Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – book review

DollsDivided into two sections ‘The New Sexism’ and the ‘The New Determinism’, Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a highly readable  call to arms written at a crucial moment in women’s history. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote “[t]he 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”. Walter’s use of this quote in this book is telling – this is an exposé of systematic societal programming and of the capitalist packaging of female agency so successful that feminism has been rebranded.

 The book opens in a UK club called Mayhem, where an open contest for glamour models is being held. The contestants strip and pose suggestively on a bed while a male DJ decides which woman has received the biggest cheers from the baying crowd. It’s 2007, and Walter – a supporter of sexual liberation – begins unpacking how this ‘liberation’ has turned so quickly back to objectification and oppression.  One of the prostitutes interviewed in the book blames feminism for her situation saying “I believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex was so empowering”. Observing how the women walking through the doors opened by feminism are now funnelled into by a hypersexualised culture into a narrow definition of possibility where “being sexy and using the power of your sexiness is the one kind of power that women are sanctioned to exploit”, Walter successfully debunks the popular myths of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ built into contemporary narratives of pole/lap dancing and glamour modelling as careers by speaking to women who are living those choices.

 There is a great deal of overlap with Ariel Levy’s excellent Female Chauvinist Pigs here, and it is in these overlapping sections dealing with the pornification of culture, albeit from a UK perspective, that Walter is strongest. In fact it’s a quote from Levy’s book that best sums up what Living Dolls articulates throughout “Sex appeal has become a synecdoche for all appeal”. It is not without its weaknesses – the focus is entirely heterosexual. Walter is also too quick to shy away from class issues, even when one lap dancer observes “[t]he men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts; the women are not respectable, they are naked, they have debts”.  However it is still an excellent introductory text for young women on modern-day feminism, and you should give it to your friends, daughters, and perhaps most importantly, your sons.

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Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland

The first Utopia was written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the name coined from the Greek eu-topos, meaning ‘a good place’ – or perhaps ou-topos meaning ‘no place’. As this inherently conflicted word moved beyond the original text into common parlance describing any perfect society, we owe a debt to More’s original pun – for can there ever be such a thing? Over at the feminist classics reading project, April’s read is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novel Herland, first published in 1915.

As with all utopian literature, plot-wise the reader is in no fear of passing out from excitement – lengthy descriptions of societal structures are key to the entire purpose of Herland. In a nutshell, three young male Americans, fresh from a tipoff from a “savage” on a previous exploration, set off in a “flying machine” to discover a fabled country comprised only of women. Terry is bulging of bicep and majestic of mustache and very much a ‘man’s man’, which then as now is a nice way of saying ‘arrogant lout’. Jeff, bless ‘im, is a southern gentleman who places the fairer sex on a pedestal (to his credit, not to look up their skirts), while our narrator, Van, is a sociologist more than a little blinded to how partial his “scientific” thinking can be. Upon arriving in Herland, they soon encounter the ‘natives’, whom they find to be dignified, rational and alarmingly athletic. Our intrepid trio are taken prisoner in the nicest way possible (“…we were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully in spite of our best endeavours”) and are taught the native language while simultaneously teaching their appointed guides English. It transpires that all the men of Herland were wiped out in a catastrophe some 2000 years ago. Shortly after this, one young woman discovered she could reproduce by parthenogenesis and the current population of some three million women are all descended from her. The Herlanders have no history of or interest in sexual intercourse with the men, yet motherhood is the cornerstone of the Herland culture, and children treasured. Their society is without classes or competitiveness, vanity, illness, war, greed or crime. Continue reading “Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland”