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The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild Paperback – December 21, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Susan J. Douglas is the author of Where the Girls Are, The Mommy Myth, and other works of cultural history and criticism. She is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies and chair of the department at the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 1996. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Ms., The Village Voice, and In These Times. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
 
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In October 1990, while most of America was watching Roseanne, Coach, L.A. Law, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the buildup to Operation Desert Storm on CNN, the still fledging Fox network debuted a show on Thursday nights opposite Cheers, the top-rated program in the country. In December the new show was ranked eighty-seventh out of eighty-nine. The reviews were not kind either. A “new experiment in comatose television,” was the verdict of Tom Shales at the Washington Post: “You keep checking your pulse to make sure you haven’t died.”1 Matt Roush in USA Today used words like “tired” and “stock characters” and predicted “few will leave Cheers for this.”2 Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press said the premiere “is so stultifying it would get an F even in film school.”3 Ouch.
None of these guys, however, was a teenage girl. Within six months, Beverly Hills 90210 was the top show among teenagers in the Thursday 9:00 P.M. time slot, and 60 percent of them were girls, that delectable demographic. Instead of running reruns during the summer of 1991, Fox aired new episodes, which built the audience even more. In August, heartthrob Luke Perry—deliberately modeled after James Dean right down to his pompadoured hairdo (which presided over his forehead like Diamond Head)—visited a Florida shopping mall to promote the show. Ten thousand fans, most of them screaming girls, rushed toward him, injuring twenty-one people and prompting the mall to be closed for three hours.4
By the fall 90210 was the top show, period, among American teenagers and especially teenage girls.5 Within a year, a whopping 69 percent of teenage girls reportedly watched it. By 1993, it was airing in thirty countries.6 Calendars, T-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, pillows, and 90210 Barbie dolls followed. Most fans were utterly devoted, especially in the beginning, arranging their homework, showering, and social schedules around the show and insisting that friends not call them, at all, while it was on (unless girls called each other and watched together while on the phone).7 The show lasted for ten years.
To understand the ascendency of enlightened sexism in the twenty-first century, its early scrimmages with embedded feminism, and the way it sought to transform girls’ desires for power and change into consumerism and profits, we need to revisit the riptides of the early 1990s. One could be forgiven for forgetting that this was, in fact, a time of considerable feminist ferment among women and girls. For while 90210 addressed teen girls as if their primary concern was where to get the coolest stonewashed jeans (and a blond, tousle-haired hunk to go with), many real-life girls, and their mothers, were expressing a desire for what would eventually come to be known as girl power.
Girls and women may not have been in the streets the way they were in 1970, but there was an intense level of feminist agitation and aspiration, especially in the face of what Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 book labeled, simply enough, Backlash. On the one hand, First Lady Barbara Bush famously warned women, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.” And the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was selling more copies than ever. On the other hand, in the song “Don’t Need You,” the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill advised men, “Don’t need your atti-fuckin-tude boy … Us girls, we don’t need you … Does it scare you that we don’t need you?” coupled with Bratmobile’s full-bore assault on patriarchy in its song “Brat Girl,” “I’m gonna throw this knife right thru yr chest.”
There was plenty for women to be enraged about in the early 1990s. When Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice and a pioneer against school desegregation, decided to retire in 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a deeply conservative, anti–affirmative action African American bureaucrat who had only been a federal judge for two years, to replace him. Many civil rights and women’s groups denounced the nomination, and it barely squeaked out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 7-to-7 vote. Then, in October, all hell broke loose when the allegations of Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor who had told the FBI during the background checks on Thomas that he had sexually harassed her, got leaked to the press. Hill had to provide testimony before a riveted national television audience about how Thomas, at work, would start talking to her about “acts he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.” Hill stated that Thomas kept asking her out despite her refusals, kept commenting on her clothes and appearance, and also boasted to Hill “graphically of his own sexual prowess,” which included references to “the size of his own penis being larger than normal.” In a truly weird workplace comment, Thomas allegedly asked Hill, “Who has put a pubic hair on my Coke?”8 This last event struck most women as particularly hard to make up. Yet various of the all-white male Judiciary Committee members—in a Senate that was 98 percent male—treated Hill dismissively, implying that she may have been delusional. The spectacle of a lone woman, and a black one to boot, sitting across from a patronizing tribunal of rich white guys who seemed to think that sexual harassment was a figment of the female imagination got women’s blood boiling.
Their wrath was further fanned by the outrageous Tailhook scandal, which exploded in the spring of 1992. The news emerged that the navy had covered up an incident at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas the previous September, when naval aviators formed a gauntlet on the third floor of the Hilton and trapped women in it, pawing and molesting them, stripping off their clothes. The first reports—whitewashes—identified only two suspects from approximately five thousand Tailhook attendees. Because twenty-six women, fourteen of them officers, claimed to have been assaulted, these findings, you might say, defied credulity. By June the secretary of the navy, H. Lawrence Garrett, faced a full-blown scandal about the cover-up, including the fact that—oops—fifty-five pages of interviews had been omitted from the final report, including one that placed Garrett himself in at least one of the Tailhook party suites. Time for that pink slip. Garrett quickly resigned, shortly after Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, appeared on ABC News to describe the ordeal that she and the other women had suffered. That women in the military, no less, could be assaulted in this way only added to the public fury.
Energized by Anita Hill, Tailhook, and Backlash, women emerged as a political force in 1992, which the press dubbed “The Year of the Woman.” In November four women won election to the male-dominated U.S. Senate for the first time in American history: Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Representative Barbara Boxer in California; Patty Murray, a state senator from Washington who described herself as “a mom in tennis shoes,” and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Arlen Specter nearly lost his Senate seat to Lynn Yeakel, a first-time candidate who ran specifically because of her fury over how Specter had questioned Anita Hill during the Thomas hearings.9 A record number of women—108—ran for Congress, and twenty-four were elected to the House, the largest number ever in any single election.10 Bill Clinton’s election as president brought change as well. He made a point of supporting equal rights for women, and in addition to his brainy and accomplished wife who, unlike Barbara Bush, actually had a professional career, he named three women to his first cabinet, a woman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and the first African American woman to become surgeon general.
So the early 1990s indeed seemed a turning point for women starting to achieve political power. Nonetheless, there was also considerable concern about girls not achieving their full potential because of ongoing discrimination in the classroom, and issues like sexual harassment, date rape, and domestic violence were getting more widespread attention. Naomi Wolf’s bestseller The Beauty Myth (1991) attacked the impossible standards of physical perfection imposed on us all, and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia (1994), on the bestseller list longer than most of my daughter’s hamsters lived, decried the hostile media environment surrounding girls and the decline in self-esteem it produced. So girls and women, after the dormant years of George H. W. Bush, were insisting on new political and social visibility in the early 1990s. At the same time girls, in particular, were emerging as a very important niche market.
The war between enlightened sexism and embedded feminism was on. It was in this swirling, contradictory milieu of a renewed press for women’s rights, a backlash against these efforts, and the increased cultural, political, and commercial attention to girls that Beverly Hills 90210 premiered and flourished along with other media fare that couldn’t have been more different, like Murphy Brown or the music of Bratmobile.
So why did a seeming piece of fluff like 90210 matter? And what made the show such a phenomenon with young women? Because ...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (December 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312673922
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312673925
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #231,727 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
My biggest complaint about this book is the fact that there is so much repetition. Less repetition and more convincing arguments are needed to make this a 5 star book.

I really wanted to love this book. I agree with many of the author's arguments. However, she stays so repetitive and fails to show examples of men to help compare and contrast her beliefs and findings.

The book is dangling on the preachy side (gasp) and could scare younger girls and women away. Again arguments needed to include more examples to compare and contrast with men. She repeatedly writes about women and the media (obviously the focus of this book) but I was expecting examples and more in depth findings.

Do I agree with most of the topics discussed? YES.

I believe this book has a fantastic message that shouldn't be ignored. I just wish it were more convincing as a whole so that women of all ages ( and men) could benefit from this important work.
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Douglas brings attention to sexism having to change its model from blatant sexism to enlightened by showing that women are depicted as smart, beautiful, skinny or overweight, and successful but they still have to behave in a way that is considered to be feminine. If they don't behave in this way they are portrayed as unattractive, overweight, angry, childless women as seen with the character Harry (Harriet) in Harry's Law.

The book is well done overall, but Douglas' "mother's voice" comes out quite a bit. With the "mother's voice" there is a potential for personal bias.
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Very informative and interesting. I know it's trivial, but the only problem I had with this book was the frequent misspellings, especially of the words "decades," "independent," "often," "pilot," and "pleasure." Whoever did the proofreading and editing of this book did not do a good job of it. Despite this minor issue, though, I still liked it.
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A must read for anyone who is raising daughters, or is interested in the feminist and anti-feminist culture in today's America. I was surprised at some of the influences she cites as to why the modern feminist movement in America has lost steam and it really opened my eyes to the pernicious role models women, youthful and not so, are subjected to constantly in the media. (I won't name any particular channels here.) I have recommended this book to several friends with daughters and granddaughters because the negative messages to women can be so subtle that even those of us who consider ourselves aware of these messages may not accurately see them. She is an excellent writer and this book never gets dry or ponderous.
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This is a great book, easy to read, filled with examples of sexism in television, movies etc. Susan J. Douglass obviously did her research. Her critique of our obsession with celebrities and its wannabes is spot on. Her scathing commentary of reality television especially with MTV's "real world" is accurate and amusing. Susan J Douglass emphasizes the point that sexism isn't always blatant but it does still exist. The other isms do not escape Douglass' attention, the racism and classism that often accompanies sexist behavior is noted with pointed examples. Great book and not just for those who are studying womens studies and media.
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The book is really great and covers a wide range of topics relating to women's portrayal in the media. At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny but overall still very informative, great for people interested in media studies. The book was a little frayed since I bought it used, but that's to be expected.
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My 17 year old daughter bought this for an AP Language Arts class. It inspired many evening hot tub conversations, a rare event these days. Well written and thoughtful dialog concerning the role of women in today's culture. A recommended read for women. And men.
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Format: Paperback
Susan J. Douglas is professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan; she has also written/co-written books such as Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination, ‘The Mommy Myth,’ etc. [NOTE: page numbers below refer to the 2010 354-page hardcover edition.]

She wrote in the Introduction to this 2010 book, “This book is about the rise and evolution of these media-created fantasies, from the early 1990s to the present: their origins, their manifestations, their contradictory mixed messages, and their consequences. While these fantasies have been driven in part by girls’ and women’s desires, and have often provided a great deal of vicarious pleasure, they have also been driven by marketing… and the use of that heady mix of flattery and denigration to sell us everything from skin cream to running shoes.” (Pg. 8-9)

She states, “The early 1990s was an era of fits and starts for the emerging common sense wed eventually know as enlightened sexism. Despite Amy Fisher, girls were not being sexualized the say they are today: feminism---explicit, out-there feminism---still sold TV shows, books, and even politics… there were not yet multiple reality TV shows in which women presented as bim_os got in catfights over men. Nonetheless, for a new ideological understanding to take hold, it often needs to identify a threat to which it is responding, and from which it offers protection and escape.
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