Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Living dolls: The return of sexism by Natasha Walter

(Virago Press, £12.99)

Who took the fun out of feminism? In the frail world of Natasha Walter's Living Dolls, there's little joy in being female. Here is sexism for slow learners, chicken-soup inequality and a rather predictable commentary for a rather anxious type of chattering Londoner.

Walter's once sassy take on contemporary feminism (in The New Feminism) collapses into a book of two parts, which argues that sexism hasn't gone away, you know, and (gulp!) is getting worse as women and men buy into a sexualised culture.

Bratz, Disney Princesses and Barbie dolls are some of the hidden persuaders she sees as luring little girls into a hypersexualised slave trade, starting with an enforced passion for the colour pink and ending with the urge to take your kit off in public so you can win a Babes on the Bed competition that may lead to a glamour-modelling career.

Why do some girls do it? Walter gets down but not too dirty with a posse of lapdancers, poledancers, topless models and other contemporary fallen women, without ever really getting into their heads or ever really taking her gloves off.

Pages detail crass nightclubs and cheap sequinned thongs with a curious voyeurism that never nails the reasons why some women are complicit in the raunch culture Walter obviously, but not overtly, condemns.

Lacking Ariel Levy's wicked wit in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Walter writes as a genuine but puzzled observer, so mired in polite distaste that she can't rise to an analysis of what's goin' on. And analysis is urgent. Take Sarah Palin, portrayed as a sexual stereotype, as Walter notes (so was Hillary). Shocking that she be called a MILF? But Natasha, she is... and she milked it. What do we do with that?

Walter does undercut the fake empowerment that sells stories of how to shag your way through university fees by being a high-class prostitute -- or how to be famous by buying DDD breast implants (not a great long-term strategy).

She attacks many empty myths about biological determinism, the kind loved by the American/Afghani/ Islamic fundamentalist right.

Her sharp critique of digital porn deserves a book in itself. Good for her. The 'it's just sex' culture of one night stands is as close as she comes to anger. Walter's learning shows in how she compares it unfavourably to writer Anais Nin's erotic intimacy with her lover Henry Miller.

"This new culture of shags and three-somes, orgies and stranger f***s, seems to be replacing the culture in which sex was associated with the flowering of intimacy," she writes. It's partly true but partly alarmist and, again, undermined by the way Walter focuses on breadth of material at the expense of depth.

Worthy it is. But no De Beauvoir or early Greer incision lifts Living Dolls. The tone is too dutiful to be hard-hitting, too respectful and perhaps too enmeshed in dinner-party conversations about the challenges of bringing up daughters who'll become brain surgeons with suitable partners and two nice children and a holiday home in France.

Sexism is a serious matter, like all inequalities, but saying so doesn't help make change.

Walter fails to deliver the tough economic analyses that are so needed to explain why markets and money want to turn women (and men) into consumable commodities that fan profit flames for a few.

She can't tap into the masochism underneath the urge to be desirable at all costs and when she writes about all the mind-numbing brands in her own daughter's bedroom, you may want her to google the words 'Parents can and must say No'.

Buy 'Living Dolls: The return of sexism' from Eason

Irish Independent

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