From the author of Where the Girls Are, a sharp and irreverent critique of how women are portrayed in today's popular culture
Women today are inundated with conflicting messages from the mass media: they must either be strong leaders in complete command or sex kittens obsessed with finding and pleasing a man. In Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas, one of America's most entertaining and insightful cultural critics, takes readers on a spirited journey through the television programs, popular songs, movies, and news coverage of recent years, telling a story that is nothing less than the cultural biography of a new generation of American women.
Revisiting cultural touchstones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Survivor to Desperate Housewives, Douglas uses wit and wisdom to expose these images of women as mere fantasies of female power, assuring women and girls that the battle for equality has been won, so there's nothing wrong with resurrecting sexist stereotypes―all in good fun, of course. She shows that these portrayals not only distract us from the real-world challenges facing women today but also drive a wedge between baby-boom women and their "millennial" daughters.
In seeking to bridge this generation gap, Douglas makes the case for casting aside these retrograde messages, showing us how to decode the mixed messages that restrict the ambitions of women of all ages. And what makes Enlightened Sexism such a pleasure to read is Douglas's unique voice, as she blends humor with insight and offers an empathetic and sisterly guide to the images so many women love and hate with equal measure.
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Susan J. Douglas is the author of Where the Girls Are, The Mommy Myth, and other works of cultural history and criticism. She is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies and chair of the department at the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 1996. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Ms., The Village Voice, and In These Times. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1 GET THE GIRLS In October 1990, while most of America was watching Roseanne, Coach, L.A. Law, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the buildup to Operation Desert Storm on CNN, the still fledging Fox network debuted a show on Thursday nights opposite Cheers, the top-rated program in the country. In December the new show was ranked eighty-seventh out of eighty-nine. The reviews were not kind either. A “new experiment in comatose television,” was the verdict of Tom Shales at the Washington Post: “You keep checking your pulse to make sure you haven’t died.”1 Matt Roush in USA Today used words like “tired” and “stock characters” and predicted “few will leave Cheers for this.”2 Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press said the premiere “is so stultifying it would get an F even in film school.”3 Ouch. None of these guys, however, was a teenage girl. Within six months, Beverly Hills 90210 was the top show among teenagers in the Thursday 9:00 P.M. time slot, and 60 percent of them were girls, that delectable demographic. Instead of running reruns during the summer of 1991, Fox aired new episodes, which built the audience even more. In August, heartthrob Luke Perry—deliberately modeled after James Dean right down to his pompadoured hairdo (which presided over his forehead like Diamond Head)—visited a Florida shopping mall to promote the show. Ten thousand fans, most of them screaming girls, rushed toward him, injuring twenty-one people and prompting the mall to be closed for three hours.4 By the fall 90210 was the top show, period, among American teenagers and especially teenage girls.5 Within a year, a whopping 69 percent of teenage girls reportedly watched it. By 1993, it was airing in thirty countries. 6 Calendars, T-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, pillows, and 90210 Barbie dolls followed. Most fans were utterly devoted, especially in the beginning, arranging their homework, showering, and social schedules around the show and insisting that friends not call them, at all, while it was on (unless girls called each other and watched together while on the phone).7 The show lasted for ten years. To understand the ascendency of enlightened sexism in the twenty-first century, its early scrimmages with embedded feminism, and the way it sought to transform girls’ desires for power and change into consumerism and profits, we need to revisit the riptides of the early 1990s. One could be forgiven for forgetting that this was, in fact, a time of considerable feminist ferment among women and girls. For while 90210 addressed teen girls as if their primary concern was where to get the coolest stonewashed jeans (and a blond, tousle-haired hunk to go with), many real-life girls, and their mothers, were expressing a desire for what would eventually come to be known as girl power. Girls and women may not have been in the streets the way they were in 1970, but there was an intense level of feminist agitation and aspiration, especially in the face of what Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 book labeled, simply enough, Backlash. On the one hand, First Lady Barbara Bush famously warned women, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.” And the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was selling more copies than ever. On the other hand, in the song “Don’t Need You,” the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill advised men, “Don’t need your attifuckin-tude boy … Us girls, we don’t need you … Does it scare you that we don’t need you?” coupled with Bratmobile’s full-bore assault on patriarchy in its song “Brat Girl,” “I’m gonna throw this knife right thru yr chest.” There was plenty for women to be enraged about in the early 1990s. When Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice and a pioneer against school desegregation, decided to retire in 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a deeply conservative, anti–affirmative action African American bureaucrat who had only been a federal judge for two years, to replace him. Many civil rights and women’s groups denounced the nomination, and it barely squeaked out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 7-to-7 vote. Then, in October, all hell broke loose when the allegations of Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor who had told the FBI during the background checks on Thomas that he had sexually harassed her, got leaked to the press. Hill had to provide testimony before a riveted national television audience about how Thomas, at work, would start talking to her about “acts he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.” Hill stated that Thomas kept asking her out despite her refusals, kept commenting on her clothes and appearance, and also boasted to Hill “graphically of his own sexual prowess,” which included references to “the size of his own penis being larger than normal.” In a truly weird workplace comment, Thomas allegedly asked Hill, “Who has put a pubic hair on my Coke?”8 This last event struck most women as particularly hard to make up. Yet various of the all-white male Judiciary Committee members—in a Senate that was 98 percent male—treated Hill dismissively, implying that she may have been delusional. The spectacle of a lone woman, and a black one to boot, sitting across from a patronizing tribunal of rich white guys who seemed to think that sexual harassment was a figment of the female imagination got women’s blood boiling. Their wrath was further fanned by the outrageous Tailhook scandal, which exploded in the spring of 1992. The news emerged that the navy had covered up an incident at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas the previous September, when naval aviators formed a gauntlet on the third floor of the Hilton and trapped women in it, pawing and molesting them, stripping off their clothes. The first reports—whitewashes—identified only two suspects from approximately five thousand Tailhook attendees. Because twenty-six women, fourteen of them officers, claimed to have been assaulted, these findings, you might say, defied credulity. By June the secretary of the navy, H. Lawrence Garrett, faced a full-blown scandal about the cover-up, including the fact that—oops—fifty-five pages of interviews had been omitted from the final report, including one that placed Garrett himself in at least one of the Tailhook party suites. Time for that pink slip. Garrett quickly resigned, shortly after Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, appeared on ABC News to describe the ordeal that she and the other women had suffered. That women in the military, no less, could be assaulted in this way only added to the public fury. Energized by Anita Hill, Tailhook, and Backlash, women emerged as a political force in 1992, which the press dubbed “The Year of the Woman.” In November four women won election to the male-dominated U.S. Senate for the first time in American history: Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Representative Barbara Boxer in California; Patty Murray, a state senator from Washington who described herself as “a mom in tennis shoes,” and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Arlen Specter nearly lost his Senate seat to Lynn Yeakel, a first-time candidate who ran specifically because of her fury over how Specter had questioned Anita Hill during the Thomas hearings.9 A record number of women—108—ran for Congress, and twenty-four were elected to the House, the largest number ever in any single election.10 Bill Clinton’s election as president brought change as well. He made a point of supporting equal rights for women, and in addition to his brainy and accomplished wife who, unlike Barbara Bush, actually had a professional career, he named three women to his first cabinet, a woman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and the first African American woman to become surgeon general. So the early 1990s indeed seemed a turning point for women starting to achieve political power. Nonetheless, there was also considerable concern about girls not achieving their full potential because of ongoing discrimination in the classroom, and issues like sexual harassment, date rape, and domestic violence were getting more widespread attention. Naomi Wolf’s bestseller The Beauty Myth (1991) attacked the impossible standards of physical perfection imposed on us all, and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia (1994), on the bestseller list longer than most of my daughter’s hamsters lived, decried the hostile media environment surrounding girls and the decline in self-esteem it produced. So girls and women, after the dormant years of George H. W. Bush, were insisting on new political and social visibility in the early 1990s. At the same time girls, in particular, were emerging as a very important niche market. The war between enlightened sexism and embedded feminism was on. It was in this swirling, contradictory milieu of a renewed press for women’s rights, a backlash against these efforts, and the increased cultural, political, and commercial attention to girls that Beverly Hills 90210 premiered and flourished along with other media fare that couldn’t have been more different, like Murphy Brown or the music of Bratmobile. So why did a seeming piece of fluff like 90210 matter? And what made the show such a phenomenon with young women? Because 90210 hailed teenagers as important. In addition to giving us great male and female eye candy (even though it was all vanilla), 90210 took teenagers and their dilemmas seriously. The show was one of the essential early building blocks of enlightened sexism because it was at the vanguard of targeting teenage girls with an intensity that made the 1960s efforts, like Gidget and The Patty Duke Show, seem puny. It stood at the beginning of what some would come to see as “the rampant juvenilization” of American popular culture, which would lead to increased teenpics, teen girl magazines, and boy bands.11 Industry observers had doubted whether the novice network Fox could compete against the big three, even though their share of the viewing audience had dropped from 92 percent in 1977 to 62 percent in 1991. Given the competition, Fox chose to go after the kids. It was a strategy that worked and was widely imitated. 90210 was followed by Melrose Place, MTV’s The Real World, Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek, the rise of “chick flicks” and “chick lit,” boy bands, Britney Spears, and all those new teen girl magazines like Cosmo Girl, Teen Vogue, and Teen Elle. The foundational pillars of this marketing juggernaut were sex and merchandising. So this was the beginning of the media wedge that would divide many mothers and daughters around the issues of sexuality and consumerism. 90210 was at odds with other shows in the early 1990s that were increasingly showcasing strong, sometimes counterstereotypical, often mouthy women: Murphy Brown, Who’s the Boss?, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure, Law & Order, The Simpsons, and, of course, Roseanne. These shows were obviously informed by feminism and spoke to its goals and values. Not 90210. So despite—indeed, because of—its sun-splashed pleasures, and the fact that, for the most part, it threw the sexual double standard out the window, Beverly Hills 90210 was a crucial first step in exploring what enlightened sexism might entail.
The fish-out-of-water premise of 90210 was that an apple pie, midwestern family with the moral rectitude of The Waltons moves to that den of carnality, dissolution, and merchandising, Beverly Hills, and finds every fiber of their Minneapolis-bred saintliness challenged, week in and week out. We know that the nearly perfect mom, Cindy Walsh (played by Jane Fonda look-alike Carol Potter), will not be corrupted because her blue denim dirndl skirt and truly heinous plaid or paisley shirts—indeed, her entire Plow & Hearth couture—scream, “I’m a square and I’m really, really grounded.” But things will be more challenging for her gorgeous twin kids Brandon (Jason Priestly), with his soft, souffléed hair poised over his left eye like a wave, and especially for Brenda (the dreaded Shannen Doherty) because, well, she’s the girl. The opening sequence with its shots of Cartier, Armani, and Polo storefronts accompanied by the wailing electric guitars and pulsing drums brings together “teens” and “conspicuous consumption” like a perfect ice-cream sandwich. And this is high school unlike anything the rest of us poor schlumps suffered through. There’s valet parking. Surfboards stick out of the kids’ convertibles and everyone drives a Mercedes, a Porsche, or a Beemer. When the kids’ car alarms go off on remote signalers in class, it’s perfectly okay with the teachers for them to run out and check on their vehicles. It’s also okay with the teachers to have flowers delivered to students during class. The Hacienda mansion of a school looks like a presidential palace in a Mediterranean country, not like the prison-issue boxes most viewers were forced to attend. The sun always shines; everything is brightly colored and brightly lit; no one, except the benighted Walsh twins, has a curfew and everyone, except the benighted Walsh twins, has a wallet exploding with gold and platinum credit cards. There are pool parties with white-jacketed waiters serving the dancing, throbbing teens; there are hot tubs; no one’s parents (except the benighted Walsh twins’) are ever, ever home. Dylan (Luke Perry) actually gets to live, alone, in a five-star hotel suite with room service whenever he wants it. Let’s not forget that the country was in the middle of a recession with a serious spike in unemployment in 1990–91; many kids, and their parents, were happy to pretend they were in 90210 for an hour. Of course, under this gilded veneer of bottomless wealth and ceaseless indulgence lurks the dark, disappointed other side: the rich, negligent, selfish, carousing parents who don’t care; the kids who have everything except love and self-esteem; the punishing rules for fitting into rigid social hierarchies; and the corrupting temptations that must be resisted. In the first season alone, various of the teens confronted alcoholic parents, date rape, cheating on exams, parents doing lines of coke, drinking, drinking while driving, shoplifting, eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, parents getting indicted, breast cancer, losing their virginity, and, of course, having their parents come home to a trashed house after an unauthorized party. All of this—except losing your virginity—was very, very wrong. (In what was a gutsy move for the show, Brenda lost her virginity to Dylan on prom night and was not wracked with remorse but was, instead, positively glowing as a result. Many of the network’s affiliates, fielding calls from irate parents, were not quite so blissful.) This formula—offer the fantasy of being able to buy whatever you wanted, yet flatter viewers that such unrestricted consumerism is corrupting and empty—had worked for Dallas and Dynasty. Now it was tailored for teens, and subsequent shows down the road for young women ( My Super Sweet Sixteen, Laguna Beach, Gossip Girl) would further inflate the levels and rates of conspicuous consumption. And unlike teens in most sitcoms, those in 90210 had sex and emphatically asked e...
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