Feminism and the sexual revolution was intended to give women choices about their lives so that they didn't have to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Natasha Walter's controversial book shows women have instead been placed in a straightjacket which dictates how they look, how they behave and what ambitions they have. The first half of the book is taken up with extracts from interviews she had with teenagers, sex workers, people at the top of the glamour magazine and film industry and with a user of pornography. Was female empowerment meant to be about behaving like a man - and the worst type of man at that?
To me the thoughts of the teenagers she talks to make tragic reading. They are only interested in how many men they can sleep with and what they look like. The contrast between them and the few girls she talks to who don't want to win fame and fortune by posing nude in a lads' magazine is stark. Walter also recounts conversations with young women who earned money while at university as escorts and prostitutes. Some see nothing wrong with it and regard it as a simple and fun way to earn enough money to support themselves. Others had clearly thought deeply about the work and felt it was not the best way to deal with a financial crisis. Is becoming a prostitute or a pole dancer really how female empowerment looks today?
The second half of the book deals with the trend in the media to exaggerate sex differences and to point to studies showing men and women have different capabilities because of their gender. As Walter points out there are many studies which show there is very little difference in the capabilities of men and women but these are rarely reported. General interest books which highlight and exaggerate gender differences sell in their thousands but books citing scientific evidence that there is little difference usually sink without trace. Are the media bent on emphasising gender differences and promoting conventional stereotypes? This book shows they are.
`Living Dolls' is well written and the author's own reaction to the way our culture is changing for the worse as she sees it is clearly evident. This however does not prevent her from quoting research which is both for and against the theory that people are individuals and should not be stereotyped. I found it engrossing reading, with many references to follow up for more information. There is an index and comprehensive notes to each chapter - though no separate bibliography. There is also a list of women's organisations which are continuing the fight for equality.
Anyone who thinks our capabilities are biologically determined at birth needs to read this book as it shows clearly how gender stereotypes are promoted in a subtle and insidious way in everything we see, hear and read from an early age. If you don't want to be pigeon holed as a glamour model with a large chest or as a 1950s housewife in a Cath Kidston apron baking cupcakes then this is the book for you.
on 13 May 2010
This book amazed me. It totally challenged my idea that we finally live in an equal world.
I am a living doll - I diet, I bleach my hair, I wear makeup. And all this makes me feel more valid in society... why is it ok for me to feel like I have to do this to feel like I have achieved? I have two masters degrees, lots of friends and a great job...
Read this book if you have ever felt guilty about eating a cookie, or bought a new handbag to cheer yourself up. IT will change the way you wee the western world!
I am also enjoying 'the equality illusion' which takes these ideas further.
on 5 April 2010
I have never reviewed a book before, but I felt I had to with this. I feel this book encompasses everything I have been saying to people I know for years. It's both reassuring and worrying to know that you're not the only one, and other people notice these things too.
I wish the issues in this book were highlighted more, so girls know that it's not right to judge one's whole self worth on the way they look.
Thank you so much Natasha Walter!
on 14 February 2010
I'm still reading, but I have to say that this one of the most important books on gender issues that have been published lately. I cannot praise Walter enough for raising these topics into public awareness, getting the discussion in the media going (e.g.Irish Times), so many points I have been thinking myself, wondering whether I am the only one to get upset, e.g. the ridiculous sexualised fashion for little girls in this country, the semi-pornographic music videos I would rather not let my kids watch, but feel I have to or I appear to be an oldfashioned spoilsport. Or the way british and irish teenage girls "dress" when going out, what is emancipated/liberated in tottering about in stilettos, boobs and bums barely covered in freezing temperatures...is that it? Is that the result of what generations of women struggled for, got verbally (and otherwise) abused for ....ah, don't get me going.
Jeez, am I glad that I'm not a teenie nowadays, but I am deeply worried about the future of my 10 year old daughter!
on 8 June 2011
This is an important book which eloquently describes the return to gender stereotyping which began in the 1990s and has unfortuneately only exacerbated since then. I actually feel lucky that I was a teenager in the 1980s which, although far from being a post feminist paradise, was a time when it really felt that some of the cruder (both sexual and non sexual!) gender stereotypes would soon become as anachronistic as The Black and White Minstrel Show! It's a shame that actually the opposite has happened with girls these days being presented with an increasingly sexualised and narrow view of their worth. For instance, the fact that Adele can make it to Number One without taking off her clothes is seen as some kind of radical achievement - no one ever said Bananarama were radical because they were successful and managed to wear clothes in their videos! You only have to glance at the Zoo/Nuts type culture and their self loathing female equivalents (Heat etc) to see that something's gone horribly wrong somewhere.
I only have a couple of minor gripes with this book which prevented me from giving it five stars. Firstly, I thought too much of the first half of the book relied on anecdotal evidence such as chats over coffee with students and so on. I don't doubt that this could reveal some truths as to how teenagers feel but I also think that asking teenagers questions about sex in this context is likely to produce some random and not necessarily representative results. I'm not convinced that the emotionless view of sex is as monolithic as the book sometimes portrays so a wider range of viewpoints would have been interesting to take into account. Also, I sometimes felt the tone of the book was a bit wooly and I wondered if this was because Natasha Walter didn't want to come across as an old fashioned Dworkinite rad fem! It's a fair enough on her part not to want to revisit the old sex wars of the 1970/80s but it's obvious reading her work that her feminism is nothing like that so she could afford to be more bolder in places. Anyway, overall this is still an important and well written book including a very welcome and overdue annihilation of the biological deterministic nonsense that's rammed down our throats these days!
on 25 March 2010
I had a mixed reaction whilst reading this book. As an early 20-something female who was born and grew up in London I have both personally experienced and witnessed some of the changes over the past decade from when I was in secondary school (single sex) to the things my younger sister tells me goes on now (we went to the same school). For example first time sexual experiences brought down from age 15/16 to 12/13! The increasing number of young girls who aspire to be models and put the greatest emphasis on outward appearance (boob jobs and the like) and securing 'rich guys' - this is actually also something I witnessed in South Africa (5 year olds with highlights too!), rather than challenging themselves and using their brains to advance in careers they may otherwise be good at.
Now I'm not really one to criticise as I was indeed one of these girls out in tiny skirts clubbing in the middle of winter at 16 - a phase which lasted about a year. I took the higher education route, and even had a brief stint doing modelling test shoots, but at the same time I've always had an interest in politics and big ambitions to pursue a successful marketing career and one day own my own Tourism business (with Photography work on the side). I therefore find some of Natasha Walter's critique a little simplistic.
A topic which is most upsetting to me today is the belief (discussed by Natasha Walter) that women in authoritative positions are perceived in a certain, often negative way. Hillary Clinton for example. For those who followed the US presidential candidate/ presidential race, many were appalled by the sexual innuendos attached to Sarah Palin and the insults directed Mrs Clinton's way. In fact I think women in London are being particularly affected by this. You only have to experience rush hour to see that its most often the women who have the least manners and feel they have to act aggressively to get ahead.
I bought this book after seeing a review in Stylist magazine (in rush hour funnily enough). Although I agree with a lot of the argument put forth in the book - reporting good science as one example, it also occurred to me that women and the media are primarily responsible for this backward trend. What also occurred to me whilst reading Living Dolls was that having spoken friends and other women in their 30s, many have made the choice to forgo successful careers for 'more meaningful options' be it raising a family or pursuing low-paid passions - which they are often able to do because they have partners in well-paid jobs for support. Having also spoken to men, it surprised me that many would be only too happy to relinquish breadwinning pressures and in fact, be stay-at-home dads.
What seems to upset men with regards to feminism from personal observation is that they think women today get to 'have it all' if they want whereas they still feel society's pressure to conform to male stereotypes, i.e. apparently its much 'easier for women' crossing boundaries if they so wish. Therefore I don't feel that all the arguments put forth in this book are necessarily valid, which leads me to the topic of Biological Determinism.
The topic of biological determinism and the nature/nurture debate has been of great interest to me since studying A Level Psychology and I found this text particularly interesting with regard to this. Its definitely made me think twice about reinforcing certain sex behaviours if/when I eventually have children of my own.
The next decade should be an interesting one.
on 29 April 2011
I wouldn't call myself a feminist, that's not to say I don't want rights for women (I mean which woman wouldn't?), or that I wouldn't fight if my own rights were threatened, but I probably wouldn't got out of my way to fight for women's rights in general, this book did get me thinking though. I would never say that women get equal rights to men, I don't think you can when you live in a country where a woman can't be heir to the throne unless she has no brothers. In fact I'm surprised that that fact wasn't mentioned in Living Dolls as it did talk about women getting equal rights in work, if one of the most well known positions cannot easily be held by a woman then what hope is there for the rest of us.
In a way the book is a little depressing because it points out how far we still have to go, and even suggests that we have gone back on what we had previously achieved. I found it very emotive, especially when reading about how young girls are trained to be the stereotypical homemaker woman, and to expect to be that before they are even old enough to think that isn't right. I enjoyed reading the parts about science and statistics that showed how the popular view is not necessarily the right one, or even the one with the most evidence behind it. I did find that Walter stayed on this point a little too long and it began to feel a little over top, and very one sided.
There were a few other bits I was unsure of as well. Walter seemed to me to suggest in some points that women who didn't choose to exercise their freedoms (e.g. by choosing to stay at home, or choosing to settle down with one man) were somehow worth less as feminists, she did put a few times that she wasn't saying that but it still felt to me a little like she was, just that she didn't want to offend anybody. I also disliked the cover, it made me feel embarrassed to read out and about (and that's when I do most of my reading) although I can certainly say that it is attention grabbing.
Overall though it really made me think, and I do think that every woman should read it, whether you count yourself as a feminist or not
on 5 November 2010
Outstanding book: excellent commentary on the state of society today regarding women/ girls, the pressures they face, the nature of 'choice' regarding those who enter the sex trade or glamour modelling and the regression to pre-feminist beliefs and patterns of behaviour. An easy read but no less detailed and incisive for it. I have been lending my copy to anyone who will read it.
on 29 January 2011
An absolutely vital book - for mothers yes, but also for any woman who has felt some disquiet about the obsessive sexualisation of the world around her. In a world which tells us feminism is irrelevant, aggressive, not needed (and crucially not sexy!); this is a clarion call. I saw a TV programme last night where a five year old had a spray tan and hot pants, and was grinding on the dancefloor under full view of her approving parents - THIS is why we need this book!
Thoughtful, well-written, analytical, backed up by 'good' science, and well referenced - I cannot recommend this highly enough. I am buying a few extra copies to lend out to people.
on 19 June 2011
I found it interesting that the subtitle of this book is "The Return of Sexism" as I believe, and the book seems to demonstrate, that sexism has never gone away - it has just reared up again in a different form over the past decade due to the direction in which society has been moving. Push it down in one place and it just pops up somewhere else.
Living Dolls feels like the latest "state of the nation" despatch from the front line of the battle against sexism and joins earlier despatches such as "The Female Eunuch" and "The Beauty Myth" in pinpointing "how we live now". And wow, is it a depressing picture. The focus of the 1970s and 1980s on the fight for equality in life, in the workplace and in politics seems to have faded, and now we're battling a world in which women and men are thought (incorrectly) to be victims of their genetic destiny, and where conforming to porn-like standards of appearance and sexuality is seen to be the only road to success for many women. The political has very much become the personal, and you can't get much more personal that dictating to women how they should look, right down to very intimate personal grooming.
The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with how women are now pressured into being hyper-sexualised beings, living as pink and sparkly princesses who must measure up to a narrow range of physical standards in order to be seen as acceptable. The second looks at the way scientific and sociological research has been wrongly interpreted to come down on the nature side of the "nature v nurture" debate on the differences between men and women. On our journey through the book we hear about the impact of the internet (in particular readily-available pornography), reality TV, the Spice Girls, lads' mags and why everything you can buy for little girls is now pink and glittery.
I found the first half of the book, The New Sexism, more successful than the second as I felt it related more to real life. It is more anecdotal and demonstrates more obviously the result of the application of today's sexism to real women's lives. The second half is also interesting, but is more abstract and I found it harder to draw conclusions from the information it gave me.
In the main, I found that the book observes what is going on and does not attempt in any major way to account for the reasons for where we are or to tell its readers how to fight back. This felt a little disappointing to me, as at various points I would have liked more discussion on, for example, the class issues that may be contributing to the glorification of lap-dancing and overt sexuality in young women, or how the politics of the past twenty years may have contributed to the idea of female empowerment lying in sexualised behaviour.
These points apart, I found Living Dolls an interesting read and much more accessible than I thought it would be. I don't think it answers many of the questions it poses, but in truth there may not be very many ready answers to these huge issues. In the end, just bringing them to our attention may be enough.