The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

by Susan J. Douglas

Today, we once again have what Betty Friedan famously called “a problem with no name.” Millions of young women — the girl power generation — have been told that they can do or be anything, yet they also believe their most important task is to be slim, “hot,” and non-threatening to men. Once they get out in the work force, though, they learn that there still is pay discrimination, inflexible work places, women slotted into low paying, dead end jobs more often than men and a glass ceiling in so many lines of work.

© Deborah Van Auten

At the same time, these young women get the message loud and clear that the absolute last thing they should embrace is feminism. Indeed, as one reviews the media landscape of the past 15 years, one is struck by how effectively feminism — a social movement that has done so much for women, and for men, for that matter — has been so vilified in the media that many young women regard it as the ideological equivalent of anthrax. I wanted to trace how that happened, and to pinpoint what it is that remains unspoken but that is still bothering so many of us, to give a name to what’s coursing through our popular culture, this message that you can be or do anything you want, as long as you conform to pretty confining ideals around femininity, and don’t want too much. The name I chose is “Enlightened Sexism” — a term I adapted from Sut Jhally’s and Justin Lewis’s “enlightened racism.” It is a new, subtle, sneaky form of sexism that seems to accept — even celebrate — female achievements on the surface, but is really about repudiating feminism and keeping women, especially young women, in their place.

After reviewing the media fare geared to girls and women since the early 1990s, I came to see a rather large gap between how the vast majority of girls and women live their lives, the choices they are forced to make, and what we see — and don’t see — in the media. Ironically, it is just the opposite of the gap we saw in the 1950s and ’60s, when images of women as dancing bimbettes-on-the-beach or stay-at-home housewives who needed advice from Mr. Clean about how to wash a floor effaced the exploding number of women (including mothers) entering the workforce, joining the Peace Corps and becoming involved in politics. Then the media illusion was that girls’ and women’s aspirations weren’t changing at all when they were. Now the media illusion is that equality for girls and women is an accomplished fact when it isn’t. Then the media were behind the curve; now, ironically, they’re ahead.

Since the early 1990s, with all of the surgeons, chiefs of police, law partners, detectives and even female presidents on TV, much of the media have come to over-represent women as having made it –completely — in the professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed by only the more jewel-encrusted doyens of Laguna Beach. At the same time, there has been the resurgence of the retrograde dreck that began clogging our cultural arteries in the late 1990s — The Man Show, Maxim, Girls Gone Wild, Bridezillas. But even this fare, which insisted that young women should dress like strippers and have the mental capacity of a vole, was presented as empowering: while the scantily clad or bare-breasted women may have seemed to be objectified, they were really on top, the argument went, because now they chose to be sex objects and men were their helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves.

What the media have been giving us then over the past fifteen years are fantasies of power. These fantasies assure girls and women, repeatedly, that women’s liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless, and more held in awe than we actually are. Fantasies of power urge us to pretend that any woman can become a CEO (or president), and that women have achieved economic, professional and political parity with men. Yet fantasies of power also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff — the right stuff, a lot of stuff — emerged as the dominant way to enact being an empowered female.

Today many young women regard feminism as the ideological equivalent of anthrax

But different fantasies of power have been targeted at different age groups, creating a bit of a generational divide: Older women — I prefer the term Vintage Females — like myself have been given all those iron-clad women in the 10:00 p.m. TV programming strip, all those cops, forensic scientists, female judges and the like. Meanwhile, the commercial, and retrograde, fantasies of power have been directed at “millennials” — young women born in the late 1980s and 1990s, in the demographic advertisers really lust over. While they are the “girl power” generation, the bill of goods they are repeatedly sold is that true power comes from shopping, having the right logos, and being “hot.” Power also comes from judging, dissing and competing with other girls, especially over guys. I have watched these fantasies — often the opposite of the “role model” imagery presented to me — swirl around my daughter and, well, I have not been amused.

Targeted to her were entire TV specials based on Victoria’s Secret bras, or those MTV or BET “spring break” programs in which young women are routinely expected to flash their breasts for any zit-studded male in baggy shorts who asks. All too many rap videos require thong-clad women to shake their booties while climbing all over the strutting, self-satisfied men. And then, of course, there’s The Learning Channel’s Toddlers and Tiaras, in which we learn that even girls barely out of diapers have to learn how to enact the conventions of beauty pageant and stripper culture.

And as I stewed about the different fantasies of power laid before my daughter and me, I was struck with how they pitted us against each other, especially around the issues of sexual display and rampant consumerism as alleged sources of power and control. But if you think about it, they simply buy us off in different ways. Because they both contribute to the false assumption that for women, all has been won. Two forces have given us these fantasies of power. One is embedded feminism, the other is enlightened sexism.

Embedded feminism is the way in which women’s achievements, or desires for achievements, are now simply part of the media landscape. Feminism is no longer “outside” of the media as it was in the 1950s. Today feminist gains, attitudes and achievements are woven into our cultural fabric. So the female characters created by Shonda Rhimes for Grey’s Anatomy, to choose just one example, reflect a genuine desire to show women as skilled professionals in jobs previously reserved for men.

A New Brand of Sexism

This, however, is the product of enlightened sexism, a force which has gained considerable momentum since the early and mid-1990s. Enlightened sexism insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism — indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved — so now it’s OK, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women. After all, these images can’t undermine women at this late date, right? More to the point, enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power, power that is fun, and power that men not only will not resent, but also will embrace. So in the age of enlightened sexism there has been an explosion in makeover, match-making and modeling shows, a renewed emphasis on women’s breasts (and an explosive rise in the promotion of breast augmentation), an obsession with babies and motherhood in celebrity journalism (the rise of the creepy “bump patrol”), and a celebration of stay-at-home moms and “opting out” of the workforce.

With women’s equality supposedly won, sexist stereotypes are considered amusing

Some, myself included, have referred to this state of affairs and this kind of media mix as “postfeminist.” Scholars like Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill have written very astutely about “postfeminism.” But I am now rejecting this term. It has gotten too gummed up by too many conflicting definitions. And besides, this term suggests that somehow feminism is at the root of this when it isn’t –it’s good, old-fashioned, grade-A sexism that reinforces good, old-fashioned, grade-A patriarchy. It’s just disguised much, much better, in seductive Manolo Blahniks and an Ipex bra.

Feminism thus must remain a dirty word, with feminists (particularly older ones) stereotyped as man-hating, shrill Ninjas from Hades. As this logic goes, feminism is so 1970s — grim, dowdy, aggrieved and passé — that it is now an impediment to female happiness and fulfillment. Thus, an amnesia about the women’s movement, and the rampant, now illegal, discrimination that produced it, is essential, so we’ll forget that politics matters. According to enlightened sexism, women now have a choice between feminism and anti-feminism and they just naturally and happily choose the latter because, well, anti-feminism has become cool, even hip. Indeed, enlightened sexism is meant to make patriarchy pleasurable for women.

Push-Pull Forces at Work on Women

©Norma Bessouet

Despite the successful onward trudge of enlightened sexism, there is a war in the media between it and embedded feminism. As a result, we are bombarded by overlapping and often colliding streams of progressive and regressive imagery. Yet, ironically, despite their striking differences, embedded feminism and enlightened sexism absolutely reinforce each other: they both overstate women’s gains and accomplishments, and they both render feminism obsolete.

Because of these powerful cross currents — between embedded feminism and enlightened sexism, girls and women are pulled in totally opposite directions, and are compelled to strike a bargain. We can play sports, excel at school, go to college, aspire to — and get — jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers and so forth. But in exchange, we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, decorating, perfectly calibrated child-rearing, about pleasing men and being envied by other women. The war between embedded feminism and enlightened sexism gives with one hand and takes away with another. It’s a powerful choke leash, letting women venture out, offering us fantasies of power, control and love, and then pulling us back in. The only way women today can straddle all of this is to be superwomen.

Thus, despite my own love of escaping into worlds in which women, by turns, solve crimes, are good bosses, live in huge houses, can buy whatever they want, perform life-saving surgeries, and find love, I am here to argue, forcefully, for the importance of Wariness, with a capital W. Women and men should be much more indignant about the resurrection of sexist images that undermine girls and women’s self esteem and seek to keep us, and especially our daughters, in their place. And there is still much unfinished business for girls and women in the country, and we should resist — indeed, challenge — the seductive message that full equality has been achieved and that feminist politics are passé and no longer necessary.

Susan J. Douglas is the author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done(Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010),The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Undermines Women(with Meredith Michaels, The Free Press, 2004) and many other works on women and media. She is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan.

Also see Women’s Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Reality TV (Re)Rewrites Gender Roles by Jennifer L. Pozner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Gender Equality: Devil in the Details, by Cindy Cooper in the Summer 2010 of On The Issues Magazine.

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