Why are young girls being sold Naughty Nurse costumes for Halloween? In Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future (Lawrence Hill Books, $24.95), Barbara Berg argues that despite recent headlines, sexism in America is thriving. “Sexism is now applauded like the comeback kid, newly equipped and stronger than before. Massively destructive, it’s brazenly obliterating years of women’s progress.” Berg draws upon evidence from legal cases, personal anecdotes, surveys, popular culture, scientific studies, and politics to debunk the myth of a post-feminist era in America. Instead, she argues that as society has changed in the last 50 years, sexism, too, has evolved — assuming a variety of guises, but ever present.
Sexism in America explores answers to questions familiar to many American women: Why did a Target billboard in Times Square feature a young woman lying spread-eagled with a bull’s eye painted on her crotch? How has the concept of choice become a “verbal sledgehammer used to silence complex explanations for women’s decision?” Why did the female characters in the popular films “Knocked Up,” “Juno,” and “Waitress” not seriously consider an abortion? Why have 75% of the characters in the top-grossing G-rated movies from the last 15 years all been male? Why can a pharmacist’s discretion come between a woman and her emergency contraception?
While Berg’s answers to these questions are often unsurprising, the colorful evidence she draws upon offers a muchneeded perspective on contemporary society. Berg examines the post-September 11th media coverage that casts women as mothers and wives in contrast to the hyper-masculinized firefighters and construction workers. In the aftermath of the towers’ collapse, there was “a rush to defend and bolster an American manhood compromised and belittled by the attacks.” Men were the celebrated heroes, and women were the aggrieved victims.
Noticeably absent from Sexism is any discussion of how religion or class affect the way Americans think about issues of gender and sexism. Further, the book assumes a level of ideological commitment, so it will be ineffective, alas, in swaying those not yet converted to the feminist camp. Still, Berg offers an entertaining crash course in contemporary American sexism. Read Sexism before you shop for your Purim firefighter costumes this year — for your daughters, of course.
Ariella Kurshan works as an anti-trust/economic consultant in Washington, D.C. and is on the board of her local (egalitarian) minyan.