Is '70s feminism an impediment to female happiness and fulfillment?
February 22, 2010
By Susan J. Douglas
This was the Spice Girls moment, and debate: Were these frosted
cupcakes really a vehicle for feminism? And how much reversion back
to the glory days of prefeminism should girls and women accepteven
celebrategiven that we now allegedly had it all? Despite their
Wonderbras and bare thighs, the Spice Girls advocated "girl power."
They demanded, in their colossal, intercontinental hit "Wannabe,"
that boys treat them with respect or take a hike. Their boldfaced
liner notes claimed that "The Future Is Female" and suggested that
they and their fans were "Freedom Fighters." They made Margaret
Thatcher an honorary Spice Girl. "We're freshening up feminism for
the nineties," they told the Guardian. "Feminism has become a dirty
word. Girl Power is just a '90s way of saying it."
Fast-forward to 2008. Talk about girl power! One woman ran for
president and another for vice president. Millions of women and men
voted for each of them. The one who ran for vice president had five
children, one of them an infant, yet it was verboten to even ask
whether she could handle the job while tending to a baby. At the same
time we had a female secretary of state, and the woman who had run
for president became her high-profile successor. And we have Lady
Gaga, power girl of the new millennium. Feminism? Who needs feminism
anymore? Aren't we, like, so done here? Okay, so some women moaned
about the sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton, but picky, picky, picky.
Indeed, eight years earlier, career antifeminist Christina Hoff
Sommers huffed in her book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided
Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, that girls were getting way too
much attention and, as a result, were going to college in greater
numbers and much more likely to succeed while boys were getting sent
to detention, dropping out of high school, destined for careers
behind fast-food counters, and so beaten down they were about to
become the nation's new "second sex." Other books like The Myth of
Male Power and The Decline of Males followed suit, with annual panics
about the new "crisis" for boys. Girl power? Gone way too far.
Fantasies of power
In 1999, one year before Sommers' book came out, the top five jobs
for women did not include attorney, surgeon or CEO. They were, in
order, secretaries, retail and personal sales workers (including
cashiers), managers and administrators, elementary school teachers
and registered nurses. Farther down among the top 20 were
bookkeepers, receptionists, cooks and waitresses. In 2007, when
presumably some of the privileged, pampered girls whose advantages
over boys Sommers had kvetched about had entered the workforce, the
top five jobs for women were, still, secretaries in first place,
followed by registered nurses, elementary and middle school teachers,
cashiers and retail salespersons.
Farther down the line? Maids, child care workers, office clerks and
hairdressers. Not a CEO or hedge fund manager in sight. And, in the
end, no president or vice president in 2008. But what about all those
career-driven girls going to college and leaving the guys in the
dust? A year out of college, they earn 80 percent of what men make.
And 10 years out? A staggering 69 percent.
Since the early 1990s, much of the media have come to overrepresent
women as having made it completelyin the professions, as having
gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of
financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the
Tiffany's-encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach. At the same time, there
has been a resurgence of dreck clogging our cultural arteriesThe Man
Show, Maxim, Girls Gone Wild. But even this fare was presented as
empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women
may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, because
now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing
more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.
What the media have been giving us, then, are little more than
fantasies of power. They assure girls and women, repeatedly, that
women's liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more
successful, more sexually in control, more fearless and more held in
awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a
CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional
and political parity with men, and we can expunge any suggestion that
there might be anyone living on the national median income, which for
women in 2008 was $36,000 a year, 23 percent less than their male counterparts.
Yet the images we see on television, in the movies, and in
advertising also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are
much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying
stuffthe right stuff, a lot of stuffemerged as the dominant way to
empower ourselves. Women in fictional settings can be in the highest
positions of authority, but in real life maybe not such a good idea.
Instead, the wheedling, seductive message to young women is that
being decorative is the highest form of powerwhen, of course, if it
were, Dick Cheney would have gone to work every day in a sequined tutu.
Enter enlightened sexism
Not that some of these fantasies haven't been delectable. I mean,
Xena single-handedly trashing, on a regular basis, battalions of
stubblefaced, leather-clad, murdering-and-raping barbarian hordes? Or
Buffy the Vampire Slayer letting us pretend, if just for an hour,
that only a teenage girl can save the world from fang-toothed evil?
What about an underdog law student, dismissed by her fellow
classmates as an airheaded bimbo, winning a high-profile murder case
because she understood how permanents work, as Elle did in Legally
Blonde? Or let's say you've had an especially stupid day at work and
as you collapse on the sofa desperately clutching a martini (hold the
vermouth), you see a man on TV tell his female boss that the way she
does things is "just not the way we play ball," and she responds
drolly, "Well, if you don't like the way I'm doing things, you're
free to take your balls and go straight home"? (Yes, The Closer.) Oooo-weeee.
So what's the matter with fantasies of female power? Haven't the
media always provided escapist fantasies; isn't that, like, their
job? And aren't many in the media, belatedly, simply addressing
women's demands for more representations of female achievement and
control? Well, yes. But here's the odd, somewhat unintended
consequence: These demanded-and-delivered, delicious media-created
fantasies have been driven by marketing, and they use that heady mix
of flattery and denigration to sell us everything from skin cream to
So it's time to take these fantasies to the interrogation room and
shine a little light on them.
One force at work is embedded feminism: the way in which women's
achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply part of
today's cultural landscape.
But the media's fantasies of power are also the product of another
force that has gained considerable momentum since the early and
mid-1990s: enlightened sexism. Enlightened sexism is a response,
deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime. It
insists that women have made plenty of progress because of
feminismindeed, full equality, has allegedly been achieved. So now
it's okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and
women. Enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through
women's calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and
sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power power that is fun,
that men will not resent, and indeed will embrace. True power here
has nothing to do with economic independence or professional
achievement: it has to do with getting men to lust after you and
other women to envy you. Enlightened sexism is especially targeted to
girls and young women and emphasizes that now that they "have it
all," they should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being
hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.
Enlightened sexism is a manufacturing process that is constantly
produced by the media. Its componentsanxiety about female
achievement; renewed and amplified objectification of young women's
bodies and faces; dual exploitation and punishment of female
sexuality; dividing of women against each other by age, race and
class; and rampant branding and consumerismbegan to swirl around in
the early 1990s, consolidating as the dark star it has become in the
early 21st century.
The seed of feminism's demise
Some, myself included, have referred to this state of affairs and
this kind of media mix as "postfeminist." But I am rejecting this
term. It has gotten gummed up by many conflicting definitions. And
besides, this term suggests that somehow feminism is at the root of
this when it isn't it's good, old-fashioned, grade-A sexism that
reinforces good, old-fashioned, grade-A patriarchy. It's just much
better disguised, in seductive Manolo Blahniks and a million-dollar bra.
Enlightened sexism is feminist in its outward appearance (of course
you can be or do anything you want) but sexist in its intent (hold
on, girls, only up to a certain point, and not in any way that
discomfits men). While enlightened sexism seems to support women's
equality, it is dedicated to the undoing of feminism. In fact,
because this equality might lead to "sameness"way too scarygirls
and women need to be reminded that they are still fundamentally
female, and so must be emphatically feminine.
Thus, enlightened sexism takes the gains of the women's movement as a
given, and then uses them as permission to resurrect retrograde
images of girls and women as sex objects, still defined by their
appearance and their biological destiny.
Consequently, in the age of enlightened sexism there has been an
explosion in makeover, matchmaking and modeling shows, a renewed
emphasis on breasts (and a massive surge in the promotion of breast
augmentation), an obsession with babies and motherhood in celebrity
journalism (the rise of the creepy "bump patrol"), and a celebration
of "opting out" of the workforce.
Feminism thus must remain a dirty word, with feminists (particularly
older ones) stereotyped as man-hating, child-loathing, hairy, shrill,
humorless and deliberately unattractive lesbians. More to the point,
feminism must be emphatically rejected because it supposedly
prohibits women from having any fun, listening to Lil' Wayne or Muse,
or dancing to Lady Gaga, or wearing leggings. As this logic goes,
feminism is so 1970sgrim, dowdy, aggrieved and passéthat it is now
an impediment to female happiness and fulfillment. Thus, an amnesia
about the women's movement, and the rampant, now illegal,
discrimination that produced it, is essential, so we'll forget that
Because women are now "equal" and the battle is over and won, we are
now free to embrace things we used to see as sexist, including
hypergirliness. In fact, this is supposed to be a relief.
Thank God girls and women can turn their backs on stick-in-the-mud,
curdled feminism and now we can jiggle our way into that awesome
party. Now that women allegedly have the same sexual freedom as men,
they actually prefer to be sex objects because it's liberating.
According to enlightened sexism, women today have a choice between
feminism and antifeminism, and they just naturally and happily choose
the latter because, well, antifeminism has become cool, even hip.
The irony of it all
Enlightened sexism has cranked out media fare geared to girls and
young women in which they compete over men, many of them knuckleheads
(The Bachelor, Flavor of Love); compete with each other (America's
Next Top Model); obsess about relationships and status (The Hills) or
about pleasing men sexually (most music videos); and are fixated by
conspicuous consumption (Rich Girls, My Super Sweet 16, Laguna Beach,
and that wonderful little serpent of a show Gossip Girl). Yet I can
assure you that my female students at the University of
Michiganacademically accomplished, smart and ambitious have flocked
to these shows. Why?
This is the final key component to enlightened sexism: irony, the
cultivation of the ironic, knowing viewer and the deployment of
ironic sexism. Irony offers the following fantasy of power: the
people on the screen may be rich, spoiled, or beautiful, but you, oh
superior viewer, get to judge and mock them, and thus are above them.
With a show like MTV's My Super Sweet 16, in which a spoiled brat has
her parents buy her everything from a new Mercedes to a Vegas-style
show to make sure her Sweet 16 party is, like, the most totally
awesome ever, viewers are not merely (or primarily) meant to envy the
girl. Animated stars superimposed on the scenes accompanied by a
tinkling sound effect signal that we are also meant to see the whole
exercise as over-the-top, ridiculous, exaggerated, the girl way too
shallow and narcissistic. The showindeed many 'reality' showselbow
the viewer in the ribs, saying, "We know that you know that we know
that you know that you're too smart to read this straight and not laugh at it."
For media-savvy youth, bombarded their entire lives by almost every
marketing ploy in the book, irony means that you can look as if you
are absolutely not seduced by the mass media, while then being
seduced by the media, wearing a knowing smirk. Viewers are flattered
that they are sophisticated, can see through the craven
self-absorption, wouldn't be so vacuous and featherbrained as to get
so completely caught up in something so trivial. The media offers
this irony as a shield.
What so much of this media emphasizes is that women are defined by
our bodies. This is nothing new, of course, but it was something
millions of women hoped to deep-six back in the 1970s. Indeed, it is
precisely because women no longer have to exhibit traditionally
"feminine" personality traitslike being passive, helpless, docile,
overly emotional, dumb and deferential to menthat they must exhibit
hyperfeminine physical traitscleavage, short skirts, pouty lipsand
the proper logos linking this femininity to social acceptance. The
war between embedded feminism and enlightened sexism gives with one
hand and takes away with the other. It's a powerful choke leash,
letting women venture out, offering us fantasies of power, control
and love and then pulling us back in.
This, then, is the mission at hand: to pull back the curtain and to
note how these fantasies distract us from our ongoing statusstill,
despite everythingas second-class citizens.
Trapped in the media's funhouse
Many producers insist that mass media are simply mirrors, reflecting
reality, whatever that is, back to the public. Whenever you hear this
mirror metaphor, I urge you to smash it. Because if the media are
mirrors, they are funhouse mirrors. You know, the wavy kind, where
your body becomes completely distorted and certain partstypically
your butt and thighsbecome huge while other parts, like your knees,
nearly disappear. This is the mass mediaexaggerating certain kinds
of stories, certain kinds of people, certain kinds of values and
attitudes, while minimizing others or rendering them invisible.
This is even more true today than it was thirty years ago because
specific media outlets targeted to specific audiences traffic in an
ever-narrower range of representations. These media also set the
agenda for what we are to think about, what kinds of people deserve
our admiration, respect and envy, and what kinds don't.
Thus, despite my own love of escaping into worlds in which women
solve crimes, can buy whatever they want, perform lifesaving
surgeries and find love, I am here to argue, forcefully, for the
importance of wariness, with a capital W. The media have played an
important role in enabling us to have female cabinet members, in
raising awareness about and condemning domestic violence, in helping
Americans accept very different family formations than the one on
Leave It to Beaver, and even in imagining a woman president. But
let's not forget that in the United States, we have the flimsiest
support network for mothers and children of any industrialized
country, nearly 2 million women are assaulted each year by a husband
or boyfriend, and 18 percent of women have reported being the victim
of a completed or attempted rape. White women still make 75 cents to
a man's dollar, and it's 62 cents for Black women and only 53 cents
for Latinas. The majority of families with children in poverty are
headed by single women.
It is only through tracing the origins of these images of female
power that we can begin to untangle how they have offered empowerment
at the cost of eroding our self-esteem, and keeping millions in their
place. Because still, despite everything, what courses through our
culture is the beliefand fearthat once women have power, they turn
into Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Pradaevil, tyrannical,
hated. And the great irony is that if some media fare is actually
ahead of where most women are in society, it may be thwarting the
very advances for women that it seeks to achieve.
This essay was adapted from Susan J. Douglas' new book, Enlightened
Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done (Times