One-Dimensional Woman/Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism

"Where have all the interesting women gone?" asks Nina Power in One-Dimensional Woman. This is an attack not on her own sex, but on
a mirage, the physically perfect yet politically empty image of womanhood that pervades our culture. In her vision, the buzzwords of feminism - choice, self-expression, freedom - have been co-opted by an exploitative and homo­genising consumerism that alienates women from themselves, from others and from the world around them.

This is a tiny but deadly bullet of a book, aimed at the false construction of the "liberated" female. But to this, Power, a lecturer in philosophy, adds a sharp awareness of the way gender functions under capitalism, linking it inextricably to class, race, money and power. Until the deeper system and its ideology change, she argues, the presence of women in positions of authority will make no difference. As the author notes, "Condoleezza Rice may well have been the United States secretary of state, but it was black women (and black men and children) who suffered most during Hurricane Katrina."

Scathing and scattergun, One-Dimensional Woman offers a series of diverting and highly original quips, riffs and considerations. Power variously laments the demise of vintage porno­graphy, in which men and women of all shapes and sizes delightedly joggled along together, exposes the hypocrisy of arguments against the hijab, and deplores the dearth of mainstream films that feature independent-minded female characters. Her tour de force is a hilarious analysis of the contradictions of the Sarah Palin phenomenon.

Above all, she reserves her disdain for a primarily American strain of feminism characterised by upbeat individualism, a triumphalist tone and a "total lack of structural analysis, genuine outrage or collective demand". She singles out the blogger Jessica Valenti's assertion that young women can be feminists and still be “attractive" (to whom, I wonder, and why?). The book crackles pleasingly with disgust at such tame aspirations.

No doubt Power would have been underwhelmed by The New Feminism, Natasha Walter's first book, published in 1998, in the flush of optimism that accompanied the entry into Tony Blair's first cabinet of a group of women (they were soon undermined). Walter was criticised for putting forward a tepid and naive argument which suggested that if more women were visible in public life, discrimination would end. Things have changed considerably since. The coolly devastating precision of her second book,Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, is all the more potent for its patient description of a viciously misogynistic culture.

Living Dolls is a call to arms. Like Power, Walter identifies the bond between gender and consumerism - "the brilliant marketing strategies of [brands such as Bratz and Disney] are managing to fuse the doll and the real girl". She traces the "doll" ideal - small waist, big breasts, exposed flesh, no brain - to the sex industry and explains how it has spread, reaching even prepubescent children, thanks to the pornification of mainstream culture.

At this crucial moment in women's history, Walter provides a crystal-clear enunciation of the hypocrisy, shallowness and misogyny of our age. Her assessment ranges widely, from pole-dancing classes, sold as empowering fun for liberated women, to the realities of the gendered pay gap, workplace sexism and sexual violence. Walter has interviewed prostitutes, men's magazine editors, young women in the feminist movement and (most chillingly) the very women who must accept their own objectification, even though they are disturbed by it. She speaks to teenage girls who have been sexually bullied, are surrounded by "raunch culture" and feel pressure to behave with sexual submissiveness although neither sexuality nor submissiveness comes naturally to them. Says one: "It's just like you don't have any choice - you feel that as you grow up you have to start dressing that way, acting that way."

The second half of the book, subtitled "The New Determinism", is an effective debunking of the "new research" and tiresome evolutionary myths that are used to justify the same old stereotyping and discrimination. Walter ana­lyses the way "hypersexual culture . . . has reflected and exaggerated the deeper imbalances of power in our society". The onward march of the dolls conceals the "relentless masculinity of British politics" and its inability to achieve equality between the sexes.

She is especially enlightening on the ubiquity of pornography and its effect on both girls' and boys' understanding of gender. Her young interviewees have seen porn since their early teens and its perpetuation of misogyny has had real and far-reaching consequences. She quotes a 2006 survey from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: "Nearly half of teenage girls . . . had had their breasts or bottom groped against their wishes. More than half of girls who had experienced unwanted sexual touching had experienced it more than once."

Power and Walter share an uneasiness about what capitalism has done to women in the name of feminism, or choice, or freedom. The despair, claustrophobia and sense of limitation described by Walter are a frightening wake-up call. We are no longer in the realm of merely wishing for or working towards female equality within the present system. Instead, these two authors have resurrected a far older and more powerful drive: a call to revolution that kicks Nuts magazine right in the nuts.

Bidisha is a broadcaster and novelist

One-Dimensional Woman
Nina Power
Zero Books, 128pp, £7.99

Living Dolls
Natasha Walter
Virago, 288pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street