Cham­pagne fem­i­nists

The ne­olib­eral coloni­sa­tion of ide­ol­ogy and ac­tivism

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Emma Rees is pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture and gen­der stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Ch­ester, where she is di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Gen­der Stud­ies.

The Rise of Ne­olib­eral Fem­i­nism By Cather­ine Rot­ten­berg

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 264pp, £19.99 ISBN 9780190901226 Pub­lished 27 Septem­ber 2018

Inth esp ring of 2018, the hash­tag# Bad Stock Photos Of My Job had one of those Twit­ter flur­ries that burn out nearly as quickly as they ap­pear. Google im­ages are the store­house of the hege­mony. “Pro­fes­sor”, for ex­am­ple, yields pic­ture af­ter pic­ture of white men sup­ple­mented by only one of a woman…whose pri­mary aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tion comes from hav­ing su­per­vised Gryffindor. As I’m nei­ther a man nor a wizard, these are not im­ages that re­flect me. Sim­i­larly, a search for “ca­reer woman” brings up nu­mer­ous im­ages of white women mul­ti­task- ing, bal­anc­ing a baby on one knee and a phone next to her ear or look­ing at a phone while sport­ing the kind of shoul­der pads last seen on Me­lanie Grif­fith in the late 1980s. The cover of Cather­ine Rot­ten­berg’s The Rise of Ne­olib­eral Fem­i­nism shows a pair of legs in that most dis­tress­ing of sar­to­rial col­lo­ca­tions – taupe slacks – off­set­ting black stilet­toes and a rigid, rec­tan­gu­lar brief­case of the sort no one has ac­tu­ally used since, well, Me­lanie Grif­fith in the late 1980s. It’s clear what the de­signer was get­ting at, but it’s a tired im­age for what’s a re­ally en­gag­ing and orig­i­nal book.

Fem­i­nism in the global north has never been as bro­ken as it is to­day. One need only look at the fu­ri­ous de­bates (al­though that’s a word with too much dig­nity in it ad­e­quately to cap­ture the vit­riol of many of the opin­ions and ex­changes) around the UK gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed up­dates to the Gen­der Recog­ni­tion Act to see just how deep the rifts go. The idea of fem­i­nism as a united so­cial move­ment feels slightly naive – twee, even – in the face of such divi­sion.

But it’s not only dis­agree­ment that is neu­ter­ing mod­ern fem­i­nism, as Rot­ten­berg makes clear. It’s also the per­va­sive creep of ne­olib­er­al­ism, a doc­trine that, in its em­pha­sis on self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and the pri­macy of the market, is in nearly ev­ery way an­ti­thet­i­cal to the col­lec­tive ethos that should un­der­pin fem­i­nism. But fem­i­nism has been co-opted by those ne­olib­eral mar­kets and in­sti­tu­tions to the ex­tent that wear­ing what ap­pears to be a fem­i­nist slo­gan on a T-shirt has be­come an end in it­self, a form of ac­tivism that isn’t ac­tivism at all but is a so­cio-eco­nomic slap in the face of the gar­ment mak­ers who work in ap­palling con­di­tions in ten­e­ments in Dhaka just so that you can look “woke” for next to noth­ing.

Rot­ten­berg quite rightly adds sig­nif­i­cant in­tel­lec­tual nu­ance to this de­bate. To claim that “pop­u­lar fem­i­nism” isn’t “proper fem­i­nism”, she ar­gues, is to adopt a po­si­tion that fem­i­nism “can be de­mar­cated once and for all”. Fur­ther, “It also as­sumes the ex­is­tence of un­chang­ing first prin­ci­ples from which ‘ac­tual’ fem­i­nist is­sues or­gan­i­cally arise.” The col­lec­tive en­ter­prise of ear­lier it­er­a­tions of fem­i­nism be­gins to feel shaky when con­fronted with the celebrity-en­dorsed jug­ger­naut of its ne­olib­eral sis­ter, whose en­er­gies have been ex­ten­sively “mo­bi­lized to con­vert con­tin­ued gen­der in­equal­ity from a struc­tural prob­lem into an in­di­vid­ual af­fair”, while “moral pro­bity” has be­come seem­ingly in­deli­bly linked with “self-re­liance and ef­fi­ciency”.

For Rot­ten­berg, the ne­olib­eral coloni­sa­tion of fem­i­nism, and the con­comi­tant jet­ti­son­ing of an ide­ol­ogy of post-fem­i­nism, re­ally gained mo­men­tum – and she’s pe­cu­liarly spe­cific about this – in 2012, when “All of a sud­den, many high-pro­file women in the United States were loudly declar­ing them­selves fem­i­nists.” The usual sus­pects – Emma Watson, Bey­oncé, Sh­eryl Sand­berg – are wheeled out as ex­em­plars of women liv­ing the ne­olib­eral fem­i­nist dream, but Rot­ten­berg does im­bue the anal­y­sis with acu­ity and wit: her chap­ter on Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work demon­strates bril­liantly how we dis­miss the First Daugh­ter as some­how friv­o­lous or stupid at our peril. “Trump’s man­i­festo helps demon­strate how in­di­vid­ual women are be­ing con­strued as specks of hu­man cap­i­tal,” she writes, and it “the­ma­tizes with dis­turb­ing clar­ity how ne­olib­eral fem­i­nist dis­courses around bench­marks, com­pe­ti­tion, and suc­cess are eclips­ing de­mands for equal rights”.

To look in so much depth at per­haps the best-known man­ual for ev­ery as­pir­ing ne­olib­eral fem­i­nist, Sand­berg’s best-sell­ing Lean In, how­ever, with­out mak­ing ref­er­ence to Dawn Foster’s cor­rec­tive ri­poste, Lean Out, is to miss a trick. That said, Rot­ten­berg’s anal­y­sis of Sand­berg’s book is in­ci­sive: we’re back in the stock photo world of baby/knee/tele­phone bal­anc­ing, where “change is ul­ti­mately un­der­stood as the con­se­quence of high-pow­ered women tak­ing per­sonal ini­tia­tive and de­mand­ing things like flex time” rather than ag­i­tat­ing for any kind of struc­tural overhaul.

It’s in her dis­cus­sion of both sex­ual ac­tiv­ity and moth­er­hood that Rot­ten­berg makes her most ex­cit­ing claims. In a world where “the new tech­nol­ogy of egg freez­ing [is] of­fered as part of the ben­e­fits pack­age of cor­po­ra­tions such as Face­book and Ap­ple”, there’s been what she terms a “tem­po­ral shift in the work-fam­ily bal­ance dis­course” as women are in­creas­ingly be­ing en­cour­aged to post­pone child­bear­ing in the in­ter­ests of work­place “suc­cess”. Fur­ther, re­pro­duc­tion it­self is mon­e­tised (those eggs don’t freeze them­selves), and the ne­olib­eral ideals of self-reg­u­la­tion and bal­ance, cou­pled with the de­sire to in­crease one’s hu­man cap­i­tal, be­come avail­able only to the wealthy who can del­e­gate day-to-day tasks. This is not a new state of af­fairs, but in Rot­ten­berg’s cau­tion­ary ac­count, should ne­olib­eral fem­i­nism re­main unchecked, its log­i­cal endgame – a cul­ture of “ex­pung­ing gen­der and even sex­ual dif­fer­ences among a cer­tain stra­tum of sub­jects, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­duc­ing new forms of racial­ized and class-strat­i­fied gen­der ex­ploita­tion” – will be truly Hand­maid’s Tale- level ter­ri­fy­ing.

Sex­ual lib­er­a­tion is, in Rot­ten­berg’s anal­y­sis, in­ti­mately con­nected to this shift in how women are be­ing con­di­tioned to see moth­er­hood as a de­sir­able – even com­mend­able – am­bi­tion, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­ing urged to post­pone it to their thir­ties. But she rightly posits that the hook-up – the no-strings sex­ual en­counter cel­e­brated in the early 2000s by writ­ers such as Hanna Rosin for its lib­er­at­ing and equal­is­ing po­ten­tial – has had to be hur­riedly rethought in the #Me­Too era: “re­cent sex­ual as­sault scan­dals on univer­sity cam­puses in the United States have made it much more dif­fi­cult to li­on­ize hookup cul­ture”. And it’s prob­a­bly a re­flec­tion of the length of time that it takes to get an aca­demic book through the pro­duc­tion process that Rot­ten­berg’s most in­ci­sive cri­tique of #Me­Too it­self (“the de­nounc­ing and tar­get­ing of in­di­vid­ual men po­ten­tially steers at­ten­tion away from the sys­temic na­ture of the vi­o­lence”) ac­tu­ally comes in an end­note.

For a rel­a­tively short book, there’s a lot in The Rise of Ne­olib­eral Fem­i­nism. Rot­ten­berg turns her an­a­lyt­i­cal eye to a range of cul­tural prod­ucts, from the “have it all” priv­i­leged mus­ings of Ivanka Trump to “mommy blogs” (“there are an es­ti­mated four mil­lion mommy blogs in the United States”) and pop­u­lar TV shows such as CBS’ The Good Wife and the Dan­ish series Bor­gen, in which it be­comes painfully ap­par­ent that in or­der to main­tain the moral high ground in the fu­ture, “Brigitte [the fic­tional prime min­is­ter] will have to do a bet­ter job bal­anc­ing fam­ily and work”. It’s an all-toofa­mil­iar pat­tern.

Ul­ti­mately, Rot­ten­berg’s book is an ide­al­ist’s man­i­festo; a call to arms from the front lines of a global ide­o­log­i­cal war. The so­lu­tions are broad-brush and not al­ways fleshed out (“an im­me­di­ate end to fos­sil fuel ex­trac­tion” is with­out doubt a great plan – but how might it be ef­fected?). Ide­al­ism can feel anachro­nis­tic in these dark days, but The Rise of Ne­olib­eral Fem­i­nism, in its de­sire ul­ti­mately to “mo­bi­lize the fem­i­nist threat on ev­ery sin­gle level of ex­is­tence pos­si­ble”, might go some way to­wards halt­ing the seem­ingly in­evitable growth not only of an in­ef­fec­tual kind of fem­i­nism, but of the global ne­olib­eral en­ter­prise more widely.

To­day ‘change is un­der­stood as the con­se­quence of high­pow­ered women tak­ing per­sonal ini­tia­tive and de­mand­ing things like flex time’ rather than ag­i­tat­ing for a struc­tural overhaul

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.