Angela McRobbie on Inequality

socialsciencebitesHas equality for women been achieved, or is it all just an illusion? Some of the more obvious inequalities between men and women seem to have been addressed in recent decades, but debate still remains around the extent to which they have been successfully removed. Talking with David Edmonds in the latest episode of Social Science Bites, Angela McRobbie from the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmith’s University of London, discusses her research on this topic, outlining her opinions on the backlash that has been seen towards feminism and a recent shift calling for a re-analysis of what feminism is.

As a movement, ‘Feminism’ had a great impact across society from the mid 1980’s onwards.  However, McRobbie argues, that since the mid-1990s there has been an interesting change in the ways in which feminism acts, is represented, and what it achieves. McRobbie argues that what has been created is an ‘illusion of equality’. It is no longer easy as a feminist to point to areas where there is obvious gender inequality or discrimination, yet inequality still very much remains. As McRobbie argues, the idea that women, particularly young women, have somehow gained equality is very dubious:

“The term I used was ‘complexification of backlash’ […] because I think what happened was that the forces that were opposing gender equality, and opposing, if you like, the visibility of women in positions of power, many of them actually agreed that, at a kind of commonsense level, that feminism did have a role to play but that it had gone too far; or that it had backfired. […] In a post-feminist society the key way in which power works, is that it seems as though young women have become equal, and it seems as though they’ve become visible, and that they’ve occupied prominent positions, jobs and so on. And it also seems as though that old kind of benchmark of what used to be called “patriarchy”, or “male domination” or “masculine domination” as Pierre Bourdieu would put it, seems to have kind of faded out of the picture. And what I argue […] is that that threshold, or horizon of authority, has been replaced by [other complexes, for example] the fashion and beauty complex.”

By dissecting our cultural practices and society structures, McRobbie argues that we begin to understand how they are both organized and function to create the illusion of equality, the ideas of activity, the idea of choice and the idea of empowerment. At a time when it seems as though there has been the chance for women to actually achieve a greater degree of equality, what we are actually seeing is a limited set of controlled possibilities, all of which can be traced through practices of government.  McRobbie states:

“We can trace the contours of a kind of new ‘sexual contract’ to young women. The sexual contract says to young women, “Do well at school and university, and then you are achieving a great deal. Gain access to employment, because there will no longer be obstacles. With your own wage, you have achieved already a degree of financial independence”. […]  I see that moment in time where there’s a meritocracy, achievement in education, and then access to employment. And then the idea of a disposable wage, which can be then be spent on items recommended in Grazia magazine or The Evening Standard or the makeover programmes. Plus then alongside that there is the ending of the sexual double standard which says to young women, “You know what? You can have an active sexuality with impunity, as long as you don’t become a teenage mum”. This is government policy; this is what I mean by governmentality – [this is] a kind of sexual contract. And the underpinning [of this is the] locking of young women into a kind of prison of activity, without that entailing a real political, an involvement. So [in the mid-1990s] there was a kind of cutting off point that government was saying, “You know what? We’ll look after you”. And who is we? Well “we” is pretty much the same old male hierarchy with a few odd women.”

Looking at the current power constructs both in how we govern our image and the structures of the culture and society we live in, does this shift the ways in which feminism is characterised, understood and reacted against?,  Does it begin to expose a similar controlled and gender divided culture to the pre-feminist world? What kind of feminism can there be in the world of globalisation, hegemonic, neoliberalism society? What effect does or can ‘event political groups’ such as the ‘Pussy Riots’ and the ‘Muff Marchers’ have on influencing public policy? Listen to the podcast in full to find out more.

Social Science Bites are produced in association with SAGE. Want to listen to more? Previous episodes include;

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