The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

Today, we once again have what Betty Friedan famously called "a problem with no name." Mi...

Today, we once again have what Betty Friedan famously called "a problem with no name." Millions of young women -- the girl power generation -- have been told that they can do or be anything, yet they also believe their most important task is to be slim, "hot," and non-threatening to men. Once they get out in the work force, though, they learn that there still is pay discrimination, inflexible work places, women slotted into low paying, dead end jobs more often than men and a glass ceiling in so many lines of work.

At the same time, these young women get the message loud and clear that the absolute last thing they should embrace is feminism. Indeed, as one reviews the media landscape of the past 15 years, one is struck by how effectively feminism -- a social movement that has done so much for women, and for men, for that matter -- has been so vilified in the media that many young women regard it as the ideological equivalent of anthrax. I wanted to trace how that happened, and to pinpoint what it is that remains unspoken but that is still bothering so many of us, to give a name to what's coursing through our popular culture, this message that you can be or do anything you want, as long as you conform to pretty confining ideals around femininity, and don't want too much. The name I chose is "Enlightened Sexism" -- a term I adapted from Sut Jhally's and Justin Lewis's "enlightened racism." It is a new, subtle, sneaky form of sexism that seems to accept -- even celebrate -- female achievements on the surface, but is really about repudiating feminism and keeping women, especially young women, in their place.

After reviewing the media fare geared to girls and women since the early 1990s, I came to see a rather large gap between how the vast majority of girls and women live their lives, the choices they are forced to make, and what we see -- and don't see -- in the media. Ironically, it is just the opposite of the gap we saw in the 1950s and '60s, when images of women as dancing bimbettes-on-the-beach or stay-at-home housewives who needed advice from Mr. Clean about how to wash a floor effaced the exploding number of women (including mothers) entering the workforce, joining the Peace Corps and becoming involved in politics. Then the media illusion was that girls' and women's aspirations weren't changing at all when they were. Now the media illusion is that equality for girls and women is an accomplished fact when it isn't. Then the media were behind the curve; now, ironically, they're ahead.

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