The New Sexism

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Do shows like The Bachelor, above, promote sexist stereotypes like the view that women are man-obsessed?

Women have come a long way, baby, but not as far as we'd like to think. That's the provocative message of the new book Enlightened Sexism. The blatant discrimination of eras past, says author Susan Douglas, has been supplanted by a more insidious form of bias, which suggests that sexist messages are O.K. if couched in irony. (It's fine to enjoy watching catty contestants on The Bachelor snipe at one another — because, come on, we all know most women aren't like that. Ha-ha. Right?) Douglas talked to TIME about the economic plight of women today, the dangers of powerful female TV characters and the future of feminism.

What is enlightened sexism?
[It's] a new, subtle form of sexism. It insists that full equality for women has been achieved, and therefore we don't need feminism anymore. So it's O.K. to resurrect retrograde, sexist images of women in the media, all with a wink and a laugh.

You write that there are two poles when it comes to images of women in the media. What are they?
We see [female] chiefs of police, surgeons and lawyers everywhere [on TV]. And that is the result of what I've labeled in the book "embedded feminism": back in the late '60s, early '70s, feminism was kind of outside of popular culture and mainstream culture. Now it's not. The goals and achievements of the women's movement are woven into our cultural fabric. So on the one hand, we see all these high-powered women who have made it to the top.

On the other hand, we see The Bachelor and The Real World and Jersey Shore and The Swan and makeover shows, in which women are basically cast as obsessed with men, obsessed with relationships and their bodies, getting into catfights over men they barely know and focused on hotness and shopping. Young women today are pulled between the message that they can do or be anything they want, that the world is their oyster [and that] full female equality has been achieved — and, on the other hand, there is enormous pressure to conform to this hyper-feminine ideal of hotness and beauty.

How did we wind up here?
There were two contradictory trends that emerged in the 1990s. [On the one hand,] there was the concern that girls were not getting the same treatment as boys in school, especially around math and science. Reviving Ophelia, about self-esteem in young women, was on the best-seller list for three years. And of course there was the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas drama on television, in which people saw on their screens an African-American woman's charges against Thomas utterly dismissed. That produced a huge backlash, which prompted a record number of women to run for Congress. So you had this feminist ferment in the early- and mid-1990s that gave rise to what was the girl-power movement.

On the other hand, because one of the fastest-growing demographics was teenagers, teen girls were discovered as a market for all kinds of things: clothing, makeup, thongs, etc. So you had these twin forces — one progressive, one not so progressive — interacting powerfully.

You say those images of powerful woman can, in themselves, be dangerous. Why?
The media have really overrepresented how far women have come. We don't have a range of images of women, some of whom are working-class or single mothers or struggling. The media continue to [suggest] that full equality for women is a done deal. It makes it seem like feminist politics is no longer necessary. And that's so not true. Have women come a long way? Sure we have. But is there a lot more that needs to be done? You bet.

Like what?
Let me give you some statistics. In 2006 the median income for women was just over $32,000 a year. That's more than 31% less than their male counterparts. You might think those are lower-middle-class, working-class women. But take college women: when they graduate from college, a year out, they're earning 80% of what men make. Ten years out they're earning 69% of what men make. Of the top Fortune 500 companies in 2008, only 15 had a female chief executive. In the Great Recession, 75% of the job losses were sustained by men, so many families now are relying on the incomes of women, which are crappier than the incomes for men. So this is an issue that's really affecting families and children.

So how do we solve these problems?
I think the first thing is to become much more indignant about these cultural values and sexist imagery. Men should be indignant about it too — and many men are. Women have a lot of work to do yet around pay equity, day care, paid maternity leave, sexual harassment, violence against women. [There's] a whole host of issues that are still the unfinished business of our movement.