Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

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Pink Princesses and Pole Dancers

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter, book reviewThis book is a disturbing account of the ways in which girls and young women are being encouraged to see themselves. It also examines the way that men and boys are conditioned to view women. It includes topics such as pole dancing, prostitution, glamour modelling and lads’ mags, children’s toys and theories on differences between female and male children from a very young age. At times I found it very uncomfortable and depressing reading, but it is well worth reading for the important arguments made.

The book is divided into two halves: The New Sexism and The New Determinism

The New Sexism

Walter visits a Southend club for a Babes on the Bed night in which women compete for a modelling contract with Nuts, with a young woman who has broken into this career herselfmaking it clear they are expected to be willing to take their clothes off and be photographed in explicitly sexual poses. Interestingly, it is made very clear to her that some of those involved in putting the show on really would like her to leave – they are not comfortable with critical observers. Walter interviews a lot of young women involved in various parts of the “glamour” and sex industry, including stripping, modelling, pole dancing and outright prostitution. It was interesting to see the contrast between what some of those involved do and the doubts they express in interviews about their work. I was impressed by how much her interviewees were willing to say.

Walter also looks at the contrast between the popularity of a wave of recent books and films on prostitution presenting it as a respectable (and well paid) career choice, notably Belle De Jour’s writings, and some of the harsher realities such as the women trafficked and exploited from other countries, and the murder of 5 women working as prostitutes in Ipswich.

There is much to be shocked by and to think about in this part of the book. As the mother of two very young boys, I was particularly appalled by the chapter on pornography, and the account of the effect of internet porn and much wider access to it, chosen or not, including the culture among young teenagers of sending pornography to each other on mobile phones. Ugh!

The New Determinism

Walter starts the book with an account of a visit to a huge toyshop with separate floors for boys and girls, and finding herself in a sea of wall to wall pink, dominated by dolls, princess costumes and all sorts of features designed to encourage girls to model themselves on dolls. This is where the title of the book comes from. After linking the images of dolls to the images of women in various parts of the sex industry in the first half of the book, the second half is focused on the debates about nature or nurture, especially in relation to bringing up children. As a mum, I thought a lot about my own little boys when reading this, but you don’t have to be a parent or want to be to find this interesting – we were all kids once, and there is plenty here that I would argue everyone needs to think about.

This section starts with journalistic observation and anecdote and then moves on to chapters of more theoretical, analytical discussion. I was very shocked at some of the stories of casual assumptions made by children’s parents, educators and others – for example, a scene at a party where a girl in her princess dress and tiara hits a boy for not playing Pass the Parcel properly, and his running away is described as him not being very good at party games – the little girl’s aggressive, competitive attitude is totally ignored, as it doesn’t fit the parents’ theories about their children.

The theoretical sections are packed with bibliographic references – to parenting and self-help books, sociological studies and media reports – and make much more dense reading, but they are worth the effort. Again, I found plenty to be outraged by, as male and female writers and journalists from across the political spectrum conduct some highly suspect research purporting to show that differences between boys and girls are natural, and not the product of research. Depressingly, it seems that 1970s and 1980s attempts to try bringing up children in less gender stereotyped ways have been forgotten, and that most people with a view believe in genetic difference.

I was particularly interested in the interview with Marianne Grabrucker, a German lawyer who tried to bring up her daughter in a less sexist way and wrote a book about it, There’s a Good Girl (which I reviewed for my student union newspaper when it was published in the UK in 1988!). Her daughter appreciates her efforts, but a newspaper article had claimed that Grabrucker had failed to prove her theories because there are differences – Grabrucker in fact believes that her choices for her daughter were countered by other family, childcare, school, church etc.

Importantly, Walter does not confine herself to describing the various studies and theories put forward arguing in support of innate differences between girls and boys and the need to treat them differently. She is very critical of these biologically determinist theories. She also challenges the idea that these are fresh new thinking, going back in time to look at the historical theories. She even finds that in the 1920s and 1930s, different colours were used for boys and girls, but they were pink for boys and blue for girls! She points out that stereotypes themselves often affect how people behave, that girls and boys may well learn that certain behaviour is expected of them in order to fit in and be accepted. Women still earn less than men and have less status, and these new determinist theories are not just abstract, they are often the basis for arguments put forward that this is just the way things are.

Finally, Walter tries to introduce a more upbeat note into the book at the end. This is not as memorable as all the shocking stories of women in the sex industry, and the sexualisation of girls and young women from a very young age, but she describes some of the campaigns that have been set up online and offline to challenge sexism and the oppression of women. There is a Give Your Support section at the end with postal addresses, phone numbers and websites where readers can go to join in the campaigns. I plan to find out more about Pink Stinks and Women for Refugee Women (the latter organisation is not really related to the contents of this book, but it campaigns on issues close to my heart and I would like to see if I can do something more active.

I think this is an important and interesting book which more people, women and men, parents, grandparents and people who have no intention of having children should all read. Then, we should think about how we challenge stereotypes and expectations in order to create a more equal society.

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter
Published by Virago May 2011 (February 2010)
With thanks to Virago for a free review copy.

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Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism
by Natasha Walter

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