Sexism is alive and well

Living Dolls: the return of sexism

By Natasha Walter

For as long as I can remember, I have been alive to the fact that, in Western society’s eyes, people are not created equal. I wasn’t around during even the second-wave of feminism, but I knew that people were still discriminated against due to their sex or gender. So I came to Walter not for affirmation, but examples, analysis and explanation.

At first I felt that she was providing only examples. A great deal of this book – especially in the first half – is exposition. For instance, Walter describing a typical night in an Essex nightclub in which the girls are invited on stage to pose for Nuts magazine; Walter interviewing former strippers; Walter describing the girls’ pink and glittery section of the toy shop. Walter described all these encounters – many of which shocked me – in neat and concise prose. Her writing is cast by Walter’s scepticism: naturally, she cannot describe a girl’s wanting to be a pink princess without a dose of cynicism in her language. While some of these accounts were gripping, they were not what I came for. I wanted insight. I craved objective analysis – especially after Walter had opened my eyes further.

Eventually it came, and it was worth the wait. I still can’t help but imagine what this polemic would have been like if Walter analysed every encounter she had while describing it to us or, in any case, if her analysis came closer to a description of something problematic. But her decision to keep the exposition and analysis mostly separate is nevertheless an intriguing one. I suppose in the very least it left me really hungry for the analysis when it did come.

And I have to say that I found her arguments compelling, persuasive and well made. I had found the ‘pink princess’ approach to girls’ toys rather tasteless, but I always thought that that had been down to the fact that I’m a boy or a grown-up or a bigger fan of other colours – or a republican. But now I feel I have some substantive reasons for not liking it. Walter puts the ‘pink princess’ phenomenon in context, plots its development relative to other narrow representations of women and shows what it does for the developing psychology of a young girl. The realisation that, in the extreme, a modern girl is essentially building her identity through medieval values (entitlement, privilege, dependence, and the wait for a prince to take over the role of provision from her father) is shocking. My second surprise is Walter’s explanation of how the media’s sexualisation of women affects us all. She breaks down the notion that now women who choose to strip or pose in a lads’ mag are empowered.

I think she could have developed this argument more, but nevertheless her examples speak for themselves. The women she meets, who chose to strip, describe how it is not empowering at all. And the girls she interviews, perhaps most crushing of all, explain how they want to be glamour models. Walter craftily weaves example and analysis together here when she positions these girls against her argument that sexualised representations of women in the media present very narrow choices for young girls. Girls who see glamour models all the time think that the models’ bodies are the ‘ideal’ body types: they work towards achieving this or become depressed that they don’t have it. And Walter drives home her point with statements from her interviewees (one very compelling 17-year-old included) who feel that that is exactly what these representations do: present very persuasive but narrow choices.

The great thing about Walter and this book, by the way, is that she doesn’t suggest for one moment that internet porn turns all men into dangerous sex obsessives or all women into subservient performers; her arguments are much more nuanced. To that extent, I could have done with a broader analysis. That is, the affect of sexism’s return on men. Walter mentions men superficially, but more insight would have been welcome. Perhaps that is another book, though; Living Dolls remains concise, tight and expertly argued.

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