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