On Tuesday night, Natasha Walter talked about her book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism with an audience of invited book club members, at our third live Virago Book Club event. As with previous events, it was an evening of lively and thought-provoking discussion, with many fascinating points raised and perceptive observations made by both Natasha and VBC members. Topics ranged from the increase in the hyper sexual culture, to stereotyping and the roles of the media and the internet. For those that couldn't make it, what follows is our summary of the main discussion points . . .
To begin, Natasha explained how the book came about. Her previous book The New Feminism, (published in 1998) had ended positively, suggesting that whilst the task for women and feminists was not complete, there was definite improvement both politically and economically. Revisiting it years later, Natasha was struck by how improvements had stalled and instead of a reduction in sexism, there was now a vast increase. Natasha felt like a lone voice at the start of her investigation and was spurred on to write by people she spoke to. It was the desperate voice of one teenage girl in particular who exclaimed to Natasha “I thought I was the only woman who didn’t like pornography.”
Natasha went on to explain the structure of the two parts to Living Dolls as the two main factors she believes that are holding women back.
The first is the rise of the ‘hyper sexual culture.’ Natasha explained she wanted to unpack the way in which the issue of choice continually silenced any protest about the objectification and hyper sexualisation of women.
The second part of the book focuses on biological determinism triggered by Natasha having a daughter of her own.
Lennie Goodings then opened up the questions to the group, starting off by asking if people were shocked by the realisations of biological determinism. Many felt frustrated that we can’t seem to change stereotypes in our society, one even said at times she had been guilty of relaxing back into a stereotype. Natasha agreed, sharing a story of how she told a friend of hers that she took her daughter to an art gallery to which her friend replied "I wish I had a girl (she had a son) then I could take her to the art gallery" immediately putting girls and boys into their stereotyped boxes.
One member asked if this hyper sexualised culture arose from one section of society, namely the lower classes. While Natasha agreed that it could be applied to women who have fewer options, she was keen to emphasise that we would have our heads in the sand if we think that all girls are not affected. Natasha used examples of women in public life, who got there through their intelligence and talents, being subjected to criticism in terms of their looks and sexuality. This idea of misrepresentation was also discussed in response to the recent Slut Walk protests. The media chose to focus on the image of these women dressed as 'sluts' parading through the city streets rather than what they were protesting against: that sex crime victims should not be blamed for being provocative by what they're wearing. In response to the class question Natasha also used examples of girls from prominent public schools and top universities who had chosen to be glamour models, strippers and pole dancers. Despite talk of empowerment, Natasha thought that this wasn’t the view she had in mind of a liberated woman.
Another interesting subject that was frequently returned to was the role of the internet. Natasha said she had to admit that the internet has played a large role in the sexualisation of culture. A member of the group discussed the rise of ‘display personality’ by social networking sites like Facebook making it acceptable and commonplace for young girls to post nude and ‘sexy’ pictures of themselves − in order for them to be viewed and judged by other people. The increase and availability of pornography across all media platforms, most prominently the internet, was also a cause for concern among many of the members of the audience. People felt it was damaging to young adults and added to this acceptance of a hyper sexualised culture.
A member of the audience brought up the issue of the sexualisation of children that has become prominent in the media. Natasha responded by identifying that whilst children and young girls have always been sexual, advertising can objectify women. She was careful to mention, however, that her intention was not to revert to a puritan mentality in which chastity was the answer. Natasha stressed that we need to prevent young women being brought up with the idea of presenting themselves as the perfect sexual object.
Earlier in the day we asked readers to tweet in their questions to Natasha. We put a few of these to Natasha during the event and her answers are below.
How can we engage younger women with the new feminist issues without them feeling like they are moaning for no good reason? Sally Page / sjpagey
Women have been beaten down in the past by this kind of criticism, for example by feminists being called humourless. But its important to engage a wider audience and help young women fight back, and I can definitely see that happening at the moment.
What do you think of Caitlin Moran’s new book, is it really a new feminist bible? Zeljka Marosevik, Zmarosevik
I found it a very funny and engaging read that made me laugh out loud. I hope it will encourage more women to say they are feminists. If I have any criticism it is that this very personal focus doesn't allow for much discussion of how we create change and how we act politically.
Ethical porn, porn for the female gaze, and such, are more available online, are these supporting porn culture, or part of it? Mora, somanybees
From what I've seen so far, I'm not convinced that porn made for women or by women is any different from male orientated pornography. What I've seen isn't about women exploring their sexuality but still about women being objectified.
Isn’t new feminism a western-limited approach? Shouldn’t we care first about women in Somalia and Arghanistan? Georgia Panteli, georgiamagpie
Is sexism only limited to materialistic, established, competitive societies? Do we see as much evidence in developing worlds? Nicolab03
We certainly see sexism in developing countries; anyone who has visited, say, Afghanistan or the Congo or met women from those countries will have been struck – maybe even overwhelmed – by the immense struggles women face in non-Western countries. Although I wrote my books about women in the West, I can see that some of the most pressing problems faced by women in the world today are in non-Western societies. I set up the charity Women for Refugee Women which works specifically with women who are fleeing persecution from other countries (very often the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan), and I've learned a lot from them about the experiences of women elsewhere. So I'm certainly very aware of the international context to women's struggles for human rights and what I see of women's experiences in other countries makes me absolutely certain that feminism is internationally relevant. If I haven't yet written a book about feminism in an international context, it's partly because I'm still learning so much….
Do you think that women are perpetrators of supposed gender crimes committed against them and therefore responsible for the current state of affairs? Stephanella Walsh, Stephanellaw
I don't think women are responsible for the current state of affairs, no. On the whole, women are not raping other women, paying other women to strip for them, buying pornography which shows women being abused, and so on. I'm not saying that all men are perpetrators or that all women are victims; most men are decent and some women are complicit in sexism. But we do still live in an unequal society in which women have less power and less of a voice than men do – let's not lose sight of this underlying inequality.
Natasha finished by addressing our current situation and the next steps forward. She feels that there is an illusion of equality − that we have got pretty far and that this illusion has allowed us to become complacent. We are not educating the next generation and we are not challenging this hyper sexual culture enough. Natasha was keen to stress that she was not interested in the personal criticism of people; she is not there to tell people that they are wrong in the choices they have made. Instead, her intentions reside in unpacking what causes them to make that choice.
Undoubtedly, the conversation could have gone on much longer, but sadly we had to finish there. Thanks once again for those that came and made it such a success. And if you'd like to come to the next event, then why not join the our book group – we'd love to hear from you.
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