Book 30 in Cannonball Read 2
In 1995’s Where the Girls Are, Susan Douglas looked at the mixed messages that come from the media and influence young women as they grow up in a media-saturated society. In Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, which came out earlier this year, Douglas looks at the messages about gender portrayed in our supposedly post-feminist society. Douglas compares current images of women in pop culture to those found even 10-15 years ago, and finds them sorely lacking; her conclusion is that the general feeling that our culture is past sexism has led to regressive images in tv shows - after all, it won’t undermine women in society to portray them as shallow, incompetent bimbos if everyone knows that it’s not true.
Enlightened Sexism looks at images of women in everything from popular tv shows like Ally McBeal, Xena, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the way that the news portrayed the unfeminine Janet Reno, to the media circus that surrounded Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbit. She finds a lot to critique in reality tv, and while one could argue that reality tv portrays all of its participants as shallow and stupid, Douglas makes a convincing argument that its portrayal of women is particularly regressive. Douglas even finds some positive, complex images of women in soapy shows like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and finds little to no corresponding images in today’s media.
One of the bigger flaws of Enlightened Sexism is the chapter on images of women of color. Douglas uses Wanda Sykes as an example of a black woman who uses her position to speak truth to power, and finds a great deal to admire in Sykes’ attitude, words, and style of speech. This position fails to acknowledge the precarious position of women of color in a patriarchal and racist society, and puts them in the position of being the cool version of white women, with the quick wit to put down and call out men without any consequence.
Enlightened Sexism is a good, if simple, study of pop culture and gender stereotypes. It’s interesting, and avoids the slut-shaming and reductive reasoning that feminist analysis of media often trades in. Although it is not particularly advanced feminism, it is still worth reading if you have an interest in feminist media analysis, or if you are looking for a beginning-to-intermediate feminist text.