It's buy, buy to women. Now the girlies rule

March 9, 2007

If Wags and conspicuous consumption are the epitome of post-feminist womanhood, we've not come a long way, baby, argues Becky Munford

According to self-identified "sexist" Mike Newell, the manager of Luton Football Club, women have no place in the world of football. The appointment of female officials was, he claimed, tantamount to "tokenism for politically correct idiots". In response to the media commotion surrounding his chauvinist invective against assistant referee Amy Rayner's decision over a penalty in a match last November, Newell later modified his position on "political correctness gone mad" to one of safeguarding "traditional values" - values such as "holding a door open for a woman, helping a mother with a pushchair off a train or up an escalator, worrying what time my daughter will be home and whether she is escorted, buying flowers and paying for dinner".

However, it would seem that today's women have a very definite place in the world of British football - one that is not inconsistent with Newell's recapitulation of "traditional" gender roles and stereotypes. If 2006 was the year that the England team went out of the World Cup on penalties, it was also the year of the Wags (wives and girlfriends of famous footballers) - a now established acronym in media parlance.

Alongside details of the England team's activities on the pitch, media coverage of the World Cup provided a gripping narrative about the Wags' off-pitch exploits in Baden-Baden. The regular manicures, tan treatments, girls' nights out, bitchy spats and, of course, scandalously extravagant shopping excursions were chronicled in painstaking detail. Journalists doggedly belaboured the stereotype, scrutinising the Wags' various expenditures and public conduct and pathologising their hyper-consumerism.

Through their display of conspicuous consumption, the Wags reaffirmed that women's agency in the commodified world of football was firmly located in their spending power, rather than their earning power.

Notwithstanding questions over the nature of this economic agency, the institutionalisation of Wag culture registers a shift in the popular status of shopping. No longer a domestic or a leisure activity, shopping has been relocated as a professional one. In the same week that Rayner spoke out about Newell's verbal attack, condemning the acceptability of sexism in football and advocating more professional opportunities for women in the Football League, ITV2 launched a new reality television series: WAGs Boutique . The show, a kind of Dragons' Den meets The Simple Life , follows two teams of Wags as they compete to set up and manage fashion boutiques in central London. (The A-list Wags - Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole and Coleen McLoughlin - are noticeably absent from the show's line-up).

On its website, WAGs Boutique promises that "Babes mean business!" as "two teams of Wags compete to turn their passion for fashion into a hot profit". Structuring its competitive rationale through a footballing analogy, the reality show invites the two teams of Wags to transform their "skills" in consumption into useful labour. This is, however, a form of labour safely situated in their babe status - one that does not militate too forcibly against the traditional value system of the gendered world of football.

Moreover, the constant referencing of the Wags' "proper" spousal identities - for example, "Nicola T (Miss Bobby Zamora, West Ham)" - points up the fragility of their professional status as businesswomen. Babes may well mean business, but it is a traditional version of heterosexual femininity (a love of handbags, shoes, bitching and rich boyfriends) and its consumer power that WAGs Boutique professionalises.

In The Feminine Mystique , her landmark investigation of the cultural construction of feminitypublished in 1963, Betty Friedan outlined an image of the "thing-buying" dehumanised housewife turning away from an individual identity to become an "anonymous biological robot in a docile mass". This has since been displaced by the figure of the shrewd individual shopper fashioning her public identity through various consumer choices. From Sex and the City 's newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw blowing an estimated $40,000 on designer shoes to Buffy the Vampire Slayer kicking ass in her "stylishly unaffordable boots", shopping is cast as a "fashionable" version of independence and public agency. Rather than a frivolous diversion to be mocked or denigrated, it is positioned as a lifestyle choice to be performed with pride.

It is as a lifestyle choice that shopping - and the pursuit of traditional femininity it legitimises - becomes the raison d'être of the post-feminist woman. A long-standing staple of glossy magazines, articles on shopping, fashion and beauty culture are increasingly filling the features sections and supplements of both tabloid and quality newspapers. The January issue of Observer Woman , for example, ran a cover story on "The truth about female stereotypes", which provided brief accounts of the diverse professional and personal circumstances of various women, including the fund manager Nicola Horlick. The same issue also ran a piece that tackled the differences between serum and moisturiser and designer versus high-street lip glosses, as well as a short article on the return of the scrunchie ("Everybody's talking about hair accessories").

In mainstream popular culture, the compatibility of professional mobility and traditional femininity is being sold to women as a new mode of "post-feminist" empowerment - that is, a mode of empowerment derived from a notion that the achievements of feminism have so permeated our social, economic and political structures that to continue to speak of "feminist" endeavour is extraneous to the concerns of modern women, not to mention rather old-fashioned and tiresome.

Moreover, this is a mode of empowerment that does not compromise the stranglehold of traditional gender stereotypes. If, for many second-wave feminists, the trappings of traditional femininity (such as bras, high heels and glossy magazines) were viewed as being at odds with women's liberation, then for the post-feminist woman they are repositioned as the bedrock of female agency. In its mainstream and highly commercialised media usage, post-feminism (like its various offshoots "raunch feminism", "babe feminism" and "do-me feminism") empties feminism of its political import and activity and repackages its vocabulary of freedom as a new, more fashionable brand of female autonomy.

The figurehead of this so-called post-feminist era is the sassy, sexy and stylish "girlie girl". From Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan to Coleen McLoughlin and Chantelle Houghton, the girlie girl embraces her lipsticked, high-heeled and G-stringed "girliness" as the very enactment of her empowerment. The girlie might offer an exaggerated display of femininity that represents a playful disruption of conventional gender identities and behaviours, but she also looks misleadingly like a lads' mag centrefold. Is this postmodern mockery or the reification of gender stereotypes? Either way, it is an individualist understanding of empowerment grounded in the rhetoric of choice and the realisation of traditional femininity through consumerism.

This hijacking of feminist values as a consumer strategy also drives the aggressive commodification of girl cultures. If, in the 1990s, "girl power" functioned in some way to raise the public profile of girls' and young women's activities and ambitions, in today's cultural climate it works predominantly as a synonym for consumer power. With teen magazines such as Cosmo Girl! and Sugar running numerous features on fashion "must-haves" and "miracle makeovers", the alarming rise of teenage cosmetic surgery (a 2004 survey by Bliss magazine revealed that a third of teenage girls wanted it), and the marketing of manicures and other "mini" beauty treatments, it would seem that girls are being trained in consumer competencies - and the pursuit of traditional femininity - from an increasingly early age.

The preponderance of pink imagery and artefacts in girl-powered popular culture further emphasises that gender stereotypes remain as firmly embedded as ever, even if the colour itself might have been reclaimed as the accepted hue of post-feminist agency in both its popular and academic varieties (an academic conference on "post-feminism" in 2004 publicised itself using a pink silhouette of a busty action heroine holding a gun in one hand and a handbag in the other).

This is not to suggest that girls and women are being routinely duped by the mainstream media. Rather, it is to recognise that the versions of agency enabled by the redeployment of traditional femininity are ambiguous, and that the marketing of traditional gender stereotypes as reinvigorated forms of consumer-driven empowerment risks disenfranchising women. Wags, girlies and babes, stand aside. Feminists have some unfinished business.

Rebecca Munford is lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University.

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