A contemporary critique that reminds us of how media and sexism intersect.

With her most recent book, Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas (author of Where The Girls Are) launches a spirited attack against two of the most nascent threats to contemporary feminism. The first is what she calls “enlightened sexism,” the misguided notion that feminism’s work is done and therefore it’s okay to embrace retrograde stereotypes of femininity. (You’ll recognize this as the guiding principle behind such cultural treasures as Rock of Love, My Super Sweet 16, The Real Housewives franchise, and also the fact that you actually know what all of those things are.) The second concept is “embedded feminism,” which is the media’s fixation upon overblown caricatures of female power that have nothing to do with the issues most women grapple with on an everyday basis. Of shows like Buffy, Xena and Grey’s Anatomy, Douglas notes, “The great irony is that some media fare is actually ahead of where most women are in society, it may be thwarting the very advances for women that it seeks to achieve.” Based around analyses of such varied cultural touchstones as Melrose Place, Gossip Girl, Cosmo, Amy Fischer, and “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” Enlightened Sexism is an exquisitely readable reminder of the complex and often frustrating misconceptions about feminism in the world around us.

Lindsay: I liked this overall, and I think it’s very important that a book like this exists, because it strikes me as a collection of a million little things about our contemporary culture that all too often go unspoken. I especially feel this way about the reality TV chapter (one of the strongest in the book) in which Douglas compiles a list of some of the most heinously sexist things she heard over the course of her research (I am going to declare the “winner” of the Most Heinous award to be the Extreme Makeover line, “Her face is a crime scene,” but there were plenty of worthy runners up). Douglas’s skewering of tabloid culture is also particularly sharp: at one point she imagines what the world would be like if instead of the tabloids’ “Baby Bump Watch,” magazines had a feature called “Scrotum Patrol.” I put an asterisk in the margins there.

But, as always, I have my quibbles. Douglas had me waiting for more of a payoff than she ultimately delivered. Most of the book’s 300+ pages are devoted to critiques of TV shows and pop cultural phenomena – which is awesome for the first couple dozen pages. Then, upon reading a seven-page appraisal of Melrose Place and a one-liner from Eve Sedgwick, I found myself wishing for the opposite. But therein lies my one major quibble with cultural studies like this one: if we’re to counter the misconception that women only want to read things about Melrose Place/Gossip Girl/Lindsay Lohan’s coke habit, is writing lengthy cultural analyses of these same topics really the best way to combat that – even if said cultural analyses are really insightful (as this one unquestionably is)? Still, this book is quite good, and the epilogue in particular is sure to make you feel all fuzzy and empowered-like. Douglas articulates a lot of things that people need to hear right now, and that’s reason alone for me to recommend Enlightened Sexism to just about anybody.

Mia: As Lindsay alluded, Enlightened Sexism is, at times, brilliant in its sheer simplicity – you rarely see Douglas’ succinct points about our sexist pop culture expressed this well or this specifically. Douglas covers roughly the last 20 years (from 90210 to Celebrity Fit Club 4, if you will), which, I think, makes the book especially relevant to young people. I mean, call me naive, but I just wasn’t that familiar with the sexist jabs the media took at Janet Reno in 1993. Or rather, call me six-years-old. Because that’s how old I was then, and I certainly wasn’t viewing the world through a critical feminist lens. And I later took for granted that the Spice Girls’ sexed-up brand of “girl power” and everyone’s (also sexed-up) brand of “empowerment” were unequivocally good things for women. Seriously, if you ever needed evidence as to why people cling to the notion that we live in a post-feminist world, just look at the enlightened sexism I was raised on.

The biggest complaint I’ve read against Douglas (on Amazon reviews – a slippery slope, indeed) is that she’s a second-waver who just doesn’t get young women. I disagree. In fact, I’m grateful to older women who can provide perspective on issues that I was too busy being nine-years-old to understand. I’ll never forget the time I was watching The Sound of Music as a child, and my mother took the opportunity of telling me that “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is actually a pretty sexist song and that women can take care of themselves, thank you very much. You can imagine how Young Mia was alarmed to discover that sexism lurks in even the most innocent-looking elements of pop culture. That’s kind of what Douglas is doing – pointing out how our most unpretentious and escapist diversions (can I give another shout-out to Rock of Love?) are often coated in a thick layer of misogyny. Again, this might not shock you (goodness knows I stopped being surprised about these things somewhere after my mom’s speech against the “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” scene from the musical Carousel), but I think this book is an excellent reminder to take a second (and a third and a fourth) critical look at the media and pop culture we consume and to consider how it informs our views of women.