In Susan J. Douglas’ smart, witty book, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild, many pages are devoted to the original 90210. “The women’s movement seems to have bypassed this zip code, or at least its female inhabitants,” writes Douglas. “The voyeuristic pleasures that made the show as fun as settling into a beach chair in Malibu also drummed in the rewards of acquiescing to patriarchal norms of femininity” (30-31). See Tori Spelling’s outfits on any given show.
Douglas then traces the “conflicting messages from the mass media” by “revisiting cultural touchstones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Survivor to Desperate Housewives… [She] exposes these images of women as mere fantasies of female power, assuring us that the battle for equality has been won, so there’s nothing wrong with resurrecting sexist stereotypes--all in good fun, of course. These portrayals not only distract us from the real-world challenges facing women today but also drive a wedge between baby-boom women and their ‘millennial’ daughters” (358).
This last bit got to me. Having taught at Rutgers University from 2002-2010, the preponderance of sexist stereotypes in student discussion had been unsettling, particularly when such comments came from young women. They were a self-described class of “guys and girls” who evaluated Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a woman with post-partum depression is locked in a room by her husband, as further evidence of women’s tendencies towards hysteria. Girls were (still?) emotional, bad at sports and less interested in sex than their guy counterparts. Not even Don Imus’ horrific, on-air denigration of Rutgers’ own women’s basketball team seemed to wake them up for long. My initial concern over my relatively young teaching age soon faded. I was 29 when I landed at Rutgers and already a dinosaur.
Only a decade ago, I tried, first year students at Wesleyan had insisted they were “frosh,” not freshmen. This anecdote was met with eye rolls. (I decided not to mention my application to live at Womyn’s House.) Perhaps these were semantics. But the very real trend in my classroom was one I couldn’t reverse. My female students would have rather grown out their armpit hair (unthinkable) than call themselves frosh—let alone feminists. And forget about the male students calling themselves this. The “wedge” between myself and the millennials seemed too hard to dismantle. Lighten up, grunge girl.
I thank Susan Douglas for giving me insight as to how insidious enlightened sexism has become since the year 2000. My former students were “weaned on ‘girl power’ and all the ‘can do’ consumerist feminism of the early twenty-first century,” as Douglas describes it (298). No wonder I seemed like an old fart to them. On TV women are judges, surgeons, DA’s, vampire slayers, presidential candidates. They have snappy dialogue and don’t take shit from male colleagues. They can live at the Playboy Mansion in a weird polygamous arrangement not because they’re “acquiescing to patriarchal norms of femininity” but because they choose to “acquiesce to patriarchal norms of femininity.” Go team!
Meanwhile Douglas’ litany of statistics points to real life discrepancies in income, job security and socialization when it comes to gender. We’re left with “ersatz feminism” as the author’s daughter calls it (298).
I’ve inherited the ‘ersatz’ feeling. Like Douglas daughter, I’m the child of a baby boomer, raised to believe the easy balance between career and family is inevitable--that partnerships mean a clear 50/50 divide of childcare and household chores. That paid maternity leave will be a given. That I can stop couching requests and opinions with ‘nice’ apologetic qualifiers. That my cleavage won’t matter nearly as much as my education. That the progress my mother’s generation made would not be undermined by The Bachelor.
Days before the wedding of my college roommate, I joined her on the sofa of her childhood home to laugh and look at old pictures and drink wine. She was trying on her veil and her mother came in to see, teary and proud. In an honest moment that has stayed with me, her mother sat down between us and admitted, “I had no idea how to raise you—a daughter. With the boys—your brothers—it was so much easier.” This admission hadn’t surprised my friend. We drank more wine and talked that night for a long time--about our assumptions as daughters growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and what we thought marriage and work would be like. And about how challenging it had been for her mother to present real yet encouraging expectations.
All of which makes me pleased to see, in Douglas’ epilogue, a call to “reclaim the F-word…We need to make fun of and ridicule the media images that seek to keep us down, divide us against each other by age, class, and race, and insist that we spend so much psychic energy on our faces, clothes, and bodies that nothing is left for ideas, social change, or politics. At the same time, we need to praise those media images and individuals who advance women’s interests” (305-306).
90210 has been revived, this is true. But so has flannel.