Author, Book review, Natasha Walter, Non-fiction, Publisher, Virago

‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ by Natasha Walter


Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 273 pages; 2010.

Every time I logged onto the office intranet this week I was greeted by the sight of Lucy Pinder’s breasts popping out of a very tiny bikini top. Lucy, an English “glamour model”, recently graced the cover of one of the lads magazines published by the company for which I work. This particular cover won an in-house prize (“cover of the month”), which meant Lucy’s “assets” got further publicity via our intranet homepage.

Now, I think I’m fairly unshockable and remarkably tolerant, but I was upset at seeing this woman’s hugely over-sized bust on my computer screen every day. It wasn’t the nudity that made me uncomfortable, it was the objectification of a young woman that offended me. That this happened in my work place, where I’m surrounded largely by men, made me angry, not least because I have a relatively senior position in the company and the last thing I expect to see as I go about my professional business is a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose.

And yet, if I was to complain about this, I’m pretty sure it would not be taken seriously. After all Lucy Pinder’s entitled to get her tits out, isn’t she? And surely it’s empowering, and liberating, for her, as a woman, to have the freedom to do so? She gets paid big bucks after all.

This is just one example of why I think Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a hugely important and timely book. I read it a few months ago now, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Walter’s argument is that we’ve all been conned into thinking that today’s woman has achieved economic and sexual equality. She claims that in 21st Century Britain we are experiencing a new wave of sexism, where a woman’s passport to success is not her brains, but her looks and, more importantly, her sexual allure.

She divides her book into two parts. The first looks at this “new sexism” in which girls are becoming sexualised at a younger and younger age (Walter dubs this “hypersexualisation”). She visits a nightclub where she witnesses a “Babes on the bed competition”; talks to pole dancers and prostitutes; and interviews teenage girls about their sex lives. From this she is able to argue that the growing commercialisation of sex has provided women with new opportunities to make money, but by the same token those that go down that route often do it, not because it empowers them or liberates them, but because they have no other alternative.

The second part of her book examines the reasons why this new sexism has occurred. Walter shows that we are increasingly being encouraged to believe that the inequality between men and women is not social but biological, that girls will always prefer pink to blue, and that they like playing with dolls rather than toy cars. She provides a critique of scientific studies that perpetuate the myth that there are innate biological differences between the sexes. These studies are disseminated by a relatively uncritical and lazy media that accepts the results at face value. (This study from last month is but one example.)

What I found particularly alarming was how quickly these studies begin to be accepted as part and parcel of every day life, so that if a woman, or indeed a young girl, bucks the trend she is made to feel as if there is something wrong with her. Walter’s argument is that biological determinism not only stifles and limits women’s choices, it also impacts on men’s choices too.

Living Dolls is a powerful book, one that is thought-provoking and incredibly easy to read. If there is any flaw it is that Walter’s hypothesis in the first part is based on a mere handful of interviews with young women, so her sample is not statistically significant. Nevertheless she raises important issues, the most troubling of which are her observations about the ways in which young girls are being raised in modern day Britain. When women are expected to look a certain way, think a certain way and conform to outmoded stereotypes is it any wonder Walter believes we’re raising a generation of living dolls “aiming for airbrushed perfection”?

16 thoughts on “‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ by Natasha Walter”

  1. You’re not in a spot I envy at all. Does the computer homepage change soon? At least there’s that. What you need is an excellent line, some sort of really good bit of repartee that can put the picture and those who enjoy it in their place.
    Unfortunately, I cannot think of one.
    In the meantime, keep spreading the word about Living Dolls


  2. You’re in an invidious position, Kim…because the company you work for is inextricably linked to the publication of sexist magazines, and with the consolidation of media ownership, the management of these magazines crosses over into quality journalism.
    That however doesn’t alter your right to work in an harassment free environment.
    Here, I think that you would be able to claim sexual harassment under our legislation, because while the publication of ‘lads’ i..e soft porn magazines isn’t illegal, putting offensive images on intranet computers is. The offence isn’t in the eye of the beholder; it’s fairly well defined and the images you’re having to confront would certainly be considered offensive in most workplaces.
    Of course, the men you with and for know this. They’re enjoying seeing you consider yourself powerless.
    I think you should make a complaint to your management in writing, and take it further if it’s ignored. You’re not asking them not to publish these pitiful rags for the losers who read them, and you’re not asking them to withdraw their pathetic adolesecent award for the best cover art. You’re affirming your right to an harassment-free environment by insisting that the image be removed from the intranet.
    You go, girl!


  3. I am afraid I could not contemplate reading a book with a cover like that. But I am a horrified observer of the sexism scene these days, having two teenage daughters. What they and their friends seem to regard as normal to have to do to their bodies is awful in my opinion. Teenage real girls seem to feel they are in competition with all this ghastly digital airbrushed rubbish such as on the cover of that book. But more to the point, the whole issue of “women’s rights” seems to be non-existent. Sorry, you’ve touched a nerve here, from an old warhorse of the struggle, where I have lived my life not “taking refugue in an of the girly options open to me at various stages”. And now wondering why I bothered!


  4. What a fantastic post, Kim!
    I was as irritated as you sound by the first couple of paragraphs- yes, seeing that on my home page would annoy me too. All those girls on the front of lads mags annoy me – I sometimes feel like I must be a prude as every time I see one I sarcastically utter “oh, her parents must be so proud!” – the problem is, they probably are!
    I really dislike this day and age where young girls just want to be famous for no talent at all, other than they are prepared to flash their bits to the world in order to either snag a rich footballer or earn easy money (yes, I am cynical and no I don’t care!)
    I work in corproate sales which has always been a male dominated industry but I am pretty confident and happy to speak my mind so I had never felt sexism too much until I came to my latest job and I am the only female in a team of 20+ men. For the first time, I have found my comments being dismissed or burshed over and this is something I have never experienced before so recently I have been thinking a lot about sexism, particularly in the workplace (which is why your post is so interesting to me).
    As for the survey – I studied sociology many moons ago and I came across a study then where some psychologsts dressed a load of babies (young babies so sex couldn’t be determined by looking at their faces) in either pink or blue babygrows randomly and put them in a room with adults (without thelling them that the boys and girls were not necessarily dressed in the “right colour”). What happened was, the adults who played with the blue babies threw them around in the air and played with trucks and balls etc with them, while those with the pink babies rocked them gently and gave them dolls and cuddly toys. So maybe it’s not that boys and girls are as predispositioned as we think – maybe the way we act towards them has just as much influence in early life?
    Anyway, after my rambling comment (LOL), I love the sound of this book and will try to pick up a copy.
    I am still annoyed at Lucy Piders tits photo though! 😉


  5. Great post Kim. Interestingly with the company I work for we had a big issue from one member of staff about the male models that we were using for some covers etc so its not always just women who take offense or get taken for a ride, that might not make sense but am hoping it does.
    I think Polly would LOVE this book! I may have to treat her to it for her birthday (I can buy books for others lol) mind you if she reads your post (which I know she does) she may have gone and got it herself already!


  6. When I was in high school, I used to work in a clothing shop. It had a section for women and one for children. I was always shocked by the clothing available for children; at one point, we were selling black PLEATHER PANTS for six year olds. How is that appropriate?? “Hypersexualized” indeed.
    Great review!


  7. Great review, and I’m sorry to hear about your situation at work. As an American in the UK I am sometimes shocked to hear just how acceptable that kind of sexism and objectification of women still is here… I think in the US it’s much more acceptable for women to lodge complaints about that kind of thing, and it’s seen as her right to do so. Sexism is rampant, of course, but it’s not necessarily defensible.
    It sounds like, frequently, in the UK women are still bullied into pretending that it’s all in fun, that we’re supposed to have a good sense of humor, that it’s not personal, that appreciating a woman’s ‘assets’ isn’t sexism, and so on. If you, in a relatively senior position in your company, aren’t comfortable raising a complaint like this, think what that means for women with much less power who might be subjected to much worse!


  8. Thoughtprovoking book and review! I too have never been able to see how being objectified, being ogled at can empower a woman. Being paid for it does not give these women real power. It’s just as infuriating as when people say of societies where women are confined to their homes that these women are not powerless at all, because they rule absolutely over their own household. Yeah, great, and the men rule over the rest of the world. That sort of power is meaningless. Remarks like that are just meant to keep women in their place. I think there’s something extremely condescending in saying that being treated as a sexual object is empowering.
    I am glad I don’t have any daughters, because I would worry a lot about the relentless pressure being put on them to be sexy at all times and above anything else.


  9. Great book review, but I’ll be staying away from this book because I do enough raging about the “pornification of a generation” (that’s my nickname for the hypersexualisation of everything). We won’t even have the music channel on when the children are around because every single video seems to be a soft pr0n short film and it really bothers me. Somedays, I tell my husband that we should pack up and raise the children on a desert island, away from all this media, pressure and rubbish that is thrown at the children these days (but of course, they’d turn out completely normal, heh). It’s difficult to strike a balance to raise your children (male or female) so that they have things in common with their peers but aren’t totally dictated by the media. Let’s start with the removal of ads during children’s programming and stop sexualising every single damn thing out there.
    Sorry…you seem to have hit a bit of a nerve with a few of us commenters here.


  10. It’s difficult when you are bombarded with images of what society thinks is feminine to actually think about what it really means to be a woman. The two aren’t necessarily the same. I’ve got ‘Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf so I’ll try and read that first before this book. But it’s definitely something I think about and deal with everyday (just like every other woman!) I can just imagine what it must feel like to be confronted by Lucy Pinder everytime you log on…


  11. Unfortunately, society seems to forever avoid that happy middle, swinging instead, from one extreme to the next. I agree that we are in a hypersexualized period, exacerbated by rampant celebrity worship. Magazines, tabloids, TV and the internet mean kids are encountering sex at ages and in ways that they’re not emotionally ready for. Some of this unpreparedness is due to puritanical parents and some is media pervasiveness (and sex sells…both to men and women).
    My view of the problem is that too much of society seems to love the black and white and abhors the greyscale in between–perhaps it’s just easier to slot everyone into a 1 or 0…a stereotypical boy or girl. Simpler to ignore the actual person. It is easy to blame society but, as studies have shown, we feed our children with our own gender biases while raising them. Too often parents (mothers included) believe little girls must play with dolls and boys with trucks.
    Of course, it is also too easy for some sides of this discussion to forget that there are differences between males and females. If there weren’t there wouldn’t be two sexes. And the obvious physical differences are often transduced, via hormones, etc, into different interests, different priorities. However, I believe you’ve summarized the most important aspect of the issue with this passage:
    “…so that if a woman, or indeed a young girl, bucks the trend she is made to feel as if there is something wrong with her.”
    i.e. we know there are particular differences between the two forests and, for some reason, that’s distracting us from appreciating the individual trees. Much to our detriment, I’m afraid.


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