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books for budding feminists: natasha walter, living dolls: the return of sexism

The main thing I learnt by reading this book is that the sexism that existed pre-1950s is definitely sneaking back into society. While today it is mostly swept under the rug and hidden away, there remain aspects that are right out in the open just begging us, as women, to make a move to change them. These include things like the way we condition children to play with either pink or blue toys based on their gender, the way we conform to stereotypes about our own behaviour and the ways we consistently try to meet the expectations placed upon us by this male dominated society.

I learnt that the current state of the marketing of children’s toys – with boys toys typically being more violent, darker coloured and bigger and girls toys being centered around pink, princesses and baby dolls – gender stereotypes are being cemented back into our culture with a vengeance.

The results are carried on through adolescence with the introduction of pornography that as a result of the Internet has changed from earlier years. Instead of presenting viewers with scenes of mutual enjoyment from both man and woman, modern day porn has transgressed such that it now depicts scenes of male domination and the overpowering of women. This is unhealthy for girls as it teaches them that male pleasure in the bedroom is more important than their own. It has also had proven negative effects on males who are encouraged to see women as sexual objects and treat them with less respect. This has compromised many relationships in both the years of adolescence and adulthood.

As we grow older we continue to feel the effects of gender stereotyping in society. Women who go into politics are criticized for their desire for power and immediately attacked for becoming less feminine, and as such are viewed as less human. This sounds dramatic but take a moment to think about Julia Gillard. I can recall multiple times when the media has overlooked important political activity to instead comment on what suit she wore, why she wore pants, who cut her hair, why she wears it like that, who she is dating, why she smiled so widely at that particular politician… The same scrutiny is rarely applied to male politicians. Indeed, while women are stripped of their womanliness and put down when they seek power, men are viewed as more masculine and more successful overall.

On the flip side, men receive a dose of sexism when it comes to raising a child and getting leave from work. Currently men in the UK are afforded two weeks paternity leave if their wife has a child. In contrast, the mother is allowed six months. There is nothing to say that men are less nurturing or less inclined to look after a young infant than women and absolutely no reason why the choice who stays home shouldn’t rest with the parents. In contrast, Australian law allows women 18 weeks paid leave, which can be taken by the father if he meets a raft of special conditions. Despite this excellent option, women are still suffering from biased treatment from employers who are less inclined to give them roles that require extra time commitments due to the assumption that they care more about their family life. This is primarily due to gender stereotyping that dictates women are more nurturing and attentive to other humans whereas men are perceived as being more mechanical and less interested in others. However, Men also suffer under these schemes as they are more often expected to stay back late, work longer hours and dedicate themselves more to their work than their female counterparts when in reality they can be just as much, if not more so, family oriented than women.

Living Dolls has really opened my eyes to a lot of things I assumed were just normal and that I accepted readily because of this. I now realise that we as women can take a stand in so many ways – like not only buying pink clothes for girls and blue for boys. It’s not a crime if a girl likes trucks and a boy likes dolls – who are we to decide what activities others should enjoy?

The one thing that really struck me however was that there also exists a culture now where women are returning once again to fill gender stereotypes willingly. Cookbooks by women such as Nigella Lawson have inspired a great resurgence of women who aspire to spend their lives in the kitchen providing for their families – not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Suddenly it’s in vogue to compete to make the best muffins at school bake sales and to have the cleanest home of all your friends. While this seems against everything feminists have fought for in the past, the difference is that women now have the choice to conform to gender stereotypes or not.

Choice is a simple thing really but it has already made such a huge difference in the lives of women. Living Doll has really taught me that it is possible for women to cause more drastic change in our society. But to do this we need to start making choices about how we want our lives to evolve, and we need to start making them now. We need to decide if we really want to be associated with glittery pink costumes, if we really want to be belittled in our careers based on our looks, if we really want to live our lives as childbearing nurturers. Only after we decide what it is we truly want can we begin to fight the sexism that is again snipping at the freedoms won by our predecessors.

The time to act is now.

2 thoughts on “books for budding feminists: natasha walter, living dolls: the return of sexism

  1. I was only ever given one doll as a child and I confess – that being at a loss as to what it was good for – I took to it with a pen, drawing all over it. It really did have the most beautiful writing surface. I guess that’s why I never got another one and why I grew up to be a writer.

  2. Pingback: Books for budding feminists: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

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