Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: Living Dolls - The Return of Sexism

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism,
By Natasha Walter

Reviewed by Jennifer O’Connell

It’s always a pleasure to hear someone else admit they were wrong. And when that someone else is a pre-eminent feminist, playwright and Guardian journalist, there’s not so much pleasure in some quarters, as barely-disguised glee.

Natasha Walter is most famous as the mouthy young feminist who told other feminists to lighten up: she argued forcefully that young women didn't want to be told what to wear and who to sleep with.

Now, she says, she’s sorry - but she was wrong.

In Living Dolls, she makes a very compelling case for why we need feminism more than ever, arguing that in the rush to empowerment we may have talked ourselves into roles that are just as limiting and self-defeating as the ones that went before.

The fact that this book has been widely misinterpreted as heralding the ‘failure of feminism’ serves to underline her case: in our eagerness to embrace our hard-won semi-equality, we seem to have slightly missed the point.

It’s like her generation and mine were only half-listening when the previous one was talking about what they wanted feminism to achieve. When they promised us empowerment, for example, we decided that meant the right to dress like prostitutes and take pole-dancing classes.

The book is divided into two parts: the New Sexism, and the New Determinism.

The New Sexism explores the permatanned underbelly of modern womenhood, taking us on a eye-popping tour of the lapdancing clubs populated by Cambridge graduates and the “Babes on a Bed” nights in British nightclubs by Nuts magazine.

Although she is adamant that the right to be sexual without fear of shame is “essential for women's freedom”, she does a superb job of exposing the hypocrisy in the swiping of feminist rhetoric to sell an ideal of womanhood shaped entirely by male fantasies as empowering.

Phil-Edgar Jones, the creative director of Big Brother - which in recent years has practically kept the entire glamour publishing industry in centerfolds - justified this to Walters on the basis that  Big Brother was merely reflecting wider trends in society. “If it is a choice between that, and the glamour of that, and the financial rewards of that, and working in Superdrug for the rest of your life, well, kind of, why not,” he said.

Yet later, when she asks how he’d feel if his own daughter wanted to go in the Big Brother house and become a glamour model, he is almost speechless with horror.  “I’m a middle-class parents, so I’d be… If that’s what she wanted to do... I would hope she would have different aspirations. I encourage her to read books.”

It’s a telling moment - and one which hints at the other, great untold story in this book. Inequality is certainly evidence by, but is hardly limited to, what she calls the ‘hypersexualisation of young women’ and the sea of pink we are drowning our daughters in. But despite the frequency with which the issue of class rears in her interviews, Walters appears to have simply chosen not to explore it.

Where she really loses me, however, is in the part she calls the New Determinism, in which she sets about deconstructing inherited truths about the differences between the genders.

When Walters and I were growing up in the seventies and eighties, feminism was built on the idea that gender stereotypes are purely a creation of social conditioning.

Over the past decade and a half, this notion has fallen from popularity, with an increasing acceptance that many of the differences are biologically, and not socially, determined – hence the glut of Men Are From Mars-type book titles. 

She makes much of this, as though the gender divisions in the toy department at Hamley’s might go a considerable way to explaining how sexism has crept back into our public and private lives. Unfortunately, I just don’t buy it.

This may be because I am the mother of one preschooler of each gender. I’m pretty sure they haven’t read Simon Baron-Cohen, but they are nonetheless doing a very good job of putting his (much-derided in Walter’s book) theories about the differences between the male and female brains into action every time they sit down to play.

No amount of social theorising can explain how a six month old boy, who is not yet babbling or even sitting, will take a doll from his sister and try to drive it along the floor.

That said, it’s hard to disagree with the good sense fuelling the main sentiment behind this part of the book: “In order not to trammel the dreams of the next generation, perhaps it is better not to peddle ideas of what women are naturally suited to before they have shown us what they can actually do.”

Though it doesn’t quite live up to its unspoken promise as a manifesto for a new generation of feminists, this book makes a disturbing, passionate and compelling case for revisiting our notions of equality. Everyone who cares anything about the kind of society we are creating should read it.

This review was first published in The Sunday Business Post on February 21, 2010


  1. Hi Jennifer,

    In case you haven't read it, all this was really well covered by Ariel Levy in 'Female Chauvinist Pigs -The Rise Of Raunch Culture' a few years ago.