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Between a Rock and a Power Pose: Neoliberal Empowering of Women

I was just listening to the latest edition of Slate’s DoubleX podcast, which I’ve decided to start blogging about more because at least once in every episode, I’m listening as I run, and I start actually talking out loud about why whatever they are saying is just so wrong-headed.  I’m the chair of the Gender Studies Minor at Wabash, and so I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how to encourage students to take more courses in gender studies and to minor.  Listening to three women whose jobs are to think and write about gender but who often have underdeveloped or undertheorized accounts of the roots of gender inequality or the assumptions that support their analysis of gender inequality and possible recourses convinces me that students who have just some gender studies under their belt are both needed and highly marketable.  I hate to sell things in terms of marketability, but sometimes I do.

So anyway, I’m listening to the podcast and they start talking about Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk–the 2nd most watched TEDTalk (Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is first)–in which she encourages people to become more powerful by practicing the Wonder Woman power pose.  How fitting that I listened to this just several days after I posted about the ways that women are encouraged to develop certain ways of being in the world in order to achieve a certain conception of femininity: be small, delicate, take up less space.  And now, the solution to all that actually working the way it was supposed to–women are not taken seriously–is to add even further bodily refinements to a woman’s way of a being in the world. The solution to the original disciplinary subjection is further disciplinary subjection.

Cuddy claims to have studies to prove that if you practice the Wonder Woman pose you have higher testosterone and lower cortisol in your body.  Others who did the study with larger samples were unable to reproduce her results.

Two thoughts:

  1. The needle that must be threaded to fit the space between still being small and feminine and yet becoming bigger and more powerful without ceasing to be sufficiently feminine is a very narrow one indeed.
  2. The solution to a problem that is a structural and societal problem that can be traced to how women are subjected to these expectations of femininity is further subjection instead of collective resistance or structural change.  Combat the various pressures that got you here by submitting yourself to additional pressures.  Do more.  Do better.  It’s all your fault, anyway.  Like Sheryl Sandberg demanding women to lean in to make up for the their failures to be taken seriously in the workplace.  Sandberg’s lean in is metaphorical language about how to comport yourself, but Cuddy is literally telling people how to hold their bodies in order to better engage their world.

This is neoliberalism.  The very causes that produced the problem can be doubled-down on to become the solution.  This is not unlike the way that government serving those in power strips agencies of resources to help the powerless which becomes a justification for further austerity measures that make government better serve the powerful.

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