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review of Living Dolls The Return of Sexism,
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This review is from: Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (Paperback)
This important book has not been published a moment too soon in my view. It is part of a welcome backlash against the appalling new sexism in Britain today, and if the genre is stylised feminist, then feminism clearly has a lot to offer both women and men today.
Natasha Walter begins her study with a brief survey of the way the feminist revolution became stalled during the Blair years in Britain and notes that although women have made progress in some areas, it really has been a question of two steps forward three steps back. Women are still hugely underrepresented in most domains relative to men; they remain underpaid and undervalued in society. Most disturbingly, they have become increasingly objectified as sex objects by the consumer society in recent years, and this is where the author takes her cue.
Living dolls explores the position of women as a sex commodity in the new consumer society, and the way female sexuality has been defined by the sex industry. Walter makes the crucial point that women have been complicit in this new sexism, they have co-opted the language of choice and empowerment to claim that sex is liberation. Hence the casual attitude to sex and acceptance of prostitution as a career option like any other, and the appearance of best-selling books that valorise the prostitute. The problem here is that emotion has been dissociated from sex, as it is in pornography, and the violence experienced by sex workers ignored, or suppressed. Women have in fact been put in a new box, claims Walter, one that sees them in terms of a narrow physical ideal. Women's non-sexual attributes have been devalued.
But prostitution is not empowering. Rather it is disempowering, as Walter's research and interviewee's testimony, clearly shows. Is it really a choice if a woman feels so imperfect that she decides she has to have surgery on her clitoris to make it look more appealing? Men and women are both victims under the new sexism because we can't really look at each other as equals--it's a nasty trap.
Walter goes on to discuss how women are being gendered by language and social practices -- pink for girls, blue for boys etc. The notion that women and men are inherently different and therefore should be treated differently is fairly demolished by the author. Almost all the scientific evidence suggests exactly the opposite -- that male/female differences are the result of socialisation and expectations. All this was obvious a decade ago, but in recent times the media has picked up on any shred of biological determinism it can to say men and women are different. It's astonishing, and a sign of the times, that apparently highbrow newspapers like The Guardian take this biological determinist nonsense seriously. Whatever biological differences there are between men and women, women's day to day reality is largely determined by a male-dominated society.
This excellent book makes for compelling reading, and actually comes as a relief to all of us who have been upset by sexist trends in Britain. However, I doubt Walter has fully theorised the problem, since women's subjection is the result of a wider subjection of one social class by another. Women's issues cannot be separated from the wider struggle for equality and justice in society. In addition, the link between the crass commoditisation of women's bodies and the capitalist consumer society, whilst touched upon, has not been comprehensively dealt with here. Nonetheless, this book is recommended reading for everyone, especially young people.