À procura de textos e pretextos, e dos seus contextos.


Capitalism, Consumerism and Feminism

Nina Power

The gradual emancipation of women has been, without doubt, the greatest social revolution of the past few hundred years. The widespread acceptance of women’s entry into the workplace, together with the admission that there is no ‘natural’ role for women has thoroughly transformed economic, political and social relations. But even as the number of women in the US workforce overtake men for the first time, there is a widespread sense that some of the aims and ambitions of feminism, particularly in its second ‘wave’, have been profoundly undermined by capitalism and a capitalist culture that has proved to be singularly adept at turning revolutionary and radical impulses into their very opposite. In a recent piece for the New Left Review, Nancy Fraser worries that: ’The diffusion of cultural attitudes born out of the second wave has been part and parcel of another social transformation, unanticipated and unintended by feminist activists—a transformation in the social organization of postwar capitalism. This possibility can be formulated more sharply: the cultural changes jump-started by the second wave, salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society’. Elsewhere, too, there are serious worries about the unwitting complicity of some of the aims of feminism with a pernicious and demoralising consumerism. Natasha Walter in her new book, Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism is incredibly critical of earlier, more positive models of feminism, including her own in her earlier The New Feminism (1998). She writes in Living Dolls: ‘I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit I was entirely wrong … The rise of a hypersexual culture is not proof that we have reached full equality; rather, it has reflected and exaggerated the deeper imbalances of power in our society.’

It is clear, even without reading Walter and Co., that the ‘sexual revolution’ in which men and women would freely express their desires without the old worries about pregnancy and conservative objections has today become the commodification of a narrow version of sexuality which perversely fuses a porn aesthetic with a regressive fetish for the domestic couple: it is perfectly possible for both men and women to be as hedonistic as humanly possible in their teens and twenties before settling down with ‘the one’ in a humdrum bill-sharing and mortgage-splitting ‘partnership’. This goes for gay couples as well as straight (albeit with a minimally persistent lack of parity to appease residual conservatism on the part of voters): what matters is that the couple is the apex of sexual identity and human achievement, even if you might end up in several such couplings over the course of a lifetime. Early discussions of the civil partnership bill (passed in 2004) mooted the idea that couples not sexually involved could become partners, but ultimately bottled out of passing the legislation. Thus two sisters could potentially leave everything to one another (as the famous failed test-case attempted to do), or two friends, or a carer and his or her ward. More radical suggestions for civil partnerships proposed that such an arrangement could allow for multiple partners on the same contract – thus a household of friends could ‘marry’ one another, or three brothers, or a student household, and so on. It is easy to laugh at such desires for collective admissions of affection and care, but only, perhaps, because we have been taught to laugh at their supposed utopianism. But why has the image of the two, the sexualised couple, come to dominate our understanding of the limits of modern love? Culturally, we are aware of a longstanding paradox in the way we deal with sex and the couple: we are thunderously puritanical when it comes to the infidelity of celebrities, at the same time as we are utterly prurient about these same sex lives. We have a culture that pushes free-flowing, loveless sex at every opportunity yet chastises those that would take this one-sided emancipation at face-value. The same goes for the sexualisation of children: the excessive protection of ‘innocents’ and the hysteria surrounding the figure of the paedophile (even at the same time as we know that most violence, and sexual violence, is carried out by someone known to the child) goes hand-in-hand with the hyper-sexualisation of children, particularly girls, who inexorably come to see themselves as princesses before tomboys and flirts before scholars.

On a recent episode of The Review Show, Kirsty Wark held up a padded bra for an 9-year-old as evidence of the decadence of our sexualised childhood culture in the same way that anti-feminists might once have held a picture of a woman in trousers: something has gone terribly awry with the way we picture little girls, and the women they will all-too-soon become. It is incredibly easy to be moralistic about this early sexualisation, and, indeed, this was the avenue precisely taken by the guests on the show. Novelist and sister of London’s mayor, Rachel Johnson, took the bra to be the sign of a specifically working-class kind of problem: ‘I don’t see middle-class mothers going to Primark and buying padded bras or thongs for their nine-year-olds’.

Walter in Living Dolls makes similar, if slightly more refined, use of the same kind of middle-class aesthetic-moral hand-wringing: ‘”Me-time” for a young homemaker now can include dressing as a Playboy bunny; breaking into a respectable career that would make your mum proud can start with stripping for nothing in a crowded nightclub.’ However, merely feeling appalled at the supposed barbarism of the proles is not an explanation, nor could it ever be one. Besides, it is very clearly untrue that flashing flesh is the province of the supposedly amoral working class, threatening town centres like some sort of slutty Hogarthian vision and upsetting upright girls and their parents: ‘nice’ middle-class girls are just as frequently likely to be flashing their breasts in student union bars, or wearing very little outside clubs in the freezing cold, or sleeping around. It’s just that we mind less, because somehow they have more independence, and grade 8 violin, and some money behind them. Thus the rise of the self-aware ‘I’m not a slut, I just like sex’ woman, the sex-blogger, the high-class call girl who does it ‘because she wants to’, not because she has to (which, to be fair to Walter, she is equally critical of in Living Dolls). On the same Review Show, Zoe Margolis, author of the blog and the book Girl With a One-Track Mind, could very easily agree with Walter’s rather prudish demolition of the sexualisation of contemporary culture, despite extolling the virtues of string-free sex, because she shares the middle-class assumption that working class girls and women are ‘not free’ to choose their own sexuality, either through their own stupidity or their dire economic circumstances. But class-based, aesthetic and/or moral disapproval of the way in which people buy into their own narrow sexualisation is not the point. It explains nothing, and promulgates the faulty idea that somehow there is ‘their’ culture and ‘ours’: drunken, promiscuous working-class ladettes versus refined, thoughtful middle-class ladies who may sleep around a bit, but will ultimately settle down with someone nice from the home counties. If our culture is increasingly sexualised, and it is, then it is for everyone, and we should begin from this admission, rather than disapprove of those we think are doing it distastefully.

But what explains this hyper-sexualisation? What purpose does it serve to get women to see themselves as constantly on display? I think that this kind of self-advertising has to be understood in the context of work, and a kind of ambient pressure to ‘sell oneself’ on the job-market in an age of enforced precariousness and the rise of temporary employment. I continue to think that this dimension of the argument – a kind of economic-cultural approach – is lacking in the recent despair over the premature sexualisation of young women. What Walter and others miss is the fact that the old categories we used to try to explain the oppression of women: misogyny, patriarchy, objectification and so on, do not exactly capture the more complex logic of self-exploitation. Men are not ‘to blame’ for the rise in ‘raunch culture’, to quote Ariel Levy, even as structurally they are paid more, in better positions, and so on: if only it were so simple! We have to look at the bigger picture: what kinds of workers do companies need? How little can they get away with paying people? How much work can it expect men and women to do that it doesn’t need to reward? Women are increasingly useful in an economy that replaces manual labour with service jobs, whether they involve caring, speaking, emailing, cleaning or waitressing. The dimension of ‘flexibility’ that has always been part of women’s relation to work, mainly due to the pressures of childcare, has now been repackaged as a virtue for all workers, regardless of their gender. The idea of a job for life, of state-provided childcare, of the ability of a family to live on a single wage has now been so enervated it seems absurd to think that it was ever the norm: women’s entry into the workforce has corresponded with the depressing of men’s wages – thus the couple, in order to have any sort of stability at all, however minimal, must both work all the time, even if there are children to look after. Capitalism and the state have somehow managed to dump all responsibility for the reproduction of the workforce on the couple, so that the very idea of discussing any sort of collective response to child-rearing is greeted with a kind of dystopian horror: what is this, the sixties? Similarly, the young woman that sells herself, using whatever means she has, is merely behaving rationally in a world where jobs are scarce, where employment is ‘flexible’ to the point of insanity and where another perky young thing is just around the corner to take your position.

It seems to me not implausible that the techniques that women might have used in a similarly pragmatic vein to ‘get a man’ and thus secure some sort of economic stability are now used, in a rather more limitless way, to ‘get a job’. The sexualisation of contemporary women, from which men are of course not exempt from either, reflects less a freely-chosen desire to express oneself as a fully-rounded sensual being and far more the desperate, yet eminently comprehensible, desire to insert oneself in whatever way possible into a cruel economic structure that will selectively use and value the ‘assets’ of its workers whenever it needs to. We should not be ‘blaming’ women for their complicity in such a logic, as if blame were ever a useful political category, but try better to understand it. The hyperreal sexuality of today’s culture has as little to do with real libidinal emancipation as contemporary ‘flexible’ work has to do with true human fulfilment. Feminism must restore its links to an understanding of economic shifts and the cunning of capitalism if it is to remain relevant: less hand-wringing and despair, more structural analysis!


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