Monday, 14 February 2011

Living Dolls, Natasha Walter

This is an excellent book on the subject of what its subtitle describes as "the return of sexism".  Walter wants to stem the resurgent tide of sexist attitudes and behaviour that has been apparent in British society since the 1990s, and her book is a valuable contribution to contemporary literature on gender and feminism.

Walter highlights the growing sexualisation of young girls.  She rebuts the suggestion that she is a stereotypical po-faced feminist, and writes of her "great enjoyment" of fashion and beauty.  But it is difficult not to share her concern that pre-pubescent children are being encouraged to invest, literally and metaphorically, in their sexual attractiveness and to begin a lifelong round of dieting, making up and shopping.  She notes that the presenters of children's TV programmes like Zoe Salmon conform more closely to a particular narrow image of female beauty than they used to, and that even Disney princesses have become markedly more slutty.  Girls who don't conform to this creepily sexualised culture are bullied by peers of both sexes.

It's not just young girls, of course.  As Walter notes, women in public life are regularly framed in an implicitly or explicitly sexual way while men are simply not.  The likes of Jacqui Smith, Sarah Palin and Ann Widdecombe are talked about, and mocked, in terms that would never be applied to male politicians - and which, indeed, do not seem to have been used in previous years to talk about Margaret Thatcher or Barbara Castle.

Walter also critiques the rise of glamour modelling and the sex industry.  She takes note of the odd reversal whereby the tacky objectification of women in the eyes of men for the profit of business owners is defended with the language of empowerment, liberation and choice.  For many working class girls, the modelling and sex industries are seen as routes to affluence and success - which, to be fair, they are for some.  Walter is careful to note that not "everyone who has chosen to go into glamour modelling is being exploited or disappointed".  Yet she also points up the distinctly unglamorous reality of much of the industry, and the way in which (for example) the internet has facilitated the distribution not only of traditional cheesecake pornography but of more unsettling material too.  She interviews a porn addict who thinks that modern internet-era porn is "far more demeaning to women" than the more benign conventional stuff that he used to pleasure himself to.

Walter notes that these developments have coincided with a more general decline in social mobility.  You don't have to share the Daily Mail's take on the world to think that something must have gone wrong with a society in which Jordan is a more plausible and appealing role model for young women than Shami Chakrabarti, Susan Greenfield or Martha Lane Fox.  The book's most memorable passages describe the Boschian scenes in a nightclub in Southend at a modelling event sponsored by Nuts magazine.  "The men were using their phones to video and photograph the girls as they took off their clothes.  One girl, who was a bit too fleshy around the middle and not fleshy enough around the chest, came in for boos rather than cheers.  She looked tearful as she went back into the line."  It is sad that it is difficult to criticise this cold commodification of human sexuality without being accused of being a killjoy or a repressed prude.

Walter notes that there has been a more general cultural separation of sex from romance, friendship and love.  She draws attention to the phenomenon of post-SATC teenage girls who seek out casual sex and criticise their male partners for looking for emotion and commitment (she might have added that male culture strongly discourages such sentiments too, defining them as signs of wimpishness and effeminacy).  A social conservative might blame all this on the promiscuous 1960s and second-wave feminism, but in fact, as Walter points out, the feminists of the past had a deeper and more nuanced attitude towards sexuality, and free love was not understood to equate simply to free sex.

In the second half of the book, Walter challenges the insidious biological determinism that has appeared in recent years.  If this was just a matter of science nerds getting excited about their latest cool idea that seems to explain everything, it wouldn't be as much of a problem, but Mars-and-Venus stereotyping has a clear political edge to it.  Biology, it seems, is able to get us off the hook.  One can sometimes almost sense the relief of Mars-and-Venus theorists when they conclude that we needn't trouble ourselves with such difficult and contentious projects as securing social and economic justice or equality in relationships - the sexes are inherently unequal, and you can't buck nature.  Move along, nothing to see here.  We don't even give our children a break from this stuff.  Walter plausibly suggests that it's more difficult for a girl to be a tomboy today than it was a generation ago.  A company called Indigo Worldwide produces different sets of magnetic words for boys and girls who are learning to read.  The girls' words include "heart", "love", "cooking", "friends" and "angel".  The boys' include "scary", "running", "monster" and "money".

The supposed insights of modern science in this area bear a suspicious resemblance to plain old-fashioned sexism.  They essentially resurrect Francis Galton's obsolete nature/nurture dichotomy and shift the balance of importance in the direction of nature.  Part of the problem is the way that the science is disseminated to the public.  Media outlets appear more inclined to report research that seems to supports the determinist case and ignore research that doesn't.  You are very unlikely to pick up the Daily Express and see a headline reading MEN AND WOMEN MOSTLY PRETTY SIMILAR, STUDY FINDS.  The greater problem is that the research itself doesn't support the conclusions that are based upon it.  Walter takes a good look at the evidence in this regard.

Men are said to be better 'systematisers' than women - yet, according to the Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, "[h]undreds of well-controlled experiments reveal no male advantage for perceiving objects or learning about mechanical systems".  Women are popularly supposed to talk more than men - yet a study from Arizona University involving hundreds of subjects failed to detect any statistically significant difference.  Women are also supposed to communicate better than men - yet a meta-analysis of 165 research papers on linguistic skills produced the conclusion that "gender differences account for only about one per cent of the variance in verbal ability".  Men are said to be more aggressive because we have higher levels of testosterone - yet in a famous Californian study men who were given doses of testosterone (without knowing what it was) did not become any more aggressive, while men given placebos which they were told contained testosterone did experience higher levels of aggression.  Sometimes, the research is simply misrepresented.  A study cited as evidence that baby girls show a greater capacity for empathy than boys turned out to prove something like the opposite - the boys in the study were more interested in emotional interactions, the girls in inanimate objects and their surroundings.

Walter quotes a particularly ridiculous study by researchers from Newcastle University which argued that women are preprogrammed to like pink and men to like blue because our stone age ancestors gave women the job of picking ripe, reddish berries and men the task of hunting under a clear blue sky.  In fact, as Walter shows, the blue-for-a-boy, pink-for-a-girl association is a very specific cultural preference that only became established well into the twentieth century.  Interestingly, baby boys had previously been dressed in pink, the more vibrant, striking colour, and girls in the softer blue.

This is one of a series of recent books that have challenged contemporary sexism (I have reviewed several others on this blog).  It was always inevitable that the mainstreaming of feminist ideas would be followed by a reaction, both the élite reaction represented by Steven and Susan Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen and the more demotic FHM style of masculism.  It just might be possible, however, that the pendulum is starting to swing back again in a more progressive direction.