//Post-Feminism and Beyond// Angela Mcrobbie
Post-Feminism and Beyond Angela Mcrobbie
From the late 1990s, my attention, as a feminist sociologist, kept being drawn to media images which were intended to provoke some imagined group of (always humourless) feminists. These images appeared, in a celebratory fashion, to reverse the clock, turning it back to some earlier pre-feminist moment, while at the same time doing so in a rather tongue-in-cheek kind of way. The prevailing use of irony seemed to exonerate the culprits from the crime of offending against what was caricatured as a kind of extreme, and usually man-hating feminism, while at the same time acknowledging that other, more acceptable, forms of feminism, had by now entered into the realms of common sense and were broadly acceptable. The famous ‘Hello Boys’ Wonderbra billboard advertisement was the most obvious example. The rhetoric of this image proposed the deviant pleasure of being ‘politically incorrect’ with force and energy. The old feminist was addressed implicitly, as a woman who sought to limit the pleasures of the ‘rest of us’. Thank goodness, the image seemed to suggest, we can now, once again, enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful women with impunity. So skilful with the use of postmodern irony was the image, that it also sought to produce a kind of generational divide, the younger female viewer is not made angry, unlike her older counterpart. She appreciates the multiple layers of meaning and she gets the joke. Since then this new kind of sophisticated anti-feminism has become a recurring feature across the landscape of both popular and also political culture. Its distinctive feature is that it upholds the principles of gender equality, while denigrating the figure of the feminist. From the gentle upbraiding of the feminist in Bridget Jones’s Diary, to the rise of lap-dancing clubs, to the sexist-in-inverted-comma jokes of Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, and Jonathan Ross, to hen parties, to proliferation of ‘lads mags’, to the sexualisation of small girls through the rise of fashion and beauty brands targeted at the under 5s, to the retro-styled garden barbeque event like that staged during the Obama visit to the UK in summer 2011, which had in the foreground the wives dressed for the part, and hence traditionally ‘wifely’, to the spectacular and unapologetic hate speech of Berlusconi, who nevertheless also claims to support the careers and ambitions of young glamorous women, while showering older women who challenge him with torrents of verbal abuse, we see something socially significant solidify under the surface of contemporary cultural life.
I have referred to this phenomenon as a form of symbolic power which can be understood as post-feminist. There is a double entanglement, across the socio-political universe as feminism is taken into account, in order that it can be understood as having passed away. What once may have had some role to play on the historical stage, is now no longer needed. Feminism is associated with the past and with old and unglamorous women (Germaine Greer in the UK, Alice Schwartzer in Germany) and this encourages a dis-identification with feminism on the part of young women. Indeed it is a mark of their cultural intelligibility as young women that they renounce or disavow the need for a new sexual politics. To this extent young women have been expected to become both quiet and quiescent. This marks a complexification of the backlash referred to by Susan Faludi in her book, precisely because post-feminism registers time and again, the seeming gains and successes of the second wave of the women’s movement, the fact that things have changed and hence the irrelevance of a new feminism (Faludi 1996).
We might ponder how and why this has happened. Sociologists Boltanski and Chiapello have provided a wide-ranging analysis of the way in which contemporary capitalism has replenished itself, producing for itself a new ‘spirit’ which substitutes older bureaucratic modes with more flexible social relations in work and employment, by taking on board many of the criticisms levered by the left especially those associated with the student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007). It would be possible to extend their argument to include some of the critiques provided by second-wave feminism. Indeed we find this being suggested recently by Nancy Fraser who states that there is a ‘disturbing convergence’ of feminism with the new brand of neoliberal capitalism (Fraser 2009 p1). Fraser sees unwitting collusion on the part of feminism here which, she argues, not uncontroversially, had by the time at which neoliberalism was on the ascendant, subordinated (or suspended?) the trenchant critique of economic injustice within capitalism for a more nebulous cultural critique more directed towards regimes of meaning and representation. Fraser posits a connection therefore between feminism at a moment when it had relinquished some of its hard-edged critical stance on economic inequality, with the rise of neoliberalism which, pace, Boltanski and Chiapello was now reaping the rewards from its incorporation of what they call the ‘artistic critique’ proffered by the cultural wing of the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like myself Fraser recognises that western feminism, in a popular vein, had entered into everyday life especially around a set of values which appeared to challenge and contest visible inequalities and injustices. However apart from implicitly castigating the so-called cultural feminists with whom she has already been in critical dialogue, especially Judith Butler, Fraser underplays the way in which capitalism sought to undo feminism. There is nothing in her argument which documents the sustained attack on feminism and feminists which is also a defining feature of neoliberalism. She makes it sound as though there was simply a convergence even a seemingly fortuitous liaison. In contrast I argued forcefully in The Aftermath of Feminism that a new ‘gender regime’ comes into being which directly acts upon the bodies and capacities of young women. The world of media imagery and the politics of meaning are deeply and inextricably connected to and part of the wider political economy. It was through the intersections of popular and political culture that feminism was undone and, hey presto, was instead replaced by a prevailing, even triumphant, discourse of female individualism (informed by a veneer of feminist principles and buzz words such as female empowerment or A1 girls etc) which could then quite easily be set to work as part of an emerging new capitalist or neo-liberal agenda, this time directly addressed to, indeed customised for, young women.
The Italian neo-Marxists who have recently garnered much attention in the wake of the success of Hardt and Negri’s Empire offer a different perspective which suggests that the left, in their case the workers’ movement, won some key victories on the factory floor, and forced capitalism to make a range of concessions(Hardt and Negri 2000). This included permitting workers a degree of autonomy and even self-expression within what had been until then the unremitting grind of ‘labour discipline’. Again it could be argued that through the sheer force of struggle the women’s movement made some inroads in addressing the scale of gender inequalities which existed both inside and outside of the workplaces from the late 1970s. The feminist movement did indeed force open the gates to employment and wage earning capacity for women across the boundaries of class and ethnicity as never before in recent history. The work of the Operaismo writers would presumably make a similar case for women though they pay little or no attention to gender in their writing. But if we extend their argument it would be possible to suggest that some of the successes of feminism translated into employers and the state being forced here to compromise and grant concessions which had the overall effect of permitting women more protection and security in regards to rights and entitlements and also legitimacy in their move into work and employment. The novelty in each of these influential arguments by Chiapello and Boltanski and also by Hardt and Negri is that some grounds are found for countering the relentless path of power which has produced so many variations of ‘left pessimism’. In each case, though with different inflections, feminism could be seen as having forced some concessionary response on the part of the status quo and the dominant social groups in society (or the patriarchy). However I am already reading more gender dynamics into this work than are actually present, they are perhaps at best implicit. What weakens this writing overall is an anachronistic inattention to gender, sexuality, the body, and the distinctive spheres of power which circulate primarily outside the field of work and the ‘factory floor’. I would prefer to re-cast this debate about the recent and current status of women in terms of what Foucault famously calls day-to-day governmentality, rather than focus on the meta-structures of capital and labour. I would make the case that the re-contouring of contemporary young womanhood as having benefited from the struggle for gender equality marks out the horizon of a more profound hegemonic process. This granting of some degree of freedom or capacity to women, and with this the idea that western women are nowadays liberated from tradition, becomes, at the same time, the means and the measure of a new form of capture or control.
Political Culture, Popular Culture and Young Women
The scale of this undertaking, a re-making of modern young womanhood so as to suggest that feminism has indeed been taken into account, required the active participation of the media and popular culture. Here we run into the problem of how to avoid an analysis which simply focuses, in a rather mechanical way, on the power of the press and media and its obligations (or not) to government, including, in this case, the nominally leftist government of the Blair decade. This is merely to set one powerful apparatus alongside another, each with an agenda which may or may not coincide. It’s altogether more instructive to examine the complex intersections and flows of media and political discourses which spread, sometimes intersecting, in unpredictable ways, far and wide across the whole social fabric. Looked at in this broadly Foucauldian manner we can see the emergence of similar mobilising vocabularies and clusters of expressions and ideas. Nikolas Rose subjected the whole grammar of New Labour to close examination seeing there a new focus on self-reliance, on the ‘conduct of conduct’ on individualisation and self-entrepreneurship, on talent and competition (Rose 1999). This was most evident in the book by Charles Leadbeater titled Living on Thin Air which carried a blurb by the PM Tony Blair himself (Leadbeater 2000). The argument I proposed in The Aftermath of Feminism was that within the passage to a new form of neo-liberal governmentality, young women came to occupy a key position, indeed they became exemplary subjects (McRobbie 2008). One reason for that is that within the realms of sex and power, women, in their subordinate or dependent status, have long been deemed particularly malleable or even ‘docile subjects’. Those who are exceptions to this rule are somehow abnormal. There is nothing new about casting the feminist or indeed the lesbian as the arch-villain whose anger and hostility stems from some personal inadequacy. What changes in the new neo-liberal era as it was embarked upon by the New Labour government was a joining of forces across the media and political life which had the effect of intervening in the space where previously feminism may have done its work, and substituting, in a pre-emptive manner, so that young women in particular become the object of intense attention. For example, on some occasions, concerned about young women’s health and eating disorders government sat down alongside the editors of the women’s and girls magazines, as well as the world famous feminist Susie Orbach, to try to establish a code of practice about discouraging the use of size zero models in fashion and beauty images. While such an event may be interpreted as supportive and positive we need to dig deeper below the surface to understand what could be at stake in this kind of concern for young women and their body anxiety? Here we see ‘help’ including self-help made available, without however any penetrating analysis as to the underlying sexual politics of contemporary female pathologies. Apart from some ‘light touch’ proposals that the women’s magazine industry self-regulate with new codes of practice, in this case, serious illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia were denied a far-reaching social and environmental explanation, and within weeks the appearance of anorexic bodies (especially legs) re-appeared as normal on the pages during the reporting of the fashion shows featuring well-known British designers.
Under this new gender regime the subjectivities of young women are defined and described in a repetitive manner in popular and political discourses along the lines of female individualisation. This permits a replacement for feminism through stressing not collectivity or the concerns of women per se, but rather competition, ambition, the meritocracy, self-help, and the rise of the Alpha Girl (much loved by the Daily Mail). The young woman is addressed as a potential subject of great ‘capacity’. As Harris puts it she is a ‘can do girl’ (Harris 2004). In a proliferation of faux-feminist gestures girls are applauded and celebrated and supported for their potential and for what they ‘can do’ in the world. Across the field of corporate culture initiatives to support the ‘global girl’ become a mark of compassion and concern as well as ethical responsibility. Underlying this spotlight of what Deleuze would call a ‘luminosity’ is a subtle process of marketization wherein the potential of younger women comes to be harnessed to a new form of consumer citizenship, again a term which was much bandied about during the New Labour years. This activity on the part of government, designed to give a bigger place to consumer culture in the politics of everyday life, marked out not just a recognition of the power of media and popular culture to forge a world of cohesive values but also a neo-liberal strategy of offloading the work of government into a more self-regulating terrain whereby the market is given more leeway to shape the needs of the population, in this case young women. Then, when things go a bit too far government will step back in to pull the free market forces back into line. (This could be seen in recent months on the public debate this time undertaken by David Cameron which tackled the subject of the sexualisation of childhood and the ranges of fashion and beauty products targeted at small girls often under the age of 5). My focus of interest in The Aftermath of Feminism was in what I termed a new sexual contract. This was a hegemonic process aiming at what Stuart Hall would call a kind of (gender) settlement regarding the status and identity of young women. They were to be encouraged at achieve in school, at university and in the world of work and in each of these spheres they could rightly expect norms of gender equality to prevail. Government would (at that time) provide supports and incentives to do well, to gain high qualifications and to aim for the financial independence of the monthly salary. This economic independence marked a shift away from dependence on the male breadwinner model and promised women greater freedom while also ideally taking the burden away from the state following marital breakdown or divorce. The young woman could also expect as a result of her hard working outlook and capacity also to gain some tangible sexual freedoms in the form of access to leisure culture, to a sex life which need not be tied to marriage and having children, and to a climate where the sexual double standard was to be removed so that the young woman could heartily enjoy sexuality with impunity, indeed she could also now get drunk, and even behave badly within certain limits (as Bridget Jones tumbles out of taxis onto the street after a long night in the wine bar). As long as she did not become a single mother who would be reliant on welfare she could gain access to sexual pleasures which in the past had always been the privilege of men (hence the new female market for soft pornography and the growth of so-called porn chic). The new sexual contract tied women to enjoying the freedom to consume, having earned her own wage (and so triggering the enormous expansion of the female fashion-and-beauty business corporations) while also offering them the rather nebulous idea of ‘consumer citizenship’. What was omitted was encouragement to a more active form of political participation. During the Blair years political life was increasingly linked with the pursuit of a narrow professional career in Westminster, best left to those few for whom this was a life-choice. Grass roots or community politics, and democratic participation in public life and civic society, was down-graded in a context where self-improvement and the need for constant make-overs were considered the best kind of extra-curricular activities for young women. Many commentators as well as social scientists at the time referred to the decline of politics and political engagement and my point here is that within this sphere of the new sexual contract the idea of a revived women’s movement was also somehow unthinkable certainly not something which the so-called ‘Blair babes’ could encourage given the distaste the PM was said to have for the f word. This is what I meant by the de-democratising effect of ‘feminism undone’.
The Legacy of Post- feminism
Let me conclude this update on the question of post-feminism with one final point. This concerns the UK Coalition government. There are changes here which suggest the forging of a more explicit conjoining of neo-liberal policies, if not with feminism, then with an idea of modern womanhood. This is a currently emerging phenomenon, hence my tentative tone. It suggests an avowal rather than disavowal of the successful high-achieving woman, (usually also a mother) who can rise to power within the Conservative Party and even on occasion, when pressed, call herself a feminist. And unlike Mrs Thatcher she is no longer absolutely unique and exceptional. In this space we can find young women like the MP Louise Mensch, formerly a best-selling ‘chick lit’ novelist, as well as a PR for the music industry, now a mother of three and a politician. This image of female success, (she is without doubt an ‘Alpha Girl’) indicates a break-through into the social and political elite for women who are by and large already extremely privileged. Interviews describe Mensch’s wealthy family and her private education, as well as a very successful ex-husband and likewise equally wealthy current husband. She is not alone in the cohort of young women who have emerged within the Conservative Party whose upper middle-class background along with an Oxbridge education makes them exemplars of female capacity. The ‘top girls’ celebrated and supported in the UK by New Labour, have in fact found political homes for themselves within the centre-right. Across the spectrum of European politics it is the small super-league of polished, professional women who gain prominence from their prestigious jobs. But so far removed are they from ordinary women, especially those now losing their jobs across the public sector, that they may as well be film stars or celebrities. They function more as role models, issuing a clarion call to young women that ‘you can do it’. This then is the legacy of post-feminism and female individualisation process, that there are spaces for the top girls to become elite women who may not be completely averse now to calling themselves feminists.
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