Someone at the Postautonomia conference recommended this article by Angela McRobbie, which gives an overview of the post-Fordist/immaterial labor thesis and then examines how asymmetric gender relations fit in with it. I hope this will help correct my tendency to ignore the way the burden of neoliberal subjectivity is borne differently depending on gender — how creative-class labor is experienced and compensated differently, and entrepreneurial opportunities are unevenly distributed; the ways in which productive consumption and affective labor have long been uncompensated or unrecognized female contributions to reproducing the existing social relations, etc.
McRobbie poses the question this way. Given post-Fordist work conditions — the general intellect and the dissolving work-leisure divide, and all that — individuals experience precarity as a kind of anxious freedom, a requirement to be entrepreneurial with the personal brand: “Joyful ideas of communality and even communistic sentiments are countered by a powerful regime which inculcates cynicism and opportunism, manifest in the context of the party and events culture of network sociality where self-promotional public relations holds sway.” Of course, social media fits right into that diagnosis, helping administrate these requirements, permitting us to be self-promotional with less pain and shame, while naturalizing the necessity of such selling oneself out, rationalizing the self-exploitation. McRobbie asks, “How do young men and women experience distress differently in their attempts to make an independent living in these new informal fields of work?”
McRobbie notes that post-Fordist relations of production have led to a feminization of the workplace — more women working as a result of neoliberal policy (safety net elimination), work becoming more service-oriented and communication-based (affective work traditionally performed by women), the “mancession,” the centrality of tastemaking (drawing on women’s traditional role as discriminating shopper), and so on all play into this. But at the same time, though this provides more opportunities for women, the freelance precarious nature of the work means the weakening of institutional protections against harassment and discrimination.
as both Gill and Scharff point out, the informal conventions of network sociality in fact negate the relevance of legal entitlements associated with ‘normal work’. This makes it difficult for questions about sexism or racism to be raised. Instead there is a privatisation of grievances or, as Scharff argues, young women begin to see sexism as simply another obstacle which, by sheer grit and determination, they must be able to overcome individually. Nothing, she claims, is more ‘uncool’ than appearing to be a feminist in these workplaces. It is this same privatised and deeply individualised culture which gives rise to intense forms of mental stress, breakdown and dependence on drugs or alcohol.
These are the realities of the neoliberal risk shift, which are perhaps more ambivalent for women experiencing new economic opportunities. Successful women can end up being allied with neoliberalism against its left critics, against the less fortunate among the so-called precariat.
Criticizing naive optimistic takes on the rise of the entrepreneurial self, McRobbie suggests that left critics, for example, pay “more attention to the role of female models and the image industry in the creation in the last two decades of the feminised and hyper-sexualised consumer culture.” Through this we might see “the pivotal place of (mostly young) women as consumers and producers in the global corporations of the fashion and beauty complex.” That is to say women are instrumental in creating and circulating the symbolic meanings that enhance the value of goods. As sexualized objects whose images are themselves trafficked, they are the medium of circulation as well as a circulating agent.
With women’s role in creating value becoming more formalized in the economy, moving beyond unwaged domestic carework and consumption, a political opportunity emerges for women, which in turn generates new countermeasures.
Where women’s centrality to contemporary production could mark out the contours of a new form of gender power, this political potential is decisively pre-empted by the intense forms of biopolitical governmentality which constantly address women and their bodies (through media and magazines in particular) so that earning power is inextricably tied up with consumer culture and the promises of personal satisfactions therein.
McRobbie doesn’t say this, but perhaps women’s economic and creative power ends up being bound up with their value as a gendered, sexualized object — in beauty and charisma that is inherently precarious, at the mercy of time’s ravages and male judgment. The power is circumscribed and redirected toward personal beauty achievements — becoming a better, more revered object rather than expanding power and autonomy.