Review: Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism

Natasha Walter’s new book, "Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism", is a timely book about the inexorable reassertion of female stereotypes, argues’s Mandy Garner.

At Christmas, my mum was looking for a pair of pyjamas as a present for my daughter. My daughter is not into pink.  My mum trekked around shop after shop looking for something in a non-pink/mauve colour.  Eventually she had to buy some “boys” pyjamas and cut out the label in case my daughter got teased if she was at a sleepover. It seems utterly ridiculous that the prevailing order is that, if you are a girl and don’t like pink you virtually do not exist. How did we come to this?
Natasha Walter’s book, "Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism", assesses the inexorable rise of pink, linking it to the recent upsurge in scientific research into genetics. The book is divided into two parts – one dealing with the use of science to bolster ideas that boys are one way and girls another – and the other looking at the increasing influence of porn in our everyday life and the impact this has on women.
It’s is a very timely, sober book. It has been criticised for its lack of passion. Walter is clearly angered by what she catalogues, but instead of raging about it she builds up her case in a journalistic manner, detailing the return of the old sexism, even if disguised in feminist clothes. She begins by stating that she had thought when she wrote her previous book, The New Feminism, that the future of feminism lay in battles about policy areas, not in the personal realm. She now believes she was wrong to ignore the personal. In the intervening years, she says, old ideas of women as sex objects have reasserted themselves with increasing force since they are now backed by mass marketing. She writes about the effects of the general accessibility of porn in wider culture and accepts that it is not possible to have a simplistic porn is anti women attitude any longer. Many women embrace it and the idea of non-committal sex as a sign of sexual liberation.
But Walter notes again and again that the influence is now so all-pervading that it blocks out individual choice. What may once have been liberating has now become a trap. Fair enough that you choose a Nuts night out at a club taking your clothes off and performing for the lads, that you define your own worth by how loud they roar, but should you feel that not to conform to hypersexual ways of behaving makes you some kind of freak? In addition to countless women who have gone into porn, be it prostitution or pole dancing, and found that it is not quite as glamorous as the Billie Piper drama makes out, Walter cites a girl from Essex who was spat on and bullied at secondary school for wearing non-sexy clothes. Eventually she asked to be homeschooled to avoid being intimidated.
She lists anecdote after anecdote which shows how a culture which puts increasing emphasis on marketing yourself as sexually attractive erodes people’s individuality, although ironically the mantra that everyone trumpets to justify that culture is that it is all about choice. The problem is that the culture is so overwhelming that it wipes out choice. It is interesting too to note that when Walter asks some of the men who make money out of this culture whether they would let their daughters end up making their living out of it they all say no. Some critics of the book say she fails to point out that this culture particularly affects and exploits one particular group of women: working class women who do not have the educational opportunities to allow them any sense of real choice. Walter does mention this class bias in passing, though, but she says that porn culture is more pervasive than just being limited to one particular group.
She shows too that not only does porn culture dehumanise women but it damages men too. She talks to porn addicts who regret its impact on their lives. Similarly, the rise of biological determinism damages both boys and girls. Not all boys love action heroes and not all girls long to be princesses. She highlights that research which seeks to show that there are genes making girls like pink and so forth are exaggerated by the media. It’s all part of a trend. Genes are in fashion and it is true that there have been some amazing breakthroughs in genetics in recent decades, but there has also been quite a bit of research whose results could best be labelled spurious. I used to work as a health journalist and there were very few weeks that passed without some scientist or other discovering some gene that explained some aspect of our behaviour. The mouse which had the good mothering gene stands out in my mind in particular. Apparently what determined this good mother behaviour was that the mouse didn’t step on its babies…
Walter links the tendency these days to biological fatalism isolates children who don’t conform to the pattern. Not only that but such simplistic thinking leads inexorably to stereotypes about what women are “good at” [even if it is dressed up as “a good thing”, for instance, they are great communicators and carers], what jobs they should do and what society’s expectations are for them…She cites the example of the former president of Harvard who said women were naturally not good at science.
Both biological determinism and porn culture play on stereotypes, old ideas of women as princesses or whores. As Walter points out, it is interesting that this reversion to old ideals comes at a time when women are forging ahead in education and in their careers. Is it just that simple stereotypes sell better because they appeal to deep-seated prejudices or is our culture so threatened by the idea that women can be equals of mean and that that equality benefits everyone? It’s certainly something we should be debating.
"Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism" is published by Virago Press , price £12.99.

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