Divided 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.