The media giveth (and taketh away)

The depiction of women in the media has been the topic of countless articles; deliberators have filled many pages of text since the first person flipped on their television set and saw June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls. Some take the stance that there has been a drastic change since then, that we have come a long way with powerful characters such as Xena and MacKenzie Allen, the first woman president of the United States from the television show, Commander in Chief. Others conclude that with prime-time hits like The Bachelor, we’ve only moved backwards. Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism – The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, posits a third opinion that is wrapped in the concept of enlightened sexism.
Douglas uses her refined wit and sassy sarcasm to engage her audience as she critiques the media in a chronological voyage beginning with early examples of the cast of Cheers, and the long-time American favorite, Murphy Brown, to the heroine figures of Xena and Buffy, to reality television’s The Real World and Project Runway. She uses examples of how women in society have been portrayed through our nightly entertainment for the last two decades and how these fantastical depictions have made it justifiable to display women in such obviously denigrating light.

Enlightened sexism, as defined by Douglas, “insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved – so now it’s okay, even amusing to resurrect sexist stereotypes of women. After all, these images can’t possibly undermine women’s equality at this late date, right? More to the point, enlightened sexism sells the line that is precisely through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power.”

Douglas’ wry sense of humor and well-formed critique flows throughout as she tackles the many avenues that enlightened sexism has traversed and influenced. She touches upon the news media and its obsession with female assertiveness and how it is often tied with masculinity. She explains the success of Xena, the Warrior Princess, as being a combination of the right amount of tough and sexy. On the one hand fulfilling a fantasy where women are no longer the victims but the ones in power, and on the other, maintaining women as objects of sexuality. This combination proved to be a recipe for success in our rapidly evolving entertainment world.

Douglas also covers the portrayal of Black women in American media. She posits that the success of Black women actors and media personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah, may lead us to believe that our work is done here. Their successes make us comfortable and complacent to the clear cases of racism that inflicts our country so heavily even today, especially in our media. Through analyzing the many different characters and television representations over the last two decades, she concludes that not only have Black women been misrepresented, and type-casted, they have also been boxed into only a few character representations that the American public feels comfortable swallowing along with their TV dinners each night.

Throughout this interesting read full of choice examples and trips down TV- memory lane, Douglas covers a variety of topics ranging from the incredibly crass and obvious sexism that is seen in most reality television shows, to the burgeoning trend of younger and younger girls being flaunted as sex objects even on prime-time programming. Douglas critiques the contradictions, the mixed messages, and the consequences of our spoon-fed media consumption with a fine-tooth comb, and leaves her readers with a refined ability to look more critically at their evening entertainment. As the author states best, “what media giveth with one hand (which is why we love them) they taketh away with the other hand (which is why they endlessly piss us off).”
Sarrah AbuLughod is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah


  • Saadia says:

    It is interesting that Douglas thinks that the problems of sexism are over.

    Women who seek to work and progress in their careers still face challenges and high expectations – whether it is balancing work with their domestic lives, overcoming misrepresentations of their personality, facing social pressures, or adjusting to new expectations as they adapt to and traverse different cultural norms.

    This is still relevant for immigrants and it is indeed relevant if one wants to understand diversity in women.

    According to Fatima Mernissi, feminists in Morocco were the ones who nurtured dreams: for those looking to advance the development of women, understanding their personal and culturally-specific plight (that is, within Morocco) seemed to be paramount.

    I still find it praiseworthy and very necessary, but it is challenging when confronted with that same diversity.

  • Saadia says:

    It is amusing that you write “More to the point, enlightened sexism sells the line that it is precisely through women???s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire and sexuality that they gain and enjoy true power.???

    Just last night I was watching a video of Madhuri Dixit performing in the Devdas movie – I would certainly call her one of the best Kathak dancers in India and that is why I watch her. There is something to be said for expression through dance, performed in good taste, even though it can be a difficult cultural barrier to overcome, and not always encouraged in public.

    But ironically, the poetry in the Urdu/Hindi verses are not about a false sense of female liberation. Instead they speak to a sense of grief, using the classic Urdu idiom of eating the thorns of flowers. She speaks about someone (Devdas) deliberately killing her while creating desire.

    ~~ Certainly not a contemporary wish women hold – If you know of any such fantastic men please tell us about it!~~

    She is calculating as a ???tawaif??? (prostitute) but it shouldn???t be confused with all performing arts (Ashwariya was with her anyways. Dancing in India is really common now.)

    The liberation is not in her lack of problems – it is in her ability to express herself fully and skillfully through art. Even though it is well-rehearsed and only lasts for a little while, she moves the audience along in her personal journey. It utilizes physicality but transcends it to encompass the terrain of soul.

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