Archive for the ‘Susan J. Douglas’ Category

I’ve been trying to formulate a response to Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas for the last five days, ever since I finished reading it.  It wasn’t the most enjoyable read: the topic matter is, understandably, disturbing and Douglas bombards the reader with media and pop culture references, occasionally losing her own train of thought.  Not an easy read then, but a relatively quick one and certainly interesting, even if many of the arguments and examples have been heard before.

Something about this book never quite clicked for me.  I agreed with most everything Douglas said and yet at no time did I feel the excitement I usually do when following an argument that intrigues me.  I think it might have been a case of too many examples and not enough analysis.  It felt like Douglas got so caught up in her case studies that she forgot to tie them back to the points she was attempting to illustrate.  Yes, the information presented was interesting, but what did it mean?  Even her initial definition of enlightened feminism seems indistinct, beginning with a relatively clear statement (see below) but then dragging on for several pages:

Enlightened sexism is a response…to the perceived threat of a new gender regime.  It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed, full equity has been achieved – so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. (p. 9) 

I was able to tolerate Douglas’ use of Valley-Girl speak throughout (it was, like, really annoying) but I lost some respect for her when, while discussing the Sex and the City franchise, she made a sweeping generalization about the show appealing to all women.  Seriously?  No wonder I found the rest of the analysis confusing – even the author can’t remember that she’s supposed to be arguing against the stereotyping of women.

Two chapters particularly stood out for me: one was “Sex ‘R’ Us”, which turned my stomach with it’s details about how sexualized products are marketed to young girls, the other “You Go, Girl”, which discusses the portrayal of African-American women in the media.  For me, and most Canadians I’ve talked to, race and religion are probably the two most confusing things about the U.S., the issues where our generally similar cultures differ the most.  As soon as you cross the border, even into the Northern, liberal states, as an outsider you’re immediately aware that sensitivity to or at least consciousness of race relations saturates the culture and a natural mirror of that is the media.  Douglas’ survey then, of stereotypes of black American women on television, was fascinating, but I really had no cultural frame of reference.

Unfortunately, one of what should have been the strongest chapters was the weakest for me, analyzing the portrayal of women with power, taking as examples Sarah Palin, Katie Couric, Hilary Clinton and, my favourite, Martha Stewart.  Douglas’ argument isn’t particularly exciting or inventive:

It was the news media and its coverage of prominent, successful women that provided a Rorschach of lingering, jittery anxieties about women and power.  Here, in the news, there remained a deep, unyielding contradiction between and discomfort with “female” and “power.”  Forty years after the women’s movement, “female” is still equated with being nice, supportive, nurturing, accommodating, and domestic – not compatible with anything that might involve leadership.  “Power” is equated with domination, superiority, being tough, even ruthless.  These two categories simply are not supposed to go together.  If some woman seeks to meld these polar opposites, our cultural magnets start spinning out of control, screaming “incongruous” and, even louder, “inappropriate.” (p. 272)

More importantly, I didn’t feel her examples were sufficient even for this tired old argument.  Stewart and Clinton as symbols of power, absolutely, but Couric?  Again, my cultural frame of reference may be skewed here, but does a news anchor really have that much power?  She isn’t shaping government policy or running a business empire, she’s providing nightly news to a rapidly decreasing band of elderly viewers.  Couric was the first woman to anchor an American evening news program on her own, granted, but is her power then granted simply by having been a pioneer in what many already view as a dying trade?

Obviously, not my favourite book of the year and not the book I’d hoped for, either as a student of media studies or of feminism, but still an interesting read for those interested in either topic.  An essential read, perhaps, for the women of Generation Y, those who were just a bit too young for Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette, fading emblems of the last feminist push, and but who were just the right age for the mainstream swell of enlightened feminism, the post-Spice Girls fallout if you will.

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