Neoliberalism’s Gender Regime and its representations in public culture

Keynote lecture by Prof. Emer. Angela McRobbie

At our first G-Versity Summer School, we had the great honor to welcome Angela McRobbie who gave us a keynote lecture on public culture within neoliberalism’s gender regime. Angela McRobbie is a British cultural theorist whose research includes the study of popular culture, contemporary media practices, and feminism. She is now an Emeritus Professor at Goldsmith University’s Department of Media, Communications, and Cultural Studies.

In her lecture, Angela McRobbie introduced four re-configurations of the last decade to help us understand neoliberalism’s address to women and its enactment through popular culture. The term ‘figuration’ here does not refer to a specific concept but rather describes different conceptualizations of femininity. Femininity thereby has to be seen as made up of varying processes influenced by historical and institutional contexts, producing differing modes of realization. 

  1. Figuration: The post-feminist masquerade (pre-2008)

The first figuration describes women who have achieved a career but obtain a mask of frailty to highlight their femininity. They feign weakness and thus express the need for chivalric masculinity. This assures their male counterparts not to be afraid of being replaced by women. Further, the women communicate to stay in the frame of heterosexual desire and thus marriageable. Famous examples of this figuration in pop culture can be found in the role of Bridget Jones in the eponymous film and Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City

  1. Figuration: Neoliberal leadership feminism (emerged around 2010)

The second figuration is called ‘neoliberal leadership feminism’. It frames housework, childcare, and domestic labor as a source of intense pleasure and achievement. These activities are depicted as a matter of choice and place the mother as the CEO of her own domestic regime. This figuration requires the presence of a feminist supporting husband that enables the mother to be both successful at work and at home and ensure a double income for the family. Domestic labor thereby is reframed as work on the family human capital that will see a return of investment. In contrast, being single or childless is framed as a sign of personal failing, sadness, or economic marginalization. McRobbie also drew our attention to the fact that this figuration, however, requires a non-feminist reliance on low-paid, possibly immigrant, female labor to ensure its own social production. An example of the performance of neoliberal leadership feminism is posed by Michelle Obama

  1. Figuration: Resilience

McRobbie regards the third figuration as a reaction to neoliberal leadership feminism. The tough, demanding and competitive idea of perfection that surrounds neoliberal leadership feminism can result in anxiety, mental health crisis, and self-punishment among young women who strive for this ideal. To avoid these effects, resilience is needed. The turn to resilience can be seen as a shift back to liberal feminism and a counter norm to self-beratement. Lady Gaga can be referenced as an example of the figuration of resilience. By opening up about her posttraumatic stress disorder, the successful singer challenged neoliberal ideas of perfection. 

  1. Figuration: Abject femininity

A second articulation of resilience affects poor women who are affected by economic hardships and adverse circumstances. Often realized in antagonistic figurations of poverty shaming, media images of abject femininity display women with unkempt hair, an unshapely body as well as unkempt, and too many children. Representations like these display an anti-welfare attitude framing poverty as a personal failing that is not unworthy of compassion. McRobbie emphasized abject femininity to be a white stereotype as whiteness here becomes negative by pathologizing and demonizing poor white women who are instrumentalized to discredit welfare. This also results in silencing poor women. Abject femininity can often be found in Reality TV. A ‘mild’ form is for example portrayed in shows like The Supernanny where an ‘incompetent’ parent is taught by an expert how to be a good mother. A more explicit example of abject femininity is displayed in the satire show Little Britain where stereotypes about the welfare state exploiting single mothers are reinforced.

Prof. McRobbie’s figurations illustrate how neoliberalism can produce the most different understandings of femininity. However, neoliberalism is not the only influential factor here. Neoliberal Leadership Feminism, for example, depends on the work of immigrant women (see figuration 2) and thus illustrates different constructions of femininity on the grounds of ethnicity and ‘race’. Further, instances like sexuality or age can influence gendered social scripts and performances. G-Versity takes these multifaceted workings of gender into account. On the G-Versity solutions blog, you can find out more about how the different members of the network approach researching gender and its effects. 

Further Reading:
McRobbie, Angela (2020). Feminism and the Politics Of ‘Resilience’: Essays on Gender, Media and the End of Welfare, Polity Press.

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