New review: Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

// 3 February 2010

Natasha Walter’s latest book reflects her change of heart since The New Feminism, but Melanie Newman argues the result is a mixed bag

nwaltercover.jpgIn 1998, Natasha Walter said young women were fed up with being made to feel guilty for wearing mini-skirts. Feminists should forget policing women’s clothes and sexual behaviour, she argued in The New Feminism, and concentrate on financial and social inequalities.

The personal, it seemed, was no longer political.

A year later, Walter complained that her words had been used to undermine feminist critiques of the beauty and sex industries. She pointed out: “Young women were being sold personal rather than political empowerment, and young women particularly are under the constant blandishments of a culture that tells them that the only way to feel empowered is through shopping and plastic surgery.” She was “shocked by the way ‘new feminism’ was taken as a code for a watered-down, depoliticised kind of empowerment, the very opposite of what I was arguing”.

In her latest book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Walter distances herself further from her earlier work, admitting: “I was entirely wrong.” Living Dolls builds on existing critiques of the ‘hypersexualised culture’, such as Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, and shows how the poorest women are bearing the brunt of its effects as they increasingly see lap-dancing and glamour modelling as the only route to a better life. “The middle classes can dismiss it as being of no relevance to their own lives or the lives of their daughters,” she argues. “Some of the men who create and support this culture do so in the belief that they can protect their own families from its effects.”

Walter interviewed Dave Read, director of Neon Management, which manages glamour models. He says he would “die” if his daughter wanted to follow in the footsteps of model Jodie Marsh. Phil Edgar-Jones, creative director of Big Brother, says he hopes his daughter would have “different aspirations” from the surgically enhanced young women on his programme. “I encourage her to read books,” he says. “Other people have different backgrounds.”

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