Gen Y's Feminist Mistake

Is the work of women’s liberation done?

Interview By Sheila Weller
Photograph: Illustration by: Joe McKendry

In Enlightened Sexism (Times Books), social critic Susan J. Douglas lobs a bomb at the assumption that the work of women’s liberation is done. After analyzing thepopular culture that younger women have consumed for the past 20 years(Melrose Place, The Hills), she’s convinced that retro, self-sabotaging messages are on an upswing.

MORE You’ve said, jokingly, “Every girl wants a feminist mother looking over her shoulder when she watches TV.” What is it about your daughter’s viewing choices that dismays you?
DOUGLAS I turn on the TV and watch tough-as-nails women, such as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order; my daughter watches reality shows about sexual self-display. I was struck by these two very different sets of fantasies about power.
MORE Enlightened sexism is your term for the fantasy sold to your daughter’s generation. Explain.
DOUGLAS It’s the idea that sexist stereotypes can’t hurt us anymore. Why? Because a woman ran for president and we’ve got female surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy. The thinking is, now that young women can be anything they want, they should focus on pleasing men and shopping.
MORE Many of the female role models you write about are part villain.
DOUGLAS We get mixed messages. But I still like movies such as Legally Blonde. Despite everything, they portray genuine struggles young women con-front: being pulled in one direction by feminism and in another by femininity.
MORE How do you feel about the controversial show Gossip Girl?
DOUGLAS I was shocked by the threesome. But the series is about young women with power, however malignantly deployed. The tone is ironic, so you’re not supposed to take it seriously. The writers get away with content that would have been thrown off the air by 1970s-era feminists for being sexist.

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