Living Dolls

Author Natasha Walter
Read January 10, 2021
Pages 273
Categories Feminism
Links LibraryThing

Published in Britain in 2010.

Already a bit dated in some aspects due to the rapid expansion of social networks, the internet and proliferation of technology in general. I find especially interesting the rise of OnlyFans, pornography and the Instagram-aesthetics.

The book is divided in two parts:

  1. General talk of the (hyper)sexualised (modern) culture
  2. Sexual determinism and myths about biological differences

People with flawed claims

In the book Natasha Walter mentions several authors and works that apparently contain faulty or badly done research.

Here is a list of some of them:

  1. Simon Baron-Cohen: The Essential Difference
  2. Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate, The Sexual Paradox
  3. John Gray: Why Mars and Venus Collide (2008)
  4. Lawrence Summers - president of Harvard in a famous dispute

My opinion

Indeed an interesting book. The first part mosly concentrates on the vulture and society of Britain, and mentions names of som magazines and entities unknown by me. Because of this and its rather “common sense” nature the first part was the least interesting for me.

The second part however, is basically a collection of critical comments on the “solid” research behind biological gender differences and its use and diffusion in mainstream media and litterature.

This was rather hard to get through due to its detail rich nature but also pointed out flaws in some “important” resarch that has been used many times to underpin particular notions about differences in aptitutes between the genders.

For me, the take-aways here are:

  1. The general lesson that one should cultivate critical thinking
  2. In particular one should be more skeptic towards research based claims of sexual determinism
  3. Read Simone de Beauvoir

Wisdom from Simone

One is not born a woman, one becomes one.

Simone de Beauvoir, 1949



  1. The characters they watch in romantic comedies are women who make such exaggerated femininity seem aspirational, and the celebrities they read about in fashion and goddip magazines are often women who are well known to have chosen extreme regimes, from punishiing diets to plastic surgery, to achieve an airbrushed perfection.

    p. 2

  2. What’s more, throughout much of our society, the image of female perfection to chich women are encouraged to aspire has become more and more defined by sexual allure. Of course wanting to be sexually attractive has always and always will be a natural deisre for both men and women, but in this generationa certain view of female sexuality has become more than ever defined by the terms of the sex industry.

    p. 3

  3. This emphasis on choiice is key. Anyone who would like to criticise this culture that sees women primarily as sexy dolls will find themselves coming up against the constantly repeated mantra of free choice.

    p. 28

  4. For him too, it is clear that these so-called choices are often fuelled more by desperatioin than liberation.

    p. 35

  5. although women may find themselves individually drawn to this work, the overall effect of the growth of glamour modelling is to de-individualise the women involved, whether they are university students or girls in an Essex nightclub.

    p. 37

  6. Many young women now seem to believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having, and that sexual confidence can only be gained if a young woman is ready to conform to the soft-porn image of a tanned, waxed young girl with large breasts ready to strip and pole-dance. Whether sexual confidence can be found in other ways, and whether other kinds of confidence are worth seeking, are themes that this hypersexual culture cannot address.

    p. 37

  7. For all the well-love-it, it’s-empowering talk, I think that most women who do it don’t feel anything positive about it. You just feel you can’t make money any other way, that the most important thing about you is the fact that you are a sexual object, and that’s what men want, and that’s all you are.

    p. 45

  8. You get all this positive affirmation about your appearance, of a totally superficial nature, and in a way that feels good. But it’s affirmation of something I already believed, that I am an object, and now I will probably always struggle to see myself sexually in any other way.

    p. 48

  9. But there aren’t many adventures on offer in this part of our culture, in which the main journey for a young girl is expected to lie alongg her parh to winning the admiration of others for her appearance.

    p. 64

  10. The imperative is to better oneself not through any intellectual or emotional growth, but through physical remaking. Such media encourage young girls to believe that good looks rather than good works are at the centre of the good life.

    p. 66

  11. In the past, feminists have often seen only the negative aspects of the beauty and fashion industries. I still believe that there is great enjoyment in these pursuits, and when I watch my daughter revelling in her dressing-up box, and changing herself from cat to mermaid to warrior prinicess, I can sympathise utterly with the pleasure that is involved with transforminng one’s appearance. As she grows up, I’d be very happy to see her continue that pleasure by exploring the joys of fashion and cosmetics. But there is a huge difference between taking pleasure in such pursuits and believing that the only route to confidence and power for a woman lies through constant physical vigilence.

    p. 67

  12. Of course, young firls as well as mature women are sexual beings, and it is great that young girls need no longer experience the shame and embarrassment that girls felt in the past about their sexual feelings. But the liberatoiin that feminists once imagined as involving an honest acceptance of girls’ sexuality ahs now morphed into something altoggether less enabling.

    p. 68

  13. The online social networking that forms an intrinsic part of almost all young women’s lives relies on careful self-presentation, and this often conforms to an aesthetic shaped by the semi-pornographic images they find elsewhere in their culture.

    p. 72

  14. “Maybe with girls like me, after so many years of à la carte sexual encounters, the thought of a set menu for the rest of our lives makes us panic. Maybe it’s not the men we don’t trust; maybe we don’t trust ourselves to stick to the diet”

    p. 95

  15. It is even a travesty of much second-wave feminnism to suggest that women were then seeking uncommited promiscuity. Michèle Roberts, the ovelist, was a commited feminist from an nearly age and recently wrote a memoir, Paper Houses. In it shed discusses what she and her peers were seeking in their emotiional lives. ‘We believed in passionate sexual love between men and women as equals,’ she wrote nostalgically. Her memoirs detail how difficult that was to achieve, but you never get the sense, as you do with the memoirs of sexually free women today, that it is a journey in which emotional engagement is marginal

    p. 97

  16. There was this complete detachment from the act itself and what it means. This isn’t rape or sexual abuse, but it isn’t a positive experience. In some ways I find it quite disturbing. But people have so normalised this kind of sexual activity - it’s totally emotionless. The act itself is no longer about intimacy, it’s no longer about communication.

    A 24 year old on lack of intimacy and focus on casual relationships in sex of her time p. 99

  17. Many young women I spoke to seem to feel that their lives have been impoverished by the devaluation of sex inito exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy. For a long time our culture sustained the ideal that it is not a lowering of the self but a full flowering of the self to become entierly attuned to another’s desires and feelings, and that there is a grteat power, even sanctity, in sex between two individuals who have a deep emotional connection.

    p. 101

  18. The huge growth of pornography through the internet is what makes so much of the soft pornography in magazines, newspapers, musiic and cinema possible; it’s hard to object to any of the mainstream aspects of the hypersexual culture, from Nuts to lap-dancing clubs, given the great leviathan of obscenity that anyone can access at any time with a couple of clicks.

    p. 102

  19. As more feminists with differing views joined the debate, it became clear that the classic feminist critique of pornography had left something very important out: it assumed that women never take any pleasure in pornography. This is clearly wrong. There are intelligent women, choosing and thinking for themselves, who do enjoy watching pornography, who do enjoy watching pornography, and some enjoy making it and acting in it too; we can no longer denny the intense sexual power of pornography for women as well as men.

    p. 105

  20. For an increasing number of young people, pornography is no lonnger something that goes alongside sex, but something that precedes sex. Before they have touched another person sexually or entered iinto any kind of sexual relationship, many whildren have seen hundreds of adult strangers having sex.

    p. 107

  21. This means that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.

    p. 108

  22. Even if they did not accept the classic feminiist critique that all pornography necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women, many of them were still concerned about the fact that pornography foregroundds a view of sex that can be profoundly dehumanising. In pronography, there is no before and no after; sex occurs in isolation. In pornography there is little individuality; every partner is interchangeable. In pornography there is no communication between the individuals concerned; it is all performance directed at the observer. In pornography, there is no emotional resonance to sex; everything happens on the exterior. When people become imaginatively caught up in pornography, this dehumanised view of sex can clearly have real effects on their own relationships.

    p. 109

  23. ‘Porn has been so normalised that anyone anyone objecting to it now is just going to be laughed at. I think we need to hear againg about how pornography threatens intimacy.’’

    p. 112

  24. I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades women, and I do not see that the classic feminist critique of pornography as necessarily violence against women is too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reaction to them. Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing problem.

    p. 114

  25. I am not saying that there are no differences between boys and girls’ preferences, on averag, or that what differences there are would entirely disappear if children were given complete freedom in a completely equal world. Whatever parents do, and whatever changes we created in the wider society, it might be that we would never see the boys choosing the dolls and the girls the footballs in precisely equal numbers. But the expectations that we are laying on our children in this generation are failing to allow for their true variability, their true individuality, their true flexibility.

    p. 134

  26. In fact, the current conventions to associate pink with girls and boys with blue seems to be a recent and culturally specific practice. Until the twentieth century infants’ clothes were generally white, and even once white was discarded for all infants’ clothes, the division of boys and dgirls into blue and pink took a while to get going

    p. 146

  27. The only area of maths that consistently throws up a moderate or large difference in favour of men is their ability for spatial visualisation.

    p. 175

  28. Similarly confusing for the idea that oxytocin is behind women’s feminine, empathetic behaviour was a recent study which found that shen couples kissed, oxytocin levels went up for men but down for women; which was in the opposite direction to that predicted by the theory that women look for love in order to boost their oxytocin levels.

    p. 183

  29. But even where average differences can be observed between men and women in cognition and emotional aptitudes, these average differences are tiny compared with the vast differences among individuals of the same sex.

    p. 200

  30. The narrative of biological determinism is often intensely idealistic about women’s natural bonnd with their children.

    p. 220

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