That so many women have found feminism is something to celebrate this International Women’s Day. During the late 1990s and early 00s, the era in which I grew up, we were told that the fight for gender equality was over. The battle had apparently been won: women were sexually and economically liberated. But for the past half-decade or so writers of my generation have been looking back on that time and asking, “What the hell?” This has most recently manifested in a reexamination of the story of Britney Spears.
It seems obvious to me, now, that there was nothing at all empowering about the sexualisation of a girl who was barely out of childhood, dressed in a school uniform and pigtails for the titillation of men. But it just goes to show how strong that postfeminist empowerment narrative was, that the documentary Framing Britney Spears continues to peddle it. As the writer Tavi Gevinson has written so astutely, it is “eager to characterise Spears’s early image as an expression of female power rather than the corporation-sanctioned sexualization of a 16-year-old”.
“Among all this trauma – Spears’s, mine, that of many women who grew up in the 90s and early 00s – I can see why a viewer would find relief in concluding that Spears was always in complete control,” she continues, before reflecting on her own relationship with an older man in which he “weaponised sex positivity”. “I now view some of my ‘empowering’ experiences as violating, exploitative and manipulative.” We were all sold that same empowerment narrative, and before we were even grown.
This idea of “inspiring” individual female agency and control has its roots in the postfeminist language of what Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad call “confidence culture”. It is found everywhere, from the concept of the “girl boss” to the “you go girl!” messages of advertising, and has been largely adopted by the marketing surrounding International Women’s Day. Confidence culture holds that the thing that holds a woman back is not structural inequality, but herself.
In Katherine Angel’s new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, she examines how confidence culture and its rejection of tentativeness and vulnerability plays into narratives around sexual consent, where to postfeminists you’re either a “weak, wounded woman” wallowing in victim status or an assertive, confident woman able to clearly articulate desires and boundaries.
Angel argues that not only has postfeminism saturated the arguments of the post-MeToo naysayers who lament modern women’s supposed softness in the face of male harassment, but also the campaign for affirmative consent, because it relies on women being sexually assertive and confident when that is not always the case. It is a vital and groundbreaking work that brings nuance to a thorny subject.
It’s clear that the late 90s and early 00s have a lot to answer for. The individualism of postfeminism has permeated the fourth wave, but there is also a greater embracing of collectiveness and solidarity. There is also a more complex understanding of how race, class, disability and sexual orientation shape women’s lives. This is encouraging, but there is still work to be done.
The pandemic has placed a huge burden on women, and has drawn attention to the conveniently ignored fact that women make up the majority of nursing and care staff, and are responsible for the lion’s share of the domestic work and childcare on which the economy depends. We are seeing greater understanding of this, but it remains an unglamorous, unprofitable branch of feminist activism.
If International Women’s Day means anything any more, it should contribute to our recognition of women on the frontline and the home front who have kept this country going throughout the pandemic. Praise is hollow if it isn’t backed up by structural change. Caring is work, and it is labour that is being exploited. The continued lack of recognition for such work – most recently in the case of the meagre pay offer to nurses – stands in stark contrast to all the corporate emptiness of faux-feminist marketing, with its glossy emphasis on empowerment.
A couple of International Women’s Days ago I was in Berlin and as I walked along a sidestreet, a woman handed me a red carnation. Around it was a label that read, in German: “care work is worth more”. I was unexpectedly moved by this; my eyes filled with tears. I know what it is to care; how it claws out what feels like every last shred of inner strength, leaving you depleted, and yet, when demands for care are renewed, as they always are, you somehow find more.
It took me a long time to truly see the teenage girl I had been, to even identify as a carer, really. Like millions of others, I had stood in front of the television watching another girl only slightly older than me, who was dressed in a school uniform, going through the motions of an adult sexuality I didn’t understand. I wanted to be her: confident, empowered, in control. I was none of these things: I was powered by love, but disempowered by society. When I wasn’t dancing to Britney, I was wiping my brother’s backside.
It’s the bottom wipers I think of most today. It isn’t considered especially elegant to bring up poo and it certainly doesn’t fit very neatly into the empowerment narrative (“you go girl, emptying that potty!”), yet it is very much part of the reality of care work. As well as the bottom wiping there has been the cleaning and the sanitising, the feeding, the hand holding, the lifting, the carrying, the reassuring, the stroking of the forehead, the inserting of the needle, the holding up of the iPad so that someone can say goodbye. It’s a heavy load.
I’d give a carnation to all of you, if I could. But you are owed far, far more than that.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist