Book Review: Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

Today's Women's History Tidbit:
2001: Annika Sorenstam sets an LPGA 18-hole scoring record (and ties the men's PGA record) when she shoots a 59 in the second round of the Standard Register ING tournament in Phoenix, AZ.*

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done by Susan Douglas falls flat to connect to the audience Douglas targets.

Douglas attempts to unveil the contradictions in society, especially pop culture, that allows us, men and women, to believe we live in a post-feminist world but in fact do not. She fails to convince me, despite believing it, due to her contradictory examples.

Douglas' definition of enlightened feminism is brilliant: A response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a few gender regime. It insists that women have mead plenty of progress because of feminism - indeed, full equality has allegedly achieve - so now it's ok, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women." To that, I say hell yes! She further goes on to skewer irony in the way that many people use it today. T-shirts that say "Who needs brains when you have these?" or the use of long-buried racial cartoon characters in a "Hey, we're so post-racial, I can wear this!" way.

But while Douglas does an excellent job at connecting the dots of how enlightened sexism is a result of the emergence of feminist wins and a "sense of threat to make dominance" in so many places in society, I felt that her treatment of feminist wins was so off-putting that I couldn't enjoy the rest of the book.

I did enjoy Douglas' use to Janet Reno and Cindy Crawford as the polar opposites of femininity in the 1990s and beyond. What I didn't like was that Douglas didn't seem satisfied with any of the mergers we saw on TV or on the silver screen.
  • Xena was too violent, beautiful and busty;
  • Buffy was too infatuated with Angel & didn't embrace her power;
  • Dark Angel had the sex drive of a cat;
  • La Femme Nikita was forced into her role;
  • Professor Stromwell calls Elle (Legally Blonde) a girl in the pivotal scene in the salon;
  • Down with Love reveals that feminists want to fall in love and get married too;
  • Kerry Weaver and other ball-busting characters are too tough.
The same damned if we do, damned if we don't scenario women find themselves in the world is used by Douglas in critiquing pop culture.

Douglas' chapter on black women (You Go, Girl) was uncomfortable. As a Latina, I get to be the outsider in these conversations, but also an insider. As a kid and even now, I see positive images of black women as a positive for all women of color and thus for me. Douglas seems equally uncomfortable with embracing the idea that black women have a power that white women don't have - the power to talk to "the man." She cites Wanda Sykes as the black woman who has that power. "So Wanda Sykes letting Larry David have it on Curb Your Enthusiasm - well, I want to steal it, the pose, the attitude, the confidence, the language, the pronunciation, the whole damn package." The chapter deals mostly with how "Black Speak" is a way for black women to tell it to the man and make white women part of the club (Oprah). Douglas does touch on how this isn't always a positive for black women, but continues to hail it was something that white women lust after.

She goes on to talk about how showing highly successful black women such as those we see in The Cosby Show, Grey's Anatomy and Living Single as part of enlightened sexism. By the fact that successful women, in general, are still few and far between, the rise of the successful woman of color in pop culture makes us all think that everything's fine, no need for feminism here.

While I agree with that premise, I also think that Douglas misses out on the strength of positive women of color characters for well, women of color. While I loved Florida to death, I was happy to see Claire move into my TV as well. It was aspirational and a relief to see women of color not struggling just to get by. The gals on Living Color allowed me to dream of one day living with my supportive girlfriends as we struggled our way thru men, romance, starting our careers and all that.

And that brings me back to my gals Xena and Buffy. While I usually credit Bob Fertik as bringing me into the wonderful world of the internet with politics, it was Xena who kept me coming back day after day reading my emails, debating the feminist theory behind a busty woman kicking men's asses week after week. Yes, Lucy Lawless was beautiful...and still is. Sarah Michelle Gellar as well. But the reason so many women, myself in the front of that pack, loved Xena and Buffy so much was that we were finally kicking some ass.Yes, the weight of their roles in the world weighed on them, but isn't that what we want from our leaders? A flip leader cavalier about their role in our lives leads to arrogance - see USA 2001 - 2008.

We saw how Xena & Buffy spreads their power among the women in their lives. From Minya in A Day in the Life and Gabrielle, Xena attempts to empower women she encounters. Oh, there are flaws all right, but what hero doesn't have a flaw? And let's not forget the most feminist 15 minutes of TV history during Buffy's finale? Dear gawd, I'm crying just thinking about it.

While we know in our heart of hearts that Xena & Buffy don't really exist, we need those images to get us thru our lives, to take over our bodies when we are faced with danger and especially when we are making amends for past sins.

There were also some hints of unenlightened feminism. Such as in the discussion about Amy Fisher, Douglas said, "[Fisher's laywer, Eric] Naiburg sought to Fisher as the victim, claiming she had been raped repeatedly by Joey, a line somewhat harder to sustain once people saw her turning tricks on Hard Copy." For many feminists of my generation and also Douglas' target audience, sex workers can be raped. Douglas does nothing to toss that myth onto the media, but embraces it with silence.

Enlightened Sexism has its problems. It's a book I recommend for younger feminists to read if they are studying feminist theory. It's not a book I would ever give to a young woman as her first or second introduction to feminism. There are a lot of valid points in this book, but far too many stumbles for someone not well versed in feminist theory, especially intersectionality, to come away with a positive view of feminism.

Other reviews that you should read:
* Small Strokes
* Gender Across Borders

Disclaimer: The only payment I received was the copy of the book after the publisher contacted me.

* Source: 2010 Women Who Dare Engagement Calendar from the Library of Congress