Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Female Desires by Rosalind Coward

I picked this one up on a whim at one of the library’s used book sales. The subtitle, “How They Are Sought, Bought and Packaged,” caught by eye, and I thought it was going to be an analysis of how the advertising industry seeks, buys and packages female desires in order to better sell its products. It’s not. It’s a series a sometimes unconnected essays on a variety of feminist topics by a British journalist, columnist and academic. It was also written in the 1980s, and some of the material seems a little dated.

It did help me get my brain around two big ideas, however.

1. Problems are defined by the powerful, and the powerful always offer solutions based on behavior changes to be made by the less powerful. 

This one goes beyond feminism, I think. The case in point is the depression experienced by women who find it difficult to live up the expectations of men. The problem, defined by men, is the depression, and the solution, offered by men, is for women to cheer up and work harder. It’s just as valid to say that the problem is the unfair expectations of men and the solution is for men to change those expectations, but the problem is not defined that way and that solution is not proposed. The people in a position to do so are in the underclass, without the opportunity to suggest or effect that change.

The same dynamic can be seen in plenty of other circumstances outside the one cited in the book. Those with power are in a position to demand change in others, and that is always the first instinct when problems arise.

2. Women represent the gender on which society seeks to write its sexual and moral ideals.

I never thought of it in these terms before, but it seems true. Sexual morality in most human cultures is defined by the use of female sexuality—by men or by women—and not by the use of male sexuality. What an epiphany this must be for growing boys and growing girls when they come to understand this. For the boys, it must be liberating. For the girls, stifling.

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