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Is this empowerment?
on 3 February 2010
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.