Thursday, 17 February 2011

Book review: One Dimensional Woman

This review was written for the F Word website and can originally be found here:
http://www.thefword.org.uk/reviews/2011/02/one_dimensional

This explosive book with its pink and black cover should have pride of place on every woman’s book shelf. Written by renowned academic Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman is a roar of anger against the co-opting of feminism by consumerism and right-wing politics.

The book is only 69 pages long, but in that space we explore how the right has co-opted the language of feminism to defend its wars and anti-choice stance, how the market sells us empowerment in a glass of Chardonnay and a shiny shampoo, how the feminisation of labour puts women’s bodies/goods on display and how looking at the history of pornography can provide us with new narratives with which to talk about the performance of sexuality.

The book opens with an introduction delineating its key themes. Power asks the reader “where have all the interesting women gone?” Based on an assessment of pop culture, you would believe women are a dull, homogenous mass excited by handbags and giggling over vibrators.

Her book predicts Finn McKay’s closing speech at Feminism in London 2010, when she said “feminism has to mean something, or it risks meaning nothing at all”. She argues that feminism has come to mean anything that makes a woman feel good, that shopping for designer shoes and eating chocolate bars has become as feminist an act as marching for your right to choose or volunteering at a rape crisis centre. The idea of ‘it’s good for me’ feminism, that puts the individual’s happiness at its centre, regardless of the effect individual actions have on those around us, is an idea that chimes with a capitalist and consumerist outlook. As Power says in her introduction:

That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time.

The first section of the book deals with Sarah Palin, the self-styled pitbull in lipstick, who uses the language of feminism - of choice and empowerment - to pitch herself as a powerful woman who stands equal to the men, but is still a hockey mum at heart.

Power asks us: if Sarah Palin, a war-mongering, anti-choice, anti sex-education, gun-toting Republican can call herself a feminist, then perhaps we really are at a crisis of what feminism means. She cites three examples of differing definitions of what feminism can mean today, the philosopher Jacques-Alain Miller who “fears” the “castrating Palin” and sees feminism as being like a man; Jessica Valenti who sees feminism as being pro-choice and about equality; and Palin, a pro-war, anti-choice ‘feminist’.

Power touches here on how Palin, Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher have all shown that feminists don’t just want to see a woman in power, that a woman in power is meaningless if it is not the right woman. Should Palin have won the vice-presidency (or, indeed, if she wins the 2012 election), then anti-feminists would have had the perfect opportunity to point at her and say ‘see! You have equality now! There’s a woman in charge!’ The token woman shows just how far we have to go before we do get true equality and real power.

Power moves on to how the Republicans in the US used the rhetoric of feminism to ‘sell’ the wars in the Middle East as a way to emancipate women from the repressive regimes of the Taliban.
I hasten to add at this point that, contrary to John Pilger’s recent essay in the New Statesman about feminist support for war in the Middle East, I believe it was primarily feminists in the US who took this line, and that UK feminists were generally opposed to war being fought in our, womanly, name.
Power argues that the line taken by Bush and Co, that the women needed to be liberated in Afghanistan via military action, handily paints women as victims who need to be saved by an incoming (male) hero. The conviction that women need to be rescued by carpet bombing that would kill women, their children and their families, and that this was ‘feminist’, was shouted from the rooftops by a president who was anti-feminist enough to cut off all funding to international providers of abortion and abortion counselling on his first day in office. As Power writes:

Feminism is something merely to invoke to convince the fence-sitting morally-minded voters that war is the only option on the table… feminism has become so broad that it can be used to justify almost anything, even the invasion of other countries.

But where has this broad, and ever broadening, definition of feminism come from? Nina Power argues that it is linked to ‘Feminism™’ - the idea that feminism is a lifestyle choice that might be political, but is really concerned with making sure that you’re having fun.

So, what is Feminism™? Power links it to Valenti’s book Full Frontal Feminism and Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ book Manifesta - confidence building manuals full of sass that treat feminism as a tool to a better life and to ensure we all have more fun. She writes:
In these books, the political and historical dimensions of feminism are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual. As a response to the ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ pose it’s very successful. Almost everything turns out to be feminist - shopping, pole dancing, even chocolate.

Power argues that the ‘liberating’ mode of this style of feminism is remarkably similar to ‘liberating capitalism’. If feminism is a lifestyle choice about the individual, rather than a political movement intent on making the world better for all woman and men, then this creates a space for the market to sell us ‘empowerment’.

And this selling happens at the expense of exploited women the world over, from the women working in appalling conditions stitching the clothes you buy, to the woman for whom lap dancing isn’t a fun, ‘empowering’ workout or lifestyle choice. This form of feminism desperately tries to scrabble away from its perceived ‘unfun’ and ‘hairy’ predecessors (as if there is something wrong with being hairy and not something wrong with false body ideals) to portray itself as something hip and fancy-free. The result? Feminism lite that tells you that all choice is a feminist choice because it’s your choice, with no thought for how your choice affects the women in the world around you.
Of course feminism can be fun. I have lots of fun being a feminist. But the idea that feminism is something solely to improve the individual’s life, a reason to buy a designer handbag or ‘treat yourself’ to a chocolate bar, or buy a vibrator, is a dangerous one. If feminism becomes something you define for yourself, as Valenti has it, then what stops feminism becoming defined as being anti-choice, pro-war, anti-sex education and gun-toting, like Sarah Palin? What stops feminism being used as a rhetorical term to justify harm to women?

The feminisation of labour is another key issue to Power. She argues that the presentation of many forms of work are now ‘feminine’, and that the selling to women of the idea that they are ‘caring’ and ‘good communicators’ has pushed them towards the instability of temping life, flexible working and gives them a lower status in the job market.
Women’s skills are seen as valuable and simultaneously de-valued. She argues that this has an effect on discrimination against mothers who can’t be ‘flexible’ and that women are pitted against each other to be the most obliging, while still looking after most of the housework and childcare, because, after all, that too is woman’s work.

This leads us to the idea and image of the ‘working girl’, bright eyed, glossy haired, suited in stilettos, selling herself to her employer and to the women behind her. You’re “an advert for yourself” at all times. Power argues that this has caused a blurring between free and labour time - a woman is always selling herself, and that selling is often predicated on her body. We are on display, we are looked at, we are the object. She cites the porn series Girls Gone Wild where women are having their ‘free time’ but using their bodies as part of a business transaction, giving something away (their breasts) to receive something (their Girls Gone Wild souvenir hat).

As Power puts it, in this situation “you are your breasts”. That is where your value lies and from here breasts have become increasingly something that are separate from a woman’s body and instead are objects with a market value.

The final section of the book deals with pornography and its links to capitalism, before exploring how historic studies of porn give us an alternative visual language of sexuality. Power believes that looking at pornography from the past shows us that porn’s “future need not be as grim as its present”.
She argues that, unlike porn in most other points of history, the porn we see today is divorced from the human. It’s all about the money shot, porn as sex is sex as work: boring, grinding and with a cash prize at the end of it.

Comparing this endless show reel of “grim orgasms and the parading of physical prowess” to porn made in the early 20th Century, Power notes how silly, funny and slapstick much of porn was. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t explicit, but that as well as having a range of bodies and faces on display, the participants in early 20th century porn seem to actually like each other, consent to and enjoy sex, unlike in today’s mainstream porn that seems to relish violence, force and expressions of actual pain rather than pleasure.

This is only a fraction of the many interesting, complex but always accessible arguments and themes in Power’s wonderful book. Re-reading it to write this review, I was amazed at how much is crammed into these 69 pages, from feminist analysis of Sex and the City, a discussion on the Bechdel test, the politics of choice, advertising and fashion magazines, self harm, socialism, shopping and philosophy. There’s a lot to take in but even though the book is so short, you don’t feel that the information is crammed in, or not developed enough. This book is angry, imaginative, subversive and perhaps most of all, it is exciting.

Perhaps the one thing worth mentioning is that a lot of the criticism of modern feminism in the book feels very focused on the US. Maybe it’s because I’m a UK feminist, but I feel that most the feminists I speak to don’t believe in the “any choice you make is a feminist choice” line, that this is something encountered more in state-side feminist writing. It does happen in the UK (The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism by Elly Levenson) but I feel that right now, UK feminists are closer-aligned to Nina Power’s thinking than the Fun Feminism™ stance she is criticising. Power is UK-based herself and it would be interesting to know if she shares this thought, or whether she sees this happening in the UK also.

1 comment:

Brett Pullen said...

This is a phenominal book if I say so myself. This knowledge on sex education is pertinent for a healthy upbringing and I am going to urge some of my family to read this.