Taking on the sexist revival
'It is very silencing for young women . . . If you're constantly told you have no sense of fun, it makes it very hard to get serious about these issues,' says Natasha Walter
Is it time for feminism to take itself more seriously again? A growing awareness of the continued gender stereotyping of girls and young women has convinced writer Natasha Walter that it is, she tells ANNA CAREY
WHAT ARE little girls made of? If you’ve been in a toy or children’s clothes shop recently, you may think the the answer is pink, pink and more pink, with maybe a hint of frills and glitter. These days it’s hard to find anything aimed at little girls, from Babygros to computer games, that isn’t a sickly pastel shade. After writer Natasha Walter’s daughter was born nine years ago, she couldn’t believe that this was, in the 21st century, our girls’ world.
“It really did shock me,” she says. “I really thought we would have moved on by now. I thought people would get more relaxed about girls and boys crossing traditional boundaries, but the opposite seems to have happened. People were determined to surround my daughter with this deluge of pink. And there were the attitudes I kept knocking into, even among perfectly liberal left-wing families, who seemed to be bringing up their children in a way that seemed totally 1950s to me.”
This obsession with the trappings of stereotypical girliness doesn’t stop as girls get older. Young women are increasingly encouraged to define themselves by their sexual attractiveness. Walter believes it’s all connected.
“It’s the way our society still tries to box girls up into this doll-like way of life,” she says. “When they’re really little it’s about putting these pink things on to them, which makes assumptions about ideal femininity, and then as they get older it’s pushing them towards this sexualised way of behaviour. I think it’s two sides of the same thing and it’s what we used to call sexism, even though somehow this word seems to have gone out of fashion.”
It was a growing awareness of these developments that inspired Walter’s new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism(Virago, £12.99), her first since her 1998 debut, The New Feminism. Back then, a lot of feminist debate was centred around popular culture and women’s personal lives. At the time, Walter believed that concentrating purely on political and social power was more important. As she writes in Living Dolls, “I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away.”
But gradually she found herself changing her mind. A few years ago she did a public event with acclaimed feminist author Naomi Wolf, author of the groundbreaking The Beauty Myth. “Young women were standing up saying ‘I’m really angry about lad magazines’, and Naomi Wolf and I were saying: ‘Oh, let’s not get too hung up on representations of women, it’s about seeking power.’ It’s as though we weren’t hearing properly what was really troubling young women. I realised I wanted to listen again.”
Walter’s own childhood was far removed from today’s princessy pinkness. She was born in 1967 into a politically active family. Her father, Nicolas, was a well-known anarchist writer and her mother, Ruth, was a social worker and feminist who, like many mothers in the 1970s, was determined to bring her daughters up in a new way.
“It wasn’t like she was a dour refusenik – we had dolls, she bought me my first make-up when we were older,” says Walter. “She hated Barbie, which she thought was such an absurd image of femininity. And she was very insistent that we should do things in our lives that weren’t about how we looked.”
Walter always considered herself a feminist, but admits she became rather complacent and apolitical in her late teens. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, she didn’t join any women’s group and wasn’t involved in any activism. After graduating, she worked at Vogueand later the UK Independentand the Guardian. “It was when I started working that I realised ‘hang on, there’s still a lot to be done here, because what I take for granted others aren’t even beginning to consider’,” she says.
SHE HAS WRITTENabout feminist issues ever since. Living Dollswas partly inspired by the women who wrote to her in response to her columns in the Guardian, expressing their dismay at a world where they were expected to be constantly sexually available and sexual objectification of women was the norm.
“These girls felt frustrated by the fact that if they tried to raise things they’d be told: ‘Where’s your sense of humour? We’re all equal now, we’re just having a laugh.’ This is very silencing for young women,” says Walter. “If you’re constantly told you have no sense of fun, it makes it very hard to get serious about these issues. I wanted to try and rescue those arguments from that sort of belittling.”
But Walter is frustrated by the way the book has been misrepresented in the media. Several newspapers have used her depiction of glamour model competitions in nightclubs to argue that feminism has somehow “gone too far” and failed women. The Daily Mail ran an extract from the book with the headline: “Feminism aimed to liberate women. Instead, it’s spawned a promiscuous generation who believe that their bodies are their only passport to success.”
Walter couldn’t believe it. “I thought that headline was outrageous,” she says. Beforehand, she and her partner had actually been joking about how the Mail would cover the book. “We were laughing that they’d say ‘Feminist recants her views!’ But I didn’t believe they’d actually do it! It’s such a misrepresentation of what I was trying to say. I don’t think this is the result of feminism. I think it’s the result of sexism, and we need feminism all the more to move towards equality.”
Her publishers contacted the Mail, and the headline was changed in the online version of the story. But it shows how willing some elements in the media are to present feminism, and indeed gender equality, in a negative light. The second half of Walter’s book examines the rise of biological determinism and the belief that gender traits are innate, which has been attracting a lot of attention in recent years. Walter points out that even the flimsiest, most unscientific studies that indicate innate gender roles – such as one that claimed women evolved to prefer pink – receive huge amounts of coverage while those that indicate otherwise are ignored, even in supposedly liberal publications such as the Guardian. And when these determinist studies are reported, the writers often claim that they are challenging some sort of ruling feminist orthodoxy.
“It’s funny that we’re always being told that there’s this big taboo about but from on my side it feels like the taboo is working the other way,” says Walter wryly. “And it’s very striking that this language surrounds the resurgence of biological determinism, the idea that these people are the daring breakers of the taboo and those who say we should look at social factors are the orthodoxy, whereas really the balance has shifted the other way.”
IT’S A REMINDERthat feminism is still seen as very threatening by a lot of people. “People are very defensive of the status quo,” says Walter. “Feminism isn’t just a debate about our public lives; it goes right to heart of how we conduct our personal lives. I think people can get defensive because it does ask them to reassess how they’re living. It’s still revolutionary for many people, so defensiveness is only to be expected. And is reassuring, it stops you having to question way things are. Falling in with norm is an easier way to live.”
But there will always be women – and men – who are willing to challenge stereotypes. While the media, including some older feminists, often wilfully ignore the existence of younger feminists, a few minutes online will reveal hundreds of vibrant feminist communities all over the world. There is a sense of international solidarity, and Walter herself is the founder of the London-based Women for Refugee Women, championing the rights of female asylum seekers. But despite this, hardly a week goes by without a columnist declaring that feminism is a thing of the past.
“People are constantly trying to put feminism down,” says Walter. “We’re always being told it’s dead and no one’s interested. And I think one of my aims as a writer is to say that it is still alive, and it is still needed.”