Neoliberalism, whiteness and representations of female success: An interview with Karen Wilkes

Karen Wilkes’ article, “Colluding with neoliberalism: Post-feminist subjectivities, whiteness, and expressions of entitlement“, appears in the latest issue of Feminist Review. Here, we catch up with her to find out more about her research.

FR: Your article usefully brings together scholarship on neoliberalism, post-feminism and whiteness to examine representations of affluent white women within contemporary popular culture. You argue that western popular representations of successful femininity hinge on “performances that normalise the values, cultural capital and aesthetic tastes of the dominant white upper and middle classes”. In particular, your article focuses on the advertising of the American fashion brand Michael Kors as well as the media portrayal of elite business women such as Karren Brady (high profile media personality and vice chair of West Ham Football Club) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook). Could you tell us a bit more about your analysis of these cultural sites?

KW: I was keen to explore the way in which popular cultural sites appear to be neutral and ‘normal’, yet on closer inspection and with analysis they appear to support the dominant ideological interlocking frameworks of patriarchy and capitalism. The representations of white femininity in the Michael Kors Spring 2015 advertising campaign, is of particular significance due to the location of the fashion shoot. The theme of the collection appears to be ‘representations of the leisure class and their yachting culture’, as the campaign has been set and staged on a beach and at the site of a luxury yacht. The Michael Kors caption which accompanies the images states that “there’s this attitude that you can and should have it all”. Such statements appear to universally invite audiences “to have it all” and yet the messages of white standards of beauty, heterosexuality and luxury that are communicated in the images hail a specific economic and social group, and invoke the neoliberal principles of individualism and middle and upper class bourgeois consumption. My analysis has aimed to examine the way in which representations of expensive and luxury consumer lifestyles are a vehicle to encourage adoration of individualism, wealth and materialism.

The Michael Kors campaign is significant for the way in which such representations appropriate and rework traditional representations of middle class women as principally decorative (Craik, 1994) and  “emblem[s] of beauty” (Hobson, 2005: 10). The status of white middle and upper class women as special is conferred by their elaborate, visual displays, which alongside their appearance with muscular white men, reaffirms heterosexuality as the norm and her superior social position is conveyed by her leisured and ornamental body. Thus, the thin, white woman’s performative display of relaxing on a yacht is a combination of elements which signals to the viewer that she is the ideal and is enjoying the “perfect life” (Redmond, 2003: 175).

I was also interested in elite business women who have access to the media and use the language of feminism to make their messages regarding individualism and capitalist success appear to be universally relevant to all women. I think that it is the idea of universalism that is a theme that links the luxury branding in campaigns such as those for Michael Kors and the messages that are expressed by Karren Brady and Sheryl Sandberg that interlock and aim to create a climate of entrepreneurial free-market success that appears to be available to all women.

FR: What do you think some of the effects of these kinds of representations are? Do you think they have different effects on differently positioned women (in terms of race and class)?

KW: I think the effects of these kinds of representations are to place the responsibility for ‘success’ on the shoulders of the individual. The idea being that if they could succeed (Brady and Sandberg) it is possible for other women to succeed as they have done. However, they do not take into consideration the gender, class and race categories that intersect and structure social, racial and economic inequalities. Brady and Sandberg are both white women from privileged backgrounds, and I believe that attention to this fact is minimal in the media. The effect is that the realities of black and white working class women’s lives are not the subject of discussions. Their experiences continue to be marginalized, as exemplified by Brady’s response in the Guardian interview, that she has not seen any evidence of the economic policies pursued by the current administration, adversely affecting vulnerable people.

With regard to the representations in the Michael Kors images, alongside celebrating the visibility of personal wealth and materialism, they are projections which directly target young women to engage in conspicuous consumption as a form of distinction, and the aspirations that affluent white women are encouraged to aspire to are to conform to the ideal standards of beauty, to be visibly decorative and to be sexually attractive to men.

The effect is that the contemporary dominance of the language of neoliberalism and the common sense assumptions that have been established by this ideology – competitiveness, individualism and the free market as beneficial to all – allows for a new generation of women to be encouraged to focus on beautification and consumption as evidence of the ability to make choices, rather than the choices that women as active citizens make.

FR: You highlight an interesting point about the potential contradiction in the media’s message to women – i.e. we are simultaneously supposed to constantly focus on our beautification as well as aspire to professional success. However, you argue that ultimately “by enlisting the interlocking discourses of whiteness, consumer citizenship and the call to employment, these are messages that facilitate neo-liberal market demands”. Could you expand a bit on how these three discourses interact?

KW: The three discourses interact by ‘speaking to each other’. There are historical discourses of whiteness which disseminated a version of white femininity as superior, and can be located in Victorian women’s elaborate styles of dress and the values they held regarding manners, good taste and sophistication. There are elements of this construction of white femininity as inherently superior which are reproduced in contemporary representations such as those in the Michael Kors advertising campaigns. Although the ability to subscribe to these very narrow prescriptions of femininity requires a disciplining of the body through “hard labour” (Craik, 1994: 73), they are made palatable by interacting with discourses of neoliberal feminism which encourage independent economic participation in the form of employment. The rewards for being competitive and securing professional employment are to be found in consumption as a leisure activity. However, these calls to employment have largely been lucrative for white middle and upper class women, who have gained access to professions that require technological and information training and are also tied to the neoliberal values of wealth creation, thus meeting the needs of the free market.

FR: You point to how white upper and middle class women are invited to share power within the existing white, patriarchal capitalist system through “complying with narrow patriarchal beauty ideals”, by promoting individual success and aspiration, and by not challenging race and class oppression. In what ways is your analysis informed by or connected to black feminist critiques of the long history of white women’s collusion with “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (to use bell hooks’ term)?

KW: My analysis is directly informed by black feminist critiques, and specifically bell hooks’ critical analysis of the way in which the feminist movement was a vehicle used by middle and upper class women to further their own agendas for social and economic parity with their male counterparts. This was to the detriment of white working class women, black women and gay women whose concerns were marginal to more media friendly message of equality professed by white middle class women in the movement. Through the course of writing the article, I have learnt that there is a longer history of white middle class women benefitting from feminist movements such as the middle class women who benefitted from the Victorian feminist movement in the 1900s, as discussed by the historian Catherine Hall and the academic Vron Ware. I have also drawn on postcolonial studies which highlights the way in which white femininity has historically occupied a privileged position within colonial discourses of whiteness (as discussed by Cecily Jones), which was constructed and procured and held up as the superior opposite to black colonized women, principally achieved through their status as beneficiaries of patriarchal colonial power.

The work of Patricia Hill Collins and intersectional scholars such as Elizabeth R. Cole and Natalie J. Sabik have also informed my analysis for their particular focus on the way in which they theorise white standards of beauty as examples of power and privilege in white patriarchal systems.

FR: Calling your approach intersectional, you highlight the interaction of whiteness, heteronormativity, neoliberalism and patriarchy in the production of idealised femininity. Why did you choose this approach and what do you think it brings to the analysis?

KW: I chose this approach to support my analysis of the way in which white femininity is represented in popular visual texts and specifically how this ideal is dependent on categories and social positions working together; it is only possible for the white beauty standard to be the ideal because it enlists specific valorised classed and racialised identities to secure its position. Contemporary discourses that celebrate the material success of the individual are facilitated by neoliberal appropriations of the language of second wave feminism. What it adds to the analysis is to demonstrate how oppressive and marginalising practices do not operate hierarchically (Trepagnier, 1994: 202). They interact and bolster each other, and I am keen to undertake analysis which helps to explain how representations of white femininity and neoliberalism are effective by being seemingly neutral, universal and relevant to all women.

FR: You are currently working on a book on ‘gender, whiteness and destination weddings’ (for Palgrave Macmillan). Could you tell us a bit more about this?

KW: My monograph, provisionally titled Destination Weddings, Postcolonial Whiteness and Gender also examines the discourses of idealised white femininity in contemporary visual representations. However, the book focuses on the celebration of the white female body as princess brides who are centrally positioned in the niche tourism product of weddings in the Caribbean. The monograph is interdisciplinary in its approach and focus as it combines visual analysis, postcolonial theories and black feminist theories to examine representations of destination weddings which interlock with visual discourses of the Caribbean, packaged as ‘paradise’. I will be using an intersectional approach to explore the way in which the consumption of the Caribbean is represented as entitlement to luxury and also as an expression of distinction for affluent white women.

I will draw on whiteness studies scholarship and postcolonial approaches, to address the foregrounding of whiteness within discourses of luxury, which also directs attention towards exploring the continuities of colonial discourses and themes of paradise in nineteenth-century travel writing within contemporary tourist brochures. Close inspection of historical discursive formations offers insight into the layering of classed, racialised, gendered and sexualised symbols that are combined with repeated images of black waiters serving in cherished tourist spaces. The aim of the book is to gain an understanding of the way in which visual tourism discourse attempts to conceal the ongoing economic inequalities between the global North and the global South.

Karen Wilkes holds a PhD in Cultural Studies. Her interdisciplinary research into visual texts includes analyses of gender, class, sexuality and race in historical and contemporary visual culture. Her most recent publications have explored the representation of the white female body in tourism images of the Caribbean.

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