Reviewed by Anna-Helga Horrox
Natasha Walter's book on 'the return of sexism' does not claim that misogyny ever went away. But it displays an intense frustration with what Walter sees as growing inequality, many decades after the women's liberation movement first fought to bring feminist concerns to public attention. On the whole it presents a compelling argument, and serves to warn against complacency for anyone imagining that gender inequality is a thing of the past.
The cover image does not bode well. It is a photo of a Barbie doll in a pink dress playing fig leaf to the crotch of a naked female torso--a slim, tan, white torso. While witty, the picture might elicit a wince from those wary (and weary) of the cultural saturation of airbrushed images of female bodies. It echoes the cover of Jessica Valenti's 2007 book Full Frontal Feminism, which featured a similarly white, toned female stomach. Whether or not the cover is ambiguous, the book itself is an impressive and timely contribution.
The text is divided into two sections: 'The New Sexism' and 'The New Determinism'. The first part addresses Britain's increasingly hyper-sexualised culture, exploring lap-dancing, prostitution and pornography. Walter argues that girls learn that their worth as humans lies solely in their ability to emulate a narrow, performative sexiness--the 'Living Dolls' of the title. Both the growing normalisation of the sex industry and the prevalence of the glamour-model ideal encourage men to see women as objects rather than people, and restrict everyone's understanding of sexuality and desire.
This is a powerful point. Lads' mags with naked cover models are displayed at children's eye level in most corner-stores, and pre-teens have access to reams of explicit material via their phones and computers. As a result, a whole generation is absorbing graphic messages about what sex should be before they have any direct experience of it. The ubiquitous, physically exaggerated, emotionally lifeless aesthetic of porn can shape people's lives and relationships and feelings about their bodies. Walter wants to make the case that the fleeting attention women might enjoy as a desirable object is not real empowerment, and that the sexual 'liberation' of young women is not necessarily freeing. However, in working to defend a broader, more holistic concept of human intimacy, she comes uncomfortably close to judging some of the young women she interviews...