April 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ by Natasha Walter

By Linda Jaivin

Swaddled in princess pink, tottering towards adolescence on their training heels, many young girls today are growing up in the plastic, not so fantastic monoculture of what Natasha Walter calls “living dolls”. This is a world in which, for women, “sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having,” where sexual allure is defined by the porn industry and where the margins inside which alternative models of femininity may flourish are narrowing to the width of a stiletto heel.

Dissidents against this new world order struggle to be heard above the raunchy cheers for the peep-show performance that has become the dernier cri in female sexual expression. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005) was one of the first major books to examine the mainstreaming of an essentially yobbo ideal of woman: a creature made Photoshop-smooth by waxing and labiaplasty, whose sexual desires are satisfied by flashing her tits before flipping over and opening wide.

Walter demonstrates in Living Dolls that the phenomenon described by Levy is today more thoroughly entrenched than ever. Walter’s previous book, published in 1998, was titled The New Feminism. In this one she notes with some despair how the feminist ideals of “independence and self-expression” are “now sold back to young women as the narrowest kind of consumerism and self-objectification”. Her focus is on the UK, but her argument has resonance in Australia, the US and elsewhere – I’ve even heard of pole-dancing classes for girls in China.

Walter is no sexual wowser. Her concern is that, for all the recitations of the “mantra of free choice”, many young women feel pressured to assume a highly sexualised model of femininity with which they are not comfortable. Those who resist, including the tomboys, the sexually conservative, the culturally alternative and the intellectually inclined, are finding it harder and harder to find social approbation even within such environments as university campuses.

The underlying reason for this phenomenon, Walter argues persuasively, is the insidious return to respectability of biological determinism. We see this in the popularity of the sort of Mars–Venus theories that assign aptitudes in maths and science to boys while handing girls dominion over emotional communication and nurturing. Walter argues such hokum owes its resilience to “something we all feel to be true: that we are often misunderstood”. The scientific evidence is stacked against it. Yet many educators and more ‘respectable’ media have become complicit in endorsing this “new determinism”, lavishing attention on every pea-brained philosophy of sexual difference and the poor science that supports it while ignoring evidence to the contrary.

Why this matters can be summed up by the phrase “stereotype threat”. Put simply, if girls are told enough times that they are crap at maths, they will be; if it is impressed upon them enough that the key to sexual and social fulfilment is having a size-zero body with silicon balloons for breasts, that’s the goal towards which they are likely to strive. It scarcely needs saying that boys don’t benefit either: in the world of Living Dolls many play, but no one really wins.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

Cover: April 2010
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