After more than two hundred years of feminist struggles, Natasha Walter sets out a dilemma between the hypersexual society encouraged within western societies and the influence scientific studies have in using genetic arguments to create sex and gender stereotypes. She divides the book into two sections: “The new sexism”, in which she describes how women are unconsciously forced to value themselves only from a sexy physical appearance; and “the new determinism” in which she analyzes many “scientific” studies about the genes difference between the sexes, how media has covered these supposed differences and their influences on creating stereotypes.
Walter also includes the debate regarding sex work focusing on prostitution, striptease, top-less modeling and lap dancing in the context of freedom of women’s “choice”. Walter’s main conclusion after interviewing prostitutes, strippers and young women aiming to be models, is that most of them see these careers as ways of empowerment as well as feeling self-confident, important and valued in society. However, when these women started sharing their feelings, Walter describes that some of them felt undervalued, bad treated and humiliated. Moreover she interviews young women who talk about the way they enjoy their sexual life and she talk about the lack of sensibility for love and tenderness this women have in their sexual life. Walter then focuses on childhood, and she connects self-confidence, empowerment and obtaining a respected social position with previous phases of a women life. Walter remarks, for example, on the important influence new dolls have on girls. She points out how Disney’s princesses have become sexier from Snow-white to Jasmine, and also how the Bratz dolls model for girls how important it is to be fashionable and sexy. Girls are taught, Walter says, that in order to succeed as a free girl and woman in society and not be drop out they need to work on their bodies and become fake dolls. She points out the different education society is giving to girls than it does for boys, and she includes how not only schools have an impact, but also families, television, magazines and the toy industry which perpetuates different roles for women and men in society. Walter criticizes how this new hypersexual culture takes the feminist discourse of empowerment and sexual freedom and puts it within a culture not defined by them. She puts forth the idea that instead empowerment and sexual freedom for women is created through a male “gaze” and through male desire.
After analyzing many scientific studies Walter argues that most of the studies that defend these genetic differences between women and men can not be considered valid as in many cases they base their arguments on issues that can be easily considered a matter of socialization. She also criticizes the articles published by many media sources as defending those arguments because they rarely include multiple arguments or other studies that also exist, which deny the genetic argument. She also stresses that many times mainstream media includes studies with slight scientific and empirical support. She calls this “The new determinism” where the public opinion pressed the women to obey and fulfilled these stereotypes and then uses the result to “prove” genetic differences. Walter claims the silencing of the other studies that support no genetic influence in differences of behavior between women and men has led to a popularity of the “determinism” ideology. What is more surprising about her discourse in this book is that she regrets her arguments in her 1998 book “ The New Feminism” where she states that feminist should focus on political goals rather than personal empowerment. “Living dolls” is an excellent book to shed light on debates about current images of women. However, it lacks analysis on the consequences this “image” culture has on the political and intellectual position of women as well as the indirect and structural violence this culture encourages. She includes an important quote from Simone de Beauvoir “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. However, she forgets another important feminist quote that cannot be forgotten “ The personal is political”. This is basic in another way to understand how the hypersexual culture invades and manipulates women’s everyday lives aspirations and even the world history that continues evaluating women for their physical appearance and not for their intellectual, political and scientific contribution to society. The hypersexual society Walter describes is motivating women to stay away from important affairs. As stated in the title of her book (but does not get developed completely inside) this is a new way of enforcing sexism that not always women appreciate. In this point, looking at this conflict as a global affair and not only western, I found it important to think about how western women keep on criticizing the oppression Muslim women have without realizing our own oppression and how they tend to compare freedom between cultures. However, we cannot obviated that this hypersexual culture is not only affecting western countries, but also others that in order to fulfill western expectations see it as the path to follow in order to become a “developed” country.
Walter’s book can be seen as an interesting way to become aware of the patriarchal system we live on. However, Walter hardly points out the contemporary feminist arguments and debates about issues concerning fashion and sexuality, nor the perspectives of sex worker’s rights group who would argue against her generalizations about them, or about women who enjoy the “hypersexual” way of life. Although she gets the reader to question the scientific support on the gene differences, she does not touch on issues of gender as a way classifying the society in two categories, excluding others such as transsexuals or transgendered people who challenge the inadequacy of dualistic gender systems. These new ideas should be a matter of discussion in her book as they involve a struggle against the sexual conditioning she talks about.
“Living dolls” is an interesting book about the new society we are living and takes out interesting points that must be debate and studied in other to find the path for peace, justice and equality.