Once upon a time frugality was a virtue. Today consumption has become our way of life. We feel the need to constantly consume, burn up, supersede and throw away at an ever-accelerating rate. What is it about buying new products that feels so good? There is a sense of fulfilment attached to bringing home a bag full of new things – be it records, clothes, makeup or shoes. Suzuki (2009) calls it a “spiritual satisfaction” that we seek within consumption itself where the practice of buying and using new products becomes a ritual, and the products are idolised. We thereby gain a sense of short-lived egotistical satisfaction through this very process. More often than not, however, our commitment to our new beloved products only last till the time a new version of the same product becomes available in the market.
Veblen (1899) reviewed the first origins of personal property based on Darwinian theories. In ancient cultures women were greatly commoditised as the highest regard of property available for ownership by abled-bodied men of the communities and treated as trophies. Veblen (1899:14) argued that although in modern society women were not directly treated as trophies, they were still expected to consume “conspicuously” i.e. a woman would purchase goods for herself, her family and her household thereby marking her wealth and status in society. Inevitably this would also demonstrate her status as a commodity as she herself was also a proof of her husbands’ wealth. Roberts (1998) states that this analysis of women as culturally a commodity and as well as a consumer have constructed further stereotypes which are prominent in today’s society. Is the practice of consumption gendered female in the cultural abstract? Women are often labelled as the primary consumers in today’s society with certain products only marketed towards their gender for example washing detergent, yoghurt etc. Moreover, women have come to represent consumer culture as the sexualised object of desire. This can be widely seen in advertisements where scantily clad women are the focal point of attraction, thereby eroticising their depiction.
Gender and neoliberalism intersect in numerous ways, based on the understanding of these terms which can be seen in different contexts depending on political outlook, disciplinary orientation and many other factors (Scharff 2015). Neoliberalism is a highly debatable concept and is regarded differently as a theory of political economic practises that challenges private property rights, free markets and free trade (Harvey 2005); a political ideology that influences every aspect of social life (Giroux 2004); a cultural politics (Duggan 2003); and a contingent practice both historically and geographically (Peck and Tickell 2002). Clarke (2008) goes on to state that neoliberalism is rather promiscuous and may not be useful as a critical tool if not defined in the desired context.
I agree with Clarke’s statement and hence for my argument I draw from Foucauldian approaches that identify neoliberalism as a mentality of government (Foucault and Senellart 2008). Brown (2003) further explains that governmentality is not subjected to a set of free market principles; and that neoliberalism extends to the institution of subjectivity. Under neoliberalism, the deduction of individual citizens as entrepreneurs of themselves and their lives is a further practice (Scharff 2015). Du Gay (1996) explains that they are treated as entrepreneurial subjects who strive to better themselves and their lives.
Davies (2005) explains that this neoliberal self is construed by its scope of consumption; which conclusively benefits the feminine in the relationship between women and consumption, where women are treated as both the consumer and the commodity. Young women are often treated as the idealistic neoliberal subjects since they appear to be more empowered as compared to women belonging to the previous generation (McRobbie 2015). But does this mean that women are truly empowered today? A large number of women – models, actors and celebrities – readily agree to appear in advertisements eroticising their bodies; many others conform to cosmetic surgery and size-zero diet regimes. Many of the celebrities that appear in advertisements are young, white, thin and attractive – following similar beauty standards. These women are particularly treated as neoliberal subjects since they are keen on transforming themselves, which is easily visible with regards to management of the body and sexuality (Gill and Scharff 2011). Herein lies a subtle sexism because women are directed into conforming societal norms about themselves – like thinner bodies, fuller lips, etc – all the while assuming they are in control and doing it out of empowerment. Subtle sexism, as opposed to blatant sexism, is inadvertently harmful because it is primarily a cluster of social expectations and habits that reinforce sex-based inequality (Rhode 2007). Moreover it is seen as a normative practice because it does not seem intentionally harmful.
Neoliberal subjectivity is constructed through concepts of abjection (Tyler 2013) which place empowered subjects as flawlessly superior (Brown 2003). Women may condone themselves to be empowered while comparing their current situations to their sisters in third world countries where the ‘other’ of the neoliberal subject are assumed to be passive, submissive and vulnerable. Can a woman truly be called empowered if she unknowingly subjects her thinking and her body to the likes and dislikes of society?
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- Scharff, C. (2015) ‘The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity’. Theory, Culture and Society 0 (0), 1-16
- Suzuki, D. (2009) Consumer Culture Is No Accident [online] available from <http://learn.eartheasy.com/2009/03/consumer-culture-is-no-accident/> [18 August 2016]
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