Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – Natasha Walter

(Virago 2010)

Like Ariel Levy in her earlier book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture, Natasha Walter argues in this well-researched and quietly angry book that women* are themselves becoming complicit in a current “hypersexual” culture, particularly aimed at them, which is inhibiting them from really fighting for and living in a more equal society. Walter is particularly angry that inconclusive biological and neurological research is being used to suggest that the differences between men and women, and thus their careers and aspirations, are biologically, not socially, determined, and cites a wealth of other research which seems to prove otherwise.

“I think it is time to challenge the exaggerated femininity that is being encouraged among women in this generation, both by questioning the resurgence of the biological determinism which tells us that genes and hormones inexorably drive us towards traditional sex roles, and by questioning the claustrophobic culture that teaches many young women that it is only through exploiting their sexual allure that they can become powerful. Of course, it has to be a woman’s own choice if she makes a personal decision to buy into any aspect of what might be seen as stereotypically feminine behaviour, from baking to pole-dancing, from high heels to domestic work. I am just as sure as I ever was that we do not need to subscribe to some dour and politically correct version of feminism in order to move towards greater equality. But we should be looking for true choice, in a society characterised by freedom and equality. Instead, right now a rhetoric of choice is masking very real pressures on this generation of women. We are currently living in a world where those aspects of feminine behaviour that could be freely chosen are often turning into a cage for young women.”

from the introduction, Dolls (p14)

That paragraph from her introduction more-or-less sums up Walter’s thesis in this book, and it’s one with which I strongly agree.

I read this book in one afternoon: Walter writes well, using a wealth of personal interviews, and her take on feminism chimes with my own. The anger she feels is palpable, but her book doesn’t descend into mere incoherent rage: it’s very carefully argued, and convincing. It should be required reading for all young women (and those older, too), for its guidance about how to resist the all-pervasive idea of feminine sexual attractiveness (born of the increasingly mainstream porn industry).

I do wonder, however, how many of the people who should read this book ever will – Walter makes the point that it is not just girls who are served up with rigid definitions of what it means to be one particular sex – so it isn’t just an important book for women. Though I suppose those of us who do can be armed against the pervasive “raunch culture” and help others to arm themselves against its insidious clutches.

This is an important and timely book: I encourage you to read it.


*Walter makes clear in her introduction that she is only considering Western, predominantly British, heterosexual culture, though without suggesting “that other experiences are not just as valid and vital”. Other cultures have their own struggles and experiences which Walter does not attempt to cover. That’s probably the subject of another book, and I think she has quite enough material for the book she has written.

This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Non-fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – Natasha Walter

  1. Jenny says:

    I am always a little worried that I am betraying feminism when I wear high heels. But I love being taller! :p

    • ela21 says:

      Wearing high heels as such isn’t betraying feminism, in my opinion – it’s whether or not one buys into the whole “dressing like a porn star shows how liberated I am” kind of schtick, which it really doesn’t. I think a lot of Muslim women go too far in the opposite direction, but one can see why they’d want to reject that aesthetic. Being sexy is not about looking like a porn star – and both men and women should know that.

  2. Pingback: Review of 2010 in books « Ela's Book Blog

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