New and exclusive: Enlightened Sexism excerpt, and an interview with author Susan Douglas

cover of Enlightened Sexism, a white cover with a superwoman figure on the front

Susan Douglas’s seminal 1995 book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up with the Mass Media explored how woman see and are seen in pop culture, tracing feminism in pop culture from the 1950s and ’60s through the 1980s.  Her newest book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done, revisits the subject of women’s representation in the mass media, and finds a troubling series of mixed messages, empty “empowerment,” and consumer imperatives masquerading as postfeminist power.

As longtime fans of Douglas’s wit, irreverance, and spot-on critique, Bitch is thrilled to feature the epilogue of Enlightened Sexism. It’s after the jump, as is an interview with Douglas by Andi Zeisler.

Susan Douglas talks about Enlightened Sexism with Andi Zeisler (18 minutes).

Enlightened Sexism’s Epilogue: The F-Word


Spring. It is sometime in the future. Saturday morning. The feminist mom—now a grandmother—still looks like she just got shot out of a wind turbine and has a cheap Metamucil hangover. She is about to babysit.

Her daughter— smart, accomplished, hardworking—is struggling to figure out how she can possibly juggle the demands of her job, which she loves, and the demands of her new baby, whom she adores. Her place of employment allows only six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, does not offer flex time or part-time work arrangements, and does not have a day care center. Day care for her is an uneven patchwork of live-in nannies (which she can’t afford and doesn’t want), unlicensed and wildly variable in-home day care arrangements, and a state-of-the- art child center staff ed by women with master’s degrees in child development who make $28,000 a year, where the waiting list to get in is seven years and the monthly cost is the equivalent of four car payments. The daughter, who typically worked at least fifty hours a week prior to the baby’s arrival, has been told that she can’t cut back to forty hours—it’s either keep up the fifty plus, or quit. She doesn’t want to quit, can’t afford to quit— she and her husband need the salary and the health care benefits— but she wants more time with her two-month-old baby and hasn’t found any decent, affordable, available day care. On this morning, the feminist mom will take care of her grandchild so her daughter and her husband can go out and have a conversation about what to do. Her daughter, weaned on “girl power” and all the “can do” consumerist feminism of the early twenty-first century, has come to label the bill of goods sold to her in the media as “ersatz feminism.”

Prior to arriving for her babysitting gig, grandma has gone to buy a few things for her new granddaughter. And she thought things had been bad when her own daughter was little! Then there were the hot-pink colored, Barbie- stuffed aisles for girls and the battleship- gray-colored, armament- stuffed aisles for boys at Toys “R” Us. Now there is Jessica Simpson’s line of “Diapers for Her” with “Daddy’s Little Hottie” printed all over them, next to her latest exclusive product, potty training thongs. “Baby’s Little Make-up Kit” is prominently displayed next to the pole-dancing game for girls, recommended ages: three and up. Kmart is showcasing its kindergarten training bras.

Not much has improved in the media or political environment. Despite Don Imus getting temporarily fired for referring to a guest’s five-year-old daughter as “hootchie mama jailbait,” the hottest trend in music videos is first-grade girls in bikinis bumping and grinding around swimming pools. The upcoming television season features a sitcom called Boobs, a new reality TV show called Celebrity Gynecologist, and a documentary on Spike TV hosted by former Harvard president Larry Summers titled Why Women Are Dumber Than Men. Maxim Jr. targets seven- year- old boys.

As was the case in 2009, the United States still ranks sixty-ninth in the world in terms of number of women in national legislatures (only 17 percent of the seats in the United States House of Representatives are held by women, whereas in Rwanda it’s 56 percent). America continues to rank twenty- ninth in infant mortality rates, seventeen places lower than it did in 1960, and now behind Cuba, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and tied with Slovakia and Poland. While 163 other countries on the planet offer paid maternity leave, and 45 provide paid paternity leave, the United States does not. Unpaid leave, if you can even get that, is the best we do.

As in 2005, men with just a high school degree earn more on average than a woman with an associate’s degree. Indeed, it is still the case that the majority of poor people in the United States are women, and the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world. Women are still segregated into low-paying jobs, just as they were in 2007, when (unlike what we saw in the media) nearly half—43 percent—were confined to just twenty occupational categories where the median income is just over $27,000 a year. At the same time, just as in 2009, women are still expected to bear the major costs, in time and money, of caring for children and aging parents: nearly 70 percent of unpaid caregivers of older adults are female.

But all these issues and facts are invisible to the country’s news media: as in 2006, of the thirty-five hosts or cohosts of prime-time cable news shows, twenty-nine are white men. On the Sunday morning talk shows, men outnumber women by four to one. And still, only 28 percent of the broadcast evening newscasts are reported by women, just as in 2006.

The feminist grandma, still an academic nerd, has been reading about the consequences of all this. Girls, bombarded by the unabated demand to be really sexy while also being told that they can—and must—just say no and excel at academics and sports, are reporting enormous stress at having to be all things to all people at all times. Girls continue to go to college in record numbers, but they learn automatically to rule out certain careers, because they know that it will be impossible to combine them with having a family— but not so for their male counterparts. And most women continue to be tracked into low-paying “pink collar” jobs that don’t pay enough to support them, let alone a family. The dumb blond, narcissistic “real house wives,” catfighting, wedding-obsessed, baby-obsessed stereotypes in the media mask and justify this inequality, as does the relentless blitzkrieg against women with power by the pit bulls of talk radio and cable TV news.

In fact, researchers have documented the persistence of “ambivalent sexism,” a seemingly paradoxical amalgam of hostility and chivalry toward women. Some men resent that women have come too far— hostile sexism—while others put them up on a pedestal— benevolent sexism. But many men hold both negative and positive attitudes toward women that sustain enlightened sexism: they feel protective toward certain kinds of women (mothers or girlfriends who are nurturing or submissive) and hostile toward those who fail to conform to such feminine scripts and want to have the same opportunities and responsibilities as men. As the researchers note, benevolent sexism might seem harmless, even noble, “but its effects can be devastating” precisely because it’s so insidious. For example, as one older male supervisor put it to the feminist mom’s daughter, he did not advise her to quit her job because she didn’t have the ability to do it anymore now that she had a baby. Instead, he said, “Now you should stay home because women are so much better at child care; there’s nothing I admire more than a truly devoted mother and babies need their mother’s care full-time, don’t you agree?” See— social order maintained, women back in the home, men holding more economic and political freedom, choice, and power.

When the daughter and her husband return home, the grandmother is presented with two choices. The husband has the opportunity to work nights while her daughter will work days. Between the two of them, they can cover day care, although they will never see each other except around noon on Sundays. Or the grandmother, recently and blissfully retired, and with other plans, can do full-time day care. She goes home and ditches the Metamucil for some Tanqueray.

Scenario II

Spring. It is sometime in the future. Saturday morning. The feminist mom—now a grandmother—still looks like she just got shot out of a wind turbine and has a sauvignon blanc hangover, having ditched chardonnay long ago. She is not about to babysit. Instead, she and her daughter are taking the baby to the park, because her daughter has six months’ paid maternity leave. After this leave, her daughter will bring the baby to her organization’s federally funded and licensed on- site day care center, which only costs, on a monthly basis, the equivalent of one car payment, as there’s a payment scale based on what you can afford. The new centers, established around the country and widely available, have been funded, in part, by eliminating the tax loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay only a maximum 15 percent rate instead of the 35 percent imposed on top income earners—which has raised nearly $15 billion in five years— and by raising the taxes paid by the very rich. In addition, given that in 2007 the United States accounted for 45 percent of the entire globe’s military spending, and these expenditures had increased by 202 percent between 1998 and 2007, this seemed like another area where some more family-friendly reallocations might occur. Welfare “as we know it,” the mean- spirited and vindictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which Barbara Ehrenreich reported is nicknamed “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families” by its recipients, has been reformed to actually help poor mothers and their kids.

How has this happened? Baby boom women, watching their daughters struggle, remember the power, energy, and success of the 1970s women’s movement and, now, with more time on their hands, start organizing. They unite with their daughters’ generation, a not insignificant number of people given that they were that burgeoning cohort of teenagers and twentysomethings in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But now they are grown up and pissed off at discovering that they are not close to “having it all.” Their Facebook and MySpace pages, once devoted to parties, fun photos, and gossip, now include comments about pay inequities, sexual harassment, the lack of decent day care, and how stupid it is that Hooters has served as the basis for a new sitcom. Blogs, twitters, YouTube all pulsate with the discontent. They’ve taken their motto from the 1976 movie Network: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

The movement becomes known as the F-Girl initiative. The “F” of course stands for feminist, but emphasizes that it has been turned into a dirty word. Saying “I’m an F-Girl” is emphatic, is assertive, and spans generations. F-Girl simultaneously reclaims the word “feminism,” but also rebrands it as cool, hip, and mouthy, because, as Jessica Valenti, the founder of the Web site put it, “The smartest, coolest women I know are feminists.” F-Girl videos go viral on YouTube, Oprah features F-Girl activists, and the Spice Girls do another reunion tour, a part of whose proceeds go to support lobbying efforts on behalf of America’s women. Various F-Girl blogs emerge, and women of all ages start doing the unthinkable—finding time to meet with each other to compare experiences and press for change, locally, nationally, or both.

Immediately, F-Girl magazine—modeled on the old Sassy— is launched, along with a Web site, blogs, twitters, and, last but not least, a political action committee. The magazine is an instant hit, just the way Ms. was in 1971. It makes fun of the media, bogus makeup and cosmetic surgery claims, and dumb fashion trends, it provides juicy political gossip about who’s proactive on women’s issues and who’s a jerk, and it brings the plight of poor women out of the shadows. One of its favorite features is its “Before and After” make over send-up. For example:

Before: You sit alone reading Cosmo or Glamour or Vogue and, on the one hand, you’re cheered up because you tell yourself you will buy that new $90 skin cream that will finally make you look like Giselle Bundchen, but on the other hand, you realize you will never be as thin as the five-foot-nine-inch, 110-pound models. You get depressed and eat a quart of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.

After: You host a margarita party for your friends; each one must bring a recent fashion magazine. You tear out the most offensive ads and articles, with the skinniest models and most backassward advice and, felt-tip pens in hand, decorate them with sassy, righteous comebacks. (The magazine covers themselves are often excellent material here.) Then (this is why the margaritas are so important), take them to public restrooms in restaurants, bars, academic buildings, women’s dorms, and tape them up on the inside of the stall doors. Repeat once a month.

F-Girl also loves trashing celebrity journalism and its incessant hectoring of women to have babies, babies, and more babies while also maintaining that size zero figure. So they take all the features of US Weekly or the Star and reverse the roles. Thus we get “Who Wore It Better, Brad Pitt or George Clooney,” which gives us nice eye candy and makes fun of how women are pitted against each other, a twofer. But they also add comparisons like “Who Made It Worse, the Producers of Bride Wars or Real Housewives of Atlanta?” with the appropriate eviscerating commentary. Taking special aim at the heinous, invasive violation of the “bump patrol,” they start “Scrotum Patrol,” with a canary yellow circle around Tom Cruise’s crotch and the caption “F-Girl exclusive, Tom’s sperm poised to produce baby brother for little Suri.”

Another popular feature is “Who Deserves It More?” Pictures of American mothers are juxtaposed with pictures of French and Danish mothers, captioned with accounts of our crappy family policies versus theirs and the tagline, “Are we any less deserving or hardworking than French or Danish women?” But “Who Deserves It More?” also features poor, unemployed, or recently laid-off women and compares them to, say, Bernie Madoff’s wife, to drive home how the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people since the 1980s has especially screwed women. And “Who Deserves It More?” goes international, asking why the girls and women of southern Sudan don’t deserve an education (96.5 percent cannot read or write) or why the pope doesn’t think the women of Africa deserve to have condoms to fight AIDS.

F-Girl chapters have sprung up all over college campuses, where more privileged young women raise money for scholarships for poorer girls, as education is the best guarantee of getting women out of poverty. They also identify pharmacies that refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills and stand at their doors posing as insurance salesmen, so no one will want to enter. The First Lady has ensured that certificates be issued for free annual mammograms and pap smears for cervical cancer for women who cannot afford them, following Japan’s lead in the summer of 2009. Building on Ms. magazine’s “No Comment” feature showcasing offensive ads, the “Stop the Insults” campaign has established its own YouTube- style Web site showcasing the most retrograde images of women in film, TV, magazines, and on the Internet with detailed information on which advertisers supported them and, thus, which products you should never let darken your door again. Massive picketing and demonstrations at the network and cable channels have brought in more women with feminist sensibilities as commentators and reporters. And now that there’s nationally funded day care, more women can and do run for political office. The “100% solution” is the new mantra demanding pay equity so that women, on average, earn the same as men, and gain access to higher-paying jobs.

After their time in the park, the feminist mom and her daughter take the baby home; Dad will watch her now—as it is utterly expected that partners share child care fifty-fifty—and they will go get pedicures and a drink.

I don’t know about you, but I really do prefer Scenario II. It may seem, right now, like the impossible dream, especially given the current federal deficit, looming problems like global warming, health care, and terrorism, and Congress’s seeming inability to do anything decent that matters to most Americans, let alone women. But who would have thought, in 1963, when the Kennedy Commission’s Report on the Status of Women documented the widespread discrimination that women faced, that only ten years later the unthinkable—women going to law and medical schools, women getting credit cards in their own names, women with small children working outside the home in increasing numbers, abortion legalized, women reporters hired by networks, the double standard trashed—would all have occurred? Yet still, the Kennedy Commission, get this, recommended paid maternity leaves (yes, paid) and affordable day care, which we still don’t have and which we need and deserve.

What happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a rejection of the prevailing common sense about girls and women—a misogynist and confining conception of their roles, their capabilities, their destinies. The consciousness-raising group, one of the most important inventions of the women’s movement, enabled women to see which myths and stereotypes held them down. Once they punctured those and saw through them, they then got political. And these women, whether they were high- profile activists or newly divorced mothers of small children entering the workforce for the first time, changed the damn world. And very few of us—with the exception of troglodytes like Glenn Beck—want to go back to what existed before.

It’s time, once again, to shake up our current common sense that has, yes, folded certain feminist sensibilities into itself, but exiled others to ideological Siberia. And the media, while certainly including and even at times promoting feminist aspirations, have also played a central role in the construction of a more constricted worldview. The media have exhorted us to concentrate our psychic energy on celebrities, logos, dieting, and face-lifts and to flee from political involvement. They have paraded battalions of rich, spoiled, privileged, famous, or entitled women before us—whom we are to regard with a mix of envy and ironic condescension—and rendered the majority of women in the United States, and the inequality they still face, invisible. More to the point, poor women, lower-middle-class women, working-class women, most women of color, overweight women, women over sixty-five, are all portrayed as irrelevant losers with whom “we”— the presumed middle-class and upper-middle-class audience—should feel we have nothing in common. Because the kind of people who predominate on radio and TV talk shows are white men, what they focus on (Hillary’s laugh) and what they ignore (anything resembling “women’s issues”) generate a kind of fatalism about what might be possible. At the same time, feminist activists, leaders, and writers rarely get on TV, and they are the ones who have all kinds of visions and ideas about the way forward. And finally, way too many in the media have reproduced and displayed the right-wing effigy of feminists as grumpy, man-hating, deliberately unattractive, humorless whiners.

The time is long overdue for us to reclaim the F-word and ridicule this stereotype, because it is this caricature of the feminist as ugly, aggrieved, anti- sex, anti-men, and anti-fun that keeps women in their place and strives to ensure that nothing resembling a women’s movement will ever regain the momentum of the late 1960s and early 1970s. All my friends, including nearly all my men friends, are feminists, and here’s what they’re really like. My women friends, to varying degrees, like nice clothes, know what mascara is and even use it, have a terrific sense of humor, are (to my eyes) beautiful, and love kids, their own and others’. And get this—we actually like men, often a lot— some of us even married them! And still like them. In fact, some of our best friends really are men. And why are my men friends feminists? They are husbands who respect and value their wives and have seen what they’ve had to put up with over the years; ditto for their sisters. And they are fathers of daughters: few things can make a man a feminist faster than having a daughter and being told she might not be as good as a boy and can’t have the same opportunities as he can. Plus, unlike the Mars–Venus line that men and women are fundamentally different, The Shriver Report documented that men and women want the same things out of life and the same things from a romantic partner. Most men now also agree with women that government and businesses need to provide equal pay, more flexible work schedules, and better child care.

We can have, and deserve to have, everything that was laid out in Scenario II, and more. It is not impossible, unaffordable, or unnecessary, as enlightened sexism continuously insists. It will take time, energy, and patience, but it can also be gratifying and energizing getting there. We need to make fun of and ridicule the media images that seek to keep us down, divide us against each other by age, class, and race, and insist that we spend so much psychic energy on our faces, clothes, and bodies that nothing is left for ideas, social change, or politics. At the same time, we also need to praise those media images and individuals who advance women’s interests. Young girls—our daughters, our nieces, our friends’ kids—need to learn how to talk back to the media at ever younger ages, and boys need to see how they are stereotyped, too. We can do more to boycott products and activities that seek to turn little girls into hooker look-alikes, and attack once again a double standard in which sexually active girls are sluts but guys are studs. There is so much that the women’s movement accomplished and changed for the better, but there is serious work to do. In particular, motherhood, pay equity, female poverty, violence against women, and the acceptability, even celebration, of sexism: this is the unfinished business of the women’s movement.

Talking back to the media may seem inconsequential or fruitless—and indeed, it only has a limited effect in bringing about change— but look at some of the great stuff we get to see now that we never saw in, say, 1985. But that’s not the point—it’s not necessarily about them, it’s about us, and changing what we can imagine. It’s a first step, and a not unimportant one. More of us can get involved in issues we care about, learn about political organizing, donate to organizations dedicated to improving the lot of women and children, even run for office. After all, who would have believed we could elect an African American man president of the United States?

At the end of Where the Girls Are, back in 1994 when my daughter was four, I wrote that while I expected her and her generation to have the same struggles with media images that the baby boomers did, I also suspected that they would wise up to it sooner, “that they will be less patient and less willing to compromise.” This was my hope. “For she will see with her eyes and feel with her spirit that despite all this, women are not helpless victims, they are fighters. And she will want to be a fighter too.” It’s possible I was overly optimistic. But really, haven’t we had enough? Isn’t it time, Buffy-style, to take a giant stake and drive it right through the beastly heart of enlightened sexism? Because I think that, in our heart of hearts, we do miss feminism: its zeal, its audacity, its righteous justice. So let’s have some fun, and get to work.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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3 Comments Have Been Posted


If the rest of the book is compelling as the epilogue (and for a Canadian reader no less), then I've got to get my hands on it. Thanks for sharing it on the blog!

F-Word Mag

This excerpt rules. I am a huge Douglas fan, and I can't wait to read the whole book! However, this part irked me a bit:

"Immediately, F-Girl magazine—modeled on the old Sassy— is launched, along with a Web site, blogs, twitters, and, last but not least, a political action committee. The magazine is an instant hit, just the way Ms. was in 1971. It makes fun of the media, bogus makeup and cosmetic surgery claims, and dumb fashion trends, it provides juicy political gossip about who’s proactive on women’s issues and who’s a jerk, and it brings the plight of poor women out of the shadows."

Um, we already have that magazine, and it's called BITCH! Spread the word, sisters.

i really loved this excerpt.

i really loved this excerpt. i feel like we need more spaces that talk about how to take action. what i've learned in community organizing is that people need inspiration and examples. examples are copied or even better inspire more innovative work. how does the person who is a feminist but never take action find a place to start?

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