The scene is riveting: The body of a murdered woman has been discovered in the middle of the city. Throngs of professional men and women — detectives, crime scene investigators, and the coroner — scurry around collecting evidence, analyzing the circumstances of the crime, and comparing theories. Then, someone discovers the victim’s handbag. “Oh, this victim is no prostitute,” announces one of the female detectives with certain authority, dressed in well-coordinated though significant cleavage-revealing clothing. “This handbag costs $3,000 at Bloomingdale’s.” She smirks as the other professional women return the knowing look, and the men merely listen silently, awed and amused by the vast stores of female knowledge.
This scene, which has repeated itself in almost all the main prime time procedural dramas is the subject of Susan J. Douglas’s new nonfiction book, “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done” (Times Books). According to Douglas, the mixed messages about gender, in which women are at once powerful and successful and yet somehow still fashion-obsessed, big-breasted and flirtatious, reflect a troubling trend about gender in popular culture. With a fine-tooth scrutiny of television, movies, commercials, music, and the media coverage of everything from petty crime to national politics, Douglas offers a sophisticated and troubling analysis of gender messages that deeply resonated with me.
“Since the early 1990s, much of the media have come to represent women as having made it — completely — in the professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the Tiffany’s encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach,” writes Douglas, citing, for example, the character of Amanda (Heather Locklear) of “Melrose Place” as well as Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) of “Grey’s Anatomy” and Det. Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) of “CSI.” “At the same time, there has been a resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries: “The Man Show,”Maxim, and “Girls Gone Wild.” But even this fare, which insists that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacities of a vole, was presented as empowering, because while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have *seemed * to be objectified, they were really on top, because now they had chosen to be sex objects and men were supposedly nothing more than their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.”
What we are left with, then, according to Douglas, are “fantasies of power.” The media assures women and girls “that women’s liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless, and more held in awe than we actually are.” These fantasies of power are a product of what Douglas calls the “enlightened sexism” that began to spring up in the 1990s. “It insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism — indeed, full equality has been achieved — so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.”
In fact, while this enlightened sexism has been on the rise, the position of women has not necessarily improved all that much, and in some ways has in fact deteriorated. Aside from the fact that women around the world still earn 73 cents to the dollar compared to men, pressure on women to be sexy, sultry, thin-waisted and big-breasted has been frighteningly increasing. Douglas cites research showing a 446% increase in cosmetic procedures on women between 1997 and 2006 (and in the latter year, Americans spent over $12 billion on such procedures). Even more frightening is the fact that between 2002 and 2003, the number of girls under the age of 18 who got breast implants nearly tripled. And of course, the message is that no matter how successful women might be, they ultimately want nothing more than to shop, get married, and have babies. In 1998, Time ran a cover story with disembodied head shots of feminists Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan, followed by the head of Calista Flockhart of “Ally McBeal” fame, asking, “Is feminism dead?” After all, Ally McBeal was the quintessential professional woman who only really wanted love.
Douglas, the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies and department chair at the University of Michigan, cites so much evidence that one cannot help wondering whether she has spent the past decade totally immersed in popular culture. She also brings fascinating discussions with her undergraduate students as well as with her daughter, and writes with a refreshing mixture of scholarship and humor. And she seems to be in the enviable position of someone who truly loves her job; she may be confronting the pains and challenges of sexism, but she is having a lot of fun doing it.
The best part of the book, though, is the epilogue. Here Douglas lays out a real, practical vision for change and encourages her readers to speak out and get involved. For this section alone the book is most definitely worth the read.