The fourth chapter of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism focuses on the 1990s television shows, movies and other media that dismissed feminism as a thing of the past and unattractive. Rather the media emphasized the importance of male relationships and female attractiveness in order to achieve womanly happiness and success.
Some achievements were made, such as the arrival of the female voice-over so that the perspective of the women was more centralized in various movies such as Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary. However, often through these female opinions women were portrayed as extremely feminine and focusing on searching for male approval, thus disassociating with feminism. Often issues concerning insecurity and female incompetency were principal in the media and demonstrated a shift to antifeminism. Demeaning portrayals of women were often one-sided and unrepresentative of females as a whole. Still these shows were greatly appealing to the younger female demographic, likely because they were faced with feminism and the idea of being feminine simultaneously. Thus the feelings and thoughts of the characters were “real” to the audience. Douglas explains that through shows such as these, the media dangerously portrayed feminism as a concept of the past while enlightened sexism seemed to take center stage.
Other movies represented feministic perspectives as being understood by men and thus expressed the idea that feminism was no longer necessary. For instance, in What Women Want, Nick becomes reformed to the point that he has been “reconstructed by feminism”, thus leading the audience to believe that feminist work was unwarranted. Even movies with women as strong and independent characters such as Miss Congeniality portrayed feminism as sexist because it stereotyped women. Many movies like this also described the love of a man to be fundamental to a woman’s femininity and accomplishment. In films that focused on a feminist women, that woman was likely unattractive and unloved. Only with a makeover or through finding heterosexual love did a character feel fully competent. The media clearly emphasized the end of feminism and the negative stereotypes that were associated with feminists. Douglas explains that this importance placed on attractiveness and male approval was principal during the 1990s.
Douglas’ chapter about black female power describes the media portrayal of African American women. There are many opposing images of black women put forth by shows, talk shows and musical icons. Thus, Douglas emphasizes the mixed messages about the power of women. Various icons are seen as exuding power and confidence such as Wanda Sykes and Oprah Winfrey. These women are often able to move from proper or “middle-class norms” to “Black Speak”. They act as escapes for both white and black American women. However this image can also be detrimental to feminism, Douglas argues. For instance, if women are portrayed as achieving everything they want, then many argue that the case for feminism crumbles. The portrayal of women in the media, especially black women, is unrepresentative of women from all classes and backgrounds. Often the media emphasizes either the stronger, accomplished woman who no longer needs feminism or the willingly objectified women who encourages enlightened sexism.
Douglas also explains the many issues associated with rap songs that objectify women and portray them as compliant to that objectification. Interestingly many female black rappers have criticized these stereotypes, often to be further objectified by the media.
Additionally, Douglas spends ample time discussing Oprah. Clearly a woman of substantial power and widespread approval, Oprah still seems to focus on individual accomplishments versus political change that could benefit feminism. Also Douglas argues that by exemplifying the American Dream through her personal story, Oprah makes success seem available to all through hard work, which is clearly not the case in our society.
Images of black women in the media range from Oprah to characters that are used mostly for comedic relief. These mixed messages demonstrate the lack of power that women, especially black women, possess. Douglas demonstrates that feminism is clearly still required in America’s society, as women are portrayed in many stereotypical and often unflattering manners.