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Review: Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism By Natasha Walter

Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House was greeted by a storm of outcry and controversy when it was first staged. In A Doll’s House, the protagonist Nora, a housewife and mother, comes to the realisation that she has never been able to develop as a human being as she’s been constrained by being seen and treated as a little more than a sweet little doll, initially by her father and subsequently by her husband. The play ends with Nora deciding that the only way she can grow as a human being and break free of the social constraints objectifying her, is for her to leave the family home, including her children.

More than 130 years later, feminist journalist and commentator, Natasha Walter has written the interesting and useful Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Although Walter doesn’t refer to this seminal and ground-breaking Ibsen play, the core image threaded through the book, namely of women and girls suffering objectification as dolls immediately brings Nora to mind and in this way is certainly is a link with the longstanding sexism and oppression of women.

Walter, however, uses the phrase, “The New Sexism” and then goes on to articulately illuminate through scientific and sociological research, as well as through anecdotes that deal with the experience of heterosexual women and girls in Britain, the significant increase in sexism in the media, the proliferation of the pornography and sex industry and the detrimental impact this has on self identity of young women in particular. Although there’s nothing new about sexism, and that the subtitle of the book “The Return of Sexism” falsely implies that it actually went away at some point, Walter makes a strong case that we’re in a new phase in terms of the nature of sexist stereotyping that is a socially acceptable part of the fabric of 21st century society in the advanced capitalist world.

A key element of Living Dolls is documenting the extent to which the sex industry not only has grown, but also has increasingly encroached into elements of pop and mainstream culture. This encroachment is indicated by the fact that pole dancing is now advertised as a form of recreational dance that women can take classes in their free time. Popstars such as the Sugababes boast about their interest in the “art” of lapdancing. Women are being grossly objectified as sex objects in so many aspects of culture, this is portrayed as a positive and empowering experience, and furthermore, being sexy (and in this case it’s a narrow, vacuous, and in many instances pornography-inspired viewpoint of what is sexy) is promoted as a primary method for women to achieve popularity, self-worth and success.

Nuts magazine, for example, runs a popular “Babes on the Bed” nightclub competition in which hundreds of young women compete for a glamour modelling contract as hordes of men shout as they strip, jeering if they don’t deem the women’s bodies to be sexy.

Walter cites a Canadian survey from the mid 2000s that found that 90% of 13 and 14 year olds males had viewed pornography and 70% of girls of the same age. This is a problem as the vast majority of commercial pornography paints an unrealistic and detrimental view of women’s sexuality and women in general and is sometimes tinged with violence. Another survey cited that illuminates a growing culture of sex casually viewed as a commodity, is that of 11,000 British adults carried out in 1990 and 2000. The number of men who admitted to paying for sex rose in the decade from one in twenty to nearly one in ten. This seems to reflect an increase in men paying for sex. At the very least, it reflects an increase in men admitting to doing so, possibly in line with the growth of the notion that sex is merely a commodity.

It’s the personal stories in Living Dolls that make the most impact. For example, we hear from Ellie who worked as a lapdancer, who tells of how degraded she felt every day doing a job in which she regularly had men touching her breasts and genitals. She received no direct payment from the nightclub and only earned directly from clients who requested a lapdance. Interestingly, she is college graduate with more choices in life than the vast majority of women working in the sex industry who are overwhelming from working class, poor and migrant backgrounds, not to mention those women who are trafficked and enslaved in the most exploitative aspects of the industry. She rants against a culture that has sanitised the sex industry so much that there’s not even dissent against women being seen and treated as nothing more than sex objects. “Now, women get told they are prudes if they say they don’t want their boyfriend to go to a club where he gets to stick his fingers in someone else’s vagina, or if they say they don’t want to watch porn with their boyfriend.”

One of the most interesting personal stories comes from a young woman called Carly Whiteley. Once she entered secondary school she was badly bullied. Carly puts it down to her disinterest in and avoidance of the “girly” culture of fashion, make-up and pressure to be perceived as sexy, to be sexually active etc. Walter puts this is in the broader context of an increase in sexual bullying in schools as well as the prevalence of girls’ first sexual experiences being negative. Carly feels claustrophobically alienated by gender stereotypes and feels quite isolated as a result. “You’re just a sex object, and then you’re a mother and that’s it. There is no alternative culture.”

The impact of the “new sexism” on young women in particular is something that socialists should be cognisant of. Possibilities to draw young women, and indeed men who are also negatively impacted upon by rigid gender stereotyping, into political activity on these issues such be seized upon, such as the activity that was organised in UCD (Dublin) by Socialist Youth members in opposition to the Student Union sponsored “Miss UCD” beauty competition.

Interestingly, Natasha Walter in her last book written in the late 1990s, The New Feminism, optimistically argued that women had to put the final push to achieve political, economic and financial equality, and that issues of sexism etc. had receded in importance. In many ways, Walter’s former position that Living Dolls at length refutes, was a product of its time. Around this period, it was quite broadly registered that women had achieved equality, or very nearly so. This was reflected amongst even some feminists who suggested that equality was within women’s grasp, they just had to reach out to apprehend it. Walter writes in Living Dolls; “I once believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was wrong.” This is a problematic statement. Without a doubt, women in the advanced capitalist countries have come a long way in terms of the struggle for equality and gains have been made that have transformed the lives of working class women today, in comparison even to a few decades ago. However, the structural “conditions for equality” if you like, have not been put in place.

As Walter herself admits, the gender pay gap is still significant and women still do the bulk of caring work and unpaid domestic labour. Despite equal pay legislation, the system has found a way to legally continue gender differentiation in terms of pay and to continue to reap the benefits of mainly female unpaid labour.

After the collapse of Stalinism and the concurrent boom period in capitalism, the corresponding retreat in the leadership of the workers’ movement was inevitably accompanied by a retreat in an organised women’s movement. This has had an effect on mass culture. There hasn’t been a check on how the big business owned media portray women who have an interest in promoting sexist stereotypes, both to create a market for the beauty industry and also crucially to justify women’s inequality, for example women in their own industry not getting promotions, maternity leave etc.

Walter spends some time dispelling myths about gender difference – myths such as, women are naturally empathetic while men are more interested in objects than people and emotions, or that hormones or brains of men and women determine gender difference. These biologically deterministic views utterly disregard and downplay the phenomenal role that society plays in constructing gender difference. What is interesting, is that half-baked scientific research that “proves” that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is constantly being promoted in the mainstream media in what could be characterised as an ideological backlash against progressive views regarding the role that society plays in constructing defined gender roles and attributes. In the context of the economic crisis, all gains that women have made are under threat.

For example, the assault on the public sector and the poverty wage agenda that affect all workers, disproportionately affect women. In this context, a divide between male and female workers in order to cut across a united struggle is in the interest of the ruling elite. The rise of the “new sexism” and other ideological assaults on basic “equality” ideals, aid this agenda.

Working class women in particular are beginning to and will increasingly play a leading role in the struggle against the assault on living standards that the crisis has thrown up.

The obscenity of women as sex objects, sex as a commodity, and girls and young women feeling inordinate pressure to be “sexy” etc. is an indictment of the insatiable drive for profit that is at the core of capitalism. While Natasha Walter doesn’t come to this conclusion, reading Living Dolls makes a trend that Marx alluded about capitalism scream off the page, namely that everything becomes a commodity under this system.

The weakest section of the book is when Walter, justifiably, bemoans the lack of female participation in politics. Walter sympathetically speaks of such politicians as Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel, and the sexist comments about their appearance and “unfeminine” personality treats that have appeared in the press about them. Clearly such comments are nothing short of backward trash. However, it beggars belief that a “feminist” can feel such sympathy for right wing, war-mongering, social spending-cutting politicians whose policies fundamentally threaten the future of working class women and men, merely by virtue of the fact that they are female.

This lack of recognition of the class divide is the same shortcoming that has doomed the feminist movement to failure for decades. A united working class movement, with a specific programme and policy to tackle gender inequality and sexism and with socialist policies can pose a real challenge to the capitalist system that hasn’t liberated women in its entire existence and clearly will not do so under the parasitic crisis period.

 

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