Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Written by Natasha Walter
Virago, £12.99

Reviewed by Kathryn Lamble

What interests me about Natasha Walter’s 2010 book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism is that she is returning to a point previously made. She re-examines it and arrives at a rather different conclusion, which seems bold when so many in the public eye can spend a whole career defending a single stance. Walter has based this research-driven book on the premise that her argument in the late 90s – that feminists must push for hard-line political equalities, rather than personal matters such as sexuality and clothing – was wrong.

The book is dedicated to examining and challenging what Walter paints as a chilling picture of just what the personal has turned into for many women in the 21st century. She investigates the assimilation of pornographic elements and the sex trade into popular culture. She also dedicates some time to challenging common preconceived notions of gender and how they can often become stifling stereotypes for young people.

She deconstructs the view that a woman ‘s choice to work in the sex industry, be that pole dancing, glamour modelling or even prostitution, can be a positive or empowering one. She interviews women who work in many areas of the sex industry. One of the most interesting observations is that of a university graduate who took a table dancing job to make ends meet while she was a jobbing actress. What becomes startlingly clear is her realisation that the issues at stake are power and control.

This then gives Walter the opportunity to explore the impact of the narrow version of femaleness and femininity that mainstream media presents the public with: hyper-sexualised and often silent. Walter uses this point to argue that girls are being told that the best they can do for themselves is to use their bodies and their appearance to make money, that their sex is their one instantly tradable commodity, which can be capitalised upon in a way that is empowering.

While her research is comprehensive, it is not exhaustive. I would like to have seen a more focused investigation of how capitalism plays a role in the ‘return’ of sexism. The message to young women appears to be that if you can make money from something then it must be okay, which then becomes assimilated into the feminist idea of choice. This begs to be placed under the cultural microscope and scrutinised with great concern.

I would also challenge her assessment of the Burlesque revival as stripping with ‘vintage accessories’. As an attendee of burlesque performances I would argue that the atmosphere is qualitatively different, with an air of comic parody that encourages amusement and engagement rather than titillation.

WaIter’s passion for her project seeps through every page and her willingness to reassess her former views is of great value. This is surely one of the most important aspects of the book and something that can be easily glossed over. Walter pays heed to the fact that the aims of feminism must change in line with a society that manages to depoliticise the raunch culture it sells as an empowering lifestyle. For Walter, it seems the personal has once again become highly political.

Book kindly leant by News from Nowhere.

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