LIVING DOLLSby Natasha Walter

I have been inside a strip club exactly once in my life – it was to get ice for the bar I worked in next door, and the club was just as depressing as I thought it would be. When I told someone I did not want to spend the last part of a going-away party going to one, I was told I was a dry-balls. And people say sexism is dead! Mind you, that’s me presenting anecdotal evidence, and I doubt that would please Natasha Walter, if Living Dolls is anything to go by…

While overall it is concerned with the resurgence of sexism in modern culture, Living Dolls is quite literally a book of two halves – the first half is concerned with bringing its readers onto the same level before it engages in the latter half with the primary social concerns it wants not simply to address but to amend. The central thesis of the book is that the central ideas and tenets of feminism and empowerment have been co-opted by various agencies – the media, marketing, big business and beyond – and instead espouse notions that are only superficially beneficial to The Finer Gender (if even that much). In reality, these tactics could be most positively described as  cynically subversive. Key targets include lads magazines, in which Walter tracks the moral decline in comparison to rising sales; the (de)regulation of strip clubs, charting the behaviours expected and actual therein; the increasingly sexualised media and celebrity culture, much of which through intent or chance finding its way to our young and very young; and the social modelling and programming which simultaneously usurps and undermines genuine feminism.

The first striking matter brought to our attention is an admission of guilt by Walter herself: “I once believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was wrong.” In one statement, she debunks her earlier works as an over-optimistic hope and instead presses on to try and examine both where she went wrong and how we can move forward. Rather than being an admission of weakness as most writers would fear, the acceptance with which Walter admits the flaws of her earlier work strengthens her position, presenting us with a viewpoint which is both open to and encouraging of new ideas and solutions, girded by experience and a wariness which is vital to proceed through a delicate and vicious mire of truths, counter-truths and flat-out lies presented otherwise. There is a lack of self-pity at work, and it informs the tone and argument immensely – much like the issues raised, Walter admits to the matter, defines and explains it, and then moves on.

As mentioned above, the first half brings all readers onto the same level, rather than presupposing a set degree of knowledge. Using case studies rather than an assault of  theoretical exposition, we are shown the key areas of concern, from the obvious and blatant strip clubs and nightclub scenes to the more insidious exploitation of college and school students (who are being increasingly demeaned for not wanting to be a part of the sexy-hawt in-group). At least some of what is on display should be known to readers, but there can also be surprises (not watching television, I was unaware of shows which follow women through their labial reconstruction surgeries which occur not because of necessary biological requirements but perceived socially conditions and a need to resemble their favourite celebrities on a disturbing level).

The latter half deals much more heavily with the social impact and consequences, with an emphasis on the scientific and practical theories and solutions. It’s in this section that the media comes under an especial scrutiny, particularly in regard to their scientific reportage. It is here that the good writer’s outrage becomes bilious, since the obfuscation of facts in favour of headlines becomes highly correlative. Data can, after all, be not necessarily altered but interpreted more openly to match the thesis under scrutiny, or to suit a pre-existing bias, not just by the media but by well-known luminaries such as Steven Pinker. Unsurprisingly, one of the few who come out of this unscathed is Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame), who takes similar issue with under-informed  scientific reportage.

The book is also conscious of the position of men – while her major concern is the openness to which women allow the sexism to resume / continue / exploit, she does not let the penile camp off the hook nor the sole bearers of the responsibility (it being, after all, a tome demanding responsibility of self). Critically, she considers how men suffer in a longitudinal fashion from the same issues. She allows male readers a certain sympathy and ability to relate more directly to the issues at hand. One of the saddest examples Walter relates for us is the crushing gender roles which are enforced at the cost of individuality, such as when a young boy wants to be dance rather than play football, and play with Disney princess figures rather than “traditional” male pursuits (his mother buys him a Little Mermaid doll, his father cuts its hair to make it seem more masculine).

While I would be uncertain as to how useful this would be to a seasoned feminist, the book acts as a superb primer or refresher to the field and current theory. While offering a simple and direct style of writing, it does not lack for elegance, and is thoroughly enjoyable to read. Walter does not leave anyone who reads wondering what to do next, should their ire be thoroughly stoked by the end of the book – groups, both of action and support bearing a wide range of levels on which to participate, are suggested in the closing pages, to say nothing of the additional reading suggested, both in the text and bibliography. All in all, an excellent read which will make you very, very angry when you go into your local newsagent.

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