A Prison of One's Own Choosing
Technological progress is the only force that creates rising living standards over time. It has liberated hundreds of millions of people from poverty as we become able to produce more with less. Capitalism is the dominant economic organizing system that allocates resources using prices to signal to humans what is valuable to produce. Technology is both a force directing capitalism, and is acted on by capitalism. First, the market desires something, then price signals to us what’s valuable, and in turn people expend time, energy and capital to create new technologies to produce more of the valuable resource. Capitalism and technology are in a feedback loop directing each other.
Feminism is a movement that has sought to create a more equal world by expanding the opportunities available to women and redefining how society views what it means to be a woman. Despite its noble aims, Feminism does not exist outside of the larger context we use to allocate resources, capitalism. As the women’s movement has shaped our understanding of women, it continues to intersect with technology, markets and capitalism. Capitalism has used the women’s movement to produce more of what it wants, consumers. The women’s movement has changed what women wanted, and capitalism and technology have reorganized society’s priorities to produce more of those things. Women were told that they were free to want, and free to prioritize themselves over men and their children. In the relentless pursuit of profit, businesses co-opted the language of feminism and the women’s movement to sell an idea Michele Lazar called ‘entitled feminism or power femininity’.
Socialism prioritizes the collective, capitalism prioritizes the individual. American ideals of capitalism have created a market for unlimited individuality, and the technology we have created has furthered the ability of individuals to monetize themselves. Corporations are people, and people are brands. As we commodify every bit of ourselves, our societies and our relationships, capitalism has used feminism to direct its energy at making women freely choose their prisons rather than liberating them.
Capitalism, not feminism is the driving force shaping the experience of women in society. Women will perfect themselves for the system, and they will thank the system for the opportunity to do so.
Early feminist literature was critical of a culture and patriarchal structure that used popular media (TV, magazines, advertising) to tell women how to behave. At the start of the feminist movement, there was a clear opponent, men who constrained women’s choices. Feminists sought to redefine the opportunities available to women and what it meant to be a woman. Over the first 50 years of the women’s movement, women made so much progress that feminism became a victim of its own success. In a 2009 study of the UK’s most popular women’s magazine (Glamour) in Rosalind Gill notes that ‘post-feminism’ is an ideology in which pre-feminist, feminist and anti-feminist ideas are entangled in such a way as to make gender ideologies more pernicious and difficult to contest.
As noted earlier a number of scholars of women’s magazines have pointed to their contradictory nature (Winship, 1987) and Glamour is no exception; the entire magazine might be seen as a kaleidoscope of contradictory ideas, representations and constructions about gender – thus (to take just one example) we have the endlessly repeated notion that it doesn’t matter what your body looks like so long as you are happy with it, sitting side-by-side with page after page of articles and adverts for diets, slimming aids and cosmetic surgery, fashion spreads and celebrity interviews in which all the women are extremely thin and conventionally attractive, and pages of features and promotions which focus exclusively on losing weight, toning and sculpting the body and making oneself more beautiful. Rather than suggesting that appearance is unimportant, these tend to suggest that what you look like is the most important thing in a woman’s life.
Often highlighting such contradictions has seemed to be the ‘endpoint’ of analysis of magazines, as if contradictoriness were a finding in its own right. What I want to argue, however, is that more careful attention needs to be paid to the nature of the contradictions, to their specificity. They are, it seems to me, not random, but motivated (in the semiotic sense of that term). It is not simply a matter of Glamour containing a myriad of different discourses that ‘happen’ to be in conflict, but of the contradictions doing ideological work. In one sense, the mere presence of multiple contradictions works to disavow the idea that the magazine could be regarded as ideological at all: it appears to lack the singularity and coherence expected of ideological discourse, it does not seem to offer a unitary template of desirable femininity, but a more fragmented set of discourses and aspirations. Yet it is in the precise nature of the contradictions, I want to suggest, that ideological work is effected.
In the discussion of repertoires I’ve pointed to feminist and non-(pre or anti-) feminist ideas, but their specific entanglement deserves more attention. I want to argue that what is evident is an attempt to make an articulation (Hall, 1988b) or a suture (Goldman, 1992) between feminist and anti-feminist ideas, in a manner that is distinctly postfeminist. The intimate entrepreneurship repertoire, as we saw, uses a feminist sounding register, one of ‘power femininity’ (Lazar, 2006), a language of empowerment, equality and taking charge. Yet this repertoire is almost always pressed into service to promote goals that might otherwise be coded as traditional rather than feminist. Women’s autonomy and power is called on to help them ‘find and keep a man’, to ‘get him to propose’ or to seek out pole dancing lessons to get over a ‘ libido lull ‘ and feel more powerful. This seems to be an example of what Angela McRobbie (2004) has called the ‘double entanglement’ of feminist and anti-feminist ideas that characterises postfeminist constructions. McRobbie argues that in postfeminist discourse women are imbued with agency and choice so that they can then use their ‘feminist’ freedom to choose to re-embrace traditional femininity – white weddings, hen nights, the adoption of the male surname on marriage, etc – a point also made by Robert Goldman in his discussion of ‘commodity feminism’ in contemporary advertising. McRobbie argues: ‘what marks out all these cultural practices is the boldness of this activity and a strong sense of female consent and participation’ (McRobbie 2004:9). Elspeth Probyn (1997) has also discussed this pattern as the emergence of a discourse of the choiceoisie – in which choices are treated as devoid of social and political ramifications- in a perfect marriage of post-feminism and new traditionalism.
What is important, then, is that activities which might, in a different moment, be understood precisely as enacted to ‘please your man’ must be re-apprehended in postfeminist terms, as something you are doing ‘for yourself’. Indeed, as we saw in the discussion of the injunction to ‘be confident’ the notion that this might be to please men is actively repudiated and disavowed: it must be represented as self chosen and empowering. It seems to me that this represents a development of the operation of ideology – it’s higher and more pernicious functioning in postfeminist discourse. If, in the relationship advice of earlier eras, women were called on to change their appearance or engage in particular sexual practices, this was mostly presented as instrumental behaviour – something they were doing in order to ‘please and keep a man’. Today, however, similar injunctions must be understood as self chosen and being done to please oneself. It is as if what were formerly presented as men’s desires have been internalised and must now be understood as authentically women’s own.
Women’s Intimate Work and Neoliberalism
Finally I want to argue that the repeated injunctions to work on the self constitute another distinctive feature of postfeminism, and one that is intimately connected to neoliberalism. In recent years a number of writers have explored neoliberalism, to highlight the ways in which it has shifted from being a political/economic rationality to a mode of governmentality that operates across a range of social spheres (Rose, 1996; Brown, 2003). Neoliberalism is increasingly understood as constructing individuals as entrepreneurial actors who are rational, calculating and self-regulating and this would certainly seem to resonate with constructions in Glamour. In women’s magazines femininity has always been portrayed as contingent – requiring constant anxious attention, work and vigilance, from touching up your makeup to packing the perfect capsule wardrobe, from hiding unsightly pimples, wrinkles, age spots or stains, to hosting a successful dinner party. What marks out the advice considered here as distinctive, however, are three features: first, the dramatically increased intensity of self surveillance, indicating the intensity of the regulation of women (alongside the disavowal of such regulation); secondly, the extensiveness of surveillance over entirely new spheres of life and intimate conduct; and thirdly the focus upon the psychological – upon the requirement to transform one’s self and remodel one’s interior life.
I hope here to have shown something of the scope of the intimate work women are expected to perform. This goes far beyond the bodily discipline so vividly depicted by writers such as Bordo, Bartky and Sawicki to encompass levels of intimate self surveillance, monitoring and planning that are previously undocumented. It involves intensive monitoring of one’s own feelings, desires and attitudes and those of a partner or potential partner. Moreover it requires that sex be positioned at the heart of a re-modelled subjectivity in a way that involves both physical labour (e.g. trying out new positions, taking lessons in striptease), and ongoing psychological work. To ‘compulsory individuality’ (Cronin, 2000) we may now have to add compulsory (sexual) agency, as a required feature of contemporary postfeminist, neoliberal subjectivity. Glamour’s advice is designed not simply to reshape behaviour but to get ‘inside’ and reconstruct our notions of what it is to be a sexual subject, (that is, a subject). Do I have the right attitude to sex? Am I open enough? Have I eradicated shame? Do I push myself enough to try new things? Have I ever had sex for the wrong reasons? Is my fantasy life exciting enough? (and so on)
Writing about the ‘modernization’ of romance narratives, Hilary Radner has argued that whereas the classical romantic heroine offered ‘virtue’, innocence and goodness as the commodities she brought to the sexual/marriage marketplace, contemporary romances demand a ‘technology of sexiness’ (1993, Radner, 1999). In the post-Cosmopolitan (magazine) West, heroines must no longer embody virginity but are required to be skilled in a variety of sexual behaviours and practices. Radner emphasised the performative aspects of this, but I would argue (and hope to have shown) that a psychological transformation is also central to this new disciplinary technology of sexiness, a making over of our very relationship to ourself.
In Glamour magazine women are enjoined to self-monitor and monitor others, to work on and transform the intimate self, to regulate every aspect of their conduct, and to present every action – however constrained or normatively demanded – as the outcome of individual choice and a deliberative personal biography. What this example of mediated intimacy offers, perhaps more powerfully than anything, is the perfect marriage (heteronormative metaphor intended!) of postfeminism and neoliberalism.
The language of post-feminism shows that capitalism has used the language of feminism to further enslave women. We moved from a society where women were told who to be by men, to one in which women tell each other how to be good women.
Rather than feminism changing capitalism, capitalism changed feminism. Capitalism is the mirror which gives us more of whatever we tell it we want. The construction of the ideal woman has now moved from a model in which elites use mass media to broadcast in one to many fashion, to a peer to peer model fostered by the medium of the internet. Rather than a small group of editors at Vogue telling women what to think, now women can tell each other what to think. The language of feminism tells women that to be a good woman, they must make their own choices. It often pre-supposes that any choice a woman made must be valid because she made it. These principles were used by the editors of women’s magazines to convince women their choices were freely made despite only having the illusion of choice. As women made their demands to the market, capitalism has unlocked a myriad of new ways women can choose to be better versions of themselves.
If the basic desire of mammals is to reproduce, what we all want is a partner to mate with. Capitalism allows us to direct humanities resources to better participate in the ‘mating market’. Women’s ‘choice’ to improve themselves as mates has birthed massive innovations like: clothing technology, makeup, plastic surgery innovations, exercise, diet, and organic food. As innovations like dating apps have made the mating market more liquid, the returns to being the perfect woman have risen exponentially. The variations in wealth and status of a partner are greater than ever and the ability to differentiate oneself therefore has a greater and greater return on that self investment. Instagram was born because it was the perfect intersection of capitalism, markets, technology and post-feminism.
The ideal woman has always been generic. I bet you can picture the version of her that runs the show today. She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation. She’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at. She is often luxuriating when you see her – on remote beaches, under stars in the desert, across a carefully styled table, surrounded by beautiful possessions or photogenic friends. Showcasing herself at leisure is either the bulk of her work or an essential part of it; in this, she is not so unusual – for many people today, especially for women, packaging and broadcasting your image is a readily monetizable skill. She has a personal brand, and probably a boyfriend or husband: he is the physical realization of her constant, unseen audience, reaffirming her status as an interesting subject, a worthy object, a self-generating spectacle with a viewership attached.
Can you see this woman yet? She looks like an Instagram – which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal. The process requires maximal obedience on the part of the woman in question, and – ideally – her genuine enthusiasm, too. This woman is sincerely interested in whatever the market demands of her (good looks, the impression of indefinitely extended youth, advanced skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance). She is equally interested in whatever the market offers her – in the tools that will allow her to look more appealing, to be even more endlessly presentable, to wring as much value out of her particular position as she can.
The ideal woman, in other words, is always optimizing. She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself. Her hair looks expensive. She spends lots of money taking care of her skin, a process that has taken on the holy aspect of a spiritual ritual and the mundane regularity of setting a morning alarm.
The work formerly carried out by makeup has been embedded directly into her face: her cheekbones or lips have been plumped up, or some lines have been filled in, and her eyelashes are lengthened every four weeks by a professional wielding individual lashes and glue. The same is true of her body, which no longer requires the traditional enhancements of clothing or strategic underwear; it has been pre-shaped by exercise that ensures there is little to conceal or rearrange.
Everything about this woman has been pre-emptively controlled to the point that she can afford the impression of spontaneity and, more important, the sensation of it – having worked to rid her life of artificial obstacles, she often feels legitimately carefree. The ideal woman can be whatever she wants to be – as long as she manages to act upon the belief that perfecting herself and streamlining her relationship to the world can be a matter of both work and pleasure, or, in other words, of “lifestyle”. The ideal woman steps into a stratum of expensive juices, boutique exercise classes, skincare routines and vacations, and there she happily remains.
Most women believe themselves to be independent thinkers. Even glossy women’s magazines now model skepticism toward top-down narratives about how we should look, who and when we should marry, how we should live. But the psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her. If women start to resist an aesthetic, like the overapplication of Photoshop, the aesthetic just changes to suit us; the power of the ideal image never actually wanes. It is now easy enough to engage women’s skepticism toward ads and magazine covers, images produced by professionals. It is harder for us to suspect images produced by our peers, and nearly impossible to get us to suspect the images we produce of ourselves, for our own pleasure and benefit – even though, in a time when heavy social media use has become broadly framed as a career asset, many of us are effectively professionals now, too.
Today’s ideal woman is of a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form. This sort of feminism has organized itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorized women’s individual success. Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image. She can believe – reasonably enough, and with the full encouragement of feminism – that she herself is the architect of the exquisite, constant and often pleasurable type of power that this image holds over her time, her money, her decisions, her selfhood and her soul.
While many of us believe advertising doesn’t work on us, businesses will inexplicably spend $390 billion on it in 2020. It’s unlikely that money is being wasted, part of the way advertising works is by allowing most of us to convince ourselves that it doesn’t.
Kevin Simler wrote about a concept in advertising he calls cultural imprinting that is based on the common knowledge game, an idea I first discovered while reading epsilon theory. The common knowledge game is an idea so big that once you see it you can’t unsee it and you begin to notice it everywhere.
The standard narrative of advertising is that it works via what he calls “emotional inception”
Rather than attempting to persuade us (via our rational, analytical minds), ads prey on our emotions. They work by creating positive associations between the advertised product and feelings like love, happiness, safety, and sexual confidence. These associations grow and deepen over time, making us feel favorably disposed toward the product and, ultimately, more likely to buy it.
Kevin’s contention is that this is close to, but misses a key component of how most advertising actually works. It’s not inception, it’s cultural imprinting.
Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser "says" something about you. But you aren't in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It's then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a "chill" person? Then bring Corona to a party. Or maybe "chill" doesn't work for you, based on your individual social niche — and if so, your winning (EV-maximizing) move is to look for some other beer. But that's ok, because a successful ad campaign doesn't need to work on everybody. It just needs to work on net — by turning "Product X" into a more winning option, for a broader demographic, than it was before the campaign. In a way, cultural imprinting is a form of inception, but it's much shallower than the conventional (Pavlovian) account would have us believe. An ad doesn't need to incept itself all the way into anyone's deep emotional brain; it merely needs to suggest that it might have incepted itself into other people's brains — and then (barring any contrary evidence about what people actually believe) it will slowly work its way into consensus reality, to become part of the cultural landscape.
A unique feature of the American brand of capitalism is that it pushes us more and more towards the individual and away from anything communal. Robert Putnam famously documented this shift in American life in the 90’s with his book Bowling Alone.
On a recent interview on Eric Weinstein’s The Portal podcast Ryan Holiday made this assertion
“We've destroyed the canon and replaced it with nothing. We destroyed the myths of the founding of America and replaced it with nothing. We've questioned patriotism and replaced it with nothing. We tore down marriage and replaced it with nothing. We tore down the office, the community, the small town square, all the things we tore them down and we've replaced them with nothing.”
Once capitalism hollows everything out, there is a space for business to come in and meet the needs of the market. Humans need a way to connect, and to signal their status via which groups they belong to. Jia Tolentino’s brilliant piece about Outdoor Voices is a perfect example of a company that sits at the intersection of all the aforementioned trends. She points out that Outdoor Voice’s slogan is “doing things”.
The slogan is emblazoned in a cute white font on a blue background and proudly worn by women everywhere. However, the slogan is not “doing things”, it’s “Doing things is better than not doing things”. Could capitalism have created a better slogan if it tried? If you go on instagram and search for the hashtag #doingthings, you will see 193,000 posts that women submitted with the hashtag to signal affiliation with the cultural imprint that the Outdoor Voices brand has created.
No one told these women to post these photos, what to post, or who they had to be. They “chose” how to represent themselves, and they chose to buy clothes from a brand that tells us that “doing things is better than not doing things.” A better symbol to represent today’s ideal woman couldn’t be created in a lab because identities we believe we choose and participated in the creation of are far more powerful than anything we feel forced to take on.
Outdoor Voices is the cultural imprint of the ideal woman, and Instagram is the platform where women can signal to each other in a peer to peer way how to perform “perfect woman”. We no longer have religions, or churches to worship in. Our religion is capitalism and we literally worship at the altar of brands like Outdoor Voices.
The company’s retail stores are designed to serve as magnets for people who are interested in a millennial-era community experience—one that blends the online and the off-line, where you can do something physical with other people and put it all on Instagram. The Georgetown store has a rec room, with lockers and sports equipment; the Nashville store features a gold-plated Dance Dance Revolution machine. All the OV stores host events, many of which are free: hikes in Los Angeles, “dog jogs” in Austin, which often attract hundreds of pups and runners.
It has also helped me compete in a culture of escalating beauty expectations and increasingly boundless work. Am I taking care of myself, doing sun salutations in my motivational crop top, or am I running survival drills for life under an advanced capitalist economy? The answer, I’m sure, is both.
The next day in Austin was cold, and the day after that it snowed. I went to a yoga class, wearing one of my OV outfits, before catching my flight back to New York. I had never been less able to distinguish what was good from what was profitable, or my life from my work. It was dark in the studio, and the ceiling sparkled like a planetarium. A sign at the back of the room read “Total Human Optimization.” In a sweet, soft voice, the instructor told us, “Every part of you that’s not active is weighing you down.”
It’s not that we no longer have community, it’s that the only way to access community is through consumption of brands which we “choose” to signal inclusion in our “chosen” identity as the perfect woman.
An even more advanced evolution of the common knowledge game is being played on the instagram account wemetatacme. The woman who runs the account posts questions with binary choices, yes/no or this/that and once you select you see what the crowd thinks. The account has nearly 40k followers with an audience almost exclusively composed of wealthy white millennial women living in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Followers submit their questions to the host who collects them and forwards to the community. It’s an anthropologists dream data set.
These women are the elites who define what it means to be a woman at the top, the aspirational woman who wonders if she can “have it all”. While the common knowledge game being played on Outdoor Voices hashtag is still constrained by the cultural imprint of the brand. It’s not an open discussion, it’s a group of women who have created a community based on shared norms. On the wemetatacme account, we can see women asking each other questions using very instructive language.
- Everything is going great in a relationship but SO refuses to go down on you, is this a reason to break up?
- When do you predict hooking up/dating IRL will be okay again?
- Is it normal to feel insecure about your SO masturbating?
- Do you lie to your SO & say that you masturbate to them when you don’t?
- Would you ever date someone for almost a year just because you like having sex with them?
- SO only likes sex positions where they can’t see your face. Red flag or coincidence?
- If you are dating someone, should you both send goodnight texts every night?
- Do you have a right to be mad if you see texts on SO phone(texts were harmless) but from people of their desired sex you’ve never heard of before?
- When you’re with the right person there is always something to talk about.
- A year and a half into dating, SO told you they had multiple encournters with their same sex when they were younger. Always had an inkling, not sure why they waited to tell you…red flag? (70% yes)
The questions often use phrases like:
- is it normal
- is it ok to
- do you have a right to” and to answer some of the questions you are given only the choices “weird or normal”.
Periodically the host will repost a question with her own take, generally chiding the audience on the “correct” answer if the majority got it wrong. A lot of the questions have to do with sexuality, gender relations, sexual identity, feminism and what it means to be female, and the inherent conflicts career driven women in a competitive market like NYC face. How to balance getting a man, keeping a man, and prioritizing one’s own career. They use the language Gill pointed out 12 years ago in her analysis of Glamour magazine’s post-feminism. Women are often asking each other how to perform the role of ‘empowered woman’.
In theory what other women do shouldn’t affect your choices, however in a market, what other people do changes the dynamics of the market. You are participating in a democratic process where you know that everyone can see the results. It allows you to participate in the process of the creation of shared norms in real time. Additionally, some of the questions very clearly have a “right” answer, and despite the fact that the poll is anonymous one can intuit that people often answer in the way they feel pressured to, or the way they aspire to thinking/feeling/behaving.
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