11 October 2010. A World to Win News Service. The following book review is by Lindsay Wright. We welcome book and film reviews and other articles that express our readers’ opinions.
Living Dolls, by Natasha Walter, Virago, 2010
It can be easy for those of us who grew up in the 60s to believe that in the West much of the battle to win equality between the sexes has been won. Living in London in 2010, my gas engineer is a woman and the midwife a man; I can obtain as much free contraception and abortions as I require; most schools now provide childcare from 8 am to 6 pm, allowing mothers to work full-time; and the social controls attempting to prevent women having sex before marriage appear to have been lifted with young women appearing to be having sex whenever they want, with whom ever they want.
However, a deeper look at reality shows that the inequalities that women rebelled against in the 60s are alive and well, even if in some countries these inequalities are taking different forms. Living Dolls exposes extremely well the inequalities that exist between men and women in 21st century England and how these inequalities are (pseudo)”scientifically” explained away and justified by the current revival of biological determinism.
Most of us were brought up in the 50s and 60s grew up with societal norms that said that only bad girls had sex before marriage and that sex, when it did occur, was about ensuring the man’s pleasure. In Living Dolls Walter illustrates how young women today are exposed to just as heavy societal pressures and norms as we were then, except now they face extreme pressure to have sex whenever the men in their life want it. So, in the middle of the 20th century women were under extreme pressure to not have sex before marriage and then to stay with their husbands “until death thy do part”; now young women are under extreme pressure to have sex and are commodified as much as they ever were. Physical appearance and the ability to satisfy men still determine a woman’s value.
Walter argues very convincingly that women and girls, “are encouraged to see their sexual allure as their primary passport to success.” Today’s society equates women’s empowerment and liberation with sexual objectification, women are encouraged to look like Barbie dolls and to see their value by how well they meet the sexual needs of others. She quotes UK research from 2006 that found that half of the teenagers surveyed would consider becoming fashion models and half see Jordan (a glamour model famous for her huge breast implants) as a role model!
Walter exposes how the “marketplace” reinforces certain acceptable behaviours for women and makes it hard for women, particularly young women, to behave differently or to seek their empowerment in ways that are not about being sexually promiscuous. She states that, “Many young women seem to believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having, and that sexual confidence can only be gained if a young woman is ready to conform to the soft-porn image of a tanned, waxed young girl with large breasts ready to strip and pole dance…the constant reinforcement of one type of role model is shrinking and warping the choices on offer to young women.”
Chapter 2 focuses on pole-dancing and prostitution, and Walter exposes the impact of these on both the individual women involved and on the community as a whole. For example, she quotes research from the Lilith Project in Camden Town in north London that found that in the three years after four lap-dancing clubs opened in Camden Town the “incidents of rape and sexual assault rose in the area”. She believes that lap-dancing clubs are responsible for changing cultural attitudes towards the greater objectification of women. She notes that in the 21st century prostitution, rather than being shameful, is now increasingly seen as an aspirational career choice for women, yet the misogyny expressed by the men who use prostitutes remains ugly and the stories told by the many prostitutes remain disturbing. She notes that the standardised mortality rates for sex workers in the UK are six times higher than the general population.
Chapter 3 focuses on young girls, in particular, how “the main journey for a young girl is expected to lie along her path to winning the admiration of others for her appearance.” So that it is becoming more and more prevalent for girls as young as eight or nine to become involved in ‘the body project’, i.e., being “expected to devote energy to dieting, grooming and shopping…The imperative is to better oneself not through any intellectual or emotional growth, but through physical remaking.” So from this viewpoint, one achieves empowerment only through physical perfection. One study, reported in 2005, found that most six year olds “would prefer to be thinner than they are”, and another in 2006 found that one in four girls were considering plastic surgery by the age of sixteen.
Kidscape (a UK children’s charity) reports have gone from receiving 2-3 calls a year to their helpline regarding sexual bullying to receiving 2-3 calls per week in 2009. With ready access to pornography on the internet (which is easily printed) and via mobile phones, boys can regularly bring porn into school to “tease and discomfort” girls. Walter quotes Hannah White of Womankind Worldwide (who runs a project aimed at tackling sexual bullying) who says that sexual bullying has “been normalized in this generation in a way that makes it very hard to challenge.”
The most important fact quoted by Walter to indicate that young girls are not in control of their sexual behaviour is a survey from 2000 that found that 80 percent of girls who had their first sexual experience aged 13 or 14 regretted it (this compares to 50 percent in 1990). As Walter points out, “since one in four girls has sex below the age of sixteen, that’s a lot of regrets.”
Chapter 4 examines women’s sexual behaviour and the desire of the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s to encourage women to lay claim to their own desires and pleasures rather than being held back by traditional social expectations and simply subsuming their own sexual desire into that of their partner. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s fought hard to undermine bourgeois marriage and to bring about freer sexual relationships in which women focused on their own sexual needs. However, although the second feminist movement “undoubtedly created a real shift in the way that women saw their sexuality”, this movement mainly failed because women’s sexuality is still very much about doing what pleases men. The forms this takes may have changed (the greatest status is no longer attained via virginity but through having lots of sexual experience); however, fundamentally many women are still not taking full control of their own sexuality.
Walter acknowledges the improvements in Western societies, where (unlike traditional societies) a woman’s honour is no longer tied to virginity and monogamy. Feminism in many ways released women in the West from the repression of the old societal conventions around sex. However, Walter raises concern over many of the new societal conventions around sex. For example, the “the cultural shift towards embracing sex with no emotional commitment” leading to an increasing separation between sex and emotion – something never intended by the feminist movement. Walter interviewed many women for her book, many of whom seemed “to feel that their lives had been impoverished by the devaluation of sex into exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy.”
Chapter 5 looks at pornography. The Internet has meant that pornography, including hard core pornography, is readily available. Walter quotes a Canadian study that found that amongst 13-14 year olds 90 percent of the boys and 70 percent of the girls have viewed pornography. In a UK study one out of four adult males aged 25-49 had viewed hardcore online porn in the last month, and 40 percent had viewed some kind of porn in the previous year. Walter reviews the criticisms historically raised by feminists, and how the old feminist positions have been discredited. She laments that these days we rarely hear any condemnation of pornography or even any discussion of the effects of pornography, concluding that, “This means that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure. No wonder we have seen the rise of the idea that erotic experiences will necessarily involve, for women, a performance in which they will be judged visually.” Hence, the rise in the demand for plastic surgery, including to the labia! Pornography encourages the view that there is only one correct way for a woman and her labia to look.
Not only does much of the porn available today still rely on depicting male domination, but it actually is becoming increasingly demeaning of women. The abuse of women and violent painful acts, acts that used to be the exception, are becoming the norm. Further, porn not only increases the objectification of women, but threatens intimacy in real relationships, with sex becoming “something that has to be performed, not felt”. Yet, at this time, pornography is becoming an increasingly accepted part of life, and there is less and less criticism of it. Walter argues that sex should be about intimacy and emotion, not exchange and performance.
Chapter 6 is entitled “Choices” and examines the claim that the inequality between the sexes can be explained as the result of gender differences in personal choices. Walter argues that not only is our hypersexual culture “rooted in continuing inequality, it also produces more inequality”.
Women are chosen for their looks, so that the older, life-experienced woman will be overlooked in favour of a younger more beautiful but less sophisticated woman. For example, the television show Strictly Come Dancing replaced their only female judge, the hugely experienced and knowledgeable Arlene Philips, with the much younger and inexperienced, but very beautiful, Alesha Dixon. Even women working in high-powered jobs will still be judged by their appearance before their ability and will have to weather comments about their appearance.
Likewise at the Wimbledon tennis tournament, who plays on the coveted centre court is determined by attractiveness not tennis rankings. Walter argues that, in the current context of women being valued for their sexual allure, certain choices made by women are celebrated whilst others are marginalized, which has major effect on the choices women make, as well as having an effect on men. She writes, “The objectified woman, so often celebrated as the wife or girlfriend of the heroic male rather than the heroine of her own life, is the living doll who has replaced the liberated woman who should be making her way into the twenty-first century.”
Biological determinism (which sees behaviour as being determined by genes and hormones rather than societal norms and the internalisation of stereotypes) now reigns supreme in many university departments and in the media when it comes to explaining differences between men and women. Biological determinism is used to uphold and encourage more traditional gender roles, and argues that traditional femininity is biologically rather than socially constructed, and leads to the fatalistic belief that sex inequality is inevitable and unchangeable.
This “scientific” justification for inequalities between the sexes needs to be exposed and challenged. Part II of Living Dolls, although not the most thorough criticism of this trend, does provide some valuable exposure of the inadequacies of this perspective. Walter argues convincingly that to uphold biological determinism, as much of the media and many researchers do, means to see the status quo of relations between men and women as natural and unchangeable rather than as something to be challenged and changed.
Biological determinism is used to “explain away” the inequalities between men and women, so that these inequalities become the natural consequence of evolution, genes and the differing hormonal levels between the sexes. Biological determinism sees human biological make-up as fixed, yet Walter refers to some really interesting research that shows how behaviour and experience can actually change biological make-up, including the size of anatomical structures in the brain.
Her most impressive example is some research looking at the posterior hippocampus part of the brain in London (taxi) drivers. This research found that the posterior hippocampus was larger in cab drivers with over two years’ experience than in controls. Further, the greater the number of years of taxi driving, “the bigger the posterior hippocampus, so that as they went on adding detail to their knowledge of the city, their grey matter grew. Since the volume of grey matter in this part of the brain correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver, this suggests that the human brain can change physically in response to the environment, even during adulthood.” This example convincingly suggests that rather than biology being responsible for the differences seen between men’s and women’s brains, these differences could be explained by differences in upbringing, behaviour and experience. Walter also examines research exposing how expectations, power differences and culture can determine behaviour.
Walter exposes how the power held by biological determinists in academic circles is reflected in the fact that research papers showing traditional sex differences are more likely to get published than those that fail to provide evidence of sex differences. Furthermore, even where sex differences in activation and structure between men’s and women’s brains are found, Walter argues, “there is nothing to prove as yet that these must be put down to innate differences rather than differently learned behaviours.”
Walter also looks at the role of sexual stereotyping in determining the differences found between the sexes in levels of such things as empathy and mathematical ability. Society expects to see good little sensitive, sociable girls and aggressive little boys, and for girls and boys to have very distinct styles to their play and choice of different toys. Even when children deviate from the stereotype, this does nothing “to dent the strength of the stereotypes”. Walter argues that these stereotypes are stifling children’s “true variability, their true individualism, their true flexibility”, and these parental and societal stereotypes lead to many of the differences seen in adulthood between the sexes.
She reports research from 1984 showing that if children aged 3-5 are exposed to a non-sexist curriculum, they show significantly less preference for sex-stereotyped play. Yet such research is largely ignored in preference for biological determinist explanations for gender differences in play. Looking at the role of hormones, she surmises that, “What we may think is evidence of the effects of testosterone may in fact be evidence of the effects of societal expectations.” For example, research interviewing men and women after they have played aggressive computer games has found that women used the same level of aggression as men during the game, but when interviewed afterwards the women (unlike the men) will attempt to hide their levels of aggression. Likewise research looking at mathematics ability has shown that on average women will perform worse than men will, but if they are told that women will perform as well as men, then there was no difference in performance. Walter concludes that even “supposedly objective tests may not be a reflection of pure ability” but rather the enactment of expectations derived from stereotypes. She goes on to discuss research that illustrates how “the operation of stereotypes in the wider culture can constrain the choices we make in our real lives.”
Walter argues that biological determinism blinds us to the true variability that exists among men and women. Those “tiny” average differences that have been found between men and women as groups pale in comparison to the “vast differences” found among individuals of the same sex, e.g. gender accounts for only 1 percent of the differences found in verbal skills. Walter concludes that, “instead of a recognition of the true variability of men and women, we are presented simply with stereotypes” of male and female behaviour. Walters also laments that masculinity and femininity are seen as mutually exclusive. There is no room for a person to decide to combine the best of masculinity with the best of femininity. The differences seen in male and female roles are put down to personal choice rather than cultural grooming. Both men and women lose out by the promotion of distinct roles for men and women.
The full title of her book is Living Dolls—The Return of Sexism, but it is clear that sexism has at no time ceased and, therefore, cannot be considered to have returned. Reading this book, one can only conclude that “sexism” is very much alive and well and, at this time growing from strength to strength.
Although she is only looking at mainstream UK society (she does not even look at ethnic minorities within the UK), her observations have global implications and are as valuable for people in the East as in the West. After all, if women are not free even in the most developed countries, if they are oppressed in both “traditional” and “modern” societies, if “modern” conventions and values are in many ways a continuation of the most backward patriarchal rules and beliefs, then “modernity” or modern society as it is practiced, for instance, in the UK, is most certainly not the answer. Many readers will draw the conclusion that radical change – a different kind of society – is the only realistic alternative.
Walter’s own suggested solutions are based on her belief that the current system can be reformed to end the oppression of women. This does not meet the test of reality that she herself insists on and that allows her to so thoroughly expose 21st-century sexism, the impact of sexual stereotyping and the falsity of biological determinism.
We can all wholeheartedly agree with her hope that, “one day women and men will be able to work and love side by side, freely, without the constraints of restrictive traditions” when “rather than modelling themselves on the plastic charm of a pink smiling doll, women can aim to realize their full potential”.