Book Review: Living Dolls The Return of Sexism.
When the facts changed, Natasha Walter changed her mind. Or so she says in Living Dolls: The Return Of Sexism, a book that describes how raunch culture has co-opted the language of choice and liberation and how the post-feminist cultural politics of celebrating doll-like perfection in every sphere of female life is complicit in women’s continued material inequality.
The book is an admirable recantation of her first book The New Feminism in which she was so optimistic about the future for women under New Labour that she declared the time for prudishly scrutinising women’s clothes and sex lives was over. ‘I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was entirely wrong’. So in her acceptance of the central formative role of culture, Walter moves away from materialism in her search for the causes and solutions to women’s inequality today.
She dedicates the first half of her book to anecdotes, observations, interviews and descriptions of our changed attitudes towards surgically enhanced beauty, stripping, prostitution and lad’s mags and the depoliticised and contradictory way in which young women speak about choice. The other half describes a resurgence of the bad science of biological determinism in the media and pop culture. Second wave feminism may have succeeded in bringing Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion ‘One is not born a woman; one becomes one’ into the popular consciousness when Walter was still a child, but she explains exactly how acceptable and lucrative it is to say otherwise in the media today. From self-help to pop psychology and popular reporting on science, the worrying belief has crept in that women’s neurological hardwiring has equipped them to do only caring and communicative work and the mentally taxing stuff should be left to the men. Both of these were very well researched and raised, if a little too softly, some interesting points, but when it came to the obligatory final paragraphs grasping for solutions these sections simply petered out. In among some feeble but thankfully brief solutions were abstinence programs, talk therapy, literature and cultural festivals. Really Natasha?
The book also went a few dozen interviews too far, but in among the long and far too numerous quotes from rather dull specimens of youth was something very interesting. Phil Edgar Jones, the creative director behind Big Brother, was predictably dismissive of Walter’s issues with so many female contestants becoming ‘glamour models’ for lad’s mags but when she asked him how he would like it if his daughter availed of the same free choice he said ‘I’m a middle class parent, so I’d be… If that’s what she wanted to do… I would hope that she would have different aspirations. I encourage her to read books. Other people have different backgrounds.’ And there it was: the element that had been screaming for attention throughout the book, from fleeting references to wages to her descriptions of Essex girls idolising Jordan. Walter wilfully ignores class almost completely and every argument she makes is weaker as a result.
In her discussion of stripping and prostitution she engages in the murkiest a la carte approach to subjectivity, so, when a stripper says she feels liberated it’s portrayed as tragically delusional but when she says she feels demeaned and humiliated it is taken, unquestioningly, to be how she truly feels. Introduce class and you have the simple dirty truth that choice is fundamentally compromised when you have an economic system that necessitates class immobility, co-existing with a cultural system that simultaneously encourages and dehumanises women who trade on their sexual appeal in any capacity and mocks those who don’t. And no amount of Lisa Lionheart self-belief is going to change that.
The weakness of Walter’s proposed cultural solutions to cultural problems lies in the incomplete picture we are left with when we search for biographical and cultural solutions to systemic problems. In Ireland, profound sexism is written in the most literal terms into our constitution. When the government needs to make cuts, they are quickest to cut the already underpaid female dominated jobs that our soft gooey brain chemistry has made us so very ‘good at’ (Thanks John Gray PhD) and they can do this, in part, because of all of the cultural prejudices she describes but ultimately because of an absence of informed, raw, organised female anger which can and has been where real change originates.
Here, there is a very telling weakness in her tone, which also makes the book less than stirring. Her soft moral relativism prevents her from making important moral judgements, from identifying the enemies of her cause and from getting angry. The sad irony of this promising and well-meaning book is that it is not just crippled by a misplaced sense that any discussion of class will eclipse rather than enhance a discussion of feminism but also by a lack of confidence: a desire to be the anti-Andrea Dworkin, to disassociate herself from the image of the angry, unattractive, hairy, morally certain ‘femi-Nazi’. But of course this one dimensional image is just as man-made, manipulative and damaging to women as any Barbie and by abandoning the very useful and valid polemical tools of hard facts, judgement and anger, Walter falls prey to exactly the kind of ubiquitous misogynistic bullying that she asks us to rise above.
- VIDEOCRACY: Broadcasting Control over the Italian Psyche
- Where Were You in Whenever?
- Treme: Won’t Bow, Don’t Know How.
- That Was Pucker.
- Review of My Best Friend By Tamsin Oglesby