Personal-Political Review of New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity

Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on November 18, 2013

Cover of New Femininities

A month ago, I eagerly asked Gender Focus editor, Jarrah Hodge, to review New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism, and Subjectivity. And pumped I was when I received this collection of provocative scholarly essays with beyond-scholarly import that engage gender from different perspectives but with broad-mindedness and an acute awareness and utilization of intersectionality politics.

The collection, edited by Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, aims to bring together dispersed-but-connective, highly complex frameworks and bodies of knowledge. As Gill and Scharff make clear in their dense introduction: it is not easy work to push for more research in the study of gender, whether through a femininities lens or not, and it is far harder to argue for that research to connect theory with lived realities. This is the core quandary, perhaps, of the new femininities field, and it is a quandary that presents itself throughout the book.

I must admit the introduction took me longer to read than did any of the articles individually. I am a theory-lover, an academic (for better or worse), and am intensely interested in anything remotely related to women and feminism, yet I was stifled by some of the new knowledge I encountered. Luckily, my cognitive dissonance worked itself out in the process of making my way through the essays.

It seems during the time since I was last in a gender studies or women’s studies classroom, I somehow missed the rise of masculinities and neoliberalism. I also missed the New Femininities Boat.

If you are on the dock like me, I recommend starting out this book with some form of introduction or another to the concept of new femininities. I dealt with this by asking a couple of professors and graduate colleagues of mine if they had heard of the terms. One knew vaguely, another took a guess, but their comments helped me to gather enough to begin to test the waters.

You will likely encounter a bit of disorientation if you are not already familiar with “new femininities” and its related, sometimes jargonistic, academic vocabulary list. Faced with the prospect of grinding your way through the complex, theory-driven, and sometimes historicist unknown, take heart – the articles themselves involve a dynamic mix of the theoretical and the lived. To get you started, here are a few pointers:

Neoliberalism is a political/economic philosophy that promotes a market economy and that functions, as Gill and Scharff state, on a “rationality characterized by privatization, deregulation and a rolling back and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision.” It is guided by a market exchange ethic, and sociocultural behaviors form around and in relation to this ethic. Neoliberalism is, in the context of the book, the often-troubling complication factor with which feminists and new feminists contend. Simply stated, individualism and hierarchy trump community and equality in the neoliberal order, and this affects everything from international relations to local economics, fashion, pedagogy or gender studies.

Postfeminism is a loaded, somewhat mythical and definitely debatable, term. One meaning refers to a type of movement characterized by feminism’s interactions with movements such as post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and post-modernism. Viewed from this angle, the post- label is about resisting traditions and hierarchies.

Perhaps the most common use of the word postfeminism is simply referring to the backlash against feminism, with a stated belief feminism has outlived its usefulness . This definition is central to a reading of this collection, with the scholars generally looking upon it with judicious suspicion.

Subjectivity is another important term in this article, and it seems to be used by the editors in place of the term “identity” to encourage scholars to reflect on their perspectives, and also to look at neoliberalism as an outlook, not just a government program.

It’s okay to admit you haven’t heard of “new femininities.” The editors note that they, originally, considered placing a question mark after that part of the title. The entire collection complicates the notion and the question, but this is par for the course. We don’t have any easy definitions of gender or feminism, either. And we shouldn’t, because luckily at this point in time, both concepts are inclusive and culturally-aware of their dynamic composition enough to avoid overzealous use of labels.

That said, the book is no New Femininities 101. No, not on its own. However, it could be, with the right teacher— someone or something to serve as a guide or an impetus when you reach a stumbling block. It’s a great idea to have one (or more) when you read this, whether that teacher is a person or a group of critical-thinking companions or a notebook in which you can jot and sketch.

The essay that addresses most directly and succinctly uses the terminology necessary for reading New Femininities appears toward the book’s end: Shelley Budgeon’s “The Contradictions of Successful Feminism, Third-Wave Feminism, Postfeminism and ‘New’ Femininities”. I recommend reading it early on, possibly even before Gill and Scharff’s introduction.

New Femininities is best read in company, unless you identify as an independent and ambitious student. It’s a more-than excellent next choice for your feminist/gender studies reading group. At a monthly meeting, your, hopefully diverse, think-tank can take on a handful of articles on topics ranging from the thin line between empowering and degrading terms in relation to sexual subjectivity to the ways in which migrant women are using femininity to harmful binaries that exist within current debates on migration and integration. One of the most helpful dimensions of the book is that it offers a wide range of provocative material, which is always urgent and cross-culturally relevant.

As you might have guessed by this point, more could be done to render the work, specifically by way of its framework, accessible. While it’s fair to say that the intended audience of the work exists primarily within academia, feminist scholars have worked for years to create a more fluid boundary between theory and practice. Consider, for instance, bell hooks’ efforts to name the difficulties of working within academia and the necessary transformation of it by feminist scholars who move on a regular basis within and outside its male-centric terrain. I’m being a “bad academic” by saying this, but the book, at times, needs less citation and more translation.

All of the post-business, to me, simply smacks of the academic need to mark shifts in patterns of thinking. This can obscure real practices and lived realities. It’s interesting that many of the essays challenge the binarism and one-dimensionality that is perpetuated by such labels even while simultaneously using them to speak and be recognized within academia.

On a related note, reading this book reminded me, a person whose brain winces at the subject of economics, that I need to read Minnie-Bruce Pratt’s latest poetry book, Inside the Money Machine, like: yesterday. Pratt’s book deals creatively with the position of women within an international system of imperialism and neoliberalism. That reminds me of aspects that seem to be on the outskirts of or missing from this work:  co-authorship and attention to issues of audience. Visuals and hybridity of genre and form help create accessibility.

I appreciate that through that weakness, the book made me aware of my own hyper-adoption of academic language. I often have trouble getting other people to relate to and understand me because I speak a language that is not universal. I often write profusely, with excessive abstraction and word playfulness that can be exclusionary, off-putting and alienating.

There are no easy answers to the questions the book addresses, but the essays take us deeper than ever before into the emerging relationship between neoliberalism and postfeminism. We can and should, from our various readerly locations, join in the conversation and respond to what writhes below the surface of startling statistics, compelling qualitative data, and complicated issues of gender, feminism, and femininity as they are situated across cultures governed by the spreading mentality of neoliberalism. This will allow us to further uncover and examine their connections to one another as they relate, especially in practical ways, to the empowerment of women transnationally.

Whatever you do with this collection, try to find a way into it that is personal. Whenever we read, we go on a journey, one that often involves interruptions and is shaped by us, the travellers. I would like to conclude this review by saying that it was influenced by the fact that I watched Tom Shadyac’s “I Am” last night. His documentary illuminated some of the broader aspects of neoliberalism to me in a way that this book could not.

My closing advice is to read this book in the company of others: whether those others consist of other voices, other scholars, other readers, other art, other media, other courses, other articles, other frameworks, or other magazines. The more we engage scholarly material collaboratively, the more empowered we become.


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