Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – Natasha Walter

“I have been watching this hypersexual culture getting fiercer and stronger, and co-opting the language of choice and liberation.” – Natasha Walter, Living Dolls

After the Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke VMA performance some time ago I read a comment by a friend that asked the question: “Why is it that the man is always fully clothed while the woman is always half-naked?” Great question and an example of the double standards that are so rife in our society. This book does a terrific job in addressing sexism in society; feminism was supposed to empower women but unfortunately a lot of women have a false sense of empowerment.  Women still feel the need to conform to the image that society has prescribed for them, an image which is more and more defined by the sex industry.

The book challenges how we think, especially about the sex industry becoming so mainstream. Walter dissects arguments and shows us how problematic the sex industry is. Very problematic, even for women not involved in it : “The highly sexualized culture around us is tolerated and even celebrated because it rests on the illusion of equality.”

Walter’s tone is not judgmental at all. Her candid interviews with various women working in the sex industry, as well as the very disturbing opinions several British teenagers have shared with her about sexuality help cement her argument that there is really a problem here. Women are not empowered at all, violence, rape and the pressure to be perfect are things women still have to deal with.Women still experience sexual bullying, even women in positions of power and women don’t have income equality with men.

The book also addresses myths about women such as the opinion held by many that women aren’t good at math. Is it biologically determined or is it a result of socialization?

My feelings after reading this book: disgust at the fact that we have let this hypersexualized culture become so prevalent, yet relative optimism due to the fact that there is a lot of dialogue and more awareness these days.

This is a must-read for everyone.

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13 thoughts on “Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – Natasha Walter

  1. Excellent review Rowena. “The highly sexualized culture around us is tolerated and even celebrated because it rests on the illusion of equality.” – I fully agree with this statement. I have tried to get into a debate with friends telling them how the porn industry should be banned and how it is a construct of the patriarchal society but most of them (women included) seem to think pornography stands for sexual liberty and equality.
    And that question your friend raised about women being half naked while men fully clothed is so apt. How many portraits or paintings of nude men do we come across? It is the woman who is always objectified.
    I think I’ll add this book to the tbr.

    1. Thanks Samadrita!

      I have had similar conversations about pornography with people and they basically conclude that I am a prude. I wish more people realized that entertainment is more than just entertainment; there are always consequences. And the sex industry has definitely been set up to benefit the men first and foremost. I hope you enjoy the book; can’t wait to read your thoughts 🙂

  2. I’d have to read the book to leave any opinion of it here–I’d need to see exactly what the author is saying about feminism and all of the other things.

    The idea that women aren’t as good at maths? Total b.s. If this IS actually a “thing” then it’s socialization. My mother told me how she was completely ignored by her teacher in her grade school / high school maths because she was a girl / woman. When she went back to college as an adult, she excelled in maths because she wasn’t being ignored anymore.

      1. Studies show it’s utter nonsense that women are inherently worse at math, but reminding them of their gender hampers their performance! That’s some seriously insidious socialisation

  3. Women score higher than men on math tests on average. The curve of math abilities for men, however, is stretched out. That means our range is higher both at the idiot end of the curve and at the higher level of the curve as well.

    It used to be that only one of every six math “1%-ers” was a woman. Now it is one in four. Women outscore men even more now on average, but that greater curve spread for men continues to produce more men who are completely bad at math and more among the best.

    I do agree with the comments about sexism and the porno industry and in pop culture in general, but the reality you are talking about here began in the mid ’70s, at the height of the women’s liberation movement’s greatest impact. Women in pop culture began to pose nude on the cover of their albums, which, at the time, was pointed out as a tremendously mixed-message about women and exploitation. Two that I remember were Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell.

    Madonna exploited this to the tendency to the max. Essentially she took the emerging sex industry’s images, attitudes, exhibitionism and taboo-breaking, packaged it and sold it as pop-rock culture.

    You really cannot blame men for this nor can you blame “society in general”.

    Women like Madonna seek power and will use their sexuality to get it, whether if furthers women in general or not. Camille Paglia would say that it was an essential aspect of life and sexuality that needed to be reintegrated into society.

    1. We lived under an anti-sexual Christianity for centuries. The anti-sexual aspect was clearly a reaction to the excesses of pagan Rome but only further separated sex and love. The values of the monastic movement, of monks and nuns, were seeded into European culture. Even the way we danced or whether rhythm was part of music was part of this further division of mind from body that had begun under Romanization, albeit a more sex-positive pagan culture.

      Re-integrating our sexuality into full consciousness has been going on since the end of the 19th century. The trend toward romantic love, begun with Tristan and Iseult, reached full flower under Hollywood. That broke down in the sixties as marriages based on a pseudo-cure, romantic love, failed to deliver harmony and meaning in the family.

      The problem is one of lack of development of the feeling function. We are still a culture dominated by thought organized into ideologies because of that Roman-imposed mind-body split. Feeling is denigrated and confused with emotion.

      So sexuality continues to be expressed in its crudest terms, cut adrift from the greater psyche without subordination to feeling. Hence, pornographic. Exactly why lust was considered a cardinal sin.

      Differentiated feeling is the function that helps subjects relate to other subjects, whereas thought tends to be simply analytical and about object-to-object relations. So, we need to learn to feel as much as we ever needed to learn to think.

      Instead the movement to subordinate the psyche to thought has helped objectify humanity itself with its reductionism and materialism.

    2. The ‘greater male variability’ *myth* is dealt with by Cordelia Fine in her book ‘Delusions of Gender’.

      Madonna exploited the patriarchal construction of sexuality. Of course women will do what they can to succeed under patriarchy. The structure put her at a disadvantage along with all other women, then she was able to find a way to thrive within it but arguably only at the expense of other women who didn’t care to follow.

      (Oh and I have not one shred of respect for Camille Paglia. Why does the opinion of a hack mean anything? Are you suggesting that because a woman supports your opinion we should listen to her?)

  4. “Women will do what they can do to succeed under patriarchy” ?

    Really? Morality, sympathy, empathy are characteristics that Madonna had to forego in order to “succeed”? “Succeed” at what exactly?

    Sounds like the women have no flaws, as in Gloria Steinem’s famous dictum, “women are good and if a women is not good, it is because she has been hurt by a man”, as if women had no innate capability to do good and evil. That happens to be one of the most sexist comments ever made, against women, by the way, not men.

    Problem is that women have moral responsibility for their actions regardless of the existence or not of patriarchy.

    My wife is a professional dancer with a long list of accomplishments and never went along with the “Madonna Program of Success”. You don’t have to and you don’t have to have pop-culture success and multi-millions. What you need is integrity and soul.

    I have complete and total respect for Paglia, by the way. Not necessarily total agreement, but she reflects integrity, an attempt to look at the whole situation.

    1. Dude, did I say Madonna did a good thing?
      She succeeded in the obvious sense of achieving material security for herself – that’s the basic goal of getting by in life, which women have to manage somehow, often in ways they don’t like themselves. I don’t like Madonna, and she hasn’t done other women any favours, but I’m not going to join a man in bashing her for exploiting the system. Men exploit the privilege patriarchy affords them and don’t get insulted for it. Why is a woman to be held to ethical standards when men aren’t?

      I literally scoff at your demand for ‘examples and logic and reasoning’ for my ‘comments about Paglia’, who I’ve said is a hack I have no respect for. She’s a hack, and I don’t respect her. YOU cited on her as an authority, and I said I don’t care what she thinks, so the burden of making me give a toss is in your court. But please don’t bother as I’m even more indifferent to your opinion as I am to hers.

      Ditto provocative gaslighting statement on running of schools. Far be it from me to demand you logic reasoning and examples, because I don’t need your white man logic, your white man reasoning or your white man examples, since I have my own experience (I’m a teacher) and my own reading, just like Rowena and every other woman with the privilege of literacy. I’d like to suggest, rudely, that you stop mansplaining all over her blog and hightail it back to your tedious dinner party *tips hat*

  5. Patriarchy has two definitions, by the way.

    The first, a sociological one based on the extrovert’s view of the world, is that men are the heads of families and governments and thus distort society to meet their own needs at the expense of the society itself and of women in particular. Certainly it has a lot of validity.

    But, the second one, the Jungian one, says the patriarchy is based on the conscious ego’s domination of the greater mind at the expense of the Unconscious.

    Education itself today is patriarchal. Much of what passes for progress and progressive thought is repackaged secularist patriarchal thought with its materialism, reductionism, and, in the case of deconstructionism, blatant sense of contradiction, lack of universality.

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