New Feminities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Edited by Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2013.
What concepts are needed for studying gender, media and culture in the twenty-first century? For folks interested in these topics, how can we acknowledge social transformations and cultural progress – where women have gained new strides in representation and production – while at the same time attending to the ways in which media sexism is continuously shored up by long established forms of symbolic violence, classism, homophobia and racism?
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 transnational 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 discourse, where wearing the veil is treated as comparable to western pressures to wear sexualized clothing, in an attempt to resist racist discourses? (Carolyn Pedwell) How are teenage girls creating sexual digital identities – negotiating Playboy visuals and slut shaming – on social networking sites such as Bebo? (Jessica Ringrose) And how do we understand gender, vulnerable labour and migration in a time of capitalist crisis? (Gargi Bhattacharyya).
According to the authors in this book, there are two key concepts that can provide the theoretical terrain for understanding gender formations today: neoliberalism and postfeminism. As Gill and Scharff unpack 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; it variously refers to a new academic knowledge project (suggested to be like postmodernism or postcolonialism); a way of acknowledging popular attitudes that pitch feminism as something of the past; or a backlash mentality which accuses feminist movements themselves of causing unhappiness for the modern woman. One of the most critically persuasive uses of term, however, refers to a new ideological approach within contemporary media culture –drawing 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.
This new ideology can be summed up in what Gill has termed a ‘postfeminist sensibility‘. There are several interlocking aspects to 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 – a la girls gone wild)
- 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 (such as Playboy logos being sold on girls’ t-shirts!)
- there is a commodification of difference.
This might all sound rather abstract, but the twenty essays in New Femininities unpack these ideas and show how they operate in practice. Postfeminism constructs new gendered, classed and racialised norms. This collection also considers the ways in which contemporary feminism can be understood. ((Although the ways in which femininity and feminism slides together could perhaps call for a little further attention, and the volume could do with more of a queering of ‘new femininities’ – how are femininities constructed through non-female designated bodies, for example?))
A key intervention of the book is its ability to think analytically about neoliberalism – which hasn’t yet become established within gender theory/wider feminist studies as a vital area of critique. Moving on from an economic-based 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). They argue 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. This resonates with 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 various elements of postfeminism).
- the self-motivating, rational subject of neoliberalism (capable of making their own ‘good life’, 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)
- 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, to behave in certain ways. 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). ((To which we could answer: which women, how, and for whom?))
One of the stand out essays in the collection is Imogen Tyler‘s analysis of the rise of representations of (white?) 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 hegemonic femininity, 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. Alongside these creeping new discourses and expectations, 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 in this volume – particularly in the domain of ‘third wave feminism’. Third wave feminism is a highly contested term and a political identity and agenda which is still being fleshed out. There are several occasions in the book where third wave feminism is rendered in painfully simple terms: heaped together as an individualist leaning and/or inherently (and magically) inclusive. There is also the burning question of who and what is being referred to under the banner of third wave feminism. From thinking about the politics of citation, as Clare Hemmings draws our attention to, we can begin to query what texts are being called forward as emblems of new feminism/the third wave.
Invariably, 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) or mention of long-running feminist blogs and magazines.
The exception to this third-wave canon is Scharff’s chapter, which re-focuses the third wave discussion to the German context. Scharff not only acknowledges disputes and tensions within different third wave articulations, she is also rare among scholars for actually analysing the claims within popular third wave texts, rather than taking their statements at face value.
Overall, New Femininities. Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity is a compelling read which arms its readers with a critical toolkit for understanding 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. In the best chapters, tensions abound. I would recommend reading this book alongside Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity (2014) to map any potential connections.