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'Enlightened Sexism' in Media Obscures Reality

Friday, April 23, 2010

In her latest book, Susan J. Douglas finds the treatment of women on TV is putting a haze over young women's awareness of sex discrimination. In real life, writers at Newsweek and NPR and business researchers are speaking out.

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(WOMENSENEWS)--American women turn on the TV to prime-time dramas and see powerful mature women everywhere.

They are surgeons on "Grey's Anatomy," district attorneys on "Law and Order" and high-powered cops, lawyers and politicians. Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer anchor the newscast, often spotlighting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's state visits. Television has even seen female presidents of the United States, something yet to be achieved in reality: Cherry Jones on "24" and Geena Davis on the short-lived "Commander-in-Chief."

Isn't that just so empowering?

No, says Susan J. Douglas in "Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done," published by Henry Holt this month.

Douglas says TV is such a powerful medium that it can shape people's real-world views, creating the false impression of equality. When that happens, the door is open to more sexism.

The implications of TV's take-charge women, she writes, is that sexism is dead, so now it's fair game to caricature and lampoon women as shrews and bimbos in fare such as "Real Housewives" and dating shows where women viciously vie for the favor of male contestants.

Douglas told Women's eNews she coined the term "enlightened sexism" when she began noticing a wedge between programming geared towards her cohort versus her students and daughter.

On one hand, there were highly successful, ambitious female characters. On the other, particularly in reality TV, there were young women who were "shallow, materialistic, obsessed with guys they barely knew, involved in cat fights."

On one hand, women had "made it." On the other, that idea was being exploited to put women back in their place. Neither extreme reflected what Douglas saw as women's actual lives, where inequalities are reflected in everything from the workplace to impossible beauty standards.

Sexism Despite Broken Barriers

Douglas joins other authors of recent books--including Barbara Berg ("Sexism in America") and Jessica Valenti ("The Purity Myth")--focused on the continuation of sexism despite the breaking of some major barriers.

Douglas argues that young women live in a "Girl Power" bubble, where progressive policies in school and an upbeat youth culture shield them from the realities awaiting them in a workplace, where their salaries falter and subtle sexism abounds.

At this moment, she says, young women may experience an "aha" moment.

Three writers at Newsweek detailed such a moment last month in a cover story, "Sexism at Work: Young Women, Newsweek, and Gender." The piece cited Douglas and Berg, among other writers, who helped confirm the trend they had diagnosed. The writers thought their employer had not entirely eliminated sex discrimination from the workplace, but at the same time they found themselves refraining from diagnosing the problem outright.

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