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Today I talked about and interviewed Dr. Susan J. Douglas about her latest book, Enlightened Sexism: the Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done.
By way of introduction to Dr. Douglas’s work and why work like it is relevant, I want to talk about another book that has recently been released by another female academic, this one at the London School of Economics, Dr. Catherine Hakim. Maybe you’ve come across this one already, as it’s raising some hackles among feminist writers and critics: it’s called Honey Money: the Power of Erotic Capital. The crux of Dr. Hakim’s argument is that having erotic capital is at least equal in importance to having other, established forms of individual capital: monetary capital, obviously, but also social capital like networks and friends in high places, and human capital, which is intelligence potentiated by education. Erotic capital, to Hakim, is comprised of a number of amorphous attributes, things like “liveliness”, which I reckon in the 60s would have been called “spunk” or “vivacity” and is meant to imply a certain lightheartedness, an unconcernedness of humour, and is certainly not meant to include, say, impassioned political involvement. Indeed the phrasing rules out any kind of activism, particularly of the feminist variety, as that implies, for Hakim, a lack of humour, a stodginess, a decided lack of vivacity. She did not coin the term, but claims that she has broadened its meaning from simple sex appeal to include other traits like charm, the aforementioned liveliness, and actual sexual expertise. Though she insists that her definition is not reliant on sexuality, despite the actual terms of the definition being decidedly sexual, to my mind and the minds of most other critics who’ve read this book, “erotic capital” is basically “things about you that make men want to fuck you”.
Catherine Hakim goes on to defend her idea of “erotic capital” using possibly single most problematic cultural idea we hold, partly because it’s so pervasive and taken so often as objective truth, but also because it is the platform on which all manner of unsavoury cultural practices rest. That is the idea that men want sex from women, and women want sex a lot less from men. She terms it the “sex-deficit”, and it may sound harmless enough, and you might find yourself agreeing with it – but the premise extends to include the idea that therefore, men cannot always be held responsible for the deeds and acts that their intense, constant, barely-restrained lust for sex with women drives them to commit. And from there, that women are responsible for protecting themselves against men’s wanton sexuality, and that leads to everything from a culture that tells women not to walk alone because men will rape them to the burqa, which is designed to serve the same function. Underlying all this is the notion that men want sex from women so badly, and so much more than women do, that not only can they not control their urges, but they should not be expected to. Of course this is all bollocks, and dangerous bollocks at that, but it’s important groundwork to get to Hakim’s main point: all those “truths” about the relative intensity of male and female sexual desire endow women with the power over men that we should be exploiting. Women should make sure they’re good looking, sexually appealing, lighthearted, and implicitly but not explicitly sexual available, in order to manipulate those men into thinking they might get some and will therefore be more likely to give that woman a raise.
The real, pernicious message of Hakim’s book is actually not Hakim’s idea at all, which is partly why it’s so real and pernicious. Hakim states is explicitly, but it is stated implicitly in pretty much every media message we receive: that women’s true power, the real empowerment, the real liberation, comes from our sex appeal, our looks, our erotic capital. The real way to equality, in fact the way to female dominance, is to be sexy, to spend untold amounts of money on the way we look and the clothes we wear, in order to get men to think about doing it, which they care a lot about but we don’t care about at all. So we have the bargaining power, here, because women have something men want, and the sexier we are, the more revealing our clothes, the more enticing our perfumes, the more men will succumb, slavering, to our control. This is, obviously, a disgusting representation of both masculinity and femininity which is harmful to both, but, as with all these conversations and for the same reason, much more destructive to women. Here’s why: while this is not a healthy representation of maleness, it is not paired with systemic discrimination against men that is so embedded it’s nearly invisible. To wit: in 2007, the top five jobs for women in the Global North were, in order, secretaries, nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers, and retail salespeople. In the top twenty were also maids, child care workers, office clerks, and hairdressers. There is also the fact that women are hugely over-represented among the poorest classes, the least healthy, the least enfranchised members of the population. Now, either, you believe that there is something inherent in women that renders them unfit for actual power, that in the marketplace of life there is something that inheres in women that keeps them at the bottom of the chain. And if you go this route you also have to insist that there is something deficient in people of colour, be they of African, Mexican, Maori or Pacific Islands extraction, because those groups are also disproportionately represented among the poorest classes. And a woman of colour, pfft. And if you don’t want to cop to that, because that would obviously make you the worst kind of racist, sexist asshole, then you have to, therefore, acknowledge that there must be greater, more fundamental structures in place that maintain a status quo that values the constructs of Maleness and Whiteness at the expense of the multitude of Othernesses that status quo creates. If we can at least all agree on that we could maybe get somewhere productive.
So now we come to Dr. Douglas and her close reading of media, mainly TV and advertising, which shaped her twin conceptions of enlightened sexism and embedded feminism. These two ideas rely on one another for mutual reinforcement, and both require some definition, so, embedded feminism first. Because there’s no denying that feminism has made some serious inroads, that we are much closer to at least superficial equality, if not necessarily true equality, than we ever have been before, some feminist ideas are embedded in our cultural narrative. So we are presented, mainly in time slots and in tv programming geared towards women of the second-wave feminist generation, affirmation that their goals have been fulfilled, that feminism succeeded. These programs, things like Law and Order, CSI, even Grey’s Anatomy or House, portray strong, fearless women, women in positions of extraordinary power that they wield with no compunction, encountering almost no opposition based on their genders whatsoever. These women often speak like drill sergeants, they are scathing, cutting, hyper-intelligent, and frequently emotionless, and they have complete control of their underlings or residents or criminal suspects. This is embedded feminism; this presentation of women as having completely succeeded, on all fronts, in the struggle for equality. We really can have it all, now, this presentation suggests, as it rarely portrays those women struggling to balance their careers and their personal lives – quite often they do not have any at all. So on the one hand it is suggested that women can be equal to men in terms of power dynamics, but that this equality comes at a price: they are often cold, loveless, even bitchy, and so the message becomes quite mixed and confusing. Yes, you can have some real power, but if this is what it takes, do you really want it?
The answer to that question, as suggested by enlightened sexism, is a resounding NO. Sure, you could work your tail off and become a high-powered lawyer or a police chief, but you’ll have to sacrifice your personal life and people will probably think you’re a bitch. Because the gains of feminism cannot be ignored, they are instead held up as both platitude and warning: you’ve already succeeded, women already have all kinds of power and can do anything they want – and then, whispered, but you’ll have to pay for it.
Enlightened sexism relies on embedded feminism to show women how far we’ve come, how successful feminism has been – because, since we are so equal now, and women are so powerful, there’s surely no harm in resurrecting some very insulting and dangerous conceptions of femininity, as long as it’s done with a wink. It’s ok that we continue to insist, louder and louder, that women are to be judged by how thin and beautiful they are, because there’s no more struggle for women to be taken seriously. As Dr Douglas says, “enlightened sexism is meant to make the patriarchy pleasurable for women”.
From there this sort of ironic distance that’s created, whereby we the audience are meant to be in on the joke too, and the joke is that sexism is funny on tv because it obviously no longer exists in real life. This is how we end up with shows like Extreme Makeover, that one about helping a millionaire find a wife, the Bachelor, the Swan – where they actually did an enormous amount of plastic surgery on the people who participated – and a resurgence of magazines like Maxim and FHM. It may seem like those have always been there, but they are much, much more prevalent now than they were even in the 90s. Oh! It’s just like that stupid scene in Inception, which I thought was a terrible movie, just for the record – the one where Leonardo does that risky thing that involves alerting the dreamer to the fact that he’s dreaming, which is dangerous because then they know they’re dreaming, but he uses that danger to his own advantage. This is just like that – the media use the risky tactic of pointing out feminism, but they use it to further embed stereotypes of feminism and the cost it exacts while pointing the way to the cosmetics counter as a much better option.
And just like embedded feminism has its sneaky whisper that, while women are equal now, they don’t really want this kind of power, enlightened sexism too whispers that sexual power is the kind that women really want. The power of wearing beautiful and expensive clothes and jewelry is the kind of power that won’t make Men uncomfortable, that they’ll even get behind and help you achieve. And underlying that message, of course, is the insistence that real feminism is, actually, bad, that its harmful to both men and women, and that it’s much more fun and much more empowering to look great, dress well, and be thin and beautiful and sexy. So because feminism has already achieved all its goals – just look at all these accomplished, successful women! – it’s now ok again to insist that they way they look is the only aspect of women that matters, and we can talk more and more openly about women as sex objects. And anyway, it’s as sex objects that women are truly powerful, and we don’t want that other kind of power – that we’ve already got anyway – because it will make us withered and bitter and men won’t want us. How on earth are women supposed to navigate that minefield?