On the morning I sat down to write this review, I received an email proposing that gender roles should, ideally, be governed by a literal reading of the Book of Genesis. I immediately thought that we need a great deal more liberalism, not least in the possibilities of interpretation. But a problem, raised by Alison Phipps in her excellent book, is that the granting of general forms of individual freedom can be sanctioned within the rather less universally emancipatory forms of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.
To demonstrate this argument, Phipps takes four areas of debate and discussion about women’s bodies: sexual violence, gender and Islam, sex work, and childbirth and breastfeeding. In all these contexts she discovers controversies but most importantly what she views as “problematic developments within feminism itself: a focus on women’s agency and identity at the expense of examining framing structures”. Indeed, the material in all these chapters supports a consistent pattern of moral confusion and unholy alliances, as, for example, is suggested in the cases of the charges brought against Julian Assange, Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In the 21st century, a global media allow such instances to be widely discussed, not least because knowing about the sexual lives of the famous (often to their advantage as much as to their disadvantage) is as much about making money as it is about permitting free and frank democratic disclosure.
Making this comment does not imply any detraction from the material or the arguments that Phipps marshals in this book, because in its pages she sets out very clearly the minefield that currently surrounds discussion of the body (and its exploits), and anybody who wants to know about contemporary political confusions about the body should start here. At the same time, I did wonder if the book should be called The Politics of the Female Body, because the male body (except in its more delinquent forms) does not seem to be all that present. Feminist universalism may wish to annex the human to the female, as patriarchy did in the case of the male and the human, but the absence of the male here raises other questions.
The first of these is that – to return to the male and female human body – what these bodies share is a capacity to be used and exploited that is both gendered and shared. In a narrative about the body that focuses on one form of biology, and on specific instances relevant to that particular biology, the scope of the narrative is necessarily limited. I welcome the way in which Phipps sets out, with great verve and elegance, debates about the female body, but there remains the issue of what was once described in a different context as “the other”. Without the recognition of that “other”, I would suggest that there are important omissions: one is the exploration of the ways in which both fantasies and theories about the body arise from biological difference. The second is that without the recognition of the human there is no full recognition of the capacity of both neoliberalism and neoconservatism to exploit the body, in different but related ways, and most importantly in paid work, which has become the location of increasing structural inequality.
The question of how to challenge that exploitation, given the real and less real freedoms of neoliberalism, might suggest that arguments about autonomy and agency have an important strategic place, not least in defending the possibilities of interpretation.
The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age
By Alison Phipps
Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745648873 and 8880
Published 14 March 2014