New Feminities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Edited by Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2013.
Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff‘s edited collection, New Femininities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, provides an excellent road map for understanding gender, contemporary media and pop culture today. Across twenty original essays, this book grapples with the pressures and opportunities afforded to women across a range of media forms, including magazines, adverts, the web, reality TV shows, and diasporic cinema. It raises provocative questions such as, what is at stake in the prevalence of cross-cultural analogies in feminist literature, where wearing the veil is treated as comparable to western pressures to wear sexualized clothing? (Carolyn Pedwell) How are teenage girls creating sexual digital identities – negotiating Playboy visuals and slut pride – on social networking sites such as Bebo? (Jessica Ringrose) And how do we understand gender, vulnerable labour, surveillance and migration in a time of capitalist crisis? (Gargi Bhattacharyya).
Two central concepts provided the theoretical terrain for New Femininities: neoliberalism and postfeminism. As Gill and Scharff establish in their introduction, postfeminism “has become a key term on the lexicon of feminist cultural critique in recent years” (p. 3). Postfeminism is a contested concept. One of the most critically persuasive uses of term refers to a new ideological approach within media culture, which draws on some feminist ideas, while presenting empowerment and consumerism as the height of women’s right to choose and be in control of her life.
These ideas can be summed up in what Gill has termed a ‘postfeminist sensibility‘. There are several interlocking aspects of this sensibility:
- in contemporary media culture femininity is figured as a bodily property, to be maintained across projects of the self
- we’ve seen a shift from objectification to subjectification (women objectifying themselves for the public gaze)
- there’s an increased emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline and a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment
- this is reflected in the dominance of a ‘makeover paradigm’ where (normally working class) subjects seek to ‘better’ themselves through the help of middle-class ‘experts’
- postfeminist media sees a resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference (all women are like this, men are like that)
- the sexualization of young women is increasing
- there is a commodification of difference.
This might all sound rather abstract, but the twenty essays in New Femininities unpick such ideas and show how they operate in practice as a way of constructing new gendered, classed and racialised norms.
Moving on from an economic understanding of neoliberalism as the privitization and deregulation of markets, Gill and Scharff develop a view of neoliberalism as a cultural logic and disciplinary practice through which subjectivities are constructed. Here, “neoliberalism is a mobile, calculated technology for governing subjects who are constituted as self-managing, autonomous and enterprising” (p. 5). Gill and Scharff provide a crucial intervention into cultural theory by arguing that neoliberalism is a gendered phenomenon, intertwined with postfeminist discourses and practices. They map this over three aspects (p.7), including:
- the move to the individual over a collective political articulation (people ‘fail’ because of their attitude, not social barriers, for example – which is a tenent of neoliberalism. Or the cultural turn to feminism as a personal attitude of confidence and strength, rather than a critique of social injustice and inequality, which can characterise postfeminism).
- the self-motivating, rational subject of neoliberalism (who makes themselves, without the need for state assistance or welfare) resonates with the freely choosing, self-reinventing subject of postfeminism (where the tropes of sexism are performed willingly by women, for example)
- in popular culture discourses, it is typically women who are called on to self-manage and self-discipline – to make themselves over, to watch their weight and conduct, etc. As discussed elsewhere on the blog, young women in particular have been the site for ideal citizenship and censure alike. Gill and Scharff ask, “Could it be that neoliberalism is always already gendered, and that women are constructed as its ideal subjects?” (p.7).
One of the stand out essays in the collection is Imogen Tyler‘s analysis of the rise of representations of maternity within pop culture, arts, literature, politics, pornography and consumer culture. As Tyler ably demonstrates, “pregnant beauty is a disciplinary figure, which is symptomatic of a deeply entrenched ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’ in which the most intimate bodily experiences have become thoroughly capitalised” (p. 28). Where once being pregnant might have been a ‘time off’ of the expectations of being feminine, under late capitalism pregnancy has become a new site of ‘sexy’ and a “‘body project’ to be directed and managed” (p. 29) — pregnant bodies feature fetishtically in porn, new fashions and beauty products are targeted at the pregnant woman specifically, and new mothers are expected to ping back to their pre-baby bodied selves quickly after giving birth. Tyler also explores a “counter-cultural maternal aesthethic” (p.31) in the work of Croatian-born, Liverpool-based, art/activist Lena Simic.
Understanding how the economic, cultural and everyday meets is a crucial area for contemporary feminist media studies, as well as understanding sites of resistance. My main concern with New Femininities, however, is how feminist history and media is constructed – particularly in the domain of ‘third wave feminism’. In their introduction, Gill and Scharff attend critically to any fetishization of the ‘new’. As they state, “We are wary of a world saturated by consumerist logics and an attention economy in which a premium is placed (even in academia) on the ‘new’ (if not improved)” (p.2). Third wave feminism is a highly contested term, and a political identity and agenda which is still being fleshed out. In New Femininities, we have a nuanced examination of contemporary German feminist texts which seeks to trouble any simplistic notions of one-fits-all notions and definitions of new feminisms (Scharff). In her chapter, “The Contradictions of Successful Femininity: Third-Wave Feminism, Postfeminism and ‘New’ Femininities”, Shelley Budgeon does a good job of trying to round up some of the current theorisations of what ‘new feminism’ might look like and do. But, thinking about the politics of citation, as Clare Hemmings has drawn our attention to, we can question what texts are being named as emblems of this new feminist articulation.
Invariably (aside from Scharff’s chapter), it’s the now-canon of the North American popular books Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000); Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century (2003); Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (1995) and To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995). No where to be seen is Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (2002).
Officially published books are cited over long running feminist magazines and blogs, which calls into question the wider politics of publishing, visibility and feminism.* In Andrea Press‘ chapter on young women’s reception to America’s Next Top Model, third wave feminism is rendered in simple terms: “As normally defined, feminists of the third wave seek to avoid second wave’s essentialism, and maintain that the second-wave universalized the perspective of upper-middle-class, white heterosexual women” (p.117). I wrote ‘eeek’ in pencil in the margin. For all the ways this erases the work of women of color, working class and lesbian women of earlier generations, and for the lack of analytical engagement with what new feminisms might be on the ground.** Entrenched in this claim is also the spectre of intergenerational feminist conflict, which some self-declared third wavers are keen to avoid.
In sum, New Femininities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity is a compelling read which arms its readers with a critical toolkit to understand contemporary gender and media formations. It’s no introductory or primer text, but does open up abstract ideas through closely argued empirical chapters and calls attention to the need to understand neoliberalism as a gendered, cultural logic, and postfeminism as a disciplinary discourse which attempts to shapes what it means to be a ‘woman’ today. I’d like to read this book alongside Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity (2014) to map any potential connections. I’d also like to see future volumes of this kind include historical critique within their scope: reading new media culture and theory alongside earlier, grassroots/academic articulations by feminists, to further integrate the claims of the ‘new’, to challenge canon thinking and easy definitions of what feminism ‘is’, and to create more supple bridges across feminist theory and media making.
* One of the strongest feminist print magazines for contemporary feminist theory and grassroots politics is Make/Shift
** Interesting enough, when searching for links to put into this review, I notice Prof. Press has a new book out called Feminism LOL: Media Culture and “Feminism on the Ground” in a Postfeminist Age – drawing on interviews with men and women of different ages and class backgrounds about feminist issues and their representation in the media. I look forward to reading this too!