Review: Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas

You know what I never do, that I should do?  I never write down call numbers for the books I want at the library.  I look them up on the computers and then just hope they stick in my memory long enough for me to find the books I’m after.  I make them into little songs and sing them under my breath as I wend my way through New Nonfiction, Film, and Young Adults back to the regular nonfiction section.  This is fine as long as there are no books with exciting titles in New Nonfiction; as long as I don’t suddenly remember a Film I want to see; and as long as (this is the real peril) I do not make eye contact with the scary cardboard cut-outs of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner that cast dour, dead-eyed stares at you as you walk through Young Adults.  All of these things distract me and make me forget my carefully memorized call numbers.

I got Enlightened Sexism off of the New Nonfiction shelf.  At first I thought it was promoting enlightened sexism (like, one of those books that says, Men’s brains are different to women’s!  They want sex all the time because of evolution!  Accept it!), so I trotted over to investigate and found that, on the contrary, it was condemning this new media thing that posits feminism as having succeeded completely and proceeds, from that basis, to promulgate harmful and sexist images of women.  Interesting, eh?  I had to go look up the call number for Quiverfull again, but it was worth it!

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done is exactly what I wanted out of Female Chauvinist Pigs.  Douglas casts a critical eye on the gaps between media’s portrayal of women (the powerful, in-control women as well as the blonde bimbos) and the realities for women in American society.  She explores TV shows and films that provide positive (or “positive”) portrayals of powerful women, as well as those that reinforce stereotypes about gender roles.  Her tone is light and conversational, making this a quick, absorbing read, especially if you are like me and enjoy detailed analysis of gender roles in media.  In a particularly interesting chapter, she discusses the paucity of positive, layered portrayals of African American women in media these days.  I liked that one because oh, you just have no idea how much it makes me squirm to see yet another sassy black girl friend on an otherwise all-white TV show.

My only gripe is that Douglas has this unfortunate habit of making ironic use of slang.  “Feminism was, like, so yesterday – hostile to the fun of new girliness and unnecessary because equality had, like, so totally been achieved.”  “The deafening boom-boom dance-floor music was supposed to convey that, dude, we were in a totally cool zone, but I always felt like I was trapped in Godzilla’s left ventricle.”  If those were the only two examples, I would not be griping about it, but she does it a lot.  For a book that is generally very intelligent, it was kind of obnoxious.

Oo.  Did I say “my only gripe” just there?  I meant to say, my only gripe not predicated on my certainty that my perceptions are always correct.  Susan Douglas analyzed a bunch of different films and TV shows, and I feel like she got some of them wrong.  She kept saying they implied things I don’t think they implied.  For example, she said that male sexuality in Buffy is portrayed as a threat to women, and women’s sexual desires are also dangerous.  So not the message of Buffy.  I would argue this point into the ground, but it would be very boring if you don’t watch Buffy, so let me just say: I am right, and Susan Douglas is wrong.  Don’t you hate it when writers make critical but spurious claims about things you love?

This has been for the Women Unbound Challenge.  You should read it too!


Do you identify as a feminist?  Why or why not?

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  • trapunto

    Doesn’t your library have those little scraps of paper and gnawed off pencils by the catalog computers?

    I wouldn’t get four steps if I had to remember the call number. Too many distractions. YA and the shelving carts are strategically placed. I have to look at the shelving carts to see what people are reading.

    Sorry to go for the trivial in the first comment on this post, but
    Buffy’s sexuality dangerous why (or did she only mean the OTHER women in the show)? Because she slept with vampires? (Once I put it that way, it sounds pretty duh. But you know what I mean.)

    • They have those, next to some of the computers at least, but I never use them. I have also never thought of inspecting those to see what other people have been checking out, but that is an excellent idea. I am very nosy.

      Well, the male sexuality as dangerous to women thing (OTHER COMMENTERS I AM GOING TO SPOIL BUFFY RIGHT NOW SO LOOK AWAY IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT ALREADY) was because Angel turned evil when he slept with Buffy; and Buffy’s sexuality was supposed to be dangerous because of how destructive her relationship with Spike was. But, see, I don’t think that’s right. Loads of people have all kinds of sex on that show without it being dangerous. The dangerous thing (apart from Angel, but I think that’s just a fair way of dealing with the fact that he used to be evil) is not being emotionally honest. Buffy doesn’t address the reasons that she’s sleeping with Spike, and that’s why it’s bad for her. Once she does address those reasons and begin to confront them, she ends their relationship.

      P.S. I love it when shows are emotionally honest, because I am the daughter of two therapists, and we all like to talk about feelings. 😛

  • This does sound like a good book. I’m fascinated by the whole question of what constitutes a truly feminist view of women in media, because much of what I see seems, well, icky and wrong and not feminist at all.

    On Buffy, you *are* right and Susan Douglas is wrong. (Not that I’ve read the book, but I’ve watched every episode of Buffy a zillion times, which means I know my Buffy.) Perhaps she quit watching the show midway through season 2? In which case, yes, that’s one possible interpretation. But it takes into account only a teensy slice of the whole work. So it is wrong.

    • I know! I mean, I didn’t like Riley or anything, but didn’t Susan Douglas notice Riley? Buffy had sex with Riley all the time and never felt guilty about that or had negative consequences. (Except for that one episode with the scary ghost children, but I think the point of that was that sexual REPRESSION is dangerous.)

      Thanks for the validation. 🙂

  • Your tags are the best. Is the knitting program at the library a huge hit?

    • I have no idea, because I am terrible at knitting. But there is a sign on Edward’s chest that says “I love girls who knit.” He looks like he loathes girls who knit and girls who don’t knit and just everyone in the world, but whatever. (Don’t understand all the Rob Pattinson lovin.)

  • Yes the whole feminism question intrigues me too because I think every woman now seems to have her own definition so that it suits her.

    Your review of this book was smart and quick-witted – loved it!

    • Thanks! I think you’re right about women defining feminism for themselves to a large extent. I consider myself a feminist, but I know A LOT of people who hold what I think of as very feminist views, who absolutely reject that label.

  • I need to watch Buffy. And also to read this. Also, I hope whatever library I end up working at has a knitting program, as I’d LOVE to learn how to knit and can’t manage on my own 😛

    • I had to learn to knit once, for a school play (Comedy of Errors, of all things), and I was terrible at it. I sat there knitting and looking demure for half the play, and feeling relieved that more exciting things were going on stage right so nobody would notice me dropping every other stitch.

      And yes! Watch Buffy! It is so good! Do not be put off by the first series not being that great. In fact you can pretty much just watch the first episode, the seventh, and the last one, and then move on to the second series.

  • parisreader

    I have probably seen about 2.7 episodes of Buffy in my entire life so I’m unable to join that debate, but I like the sound of the knitting program. My library had a mini exhibition last year of all sorts of miniature knitted stuff – a knitted garden, a knitted tea party, a knitted cricket set, knitted books. It was great.

    • Okay, I am not crazy about knitting, but that exhibition sounds AMAZING. I love tiny little things. But poor you not having seen Buffy! Did you think it was stupid from the 2.7 episodes you have seen? (she said sympathetically). Because when I had only seen 2.7 episodes, I thought it was really stupid, and then when I watched the whole thing, I found I was totally wrong.

  • I do the same thing at the library. Even down to the little song and the scar cardboard cutouts.

    As a fellow Buffy fan, I think you’re right. It seems to me like Whedon’s saying that sex can, but doesn’t have to, be dangerous, but that goes for everyone. I mean, what about Angel? His sexual desires are probably the most dangerous of anyone’s, and he’s not female.

    • Really? You sing a song too? For me it’s a holdover from when I was in kindergarten and my mum made up a little song to make sure we’d remember our home phone number. 😛

      Angel was the example she gave of male sexuality being threatening to women. And I can kind of see her point, if that part of the show was taken in isolation, but in the broader picture, terrible stuff was happening to Buffy long before she slept with Angel, and for years after. She has to suffer because she’s a Joss Whedon character, not because she’s a sexually active woman.

  • I’ve never seen Buffy, but I do know there’s a discussion among the fandom about the gender politics that might have been fueled by Dollhouse… I don’t venture much in Whedonland, I have to say. As long as they back up their claims about things I love, I’m usually fine. There definitely are unfortunate racial implications in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but I feel later games address them properly.

    I just put this on my reading list a few days ago from a recommendation out of Vogue, of all places, so I’m glad to see it delivers what I want it to deliver!

    • I have far more problems with Dollhouse than I had with Buffy (at least the first five series of Buffy; there’s some stuff in the sixth and seventh series that bothered me a lot). Its gender politics are, I think, less solidly on the side of feminism than Buffy’s are, because there’s this strong element of voyeurism to Dollhouse that I didn’t see in Buffy. Joss Whedon can be fantastic though! Watch Buffy! It’s really good!

      And I hope you enjoy this, when you read it.

  • I have this one on hold at the library and am really looking forward to it. Like all books about feminism, I fully expect to be outraged at various points, but I can’t wait!

    • Ha, it can be sort of fun to wallow in the outrage at times, eh? I’m in the middle of reading a book now about this segment of fundamentalist Christianity that believes in “complementarian” (i.e., highly traditional) gender roles, and it’s just outrage from cover to cover. 😛

  • I love it, you start with a totally entertaining note on your library hunting habits and finish with a book that I am going to have to read. What more could I ask for from a post?

    • *blushes* Aw, shucks. Thank you! I hope you’re able to find this book, because it really is interesting. I adore feminist analysis of pop culture (er, especially when a lot of it is pop culture I’m familiar with, so I can criticize the author’s characterization of the facts).

  • anna

    In order of importance:
    1. You are absolutely right and she is absolutely wrong about Buffy.

    2. We’ve been having an interesting time in equal protection with regard to feminism and women’s rights, and what should and shouldn’t have been done. Apparently at least one professor at school believed that most women couldn’t succeed in the adversarial socratic environment of lawschool because of internalized stigmas which would prevent them from being able to complete properly with men in these settings so the stigma would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This professor also apparently believed that the answer was to have women only lawschools which taught them in collaborative ways so they could develop the confidence they need to overcome stigma and compete with men. I was seriously considering taking this professor next semester, but now I’m not so sure. I like socratic and adversarial classes. Anyway, your book reviews and comments on feminism are making it a lot more interesting for me in class.

    3. Did they put a hat on spiderman too?

    • In order of importance:

      1. IT IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN WHEN WE HANG OUT ALL THE TIME AND WE WILL HANG OUT AND WATCH STUFF I LOVE YOU XOXOXOXOXO. We can watch Buffy, and Angel, and oh, we can watch Merlin also? Which is like silly and fun? And we can watch, just, ALL SORTS OF THINGS. And go to the library together! AND OH GO TO THE CITY THAT WILL BE SO FUN AND WE CAN GET BOOKS AND CHOCOLATE I LOVE YOU ANNA BANANA. *rapturous embrace*

      2. What class is she teaching next semester? I mean it sounds like she is a little bit crazy in the head, but if it’s a good class I say take it. And then you can be, you know, the sane wing of feminism in the classroom.

      3. I don’t even know if they still have Spiderman. Legolas and Spock are hardly visible these days and they do not have hats.

      • trapunto

        “Legolas and Spock are hardly visible these days and they do not have hats.”

        O how the mighty have fallen!

      • I know! I remember when Legolas was the dreamy feminine-looking hero that all the teenage girls had crushes on. I thought that was annoying but had no idea how much worse it could get. 😛

      • anna

        I say wit’ conviction, Legolas Greenleaf, he da man.

        1. YES OMG IT WILL BE SO AWESOME.

        2. Negotiation. But, there’s this thing of her being a bit crazy, AND I just found out that an incredibly annoying person in our class who I’ve had the misfortune to negotiate with before will be in there. It’s dissuasive.

        3. I can understand getting rid of cut-outs, but spiderman? Gone? I can’t believe it.

  • Katy

    I felt like the Buffy writers got a little bit confused about sexuality in general, and Spike in particular, in seasons six and seven – they couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted Spike to be a schmoopy romantic hero or a creepy stalkery potential rapist, so they tried to have him be both.

    But she’s talking about season 2, so she’s definitely wrong and you’re definitely right. What happens with Angel is so shocking precisely because the show does not play up the dangers of male sexuality. Angel’s love for Buffy is genuine and deep and, considering that he’s a vampire, not threatening at all. The message of Season 2 is not that sex is bad but that the past can catch up with you, and that if you do something evil it can poison even the best parts of your life.

    • I know, right? That whole mess with Spike trying to rape Buffy aggravated me no end. I mean you couldn’t LIKE him after that, soul or no soul, and up until then I’d been very fond of Spike. But I don’t think it was a comment on sex more broadly, just on the dysfunctional relationship between these two characters.

  • Another really fascinating sounding book. I love analysis of women in media, so I’ll look for this one. I don’t know anything about Buffy, but I have to agree it’s frustrating when people try to analyze a show or characters and just miss the boat on it.

    • Oo, you should watch Buffy. It is good and contains many excellent characters and scary monsters.

  • Eva

    The idea of this book sounds so neat, but the passages you quoted made me cringe and run away in horror. 😉

    I always write the call numbers down if I’m looking for a specific book! I didn’t know some people didn’t! lol

    • It’s not all like that. I did a search for the word “totally” on Google Books, and that’s how I picked those two passages. Most of the time she talks like a normal person. Honest!

      Well, I don’t write them down if I’m at the library. If I’m at home planning a library trip, I’ll make a little list beforehand of the books I want and their call numbers. Once I’m at the library, I feel like I should be able to remember the call number on the short, short walk from the computers to the shelves. Years of having to go back and check again have apparently not taught me a lesson.