My review of Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman appeared in last weekend’s The Sunday Star. It’s an important, intelligently-argued book, and I highly recommend that the world reads it. Yes, the world. I’ve reproduced it in full here:
For all of us who happily imagine contemporary feminism to be a uniform and linear yellow brick road that delivers us right into the heart of the Emerald City of equality, there’s no one better than Nina Power to take a sledgehammer to that useless utopian dream. With One-Dimensional Woman, Power, a British philosophy professor at Roehampton University, has set out to untangle and reveal the underlying irrationality and contradictions of much of modern-day feminism – wedded as it is to the ugly and false emancipatory “ideals” of capitalism. The title of Power’s book comes from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a treatise published in 1964 that offered a critique of the false needs created by modern industrialist society – the idea that people were “free” in their choices when they were actually deeply bound to an insidiously rigid system of production and consumption.
One-Dimensional Woman is a slim book that packs a wallop; it is both angry and hopeful in that it charts out a problem – “What looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” – and sets out to imagine ways in which work, culture, and gender issues can be radically transformed. Power beams a laser-sharp clarity on topics as diverse and intricately-linked as burqa-banning and Sarah Palin to current labour and economic conditions and pornography to show readers how the commodification of both subjective autonomy and freedom of choice have lead us round and round in a self-defeating loop where feminism is concerned. It attempts to show how people who could care less about the increase in crime rates against women or domestic abuse will suddenly come out of the woodwork to defend a woman’s right to enter a beauty pageant or become a porn star, or lament on how Wonder Woman’s costume transformation from underwear to leggings is an affront to ideal womanhood.
Power describes the subtle yet potent dangers of feminism being co-opted for political, economic, or social purposes that serve to only defend the status quo and further entrench policies of inequality and imperialism. As she puts it, feminism is now used for everything besides the actual fight for equality. In the example of the burqa-banning hysteria that has besieged large parts of Europe, Power adopts a different spin from typical secular proselytizing to explain how conservative zealots and pro-imperialist “feminists” have stepped up to the plate to defend a Muslim woman’s right to wear less clothes, but not to wear what she pleases.
In the market-logic of capitalism, it’s required of women to bare more, reveal more, share everything. Quoting French philosopher Alain Badiou, she writes: “It is used to be taken for granted that an intangible female right is only to have to get undressed in front of the person of her choosing. But no. It is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant. Let’s argue the following, then, a pretty strange point: the law on the hijab is pure capitalist law. It orders femininity to be exposed.”
So while contemporary urban feminists hoot and holler about being able to wear less clothes and trot about in heels because it’s their “choice” to do so, Power brings up the uncomfortable notion of how much of a choice is really a choice if it’s the only option available? The moment a woman opts out of the “game” – and chooses to cover-up and not wear make-up, for instance, certain doors start closing in her face – doors that would have opened to jobs, financial success, relationships. Power basically asks: Is this what true emancipation feels like?
To be sure, Power notes that capitalism’s stringent demands are not limited to only women. In her chapters on the “feminisation of labour”, however, she clearly and intelligently maps out how the market has allowed people to think that women have “made it” when all it has done is only alter the landscape and terrain of jobs and careers. She calls it the feminisation of labour because the labour market is now represented by what is traditionally conceived as feminine traits – the ability to acquiesce and be accommodating – rendering each person a walking advertisement for his or herself. You have to be always “on”; become always ready to sell yourself, lay yourself bare, be willing to give just a little bit more, in order to keep your job or get one in the first place. The reality of the current job market – with its precariousness and instability – has always been the case for jobs held by women in the workplace. Now, it’s across the board. Is it any coincidence that more women are touted as “doing well” in the current job market than ever before at the precise moment when the job market, and the economy at large, is in shambles?
Power is merciless on her attacks on consumer-feminism, which is how it should be. But there’s no need to be alarmed; reading One-Dimensional Woman won’t transform you in a radical Leftist or property-relinquishing, ration-card-carrying communist – unless you want to. But not being able to critique the forward-moving momentum of capitalism is akin to standing by and watching as it subsumes everything meaningful into its machine, spitting out only the detritus. As Marcuse wrote more than 30 years ago, “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority.”
The book does have its weak point: Power’s thoughts on Shulamith Firestone’s radical reimagining of the family in The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, would have been better served with some acknowledgement of Firestone’s problematic conception of race. But Power’s clear-headed critique of feminism and gender relations in relation to economics and politics is bracing and much-needed. It’s a book that attempts to widen the discourse on feminism beyond “I am so happy to be living in a time when I am free to wear to work and drive a car and wear high heels.” And we’ll all do so much better if we can heed its heartfelt call for more, not less, serious thought and critique on contemporary capitalism, economics, politics, and gender relations.
(This is cross-posted at The Blog of Disquiet.)