The conclusions drawn by the influential feminist, Natasha Walter, in her latest book, Living Dolls, may surprise readers of her earlier material. In an honest reappraisal of her position, Walter now accepts that sexism and discrimination against women are ever more widespread, and that it is not possible to separate the personal from the political in capitalist society. CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews this change.

Feminist journalist Natasha Walter has recently published a new book, Living Dolls – The Return of Sexism, which, in her words, describes a “cultural shift” in the way in which women are portrayed in society. It also marks a radical shift in Walter’s viewpoint, too, as the book hits the shelves more than a decade after her first one, New Feminism (reviewed in Socialism Today No.28, May 1998 – New Britain, New Feminism?). According to Walter then, the new feminism “argued that feminists should no longer be too anxious about the sexual objectification of women”. ‘Old feminism’, she maintained, was too hung up about the way that women looked and how they lead their personal lives, and she wanted to create a new feminism in which the personal would be separated from the political. To her credit, Walter now recognises that this is an untenable position.

In 1998, the Socialism Today review criticised Walter’s naive attempts at creating a “new image-friendly movement that has no political ideology and ignores how personal relationships and culture reflect the wider inequalities in society as a whole”. A later article (The New Sexism, Socialism Today No.77, September 2003) developed these points, explaining that it is not possible to make an artificial distinction between the ‘cultural oppression’ and the ‘material oppression’ which women face. “Sexist images which objectify women”, we wrote, “both reflect and reinforce deep-rooted ideas about women’s inferiority and second-class position in society. As such, they serve to strengthen and maintain material inequalities such as unequal and low pay”.

Natasha Walter © Bohdan Cap
Photo: © Bohdan Cap

Now, twelve years on, Walter clearly expresses her change of heart: “I 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 entirely wrong”. She has not only admitted her mistakes but, in the first part of her new book, graphically details how sexism, far from withering away, has returned in a new and insidious guise, “reinforcing and reflecting existing inequalities”.

Nothing that Walter writes in this book is fundamentally new and she provides no real effective way forward for fighting sexism. But in her readable journalistic style and well-researched material she gives a useful updated picture of a cultural sexism which appears to have become even more rooted and widespread. In the second part of the book, she looks at the what she calls the ‘new traditionalism’: the way in which traditional ideas and stereotypes of femininity are being revived and reinforced by scientific theory which argues that gender differences are biologically rather than socially constructed.

Walter gives many examples to illustrate her argument about a cultural change. In a survey carried out in 2006, more than half of the teenage girls questioned said that they would consider becoming a ‘glamour model’ and a third saw Jordan (Katie Price, famous only for her celebrity) as a role model. In 2007, the student union at Loughborough University organised a Playboy night, which was advertised using posters of women dressed in Playboy costumes with no faces and their legs wide apart. The Playboy logo, explains Walter, is plastered over pencil cases and notebooks bought by young girls in WH Smith and similar shops.

In the 1990s, only a handful of lap-dancing clubs existed in the UK. By 2008, there were around 300, and many of these are situated not in ‘seedy’ backstreets but in the high streets of towns and cities. Pole-dancing courses are on the rise, and the Tesco supermarket chain even had a lap-dancing pole in its toy section (later removed after protests). A survey carried out in 2006 reported that one in four girls were considering plastic surgery by the age of 16. An analysis of popular music videos found that sexual imagery appeared in 84% of them, with women wearing provocative clothes or no clothes in 71% compared to 35% of men.

Institutional inequality

Walter gives many more examples. But does it really matter? Isn’t all of this just a positive sign of sexual and social liberation? Shouldn’t we be able, as Walter herself once argued, to be free to choose how we express our sexuality and how we look and behave? Walter now agrees with our analysis, that empowerment and liberation have become equated with sexual objectification. As she rightly says, this highly sexualised culture rests on illusions of equality.

The rise in women’s opportunities and aspirations over recent decades was accompanied by an increased sexual freedom and confidence. As contraception and abortion became more widely accessible and fear of pregnancy diminished, women were able to be more relaxed about sex. Backward social attitudes were broken down and women, feeling more empowered, were freer to express their sexuality and their own desires and needs. This was undoubtedly a positive development.

But in a society where institutionalised inequality still exists, just how liberating is it? In the introduction to Living Dolls, Walter gives examples of how women still face inequality and discrimination. For example, the hourly pay gap between men and women of 17%, rising to 35% for women who work part-time; or the fact that women do an average of 15 hours a week more housework than men even when they work full-time. That plans to equalise parental leave have been ditched by the government because of ‘tough economic times’.

She then goes on to describe how soft-porn images and attitudes are omnipresent in popular culture: in magazines, newspapers, music videos, reality TV, the internet, etc, exaggerating “the deeper imbalances of power in our society”. Walter writes about a sexualised culture in which empowerment and liberation have become equated and confused with sexual objectification. The language of choice and freedom is cleverly used to try and legitimise what is, in effect, a cultural counterrevolution. Women dieting, undergoing surgery, stripping, believing that fame and success are defined by how closely they conform to a narrow image of sexuality: “If this is the new sexual liberation”, writes Walter, “it looks too uncannily like the old sexism to convince many of us that this is the freedom we have sought”.

Leaving aside for a moment the effect that all of this has on the way that women are viewed and treated generally in society, these images offer an extremely limiting and narrow view of sexuality. It is one that is defined by the sex industry which, Walter’s book suggests, is becoming ever more pervasive. This is not a criticism based on moral considerations. If young women think that being sexually liberated means behaving like a porn star, and if young men’s sexual experience is dictated by pornography in which women are merely objects for men to control and abuse, how can we say that choices and experiences are being expanded? Instead, the reality is that they are becoming restricted for both women and men.

At the same time, sexist images of women in popular culture are not just a bit of harmless fun, they influence and impact on men’s attitudes and behaviour towards women, and on women’s own view of themselves. Tender, an educational charity working with 13-18 year olds in schools in greater London, surveyed 288 young people and found that 29% of male and female students felt it was sometimes OK for a man to hit a woman if she slept with someone else. Eighty per cent thought that girls and women sometimes encourage violence and abuse by the way they dress, and 76% thought that a woman encourages violence by not treating men with respect. Walter cites examples of sexual bullying (harassment) in schools which, according to Kidscape, is on the increase: from one to two calls a year four or five years ago, to two or three a week now. Sexual bullying can involve ‘sexting’ (circulating sexual images by mobile phone), calling girls names such as ‘slags’, ‘slappers’, ‘bitches’, or ‘whores’, or physical touching and even rape.

Walter also mentions a report by the Lilith Project, which works against violence against women, where it was found that incidents of rape and sexual assault rose in Camden Town, London, in the three years after the opening of four lap-dancing clubs in the area.

Buying into the social counterrevolution

Of course, sexist imagery is not the main cause of violence against women. This has its origins in the development of societies based on private property, and class divisions in which women themselves became the property of individual men and subject to their authority and control. Over the years, these traditional ideas have been challenged by campaigns by women and workers’ organisations, and as a consequence of changing attitudes linked to economic and social developments (women’s increased access to higher education, participation in the workforce, etc). But they never totally disappeared and will not do so as long as capitalism exists. Lap-dancing, prostitution, and pornography (both hard and soft core), have all become increasingly mainstream and ‘normalised’. The beauty, music, clothing industries, etc, have taken advantage of changing attitudes and openness towards sexuality to sell their products and, as Walter says, “independence and self-expression are sold back as narrow consumerism and self-objectification”.

A culture which attempts to transform everything into a commodity for sale on the market, including women’s bodies (whether directly, through the sex industry, or indirectly through sexual imagery), inevitably reinforces backward attitudes about male control and women’s inferiority. “It’s just like going to Tesco”, says one man about buying sex. “It’s about how much you can convince them that they have the power”, declares an ex-lap dancer.

Women, and especially young women, are bombarded daily with countless images promoting a particular ‘brand’ of femininity and female sexuality. Walter explains how artificial images of female beauty, often inspired by the sex industry, send overt and subliminal messages to young women about how they should look, dress and behave. Self-fulfilment, self-esteem and success are equated with a narrowly defined female perfection and sexual allure which is often objectifying and dehumanising. Images of women in popular culture prioritise sexual attractiveness and physical attributes, ‘squeezing out’ alternative representations based on competence, skills and intelligence. As a consequence, young women feel pressurised into looking a particular way, sometimes resorting to drastic measures to achieve their aim.

Big business takes advantage of social changes to sell products and make massive profits. In general, the overriding motivation is money: profit-seeking economic activity is primary. But, together with promoting their products (commodities), some businesses do actively promote ideological and social change, especially when pushing products where the ‘need’ they seek to satisfy has a high level of subjective content (buying beauty, an image, etc).

In a society where inequality and ‘imbalances of power’ still exist, the consequence is a contradictory social counterrevolution which, at a time of severe economic crisis, is being accompanied by ever more vicious attacks against women’s jobs and working conditions, and against the public services which women, in particular, rely on.

Many young women, in the absence of an alternative, have bought into the cultural changes which Walter describes. Some genuinely feel that they are empowered and liberated. Others may be uncomfortable or unhappy with sexist imagery and behaviour but go along with it because of social pressure. Fear of being considered a ‘prude’ is often an important factor in not speaking out. Many feel powerless as individuals to do anything about it. This is understandable against the ideological background of the last two decades, when the idea of collective struggle to change things, and its political embodiment in the form of socialism, has been declared obsolete, not least by those parties which were formally ‘socialist’ in the past. No mass political or social force has analysed the processes which have taken place in society with regards to women or put forward an alternative ideology and means of fighting back.

Stereotyped gender roles

This also explains why biological determinist ideas about gender differences appear to be making a comeback. Most people are familiar with the title of John Gray’s bestselling self-help book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Psychologists, like Steven Pinker and Susan Pinker, and scientists, like Simon Baron-Cohen, have also written popular books which argue that differences between men and women are explained by biology and the way in which our brains have become ‘hard-wired’ over centuries. We are told, for example, that men are better than women at maths and have more spatial awareness, and women are better at language and relationships, that behavioural and cognitive differences are determined not by social factors but by our genes and our hormones.

These kinds of ideas are presented by the media as new and exciting when, in reality, they are just old wine in new bottles. In the 1970s, at a time of collective struggle by women and workers’ organisations, ideas which argued that gender differences were biologically rather than socially based were constantly challenged. Walter quotes Mia Kellmer Pringle who, in the 1974 book, The Needs of Children, wrote: “The gender role is psychologically determined first by parental and then by wider society’s expectations”. Family members and friends, the education system and the wider cultural environment, all influence how gender differences develop, starting from birth.

Stereotypical assumptions about gender roles and behaviour have been countered with the promotion of non-sexist education, child-rearing practices and toys, etc. Today, this is being undermined by a shift in the cultural environment, aided and abetted by ‘science’. Biological explanations of gender differences are immediately and uncritically leapt upon by the media and given extensive coverage. Scientific research which contradicts biological explanations or puts forward alternative explanations is pushed out and ignored. This, in turn, influences social expectations in society generally.

From her own experience as the mother of a young girl, Walter relates how ‘gendered’ toys abound in shops, reinforcing stereotypes. There are pink Barbies and princesses for girls, and action and building toys for boys. Marks and Spencer label a toy cooker, ‘Mummy and Me’, while toy drills are labelled, ‘Daddy and Me’. She reports on the attitudes of friends and acquaintances who assume that boys are by nature more aggressive than girls and more ‘goal orientated’, while girls are more verbal, sensitive and empathetic.

Walter exposes the limitations of much of the ‘scientific’ theory behind gender differences and the way in which science is distorted by the media. One of the examples she cites is the media coverage of the Lawrence Summers case in 2005. At the time, he was president of Harvard University and was asked to speak about how women are under-represented in science and engineering. In his speech, Summer argued that women will not be as happy as men in high-intensity careers because they are naturally more tuned to family and human relationships. He also argued that innate differences between men and women are more important than social factors in explaining the under-representation of women.

The issue was extensively reported in the media with even ‘respectable’ newspapers, like the Financial Times, implying that Summer’s ideas were backed by scientific evidence. Critics of Summers were attacked as ‘obscurantist’, ‘anti-intellectual’ and ‘hysterical’ (Washington Post). In reality, his critics were given little or no coverage in what was often clearly biased and skewed reporting of the debate. “Poor use and reporting of science”, writes Walter, “matters more than we might think; it’s not just that bad science gets things wrong, but that it can affect our beliefs and therefore our behaviour… Far from exploring how social factors might create these differences, and how they could therefore be challenged, many people are retreating into fatalism about the innate and inescapable nature of these differences”.

Challenging reaction

The sexist backsliding is not going completely unchallenged however. Some young women have begun to mobilise in opposition to sexism, especially in universities. While this movement is still at an early stage, there is the potential for it to develop and coalesce with struggles against attacks on women’s and workers’ rights and conditions, and for broader economic and social change.

Walter argues that “without thoroughgoing economic and political change, what we see when we look around is not the equality we once sought; it is a stalled revolution”. But how that change will come about she never really explains. “Television producers and publishers have told me the same story”, writes Walter, “that in society they cannot make decisions based on quality or morality, they must make decisions based on sales. Throughout our society, any attempt to complain about or change this culture is often met by fatalism; if the market is so powerful, then how can any individual stand against it?” On an individual basis, resistance against the capitalist market system is limited. Collective struggle, however, which challenges the structurally unequal economic and social relations of capitalism, could lay the basis for ending sexism, and all forms cultural and social oppression as well as material inequality

The Socialist Party has actively participated in and initiated anti-sexist campaigns, linking these to a critique of the capitalist profit system and the idea of collective struggle by women and men united in the trade unions and workers’ political organisations. In 1998, in the New Feminism, Walter criticised the “too easy link made between socialism and feminism… Feminism and socialism are two quite separate choices and we can imagine and work towards a feminism that crosses political boundaries”, she wrote. “We could”, we argued in reply, “but it would do little to tackle the material basis of inequality that Walter says is her main aim”. Walter has nothing to say on this in her current book. But to be fair, she has had the courage to admit once that she was wrong, and maybe she will do so again.

This article first appeared in Socialism Today, monthly journal of the CWI in England and Wales

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