Living Dolls, By Natasha Walter<br />The Equality Illusion, By Kat Banyard

Reviewed,Melissa Benn
Friday 05 March 2010 01:00
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There has been a powerful revival of feminist anger at a new strain of misogyny in popular culture in recent years. I expected to feel a sympathetic engagement with both of these books, which tackle the problem of womens' objectification head on. What I did not anticipate feeling was such a deep sense of shame at the catalogue of tawdry horror stories laid out in these pages and what these tell us about the society we have created for ourselves.

Taken separately, the escalation of lad's mags, glamour modelling, lap dancing, pole dancing or the excesses of celebrity culture might be judged silly or harmless. But considered on a spectrum with pornography and prostitution, both multi million dollar global businesses that degrade women for profit, and considered in the context of a stalled revolution in womens' wider lives, these apparently light-hearted forms of exploitation suddenly seem very dark indeed.

Living Dolls, written with a spare and spirited elegance, has particular weight given that Walter first came to public prominence with The New Feminism, a celebration of womens' cultural and political achievements, around the time of the election of New Labour and all that Blair's Babes promise.

"I am ready to admit that I was wrong," she writes now. And indeed, Living Dolls reads like a sorrowful recantation, even if it touches less on politics than popular culture. Instead, Walter goes right back to childhood and the many ways that girls are being constrained, belittled and encouraged to embark on the "body project".

She quotes from a very interesting study of girls' diaries over the past century which shows how self improvement for girls has gone from meaning an emphasis on intellectual and emotional self discipline to obsessing about every single detail of one's appearance.

The new raunch culture has pushed girls into thinking that flaunting their sexuality is a form of empowerment. TV programmes and books celebrate no-strings sex for women and even glorify prostitution. No surprise then that Walter found teenage girls boasting about their serial sexual encounters, and the book opens with a terrifyingly graphic account of a night in Southend where young women were urged to pose, pout and strip for a drunk, yelling male audience, in a bid to win a modelling contract for a lad's magazine.

In the second part of her book, Walter argues that we are seeing the return of biological determinism. Studies that seem to show that girls are less able at maths or science are given prominence in the press, even though their findings are often highly questionable, while any study that contradicts this over simplification does not get the same attention. Meanwhile, stereotypes of women as carers and men as high achievers have become entrenched rather than eroded.

Kat Banyard touches on similar themes in The Equality Illusion, which cogently argues that equality remains largely a myth. Banyard has a highly readable style; she opens each chapter with a quasi fictional description of a girl or woman touched by each of the issues under discussion, from anorexia to domestic violence, misogyny at school to life in the sex trade. Like Walters, she places great weight on the dangers of the new objectification of girls and women. Talking about the growth in raunch culture, she writes "young girls are being...groomed by mainstream culture to be sexualised. They are learning that sexuality is a performance they must act out for others... Young boys are taught that women are sexual object that you do things to, not human beings to be treated with respect and dignity... And all the while the industry of sexual exploitation continues to grow."

It would have been interesting to read a deeper, more considered discussion of how the new sexualisation relates to the stalled gender revolution, to follow up Walter's observation that "just as women are taking on more varied and powerful roles, and just as men are being encouraged to take on...(mor) feminine roles at home, there is this strand of our culture that so intently insists there are biological constraints to male and female equality." Why does it remain so difficult to talk about the myriad, ordinary forms of daily discrimination, be it poor education, lower pay or the continuing constraints of domestic life and motherhood?

Sadly, few editors, or indeed publishers, are interested in covering these bread and butter issues. Stories about sex, sexuality and male/female sex difference make for far better newspaper copy and indeed much more marketable books. Walter's evocative description of the demeaning of young women that night in Southend made the front page of an upmarket Sunday newspaper, showing how even the most thoughtful piece of feminist writing can be recycled as a form of mild titillation.

One thing that comes out very clearly is the way that, as income inequalities widen, the class element becomes more pronounced, especially in sex related work. Working class girls with fewer life chances are tempted by life as a glamour model or lap dancer, often unaware of the grim reality of these jobs. Both writers also give us devastating quotes from powerful men that almost make one despair. Banyard quotes from a powerful corporate boss who has said "most women are sexually frustrated. Men are not because they can fall back on call girls."

When Phil Edgar Jones, the creative director of the TV show, Big Brother was asked, by Walter, if he was happy for his daughter to go onto Big Brother or into glamour modelling, he replied after much hesitation, "I would hope she would have different aspirations. I encourage her to read books. Other people have different backgrounds."

Walters and Banyard must have worried about the gloom produced in readers by both their subject matter and their conclusions. Banyard thinks that the struggle for real equality between the sexes has only just begun, and she is probably right. Both books end on a spirited note of optimism and political engagement, with descriptions, including contact details, of the many groups, events, individuals and websites that have sprung up in recent years to counter the new misogyny and promote womens' freedom more generally.

It's a salutary reminder that politics remains the chief means by which women can challenge and change modern culture. Reading these books, I am wholly convinced: the sooner we all take on this battle, the better.

'Third Wave Feminism'

Natasha Walter's 'The New Feminism', published in 1998, was described as a third wave in the feminist movement, an all-inclusive model which belonged to men as much as women. While the first wave of feminism - the Suffrage movement - brought women the vote and the second wave in the 1970s brought independence in the workplace, Walter's argued that the Women's Movement of the Seventies was weakened by "excessive attachment to a politically correct idealism".

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