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Monday, April 12, 2010

Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

"Englightened Sexism" is an excoriating repudiation of the view that feminism's work is done and that women have now achieved gender equity with men, so there is no further need for women to continue to fight for things like equal pay for equal work. By dissecting pop culture, Douglas makes a very convincing argument that sexism is, indeed, alive and well, though it has taken on something of a new facade: the titular "enlightened" sexism. Douglas argues that women have been fed the line that they now have equality and that this new era of "girl power" is proof. Pop culture would have us believe that women can dress however they want, be successful, and enjoy a life free of obstacles, but Douglas shows how this portrayal of women actually reveals the sexist mechanisms embedded within that are meant to keep women in their place.

What I found particularly convincing about Douglas's argument was the idea that there is a divide and conquer strategy at work that helps distract women from real issues. By focusing on girl-on-girl bullying instead of addressing the issue of the sexual harassment of girls in school, everyone (male and female alike) is being distracted from the bigger problem. Douglas is not trying to argue that these scenarios of female aggression do not exist but, as she points out, they serve as a very good way of creating the myth that women are incapable of getting along with one another and, therefore, cannot handle equality. As Douglas argues, enlightened sexism tells us that women have been given the keys to the kingdom, but are too busy having cat fights over who gets to be the queen to unlock the realm.

Douglas also makes a strong argument when she picks apart the claim that women are empowered because they can now dress however they like: read, the more provocatively, the better. As Douglas argues, this is not really any indication that women are empowered. To say that a woman has equality because she can dress however she wants and then to encourage women to dress like sex objects is sinister. We now live in a society that offers low-rise jeans for kindergarteners and thongs for sixth-graders. Ever walked through a department store's girls' clothing section and read some of the slogans on the T-shirts? Try it sometime. It's pretty much a guarantee that you'll walk away feeling the need to bleach your eyes.

Douglas's analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign is also very provocative. Douglas discusses the way Hillary Clinton was treated, and also has a great deal to say about Sarah Palin. What I found really interesting, though, was her commentary about Michelle Obama. How many of us have looked at a newspaper, read a blog, or opened a magazine and wondered why every story is about what she is wearing rather than what she is capable of doing? As Douglas points out, it really says something when one of the most educated, most powerful First Ladies in history is usually discussed in the news media in the context of her fashion sense.

What is especially important about this eye-opening book is that it encourages women the ignore the deceptive signals they're being sent and to focus on the issues that are important for people of any gender: pay equity, better and more affordable child care, workplaces that offer more flexibility for parents, and access to health insurance for everyone, no matter their income bracket. These are issues that no one can afford to ignore, whatever their gender.

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