Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Power Drill

In Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done, Susan J. Douglas deconstructs the mixed messages of the media with insight and humor

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Susan Douglas is one funny woman. Sometimes her humor is of the wry, self-effacing quality, as when she explains that the preferred term of art in referring to women of her demographic is "vintage females." Sometimes, it's more sharp-edged; noting that Rush Limbaugh had once explained that "Feminism was established to allow unattractive females," she replies by saying "no social movement was needed to allow pudgy, unattractive men access to the top." And sometimes, it's simply a matter of good writing, as when she describes a television character she likes as having "a fabulous voice that somehow mixed honey and gravel." One senses that Douglas was born endowed with a good funny bone, but that it's also something she's cultivated with a good deal of discipline No one could credibly call her a humorless feminist.

Enlightened Sexism is essentially a sequel to Douglas's 1994 book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. In that book, like this one, Douglas focuses her acute intelligence on tracing, with great care and verve, the deeply mixed messages in popular culture for young women. In Where the Girls Are, she sifts through the dross of Baby Boom-era sitcoms like Gidget or I Dream of Jeannie to find gems of empowerment and affirmation: the interpretive weight is finally on the positive side of the ledger. Enlightened Sexism, which looks at the mass media in the last two decades in effect reverses the equation: here too she sees a mixed bag, but this time the glass is at least half-empty.

Though the primary organizational strategy of the book consists of case studies arranged around topics like reality shows, news coverage, and celebrity culture, it does have a narrative arc of declension. For Douglas, the early 1990s was a turning point in the history of U.S. feminism, at least in terms of the mass media. A critical mass of what she calls "embedded feminism" had been achieved: both in terms of image and reality, women were playing important roles in society, whether on shows like Law and Order or in institutions like the U.S. Senate (where the notorious Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 ignited a feminist political insurgency). Yet for precisely this reason, retrograde images of women have now attained a kind of perverse legitimacy: since we all presumably know and affirm that women are equal, we can laugh at the sexualization and objectification in hip-hop videos or shows like The Bachelor because it's all just good fun. She dubs this chain of logic "enlightened sexism," which has only seemed to grow in breadth and intensity in the 21st century. By a sad irony, she says, even embedded feminism has become part of the problem, since it significantly misrepresents the degree to which women have achieved equality in American society.

To a great extent, Enlightened Sexism is a work of intra-gender dialogue, one whose fault line is generational. As many observers have noted, younger and older women tend to have significant differences in their perception of the women's movement, captured in the now-proverbial millennial-generation phrase "I'm not a feminist but . . . ," which is heard as back-handed compliment at best. Young women tend to see sexual power in more positive terms than older women do, and view leveraging that power as a more meaningful legacy of feminism than focusing on political or economic gains. Older feminists, by contrast, see sexuality as a good deal more problematic, in part because it's such a perishable commodity -- or, at any rate, a psychically and financially costly one to maintain -- and because its libertarian impulses cut against the egalitarian ethos of Second Wave feminism.

Douglas is not oblivious to the pleasures of sexual power -- indeed, she celebrates its appearance in shows like Xena: Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But her visceral satisfaction in seeing sexist men get their comeuppance, even if only imaginatively, never blinds her to the limits of that power, which has a dismaying way of being channeled into a competitive pursuit for approval from men. But from the point of view of this vintage male, it's hard to see how she's going to get much traction by warning younger women away from such seductive temptations by means of analytic prose. For one thing, the appeal of such a message seems likely to correlate strongly with the likelihood that the females in question view acquiring a feminist husband, a well-educated child, and an endowed chair at a major university as an attainable goal (Douglas teaches at the University of Michigan). For another, power is power, even if no form of power is omnipotent or entirely benign.You're not going to steer people away from wanting to get rich by pointing out that money can't buy happiness, or jawbone an intellectual into embracing the limits of book learning.

To be fair, there are not massive corporate interests out there now pounding home the joys of reading (though there certainly are those that insist you can buy happiness), and here Douglas is aligned with the emergent view that the last generation of pop culture scholarship has tended to overestimate the autonomy of audiences to make their own meaning. It does appear that there is indeed a new "Momism" comparable to that of the 1940s and the "Backlash" identified by Susan Faludi a generation ago, and that this is a point worth making in what is a notably lively piece of scholarship, one that should be of particular utility for teaching purposes. But insofar as the power of persuasion stands a chance in this culture, one that rests on a preponderance of joy is more likely to resonate than one of complaint. Critics are at their best when they explain what they love, not what they hate. The power of positive thinking can no doubt be fatuous, but it's power nonetheless. So I wish Professor Douglas well in the struggle to keep her spirits up.