Interestingly, Walter herself does not specifically criticise capitalism as a system, or even the current UK manifestation thereof. Traditional gender roles, those feminism had hoped to rid women of, are now being sold back to us with advertising slogans of liberation and empowerment. Turning oneself into a sex object for male pleasure, for instance, is described in terms of power and success, largely as a ploy to sell products. Likewise, gender differences in children are played up as genetic inevitability in order to sell increasingly fancy toys and newspapers.
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Interestingly, Walter herself does not specifically criticise capitalism as a system, or even the current UK manifestation thereof. Traditional gender roles, those feminism had hoped to rid women of, are now being sold back to us with advertising slogans of liberation and empowerment. Turning oneself into a sex object for male pleasure, for instance, is described in terms of power and success, largely as a ploy to sell products.
Likewise, gender differences in children are played up as genetic inevitability in order to sell increasingly fancy toys and newspapers. However when women continue to earn less, experience discrimination, and suffer disproportionately from rape and violence, such tendencies merit consideration.
Choice becomes meaningless within a constrained context of stereotyping, pervasive marketing, and peer pressure, all telling women they must behave in a certain way. I know I bring this up a lot, but the rhetoric of choice, assumed to be neutral and freely made with coercion, sounds exactly like neo-liberal economic ideology. Moreover, the timing noted by Walter fits; the rise of free markets began at the end of the s and has continued since.
She notes that this is the point when willingness to explain gender differences in terms of social construction declined, and biological determinism began its rise. This creeping and dangerous influence of biological inevitability arguments is especially well explored in this book. Walter describes how the media systemically reports only scientific studies that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, overlooking the complex, contradictory, and evolving nature of results in this area.
The tone of the book is grounded in practise and appears journalistic rather than theoretical. The area that I would critique slightly is the discussion of sexual behaviour. Walter suggests that it is damaging for women to consistently divorce sex from emotion, although to her credit she is careful to avoid using slut-shaming language. What I felt could have improved this part was a wider critique of compulsory sexuality. Girls and women should feel that they can have as much sex, with or without emotional investment, as they wish to.
Crucially, there should not be a stigma attached to not wanting sex, or wanting very little. Current culture keenly emphasises that young women as basically sex objects and that everyone ought to be having lots of sex.
Like all the other issues explored in the book, this is bound up with consumerism, advertising, and the manufacture of anxieties as a means of selling things.
Another area not really covered in the book is the artificial social construction of the gender binary itself; this is inferred towards the end but not explicitly stated.
Overall, I found this book to be a well-articulated indictment of how traditional gender roles have come back to haunt feminists. It made me sad for little girls growing up in a sea of pink toys, assumed to be more interested in shopping than science and maths. Biological determinism is extremely dangerous, I just hope its appropriation by multinational corporations can be overcome by the self-evident diversity of actual human beings, of whatever gender.
Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter: review
Walter was famous for her book, The New Feminism, where she controversially argued that in the modern West, feminism should focus on clear demands for political equality rather than more prevalent concerns surrounding cultural change. Not so now. I am ready to admit that I was entirely wrong. Walter develops an account of this resurgent sexism through chapters that explore pole dancing, prostitution, pornography, and the impact such phenomena have on the experiences of intimacy and the emotional lives of girls in contemporary society. She makes a convincing case that not only have such things grown in a narrowly-quantitative sense, but they have been normalised in an unprecedented way. Once private sexual cultures that are structured, economically and socially, in relation to the sexual gratification of male consumers have reached the mainstream, pole dancing and pornography have become, at worst, socially acceptable and, at best, actively valorised as outlets for a liberated and ostentatious female sexuality. Even prostitution has been subject to a profound normalisation through television and the media, reflected in surveys finding the number of men willing to admit using prostitutes has doubled between and
Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism
Share via Email A lap dancer in a club in Cork, Ireland. Photograph: Sean Smith In her book, The New Feminism, Natasha Walter argued that the feminist adage the "personal is political" needed to ditch the "personal" and focus on broader political goals. Walter now says that she was "entirely wrong". In Living Dolls, she paints a frightening picture of the personal, one where young women are told the best they can be is a pole-dancing glamour model, and where the embrace of biological determinism or the idea that gender differences are physically ingrained rather than socially constructed enforces a glittery pink world in which discrimination and inequality are dismissed as reflecting "natural" preferences. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, and Walter quotes: "The little girl cuddles her doll and dresses her up as she dreams of being cuddled and dressed up herself; inversely, she thinks of herself as a marvellous doll. One woman who became a prostitute tells Walter: "I believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex was so empowering.