Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

By Mark Carrigan

We all find it hard to admit that we were wrong, yet this is precisely what the feminist writer and journalist Natasha Walter has done in her new book Living Dolls. Walter was famous for her 1998 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. As she puts it, “I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of the old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was entirely wrong.”

Whereas once she saw meaningful equality as being within reach, at least if feminists would focus on economic and political goals rather than cultural questions of lifestyle and self-expression, now Walter sees our society increasingly dominated by a new and insidious sexism. This “return of sexism” is what Living Dolls sets out to understand and fight against.

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 1990 and 2000. It is difficult not to suspect that the rate will be far greater in 2010.

Where once adolescent girls were subject to a staid Puritanism which forbade any expression of their nascent sexuality, they now face a paradoxical inversion of this repression, as self-worth and burgeoning maturity are conceived in increasingly narrow and sexualised terms:

“The marketplace is taking up and reinforcing certain behaviour in a way that can make it hard for many young women to find the space where other views of female sexuality and other ways for women to feel powerful are celebrated. By co-opting the language of choice and empowerment, this culture creates smoke and mirrors that prevent many people from seeing just how limiting such so-called choices can be. Many young women now seem to believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having, and that sexual confidence can only be gained if a young women is ready to conform to the soft-porn images of a tanned, waxed young girl with large breast ready to strip and pole-dance. Whether sexual confidence can be found in other ways, and whether other kinds of confidence are worth seeking, are themes that this hypersexual culture cannot address.”

In the second part of the book, Walter addresses what she calls the ‘new determinism’. While prescriptive notions of male and female behaviour were once rightly repudiated as sexist impositions, it now seems that we are witnessing a radical resurgence of gendered stereotypes. She argues that this has taken place over the last decade and been driven by the worrying tendency of some biologists and psychologists, as well as their overly-enthusiastic media cheerleaders, to explain apparent gender norms in terms of evolution and genetics. Though Walter does not deny that scientific investigation into these areas is possible, she makes a plausible case that methodological deficiencies plague much of the research which is commonly taken to ‘prove’ the biological basis of gender difference. For instance, a substantial body of psychological research suggests that, in experiments, the perceptions subjects have of the expectations of the experimenters play a large part in shaping their behaviour and yet this substantial source of bias is rarely countered in the design of much of the research which underlies this ‘new determinism’.

This biological and psychological research, itself deficient from the outset, is further simplified and selectively highlighted by an entertainment and news media preoccupied with the construction of easy and compelling narratives. For instance, the idea that respective sex hormones make men strong and logical and women kind and empathic provides a far easier basis on which to write an entertaining magazine feature than a methodologically rigorous discussion of the difficulties in unpicking interpenetrating biological, psychological, and sociological factors in the formation of apparent gender differences. This can, at least in part, be explained by the operations of the market, as an increasingly pressed media class struggle to produce an ever greater amount of entertaining product with an ever smaller degree of time to research and consider.

Similarly one of the most interesting aspects of this section is Walter’s observation of the sheer scale of the market for gendered products. For instance, she cites the enormous success of the Disney Princess franchise which collects a range of female Disney characters—Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Belle—under one product line. There are now over 25,000 products based on the franchise, encompassing the whole range of Disney’s retail empire. Launched in 1999, with relatively little advertising, its sales have increased from $136 million in 2001 to $1.3 billion in 2003 and to $4 billion in 2007. While defenders of the new determinism might claim that such sales are indicative of a deep underlying demand for consumer products that appeal to the “hardwired: aesthetic tastes of girls, it seems much more likely that the torrent of gendered commodities serves, at least in part, to engender the demand it claims to be responding to.

Although Living Dolls could be open to criticism for, at times, being insufficiently evidenced, its overriding strength surely lies in Walter’s powerful attempt to thematize a hugely significant and little-noted cultural development in contemporary Britain: the foregrounding of a political rhetoric of choice and an axiomatic sense of social equality have conspired to allow a resurgent sexism driven by a relentlessly expansive consumerism. She offers a plausible account of the historical roots of this cultural shift:

“It is modern feminism that created this rhetoric that foregrounds self-expression. Feminists encouraged women to cease seeing the good woman’s life as defined through service to others, as it had been throughout the nineteenth century and instead encouraged them to focus on their own desires and independence. But that focus on independence and self-expression is now sold back to young women as the narrowest kind of consumerism and self-objectification.”

However, if anything, her account is too limited by its focus on feminism and women. The second wave of feminism was just one aspect, though an important one, of 1960s radical politics. The cultural outgrowths of the new left in general play a key role in many of the processes of social change which Walter hints at. Its stress on “independence and self-expression,” the focus on authenticity and self-discovery, ultimately are capable of being uncoupled from their political content and rearticulated in a resolutely depoliticised way. Far from undermining capitalism through a reclamation of authentic subjectivity, this cultural radicalism in fact helped fuel the emergence of contemporary consumer capitalism. The emancipatory impulse of 1960s politics is, to use Walter’s term, sold back to people, increasingly chained into their role as consumers, through the manifold possibilities for self-exploration and self-expression facilitated by contemporary capitalism.

In essence, what Walter suggests is a reclamation of the emancipatory core of the sexual revolution. What has motivated her writing as a whole, uniting both The New Feminism and Living Dolls, is the belief that there is ‘no need to deny the pleasure of femininity’ and ‘no need to retreat into a caricatured feminism of drab clothes sexless pursuits and dour political correctness’. What is unique to Living Dolls is her newfound recognition that, if this belief is to be correct, it necessitates ‘much greater vigilance’ and ‘much greater solidarity’. Without such solidarity, the affirmation of sexual freedom and the valorisation of sexual pleasure can quickly engender the sort of commoditised female sexuality that underpins the ‘new sexism’.

Perhaps the underlying point is true more widely. It can be far too easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to denigrate the libertarianism and individualism the new Left gave rise to, as its ethics so readily transmuted into a privatized hedonism, which neither stood against capitalism nor offered any alternative to it (as a song from the cartoon Family Guy puts it: ‘we lost the values but we kept the weed’). However, the problem was not the ideal of emotional authenticity and individual freedom itself, but rather the notion that such an ideal could ever be pursued privately. Without a sufficient emphasis on vigilance and solidarity, moral ideals turned into debased consumer fantasies—yet there is no reason why this need be so.

The main idea I took from Living Dolls was that rather than obsessing about the relationship of our present politics to past ideals, asking ‘where it all went wrong’, we should instead be reimagining how to live out and fight for those ideals in present times.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/