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Susan Douglas and Feminism in the 21st Century

Photo Courtesy of Brieanah Gouveia

Renowned cultural critic, Susan J. Douglas, started her lecture Tuesday night with a simple observation: “Many young women regard [feminism] as the ideological equivalent to anthrax.”

This is hardly an exaggeration to anyone who’s ever taken a course on gender studies, in which women will often preface their feminist arguments with the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”Susan Douglas doesn’t blame these women; she recognizes that the word “feminist” usually conjures up images of man-hating, humorless, shrill, hairy, revolutionaries. And what’s the big deal anyway? Aren’t we living in a “post-sexist” society? Why does feminism still matter?

According to Douglas, the answer is pretty simple: we don’t live in a “post-sexist” society. In fact, just a glimpse into popular media provides plenty of evidence to suggest that sexism is alive and well, despite the progress that’s been made in recent decades. Douglas uses shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras,” “Jersey Shore,” and “Girls Gone Wild” to show how sexist sentiments persist under the guise of progress. Though plenty of women are represented in these programs, the characters they are forced to portray are often shallow and two-dimensional, only interested in physical beauty or fighting for the attention of men. There is very little representation of women as multi-faceted, dynamic individuals. Even powerful female characters in shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are still expected to be beautiful. Their success is only tolerated if it can still appeal  to the male gaze that runs rampant in the entertainment industry. Though women are the ones predominantly watching these shows, they are subtly being subjected to what mainstream, male-dominated society expects of them.

Susan Douglas realizes that these images of hyper-sexualized, empty female characters are harmful to the modern woman. In a lot of ways, they’ve halted gender equality in the United States by failing to empower girls who are in need of positive role-models. Despite claims of a post-feminist, post-sexist era, Douglas’ lecture only further showed how behind America really is when it comes to gender equality, and how much work still needs to be done. So perhaps it’s time that feminism loses its poisonous connotations, and is recognized as what will finally hold the most problematic aspects of this culture responsible for their failure. Sexism is everywhere, after all, even in our most-loved forms of entertainment, and Susan Douglas believes it’s time to finally fight back.