Frisky Q&A: Susan J. Douglas, Author Of “Enlightened Sexism”

“Beverly Hills 90210″
“The Hills”So what is “enlightened sexism”?

“Enlightened sexism” is a new, subtle, sneaky form of sexism that seems to accept and celebrate feminist achievement, but is really dedicated to keeping young women in their place, repudiating feminism and making sure it never rears its head again. I watched a lot of TV and consumed a lot of media for the book and it has struck me over time the way in which, through feminist characters, feminism was rebuked as old-fashioned, strident, humorless, intolerant, out-of-step … The term for this kind of media fare has been “post-feminist.” And as I thought about post-feminism, I thought ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with feminism!’ It has to do with good old-fashioned grade-A sexism and good old-fashioned grade-A patriarchy.

You write in the beginning of the book that TV shows, movies, etc. create the illusion that equality for women is an “accomplished fact.” But really, you say these are just “fantasies of power” that bear no resemblance to reality.

First of all, there has been a genuine desire among show creators and producers to have role models on TV, to have images of accomplished women. If you think about “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” [creator] Joss Whedon, a self-proclaimed feminist, has said he was tired of girls always being the victims in horror films. Or you see Shonda Rimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” who obviously wanted a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world and one where women are just as accomplished [as men are].

Because some of these shows have been successful, there’s been kind of a magnification of women as police chiefs, surgeons, judges. But at the same time time, those [characters] have intersected with commercial incentives to appeal to women. SUSAN – THAT LAST SENTENCE IS KIND OF CLUNKY. CAN YOU CLARIFY WHAT YOU MEAN? We have all these images of women cracking the glass ceiling, including the president on “Commander In Chief” and “24.” With such an over-representation of women in these very high-powered jobs, it seems like we don’t need [to fight for] full equality. It’s a done deal! It’s over! We get this fantasy that we have all this power, which of course is not the reality of where women are. This fantasy then gives permission for the resurrection of stereotypes [on reality TV] of young women as bimbos who want to get into cat fights over men they barely know.

(sarcastically) Of course we resurrect the stereotype of women as narcissistic twits! The logic there is its silly to be sexist, it’s stupid to be sexist, it’s funny to be sexist — therefore, it’s OK to be sexist.

You also write in Enlightened Sexism about how the media makes it seem like a woman’s sexual power and her purchasing power are more important than having political or economic power.

I think this is particularly true for young women. There has been, especially in the past decade, such an emphasis on pretty, privileged women: “Laguna Beach,” “The Hills,” “Real Housewives,” “Rich Girls” on MTV, “My Super Sweet 16.” There has been such an emphasis on conspicuous consumption! The bill of goods out of those shows is real satisfaction, real power, comes out of being hot and shopping — while in reality, that’s not where real power comes from at all. Not only is is OK to be a sex object, you should want to be a sex object. Not only has full equality been achieved, but now you’re showing your agency [by being sexy]! But it’s a double-edged sword. Young women do want agency — they want that same power as men. That’s what the sexual revolution in the ’70s was about. But it seems like you can only have a particular kind of power.

Okay, I’m understand what you’re saying, but don’t you think some women know better? I mean, I watch “The Hills” but I don’t believe the most important thing in my life is to be as pretty as Lauren Conrad.

Not all women are dupes. We talk back to the media all the time. In fact, I’ve found with my students is they’ll watch “The Hills” or “Jersey Shore” in groups because they want to make fun of the people on the show. I think the group viewing is important because it allows them to show they are not affected by mass media while still engaging with it. These shows are very good at hooking us, because they use irony. They stick their elbows in our ribs: ‘We know that you know these people are ridiculous and you’re much smarter and much more together!’ So there’s a flattery there.

What most of us are doing is deconstructing. But we’re also being sucked into a worldview of how women are, of how men view women. I don’t women are dupes but even when we watch these shows we’re being sucked into a worldview that does not have our best interests in mind. [Besides] if most women were talking back to this stuff, then why do thongs for little girls sell in stores? I’ve had students who work in middle schools come back horrified at how 12- and 13-year-old girls are dressing. Somebody is buying these clothes.

In Enlightened Sexism, you focus on movies, TV and magazines from the early ’90s onward. Why did you choose to start at that particular point in time?

We forget the early ’90s was a time of feminist foment! And it was so because women were furious about how Anita Hill was treated by all the white guys on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Women were furious and an unprecedented number of them ran for Congress and won. It was 1992, “The Year Of The Woman.” Susan Faludi and Backlash and Mary Pipher and Reviving Ophelia were on the bestseller list.

I also wanted to start with “Beverly Hills 90210.” It was a massive hit among teen among teen girls and really defined a generation. It started an emerging and booming teenage market of girls. And it took their concerns seriously: throwing a party when your parents are out of town and getting caught, shoplifting, pregnancy, drinking, premarital sex. At the same time, it was the first step in marrying the demographic of teens to conspicuous consumption.

It was a very interesting brew, the early ’90s. On the one hand, you had Take Back the Night and “The Year of the Woman,” and on the other hand you had “Beverly Hills 90210″ and “Melrose Place.”

Your book is about media representations of all women in general, but you have some really interesting observations about how lesbians are portrayed in the mainstream media. Women like Ellen DeGeneres and Rachel Maddow host their own TV shows, but most “lesbian” characters on fictional shows are experimenting and kissing in this kind of gratuitous way.

There are very few lesbians on mainstream TV, especially on dramas and sitcoms. “Grey’s Anatomy” stands out because there’s a committee lesbian relationship now, but we see many more gay men than we do women. We all know the story: Ellen comes out on her [sitcom] show and it gets cancelled. You’re going to ask me why [gay women are invisible] and I don’t know. I think lesbian characters are more threatening because they imply men aren’t necessary and there’s a strain of lesbian culture that is anti-consumerist because they don’t need makeup [to attract men] or whatever. On dramatic TV, compared to the presence of gay men, it’s just not there.