Neoliberalism has become so pervasive that we seldom recognise it as an ideology. Simply put, it is the belief that everything has a price tag and can be made into a consumable product. It sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. So by naively believing that it’s in our nature to be competitive with others for ownership rights, we are acting as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling. This is the process that rewards productivity and punishes inefficiency. Against this backdrop of neoliberal risk culture, in which the market fluctuates, there has been an upsurge in mass anxiety and financial instability, especially effecting young women.
‘it is not the responsibility of the individual to cope with their predicament quietly.’
As a final year Exeter student, I am admittedly surrounded by primarily middle-class women, but if I had a pound for every time my female friends exclaimed “I’m going to fail” or “I’m not clever enough” or “I’ve wasted so much time today” I would certainly be way above my overdraft. I imagine, it would amount to a grand — and that’s not exaggerating. Ha, look at me, a prime example of a neoliberal consumer: reducing anxiety to an estimate figure.
The anonymity of neoliberalism has played a major role in the rise of populist politics (including Brexit and Trump), the mental health social epidemic, the slow breakdown and privation of public health and education, the deterioration of the natural environment, to name a few. So it simultaneously causes economic and political crises.
‘feminism has become embroiled in a dangerous liason with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.’
To combat these issues, the system needs probing, attacking, and then changing — it is not the responsibility of the individual to cope with their predicament quietly. Neoliberal culture leads us to blame ourselves. Hence, especially young women think of their university days as ‘spent’ either ‘productively’ or ‘wastefully,’ ultimately determining their ‘success’ or ‘failure.’
As a woman, do you ever get the feeling that no matter how much work experience you have, or firsts you earn, you will never be a match for your male competitors in the working world? Think of how this anxiety intersects when it comes to racial, disability, and sexuality politics. The more ‘ill-fitting’ you are for society, the more unstable you’ll feel in a working environment.
consider the bread-winning female, most supreme if she can manage both a home and make profit.
Neoliberalism interferes with our aims as 21st century feminists. Most prominently, feminism has become embroiled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society: making everything (and everyone; for it effects the value of your labour) have a competitive price tag. Neoliberalism benefits from the stereotype of the ‘career woman’; aka, a breadwinning female, who is considered most supreme if she can manage both a home (with children and a husband) and contribute to society by making profit for the big man. She’s often the bitch of heteronormative films — who selfishly puts her career first, has no maternal bone in her body, until the end, when she sees the light and settles down with that cute guy who tried to tame her all along. (I thought we’d evolved since ‘Taming of the Shrew’?) This evolved from Second Wave feminism’s contribution of the ‘family wage,’ an ideal that is a kind of flexible capitalism which relies heavily on women’s waged labour in the real world, whilst sustaining the family back home. It celebrates female entrepreneurs — but only if they’re a minority.
A very crude example of this is the way female driving instructors market their services. Their birth-gender may be considered a disadvantage for their business (consider that old age rhetoric: ‘women are bad drivers’ or ‘women are cute when they try to do man things’). But when a female driving instructor sees that she’s a gap in the market, it can be transformed into a niche business — she can offer something that David Jones, or John Scott, or Mark Smith (etc.) cannot provide. But simultaneously, she must prove her worth. I came across one female driving instructor who’s selling point was that she had 10 years’ experience in the (masculine) military sector — it was strewn all over her website. And I think, good on her. Why shouldn’t she play this up to stand out from the sea of Davids, Johns and Marks? Though this is not a feminist act; it perpetuates cultural sexism because it markets the woman’s skills as the instrument of capital accumulation.
‘feminism is in a danger zone today; it is being commodified and sold as a product.’
Neoliberalism is subordination of all values to the market. This runs contrary to the trajectories of feminism, which first and foremost, is a movement which serves to elevate the social status of women to that of men, and will go the extra mile to ensure that women of colour, disabled women and LGBTQ+ women are on equal footing.
Feminism is in a danger zone today; it is being commodified and sold as a product. I am going to give some of my favourite examples of the commodification of feminist values. These products scream ‘buy me and you become a feminist par excellence,’ but they do nothing to contribute to the overall goals of feminism. It provides a superficial costume. We should also consider where these products came from, especially in terms of the low-waged labour in disadvantaged societies behind its stitches.
A £7.99 pink t-shirt which reads ‘ON WEDNESDAYS WE SMASH THE PATRIARCHY.’ First of all, I get that the design is punning on ‘Mean Girls,’ and that’s pretty cool, but feminists should be smashing the patriarchy everyday of the week and do not need a t-shirt to prove it. This capitalist incentive to turn every feminist slogan into a t-shirt is only productive in terms of accentuating neoliberalism, and in turn, the patriarchy.
As my dream woman, comedian Sofie Hagen, recently tweeted:
Moving on from T-shirts to canvas bags, pin badges, necklaces etc. which say ‘Girl Power.’ These are misleading. I’d rather you wear a top that reads ‘Feminist’ loud and clear, rather than ‘Girl Power.’ As Emma Pudge — my friend, eating disorder awareness activist, and brilliant feminist — argues: ‘Girl power is about commercial politics, not feminist politics, and the type of “power” afforded to girls in this process is consumer power. This only draws attention to widening socio-economic inequalities that separate those who can purchase the products they are being peddled, and those who cannot.’
I’m aware that this is a controversial choice, so stick with me on this until the end. I love what Rapi Kaur has done for the feminist movement. She is a wonderful poet and illustrator, who addresses themes of abuse, love, loss and femininity with poignancy. Her international success is not only testament to her talent, but how much we have progressed since Second Wave feminism, and so is a force for good in dismantling the patriarchy. But the mass of people who have posted photos of the book cover on Instagram, with a snazzy filter and the hashtags ‘#rupikaur,’ #milkandhoney’ and ‘#book’ often reduces feminist activism to good lighting and a pretty quilt cover. The hashtags proliferate the sales of the book, which is fantastic for the author herself, and the projection of women’s voices at large. But it also becomes commodified when conflated with the other products that Instagrammers fit in the square frame. Like Fiji water, for example:
The marketing of these products is problematic — not necessarily the values behind their existence. Being a feminist is not as simple as wearing a t-shirt declaring you are as such, or carrying a copy of ‘milk and honey’ in your ‘Girl Power’ tote bag, just in case of aesthetically pleasing photo opportunities.