The first decade of the 21st century has seen the publication of several state-of-the-world books, some more despairing than others. On the whole, straight white men think of the new century rather more critically than gay men or women.
Diane Negra's book is a valuable contribution to this literature, not least because in stating her case about the continued cultural domestication of women she makes valuable connections between a set of social changes, in cultural and institutional life, and a specifically capitalist social world intent on the material rewards of a commodity culture. She analyses in particular what she sees as the translation of the emancipations of feminism into what she describes as the "regularisation of luxury domesticity" and "expressive domesticity". Negra suggests that women are being persuaded to "return" to domesticity or to collude in the hyper-aestheticisation of everyday life through the celebration of an increasingly elaborate domestic world.
Negra's evidence comes largely from the United States, a country that has a passion for conventional domestic life unlike anything known in Europe. Negra's book was published before the emergence of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for the office of Vice-President of the United States. Yet Palin represents everything that Negra is describing: a woman (like Margaret Thatcher) who would not have achieved prominence without feminism and yet seems opposed to many of its political aims. (It is not comforting to read that the film Miss Congeniality, a title Palin chose for a T-shirt, was followed by Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.)
"Fashion victim" is not part of the argument of Negra's book, although that explicit form of the self-conscious recognition of the possibilities of cultural resistance could constitute another pattern in popular culture. Thus, although the material that Negra offers is a convincing view of consumer culture, it is appropriate to suggest that that culture is more complex and, hopefully, less mindless. It is admittedly difficult, when faced with the popularity of certain films and television shows and certain political views of the world, not to agree that Richard Hoggart's "candy-floss world" has taken over the public space. But qualifications could be put, not least of which are the limited material means of many people. Palin and Thatcher might praise domesticity but most women have to work to support themselves and their families.
So however seductive domestic goddesses and stories of heterosexual bliss might be, we still return to their real impact. We now know the rather different stories behind the films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and the rediscovery of many people "hidden from history" has made us aware that dominant cultures are not the only cultures in any social space. Negra's book is a reminder of the horror of losing that diversity.
What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism
By Diane Negra
200pp, £70.00 and £19.99
ISBN 97804154524 and 2281
Published 20 July 2008