The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, by Catherine Rottenberg

Book of the week: leaning in self-determinedly sidelines collective efforts to secure equality, says Emma Rees

November 1, 2018
Source: Reuters

In the spring of 2018, the hashtag #BadStockPhotosOfMyJob had one of those Twitter flurries that burn out nearly as quickly as they appear. Google images are the storehouse of the hegemony. “Professor”, for example, yields picture after picture of white men supplemented by only one of a woman…whose primary academic qualification comes from having supervised Gryffindor. As I’m neither a man nor a wizard, these are not images that reflect me. Similarly, a search for “career woman” brings up numerous images of white women multitasking, balancing a baby on one knee and a phone next to her ear or looking at a phone while sporting the kind of shoulder pads last seen on Melanie Griffith in the late 1980s. The cover of Catherine Rottenberg’s The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism shows a pair of legs in that most distressing of sartorial collocations – taupe slacks – offsetting black stilettoes and a rigid, rectangular briefcase of the sort no one has actually used since, well, Melanie Griffith in the late 1980s. It’s clear what the designer was getting at, but it’s a tired image for what’s a really engaging and original book.

Feminism in the global north has never been as broken as it is today. One need only look at the furious debates (although that’s a word with too much dignity in it adequately to capture the vitriol of many of the opinions and exchanges) around the UK government’s proposed updates to the Gender Recognition Act to see just how deep the rifts go. The idea of feminism as a united social movement feels slightly naive – twee, even – in the face of such division.

But it’s not only disagreement that is neutering modern feminism, as Rottenberg makes clear. It’s also the pervasive creep of neoliberalism, a doctrine that, in its emphasis on self-determination and the primacy of the market, is in nearly every way antithetical to the collective ethos that should underpin feminism. But feminism has been co-opted by those neoliberal markets and institutions to the extent that wearing what appears to be a feminist slogan on a T-shirt has become an end in itself, a form of activism that isn’t activism at all but is a socio-economic slap in the face of the garment makers who work in appalling conditions in tenements in Dhaka just so that you can look “woke” for next to nothing.

Rottenberg quite rightly adds significant intellectual nuance to this debate. To claim that “popular feminism” isn’t “proper feminism”, she argues, is to adopt a position that feminism “can be demarcated once and for all”. Further, “It also assumes the existence of unchanging first principles from which ‘actual’ feminist issues organically arise.” The collective enterprise of earlier iterations of feminism begins to feel shaky when confronted with the celebrity-endorsed juggernaut of its neoliberal sister, whose energies have been extensively “mobilized to convert continued gender inequality from a structural problem into an individual affair”, while “moral probity” has become seemingly indelibly linked with “self-reliance and efficiency”.

For Rottenberg, the neoliberal colonisation of feminism, and the concomitant jettisoning of an ideology of post-feminism, really gained momentum – and she’s peculiarly specific about this – in 2012, when “All of a sudden, many high-profile women in the United States were loudly declaring themselves feminists.” The usual suspects – Emma Watson, Beyoncé, Sheryl Sandberg – are wheeled out as exemplars of women living the neoliberal feminist dream, but Rottenberg does imbue the analysis with acuity and wit: her chapter on Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work demonstrates brilliantly how we dismiss the First Daughter as somehow frivolous or stupid at our peril. “Trump’s manifesto helps demonstrate how individual women are being construed as specks of human capital,” she writes, and it “thematizes with disturbing clarity how neoliberal feminist discourses around benchmarks, competition, and success are eclipsing demands for equal rights”.

To look in so much depth at perhaps the best-known manual for every aspiring neoliberal feminist, Sandberg’s best-selling Lean In, however, without making reference to Dawn Foster’s corrective riposte, Lean Out, is to miss a trick. That said, Rottenberg’s analysis of Sandberg’s book is incisive: we’re back in the stock photo world of baby/knee/telephone balancing, where “change is ultimately understood as the consequence of high-powered women taking personal initiative and demanding things like flex time” rather than agitating for any kind of structural overhaul.

It’s in her discussion of both sexual activity and motherhood that Rottenberg makes her most exciting claims. In a world where “the new technology of egg freezing [is] offered as part of the benefits package of corporations such as Facebook and Apple”, there’s been what she terms a “temporal shift in the work-family balance discourse” as women are increasingly being encouraged to postpone childbearing in the interests of workplace “success”. Further, reproduction itself is monetised (those eggs don’t freeze themselves), and the neoliberal ideals of self-regulation and balance, coupled with the desire to increase one’s human capital, become available only to the wealthy who can delegate day-to-day tasks. This is not a new state of affairs, but in Rottenberg’s cautionary account, should neoliberal feminism remain unchecked, its logical endgame – a culture of “expunging gender and even sexual differences among a certain stratum of subjects, while simultaneously producing new forms of racialized and class-stratified gender exploitation” – will be truly Handmaid’s Tale-level terrifying.

Sexual liberation is, in Rottenberg’s analysis, intimately connected to this shift in how women are being conditioned to see motherhood as a desirable – even commendable – ambition, while simultaneously being urged to postpone it to their thirties. But she rightly posits that the hook-up – the no-strings sexual encounter celebrated in the early 2000s by writers such as Hanna Rosin for its liberating and equalising potential – has had to be hurriedly rethought in the #MeToo era: “recent sexual assault scandals on university campuses in the United States have made it much more difficult to lionize hookup culture”. And it’s probably a reflection of the length of time that it takes to get an academic book through the production process that Rottenberg’s most incisive critique of #MeToo itself (“the denouncing and targeting of individual men potentially steers attention away from the systemic nature of the violence”) actually comes in an endnote.

For a relatively short book, there’s a lot in The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism. Rottenberg turns her analytical eye to a range of cultural products, from the “have it all” privileged musings of Ivanka Trump to “mommy blogs” (“there are an estimated four million mommy blogs in the United States”) and popular TV shows such as CBS’ The Good Wife and the Danish series Borgen, in which it becomes painfully apparent that in order to maintain the moral high ground in the future, “Brigitte [the fictional prime minister] will have to do a better job balancing family and work”. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern.

Ultimately, Rottenberg’s book is an idealist’s manifesto; a call to arms from the front lines of a global ideological war. The solutions are broad-brush and not always fleshed out (“an immediate end to fossil fuel extraction” is without doubt a great plan – but how might it be effected?). Idealism can feel anachronistic in these dark days, but The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, in its desire ultimately to “mobilize the feminist threat on every single level of existence possible”, might go some way towards halting the seemingly inevitable growth not only of an ineffectual kind of feminism, but of the global neoliberal enterprise more widely. 

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism
By Catherine Rottenberg
Oxford University Press, 264pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780190901226
Published 27 September 2018

The author

Catherine Rottenberg is associate professor in the department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. She was born and raised in New York City, but at the age of 14, she recalls, “went to live for a while on a kibbutz in northern Israel, which began an ambivalent relationship with the country. I pursued my undergraduate studies at Brown University – with one year at Tel Aviv University – and then completed my MA and PhD in American literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

A committed activist against what she describes as “the entrenchment and increasing violence of Israel’s colonial project” in the era of the second intifada (which erupted in 2000), Rottenberg points to two other major influences on her thinking: “One was a course I took with prominent feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling at Brown University. I had always thought I would be a doctor, and, oddly, that embryology course introduced other possibilities into my life. The other was my postgraduate year at UC Berkeley, with Judith Butler as my supervisor. Judith’s intellectual, political and personal generosity are unparalleled, and she has set the bar impossibly high for me.”

Asked about the political responsibilities of academics, Rottenberg notes that “in the UK, universities have been neoliberalised in ways that I never experienced in Israel…I think that members of the university community – staff and students – have a responsibility to push back against this process, which, ironically, has contributed in no small part to this country’s mental health epidemic. I want to believe that we have a responsibility to think, theorise and write (and the political activist in me will say, protest and mobilise) around the difficult and terrifying issues that we face: imminent environmental catastrophe, wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, intensifying inequality and increasing precarity for more people across the globe.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: The fight for liberation is now an individual branding battle

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