TV, in ads, etc., doesn't it seem like the expectations placed on women are only going to get worse, not better?

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