03 July, 2007

Two feminist books

My feminist group recently discussed Naomi Wolf's The beauty myth and Imelda Whelehan's Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminism.

The beauty myth was a satisfying piece of polemic, but I had a lot of problems with it. It describes something which is central to my life and to the lives of the (mostly youngish, mostly middle class) women I know: the constant commercial pressure to be more beautiful, more soignée, better dressed, thinner, younger looking, and it describes it superbly: the chapter on eating disorders is very powerful, and Wolf's analysis of the plastic surgery industry is impressively prescient now that having one's boobs done has become almost mainstream. But the book falls down when Wolf attempts to stretch the pressure to be beautiful into the overarching structure oppressing women today.

She begins with a chapter on the workplace, which I think is her weakest: she refers to employment court cases in which women have had sackings and demotions upheld by courts who agreed that their personal appearance did not meet the accepted standards - but many of her cases are old (mid-seventies) and from notoriously sexist employers: the US airlines and Playboy. It's difficult to sympathise with a writer who claims that the need to have plastic surgery constitutes a dangerous working environment, especially when one considers the millions of women all round the world who undergo far more dangerous working environments - garment workers in 'invisible' sweatshops in the East End of London, for example.

While I agree with what she says, the main problem for me with this book was that it is not political enough, and that she tries to make one aspect of women's oppression, 'beauty', become the overriding oppressive structure, at least in the Western world. She refers several times to Betty Friedan's The feminine mystique, which I think is telling: it's another book which is less political than it could have been, but which also successfully and powerfully defined an oppressive cultural structure for millions of (mostly middle class) women in the 60s. The wider-ranging analysis of Susan Faludi's Backlash, published in the same year as The beauty myth (1991) seems more successful to me. [40]

The other book we read, Overloaded, was less impressive: it's a feminist analysis of various aspects of popular culture of the late nineties (the 'ladette' phenomenon, Loaded magazine and ironic sexism, the 'Girl Power' of the Spice Girls, and the ineffectual 'singletons' Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones). It's sadly dated, which is always a risk when analysing the most ephemeral level of pop culture, but it also misses its mark on more than one occasion. I've always read Bridget Jones, for example, as a (gentle) satire on the ineffectual Cosmo readers who believe calorie-counting and a positive mental outlook is what will eventually make them happy; Whelehan seems to take it all too seriously. Her discussion of the 'ladettes', too, is mainly confined to hand-wringing and complaints that these women don't understand what feminism is all about; it seems to me that any feminist look at women who are behaving 'like men' must take into account the fact that these women are being celebrated for behaving like men in a way that wasn't possible forty years ago: superficial phenomenon though this is, is does represent a widening of women's possible behaviours and is therefore a liberation, at least of of sorts. [41]

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