The Neoliberal Woman

December 23, 2013
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Is feminism working? What was it aiming for in the first place? And, has it actually been co-opted by the very system it set out to oppose? These (and other) questions are begged in an article by American professor Nancy Fraser, recently published in the Guardian. Now, the article is marketing for Fraser’s latest book, but despite that the questions are no less fascinating and when we strip away the veneer of clever-clever academic vocabulary (“valorises”, “democratising”, “absolutised”, etc.) there’s still something to ponder here.

Put simply, Fraser suggests that certain once-radical feminist platforms have been hijacked, repackaged and used to shore up the very structures that feminism was opposed to in the first place (i.e. the male-favoring political and economic systems otherwise referred to as ‘patriarchy’). She cites three examples.

Sarah Palin

First, feminism opposed the principle of the ‘family wage’ (i.e. a wage sufficient to support a family) because it almost always implied the man as single breadwinner, relegating the woman to running the home and raising the children. Fair enough, this is all linked to equality of opportunity for jobs and careers. Fraser’s point though is that this criticism has ‘permitted’ capitalism to assume that most families will have two wage-earners and the result is that wage levels have generally dropped; i.e. you now pretty much can’t afford a family unless you’re both earning. Also, there are far more low-wage roles around and these are more often than not filled by women. A sign of this shift is that it’s become a symbol of middle-class success to be able to afford for the woman to not go to work.

Secondly, feminism spoke against a politics that focussed solely on class as a dividing line. Quite rightly, too. After all, there are many differences other than class that result in unequal treatment and gender is certainly a major one. The drive here was to highlight the importance of addressing the (all-too-common) personal experiences of women in society – forced to adopt particular roles, domestic violence, etc. – on a political level; hence the rallying cry, “the personal is political”. However, Fraser argues that this fitted too neatly with capitalism’s desire to sweep social inequity under the carpet and the way it did that was to focus on the individual (the “personal”). Remember the 80s, the ‘me, me, me’ decade when we were told we could have it all. Well, that rather seductive lie continues today and when you look at what we were told we should have (significantly a home of our own and here, why don’t you borrow beyond your means to get it?) then it was a fairly inevitable straight line to the global financial implosion just a few years ago.

Thirdly, feminism objected to the paternalistic mode of government and the welfare state. So, on the issue of gender, it’s pointing out that the male-run institutions were calling the shots. However, this type of critique could be adopted by anyone wishing to attack the idea of welfare support in general. So, again, the feminist position could be taken as inadvertently supporting right-wing mutterings about the ‘nanny state’ and the subsequent selling off of the National Health Service. Damn.

In all three examples, what you get is a change in society that appears to be just what was being asked for, but look beneath the surface and it’s merely covering up a new inequality. The insidious nature of these ‘hijackings’ (assuming you agree that that’s what they are) is that they can be presented as signs that feminism has worked and therefore doesn’t need to bother anymore. Sort of a “You got what you wanted, now shut up” underlying message.

What it comes down to is that capitalism itself has changed. The feminist stances outlined by Fraser were originally in response to a post-war system that was very state-led and rigid. But capitalism these days is much more fluid, globalized and – not to put too fine a point on it – sneaky. Neoliberal capitalism doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead, it talks to us as individuals, whispers in our ear and makes us want, desire, crave the things it offers. It’s also a little like the Borg in Star Trek; it doesn’t so much oppose as assimilate, making use of opposition to further its own ends.

Michelle Bachman

Has feminism been subtly subverted by the forces of neoliberal capitalism? Have the corporate powers-that-be taken the key messages of gender equality and utilised them to keep us all happy little consumers while simultaneously drawing the fangs of those struggling for women’s rights? Well, maybe. After all, that’s how capitalism survives when challenged. Take the example of the eco-movement, once the preserve of rebellious crusties, it’s now marketed to all as aspirational ‘green’ living (and making somebody a lot of money in the process). Likewise, “Corporate Social Responsibility” whose roots lie in a criticism of exploitative big business practices such as child labor and indiscriminate polluting. CSR is now a badge proudly worn by every multinational corporation to say, Hey look, we care, (and in the meantime, your sweatshirt still comes from a sweatshop).

But let’s face it, feminism has never been overly popular with the mainstream, and why should it be. It’s essentially a revolutionary philosophy, seeking to alter the status quo. Basic human greed and selfishness ensures that the majority – whom the status quo suits very nicely, thank you – is hardly likely to want to share the goodies, is it? In fact, feminism has been constantly co-opted by more mainstream interests in an effort (conscious or otherwise) to undermine it.

michelle bachmann

Take the press, for instance. The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper has a longstanding section called Femail, aimed at its women readers. Surely that’s a step forward? It’s a triumph for women’s rights when a major daily newspaper takes notice of what women want. But what exactly does the DM think women want? The Femail strapline is: “Fashion, beauty, health, relationship and diet tips for women.” So, that’s handy hints on looking pretty, staying fit and slim and how to keep your man, then? Progressive. But the danger is, that by appearing to cater to women’s needs, the DM gives the impression that something worthwhile is actually happening.

How about marketing? These days, although cars and motorbikes are still sold by draping a scantily-clad model over them, you’re also likely to see adverts that suggest to women that personal empowerment and independence is theirs for the asking and indeed comes packaged with the latest supermini.

As for pop music, sure there are plenty of strong female icons out there; and most of them have had to compromise themselves and get where they are by shaking their booty – musical and songwriting talents are a secondary requirement. Don’t believe me? Two words: Spice Girls. Remember ‘Girl Power’? It made the Spices rich and their producers and record company richer; and little girls everywhere realized they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be, so long as they wore a short skirt and a fake lip piercing.

Of course, we should be careful about attributing actions or strategies to capitalism. After all, capitalism is an idea, a concept, not an organization. There is no Neoliberal HQ cooking up nefarious schemes. But capitalism manifests in the form of governments and big business (and small business, why not?) and those manifestations spend a lot of time ensuring that the populace do and spend as we are told. And when it comes to feminists (and women in general) it makes perfect sense to use the language and ideas of independence and equality to sell them stuff and keep them in line.

In The Neo-Feminist Hardline, Henry Vespa concludes his look into the Neoliberal Woman.

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  1. Great read.

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