Posted by: *carrie* | April 13, 2010

Read This: Enlightened Sexism

I’ve been trying to wait until I’ve actually finished the entire book before I tell you to go read it. But with only 2 chapters to go, I really can’t wait any longer. The book in question is Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done.

I was first introduced to Susan Douglas as a college student, when I had to read Where the Girls Are. (I fell instantly in love). If you’re unfamiliar with her writing, Douglas critiques popular culture and how it relates to the world, and specifically feminism. She takes her topic seriously,  but maintains a bit of necessary humor.

Why do you need to read this RIGHT NOW?

From Enlightened Sexism:

…[S]omething more intense and coercive started happening in the late 1990s and beyond through Victoria’s Secret and it’s ilk: the marketing of emphatic feminity. And this seems a response to the threat of all that scary unleashing of girl power. [Or grrrl power for some of us]. Now that girls and women were taking up more space collectively in the workplace, in schools, on our media screens we were urged to take up less space individually: hence the size zero. Between the return of stiletto heels, miniskirts, and plunging halter tops, the pandemic of TV makeover shows, brazen promotion of cosmetic surgery for girls of all ages…multiple sectors of the media have become the Robocops of the beauty-industrial complex, insisting on our confinement in Barbie-land.

So what they police…is whether we are emphatically feminine. That’s the bargain, the price we’re supposed to pay for having freedom and independence: we must reassure everyone that we’re still girls, not at all threatening, not remotely lured in by anything resembling feminism. Because feminism cannot be allowed once again to rear its monstrous, Medusa-like head.

[Comments in italics mine].

We’re not talking about the re-embrace of girl culture that Riot Grrrls championed. We’re not talking about the concept that gender equality shouldn’t only mean girls can and should play with ‘boys’ toys, but that boys can and should play with ‘girls’ toys (because really there’s no such thing as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toys). We’re not talking about sex-positive feminists. We’re not talking about women who enjoy makeup. What Douglas is talking about is the institutionalized fear of girls and women taking and exercising power. If girls and women can be taught that what’s really important is their looks, what’s really important is the domestic sphere, then maybe they’ll stop meddling in the Big, Important Men Things like politics and higher positions in their careers.

In the book Douglas presents a multiple choice quiz, with a bit of an introduction. See how you do!

…[H]ere’s a quiz about women and the news media. Recently there was a woman who commanded the national stage, attempting to take on a role no woman has before. She was, of course, attractive – she had to be – and had a set of skills that made her seem right for the job. Indeed, there was a sector of the population, especially other women, devoted to her. But some Americans – particularly male pundits – remained deeply uncomfortable with ambitious women. Women aren’t suppose to be ambitious, there’s just something, well, unfeminine about it all. And they shouldn’t have power, that’s kind of scary. And it’s just, still, a little preposterous that a women could hold such a commanding position. Pretty soon there were rumblings behind the scenes, this woman was difficult, a bitch, a diva. She couldn’t really do the job. People didn’t like her. She was ruthless, not a team player. So she deserved not to succeed. Indeed, there would be smug satisfcation when she stumbled or failed. Was the woman

  • (a) Hillary Clinton
  • (b) Katie Couric
  • (c) Martha Stewart
  • (d) Sarah Palin

I’m convinced that one of the measures of success as a woman, of being a woman with power, is that you are regularly called a bitch. Not because you are one, but because that’s the only way certain members of our population can categorize a woman who is as tough, ambitious, and powerful as some men.


Yep, probably seems all too familiar. Because the only time society values ‘traditionally feminine’ characteristics is when it’s using them to point out how a woman can’t do a man’s job. A woman is too emotional or too bitchy or not a team player. Of course, when a man displays these exact same traits, he is showing his humanity, being a leader, and being aggressive. Good in men, bad in women, because, again, the patriarchy is all about controlling women and keeping them in their place.

Douglas, once again, does a great job of tearing apart various facets of our society and putting them together to illustrate how prevalent patriarchy is in American culture, and how afraid of powerful girls and women we are.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the answer to the quiz was? (e) All of the Above


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