"Coming and Staying and Working and Stuff"
Young Mobile Femininities in a Southern English Town
Master's Thesis 2010 139 Pages
1.1. Prologue: Theorizing girlhood as a transnational conversation
2.1. From Industrial Modernity to Late Modernity
2.2. The Concept of Place in Late Modernity
2.3. The Emergence of Post-feminism
3. A Transnational Case Study: Contemporary Representations of New Femininities in Bournemouth
3.1. Me, myself and I: Mobility, Individualism and Self-realisation in a Post-feminist Context
3.1.1. Mobility and the Self
3.1.2. Success, Ambition and Identity
3.2. Making the Right Choice: Young Women in the New Economy
3.2.1. Get Everything You Want: Young Femininities and Consumerism
3.2.2. Education and Career
Appendix A) Interviewee Biographies
Appendix B) Interview Transcripts
i) Interview Antonia, Spain
ii) Interview Dionysia, Greece
iii) Interview Echo, United Kingdom/Nigeria
iv) Interview Jayne, United Kingdom
v) Interview Julia, Brazil
vi) Interview Kasia, Poland
vii) Interview Laila, Spain
viii) Interview Özge, Turkey
ix) Interview Sparrow Hawk, United Kingdom
x) Interview Vanessa, Brazil
1.1 Prologue: Theorising girlhood as a transnational conversation
Lately I have become rather cynical about certain-, life-changing questions that continue to attract my attention when I least expect them to. Allow me to try and explain what increasingly distracts me.
I am a 27-year-old student/graduate/woman/citizen reading for an MA in Transnational Studies at the University of Southampton. For around two years I have been studying whilst working full-time as a supervisor in the hospitality sector. It would have taken just one phone call to my parents to liberate myself from the daily grind of hard work, uncooperative staff and complaining customers. Yet, to me, this one, simple phone call would have represented surrender and an afterlife of dependence and shame. There was no way I was going to take advantage and play the daughter-in-a-faraway-land card. Born and raised in the German capital of Berlin, my parents provided me with a solid middle-class upbringing, complete with piano lessons. I was privileged enough to attend good schools, I never experienced any serious financial worries and even had an opportunity to spend a year in the US at the age of just seventeen. Over time I made many choices regarding degrees, jobs, places I wanted to visit or live in and, of course, men. Does this sound just like any other young woman you know? Exactly! Sometimes, though, when I leaf through a magazine or glance at commercial billboards on the High Street, I cannot help but wonder if I am the only one who is suspicious of the message that continually appears to be directed at me:
A GIRL CAN HAVE ANYTHING SHE WANTS AND BE ANYONE SHE LIKES.
Being a young woman, these images seem to suggest that being a girl must be like heaven on earth; with endless freedom of choice, a plethora of opportunities and the glamour of living life as a consumer citizen. Suddenly I see glamorous, positive representations of women everywhere. We are addressed as shopping princesses, who are used to living hedonistic, successful lives, full of flexibility and success whilst always remaining in control of our destiny.
According to feminist scholars Angela McRobbie and Anita Harris, young women in particular have become the new neoliberal subject. They are offered the opportunities of a career, consumption and sexual independence. How lucky I am to belong to the right gender at the right time! Rumour says that it was not always like that. Extensive eavesdropping on older females has provided me with proof of the existence of a dark age of femininity, which apparently took place just some years away from my own comfortable womanhood. I suspect that survivors of that dark age still whisper the forbidden words into each others’ ears: Dependence. Submission. Homemaker. Monogamy. Marriage. After a shudder of horror I regain control over my body and mind and contemplate: Who are those I need to thank for liberating me from the lion’s cave? Where are they now? And how come they have succeeded in liberating me from the lion’s claws, yet somehow forgot to include a free trial demonstration of how to live life in the jungle alone? And furthermore, should I not have been asked personally if I even wanted this overwhelming number of choices in education, career, lifestyle, sexuality and relationships? Journalist Peggy Orenstein, who interviewed 200 women in their twenties, thirties and forties for her book Flux (2000), concludes that ‘Women’s lives have become a complex web of economic, psychological, and social contradictions, with opportunities so intimately linked to constraints that a choice in one realm can have unexpected consequences (or benefits) ten years later in another’ (Orenstein 2000: 5).
Considering this, I began to wonder, if my doubts about this new femininity were really so irrational. If all of us are entitled to leading full, privileged lives that include ambitious careers, sensitive partners and impeccable apartments, why did I feel so -verwhelmed, yet even threatened, by this abundance of ‘choice’? For example, when I go to the supermarket and stand in front of a shelf that displays 547 different kinds of bread, I lose my appetite and buy yoghurt instead!
Some might say, she is German and probably a communist who just has not come out of the closet yet and that’s why she can’t buy bread without making a scene. Point taken. Additionally, I could name at least a dozen other reasons for my eccentric shopping behaviour but, to be fair, they might not necessarily be related to communism, capitalism or feminism. Or maybe they are?
In any case, I was thirsty for answers so I sought the advice of experts with whom I wanted to share my experience, in the form of talking across lines of nationality and circumstance. When I started conducting my first interviews, I realised that the more women I spoke to, the more insight I gained into my own life and the life models of other women also struggling to understand, whatever their concerns happened to be. During recent months I have met ten young women who live in Bournemouth and who were kind enough to participate in this study by giving me their voices and stories. Each one of them offered me a generous glimpse of her professional as well as emotional life. I felt inspired by their stories and in what follows I will present an analysis of their views of what it means to be young and female today. After weeks of transcribing interviews, I realised that I had a collection of ten life biographies which sketched the existence of young professional women whose experiences, opinions and concerns would provide me with sufficient material for an academic case study. Furthermore, a closer analysis of the interview contents confirmed my suspicions; there was extensive common ground to be found among the research subjects and many of the patterns and themes that recurred in these women’s accounts were similar to my own experiences1. The women were found using a snowball system, that is, once I started recruiting in my personal network, my research subjects talked about their interview experience to people in their direct environments who then came back to me and asked to be interviewed as well. Thus the number of recruits rose fast in a short period of time. Even though there are six different national backgrounds among my research subjects, the young women who participated in this study are all but one situated in similar socioeconomic circumstances: They are young middle-class women who have come to Bournemouth to study, work and improve their chances in an increasingly competitive global employment market. However, to make a living they engage in low-skilled occupations, mainly in the service sector, whilst reading for degrees and obtaining other qualifications or improving their English skills. Clearly, they share a high degree of mobility, flexibility and motivation made visible by the fact that most of them have come to the UK independently, leaving behind families, partners and jobs in their countries of origin.
The focus on representations of girlhood in an Anglocentric, First World context lends itself to an examination of widely accepted notions of modern, progressive femininity rather than ‘non-Western girlhoods’ associated with Third World contexts. However, this approach was chosen with the awareness that different global geographies are inextricably interconnected and that the image of the ‘Anglicised modern girl’ has come to represent notions of Western progress and civilisation far beyond the anglophone Western world (Griffin 2004: 31).
So why choose a multinational framework for this project instead of an exclusive focus on British femininities? When I began this process, that was exactly what I had in mind; an exploration of young English womanhood in a neoliberal context inspired by the research of scholars including Angela McRobbie and Anita Harris. Nevertheless, at a very early stage of this project, the subject of ‘transnational social fields’ became a clear common denominator among the young women I encountered in Bournemouth, although this was possibly influenced by my own German background. By definition, ‘transnationalism’ is concerned with the effects arising from the traffic of capital, people and ideas across national boundaries designating a recent shift in migration patterns. Arguably, increased global transportation and telecommunication technologies have transformed migration patterns from a rather directed movement with concrete points of departure and arrival to a continuous movement between two or more geographical and social spheres. In Nations Unbound, Basch, Glick-Schiller and Blanc (1994: 8) define the term ‘transnationalism’ as ‘the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi- stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement.’ However, they suggest, for most ‘transmigrants’, who maintain multiple familial, economic and social relationships that span borders, the concept of ‘home’ remains in their country of origin even when they have settled permanently in a host society.
Indeed, contemporary life models that result from people’s increasing global mobility mark a paradigm shift, thereby challenging traditional notions of nationalism, monolingualism and the individual’s fixed social role. Indeed, it is a rather fragmented identity which constitutes the ground for the research subjects’ transnational life biographies as their ‘struggle for incorporation and adaptation takes place within a framework of interests and obligations that results from their simultaneous engagement in the home and host country’ (Landolt 2001: 218). In this context, out of the ten young women I interviewed, only three were born and raised in the UK; one of them to Nigerian parents. The other seven interviewees claimed five different national heritages, from Brazil, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Poland. However, the research subjects were not chosen according to their nationalities or any transnational criteria but merely picked according to their age, 20 to 30 years, and accessibility through my own social- and work networks. Whilst some of the women are acquainted with each other, as either work colleagues or friends, others have never met. Still, what most of them share is a ‘mobile lifestyle’ which implies considering Bournemouth as a temporary place of residence or a stop-over during a period of ‘educational migration’ (McRobbie 2009: 7). As will be further discussed in the following chapters, most participants either came to Bournemouth to study English or obtain college- or university degrees as a way of diversifying, both, their soft skills, essentially people skills, as well as professional qualifications, all with regards to an increasingly international employment market.
Principally, this dissertation is concerned with the discrepancy between wider representations and meanings of young womanhood and actual, lived femininities. Hence it attempts to emphasise issues concerning contemporary feminine lifestyles which prevail amongst the research subjects. Ultimately, its findings will be analysed in detail and critically evaluated in order to position them in the current academic debate. Firstly, as a framework and introduction of the interviewee’s life settings, the sociopolitical dimensions of a transformation from industrial to late modernity are briefly identified. Respectively, the concept of place in late modernity is defined and applied to Bournemouth as the research subjects’ place of residence. Moreover, post-feminism as the contemporary female arena is identified, defined and integrated in the wider feminist discourse. Secondly, the case study is presented starting with an exploration of the young women’s self-images with regard to mobility, success and ambition as well as identity and belonging, all in the light of feminist and post-feminist theory. Thirdly, notions of choice and decision-making in the context of young women’s newly acquired positions in the New Economy are examined considering notions of consumerism and beauty ideals, education and career.
This dissertation presents a case study and all primary data stems from ten in depth semi- structured, face-to-face interviews which were conducted and digitally recorded in Bournemouth, England, between June and September 2009. Accordingly, this endeavour should be classified as a qualitative research project based on subjective data which cannot be given a numeric value but which is clearly concerned with the collection of attitudes and opinions of a range of individuals. Hence, rather than drawing statistical generalisations from the data, this ethnographic study is based on young women’s everyday experience which is expressed in words rather than numbers. As a research method used among sociologist and anthropologists, ethnography consolidates a variety of methodologies such as participant observation, interviews, conversation or discourse analysis, documentaries, film and photography and life history. However, at the core of this research method resides that ‘description is constructed it is the intense meaning of social life from the everyday perspective of groups members that is sought’ (Hobbs 2006).
In this study, the recorded interviews will be used as primary data as they thoroughly reveal the participants’ arguments and opinions concerning new femininities. Nevertheless, participants’ observation has also formed a major part of the research: The interviewees were observed at various occasions, i.e. at work, at home and during nights out in local bars and nightclubs.
Certainly, due to its personal and, at times, very intimate nature this research method is bound to be challenging for the researcher for a variety of reasons. Firstly, in order to encounter possible participants it is vital to gain access to an environment which is frequently attended by the research subjects. Yet, this can become a problem when access is denied or complicated by external factors such as physical distance, time, restricted locations or monetary constraints. Hammersley & Atkins (1983: 54) offer a viable solution to the challenge as they recommend the researcher make extensive use of personal networks as a way of establishing contacts and gaining access to the desired environments. Respectively, this case study focuses on young women located in Bournemouth who all participate in nightlife and club culture on a regular basis.
Fortunately, the town proved to be of a manageable size and there were no major barriers blocking access to scenes and locales. Moreover, once a first contact with an individual was established, the interviews were intentionally conducted during daytime in neutral places such as cafes or parks to avoid conversations with subjects under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Secondly, the role of the researcher herself is crucial in ethnographic study and, therefore, deserves heightened attention as it can lead to both the success or failure of a case study, hence Hammersley & Atkinson’s (1983: 77) stress on the importance of the researcher’s credibility. If the research subjects have any doubt about the researcher’s intentions or view her as an intruder who is unworthy of their trust, they will undoubtedly hold back relevant information , which can, albeit unconsciously, make the data collection difficult. Furthermore, the researcher must clarify from the start what her role in the interview process will be in order to remain in control of the conversation by giving the interviewees the security and comfort they need to open up.
Thus, having had familiarised myself with Hammersley & Atkinson’s duality principle of ‘critic vs. expert’ (1983: 77) prior to the actual interview process, I decided to opt for the expert strategy. That way, I was able to position myself amongst my research subjects, classifying me as ‘one of them’ and ‘in the same boat’. At all times I was considerate and tried to be empathic and uncritical of their opinions to keep the flow of conversation smooth-, and to let the interviewee guide the direction of the conversation as far as possible. Overall, the idea was to create an open conversation with the young women which, in turn, would make the interview richer, more spontaneous and a pleasurable experience for them.
The transcripts of the interviews were then analysed by employing the ‘thematic analysis’ method, which aims to provide ‘a coherent way of organising or reading some interview material in relation to specific research questions’ (Banister 1994: 57). All of the transcripts were read several times to detect evidence that would support or refute the framework and research questions. In addition, the aim of the thematic analysis was to draw out the salient dimensions of contemporary new femininities and identify the patterns and themes that recurred across the interviews and the concepts that the woman referred to in order to explain their experiences and views.
Moreover, the analysis is theoretically inspired by feminist and post-feminist theory as well as by critical consumerism studies and employment theory. These were deemed vital to the understanding and conceptualisation of contemporary young womanhood.
In times of globalisation and neoliberal economies, mobility, flexibility and transnationalism have become key terms for young middle-class women in many countries rendering the issue a pertinent research topic. While in the UK and other Western nations young women have now been fully integrated into education, employment and consumer culture, there is a demand for research on their views and opinions in relation to the new possibilities, choices and constraints that they are confronted with today.
However, this limited case study cannot deliver larger generalisations about new femininities in the UK as the scope of the project is small-scale and locally specific. Yet this study still offers a direct glimpse at relevant issues concerning contemporary young womanhood through the point of view and experience of specific individuals in a southern British town. Ultimately, this study will identify sociopolitical trends that reflect wider questions regarding new femininities in the UK.
Young women’s life biographies in current Western middle-class contexts are much more complex than popular images of success, freedom of choice and self-invention may suggest. In times of socioeconomic insecurity, changing labour market dynamics and a devolving of responsibility, young-, professional women are required to embody the new neoliberal subject and assume their roles in a system of globalised capitalism. This, often, encourages them to believe that ‘girls can do anything’ even though their opportunities are still limited by factors such as gender, race and class.
2.1 From Industrial Modernity to Late Modernity
In order to analyse contemporary representations of young women in Bournemouth, it is essential to engage with parameters and circumstances that have fuelled a change of direction and thereby facilitated a transformation of the concept of modern womanhood. Respectively, Anita Harris, author of Future Girl (2004) , suggests that the transition from industrial to late modernity brought with it fundamental socioeconomic change, especially for young women. Where the industrial era was set around a system of industrial capitalism characterised by empowering strong, centralised governments who established social welfare and security systems, enduring social ties and shared ideals of community, class and place, the late modern era is distinguished by its economic and social break with industrial modernity.
In short, complex, global capitalist economies, a shift from state support to the private provision of services, de-industrialisation and the expansion of communications, technology and service industries all mark the key elements of late modern economies. Generally speaking, a sense of change, insecurity and fragmentation prevails among individuals and this, in turn, can be linked to unpredictable markets, economic rationalism and a strong emphasis on enterprise and individualisation. Moreover, discontinuity is a key term that relates to communities, nations and individual responsibilities as it signifies contemporary social life on various levels (Harris 2004: 3-4).
The social theorists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens assert that the idea of predictability, a feature of modern times, has now been replaced by a sense of danger and contingency. Hence, according to Beck (1992), we live in a ‘risk society’,‘wherein global insecurities and economic unpredictability are combined with weakening collective ties and identities (Harris 2004: 4)’. Moreover, Harris suggests that, to some extent, late modern individuals may feel they have lost vital connections with others as a result of fragmented family structures and social movements as well as transient neighbourhood populations. In any case, the demise of traditional collective ties and social relationships which were commonly used as life directives has shifted the emphasis away from support structures towards a form of risk negotiation on an individual level. This implies that ‘making the right choice’ is rendered a basic requirement for all as people must develop their own strategies and take a personal responsibility in their quest for success, happiness and fulfilment. With regard to the risk society, sociologist Steven Miles (2000:68) claims that the image of subjectivity is ‘one of increased independence, self-determination and self-realisation. But as discussions of risk illustrate, the conditions within which these apparently positive developments are occurring are actually taking place in a world which in some respects is quite possibly less secure than it has ever been’. This insecurity, Harris (2004: 5) states, manifests itself in various parameters, such as in ‘unpredictable chances of employment, the shift from production to consumption as a framework for making meaning and identity or even the rollback of nation states’ accountability for the social rights of their citizens’.
However, it is argued that having unpredictability and uncertainty to shape their own realities, young women may best be suited to success in a setting which calls for constant self-invention and a requirement to ‘make themselves’ in order to flourish.
Contrary to former times, success and social status today largely depend on an individual’s capacity to be unique, self-accomplished and autonomous rather than possessing a capacity to adhere to a certain set of normative rules as used to be the case, notably for women. Correspondingly, Harris (2004: 6) refers to young women as the focus for the construction of an ‘ideal late modern subject who is self-making, resilient, and flexible’.
She argues the reason for this development is two-fold. Firstly, modern working conditions and the economy in combination with feminism’s achievements cleared the way for women to step into education and employment. In turn, a restructured global economy and class/gender system demands young women’s labour as it relies on their flexibility and adaptability. Secondly, there are obvious parallels between new ideologies concerning individual responsibility or choice and broad feminist notions of self-made subjectivity and new possibilities for women.
This notion in particular may account for an increase in women’s participation in education and the labour market since the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, a young woman’s standing in terms of the new gender/class structure of late modernity is determined by two particular parameters, i.e. education and employment, which is particularly true in the case of middle-class women. Respectively, Harris (2004: 7) concludes that ‘whereas once a comfortable middle-class position was attained or sustained through marriage, today this process is much less assured.’ As a consequence, modern middle-class women are not prepared to solely rely on marriage to secure their social and economic status as the changing nature of the labour market calls for women who are income-generating in their own right and serve as valuable contributors to the maintenance of their own or their family’s lifestyle and class status.
2.2 The Concept of Place in Late Modernity
Late Modernity has not only transformed the meaning of young womanhood as such but it has also altered the relationship between place and identity in relation to attachment to a residential environment. Environmental psychologists Clare Twigger-Ross and David Uzzel, suggest ‘that place identity is another aspect of identity comparable to social identity that describes the person’s socialization with the physical world’ (Twigger-Ross and David Uzzel 1996: 206). In this regard, they claim that the four principles of identity processes i.e., ‘continuity, self-esteem, self-efficacy and distinctiveness’, which guide action, are directly correlated to place identifications.
The relationship to place has a particular relevance for this study where nearly all interviewees are new residents of Bournemouth, a town they felt was one of many that marked their geographical, and often transnational, biographies. During a meeting at her house in August, Antonia casually mentioned that ‘living in Bournemouth is like living at an airport. Everyone is always off to somewhere else’ thus verbalising a sentiment commonly held among all interviewees.
Bournemouth is a large coastal resort located in Dorset, in the South of England.
Founded in 1810, it is a relatively young town and a tourist and regional centre for leisure, entertainment, culture and recreation. Yet the absence of any substantial industry puts an economic emphasis on service industries such as hospitality, catering, entertainment and nightlife establishments. Moreover, Bournemouth is a popular destination for international language students who populate the town, especially during the summer months, whilst two universities and a college support Bournemouth’s reputation as a flourishing student town. This youth culture sits against a backdrop of a prosperous retirement community where rich, elderly inhabitants settle to enjoy the warm southern climate and relaxed pace of life. The research subjects commonly share a residential- and social environment which is certain to expose them to continual farewells and thoughts of transit and transition in the midst of a sense of temporary sojourn. Indeed, for the majority of the interviewees, their stay in Bournemouth is designed to act as a stop-over, a station in their lives which they say they will undoubtedly leave again at some future point. Thus, in terms of place identity, only one interviewee, who was born and raised in the area, revealed any inclination to identify Bournemouth as her home and desired place of long-term residence. For the other research subjects, identification with their lives in Bournemouth presents a challenge due to their personal environment’s constant mode of change with its discontinuity in work and social relationships. For most, rooting themselves in such a dynamic environment is out of the question, which subsequently results in a continuous emotional attachment to their place of origin. Hence, the idea of a future return to Madrid, Jerez or Rio de Janeiro overshadows the research subjects’ everyday lifestyles, creating an attitude of ‘this will only be for a while anyway’ amongst them.
In this context, Nikolas Entrikin (1991: 1), author of The Betweenness of Place, argues that late modern individuals are far more likely to face periods of transit, translocality and a consciousness of identity-pluralism than their predecessors of just a few decades ago. Respectively, the concept of the ‘translocal’ describes individuals who live not just in one place and not in some ‘global everywhere’ either, it refers to people who have ‘lived, significantly, in more than one place; people who are not from the place that they are nonetheless in now or, have grown up or lived in multiple places’ (Wallace 2009). Hence, in chapter 2.212 Mobility and the Self, this paradigm shift will be analysed further in order to apply it to the interviewees’ life biographies.
2.3 The Emergence of Post-feminism
Post-feminism, a controversial term coined in the 1980s, attempts to illustrate an entire social and political landscape with a range of viewpoints emanating from earlier feminist activities and campaigns. The term is associated by some with postmodernist, post- foundationalist moves to destabilise and deconstruct gender, while others judge it as a backlash against second-wave feminism, a movement that began when mostly well- educated, middle-class women first tried to combine family life with full-time professional careers during the 1960s and 1970s. For a majority of women this ambitious endeavour resulted in exhaustion and depression, which many considered intolerable (Boles 2004:16). In her latest book, The Aftermath of Feminism, Angela McRobbie (2009: 1) asserts that post-feminism actively draws on and invokes feminism by ‘taking into account the elements that have been absolutely incorporated’ into the political and social sphere suggesting that, ultimately, gender equality has been achieved. Thereby, feminism is rendered redundant and located within a historical perspective predominantly belonging to the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, as new opportunities arise for females as a generation of women become lawyers, corporate executives, doctors, professors, scientists, politicians, members of the military and astronauts, post-feminism represents ‘the argument that girls and women are doing fine, feminism is unnecessary, and the movement is over’(Taft 2004: 72).
However, according to Taft, the aforementioned credo that young women have already attained everything they had been struggling for in terms of power and gender equality simply provides a means of maintaining the status quo of the current social order. In this context, Taft (2004:73) asserts: the claims that equality exists, and the use of Girl Power to signify girls’ equality (or dominance) in the world, not only make gender oppression invisible but also hide the social forces of racism, classism, and homophobia. In doing so, [girls are] lead to believe that feminism does not address their own needs and concerns. By presenting a world with no need for social change, this use of Girl Power [discourages girls from] seeing inequality and from engaging in challenges to such inequalities.
Indeed, in affluent First World societies of the 1990s, feminism was portrayed negatively and encouraged girls to form depoliticised female identities, which instead sought an all-female world of joy, entertainment and loyalty to please the female self: In short, Girl Power was born. Yet, as Griffin (2004) states, this new discourse avails itself of elements from earlier feminist thought and, in doing so, is clearly located as post-feminist; it actually constitutes the world as inherently post-feminist assuming that girls and women are already equal to boys and men on all levels of society. In summary, she suggests that in the Girl Power discourse ‘feminism, in whatever form, can be represented as irrelevant and old-fashioned; and there is no need for girls or women to challenge boys/men or any form of patriarchal system in an overtly politicised way’ (Griffin 2004: 33). Probably the most prominent example of the application of Girl Power is the 90s girl group The Spice Girls who claimed that ‘feminism has become a dirty word’ and that they would ‘give it a kick up the arse’ (Taft 2004:71). Yet, the intellectual alternative The Spice Girls offered mainly consisted of the development of personal qualities, like playing girls’ football, rather than active political or social engagement. Instead of critically rethinking certain gender-based power relations and creating visions of lifestyles that suit both sides, the idea of Girl Power merely re-emphasised beauty and appearance in women. It is argued that in order to make it more palatable and ultimately marketable, Girl Power had to be positioned as far away from feminism as possible as to ensure its success. Taft asserts that ‘girls are encouraged to identify their girl-positive feelings with a nonpolitical rather than a politicised discourse, and to think about girlhood in these purely cultural ways, rather than as a space for social and political action’ (Taft 2004:69).
Overall, it seems fair to say that we are now witnessing a shift away from the idea of feminism towards an individualism with agentic character that reflects the ‘celebratory, neoliberal discourse of girls’ new found equality as a formula for the hard work needed to attain educational and career success’ (Ringrose 2007: 473-474). In response to the discursive shifts in the debate over the evolution of feminism, McRobbie (2009:12) succinctly comments that ‘post-feminism in this context seems to mean gently chiding the feminist past, while also retrieving and reinstating some palatable elements […] like sexual freedom, the right to drink, smoke, have fun in the city, and be economically independent’. Accordingly, in times where young women are viewed as lucrative investments, conspicuous consumers and valuable assets in the globalised labour market they are expected ‘to do without more autonomous feminist politics’ whilst accepting the ‘displacement of feminism as a political movement’ (McRobbie 2009: 15).
3. A Transnational Case Study: Contemporary Representations of New Femininities in Bournemouth
3.1 Me, Myself and I: Mobility, Individualism and Self-realisation in a Post-Feminist
It is argued widely among scholars, in the mass media and within the political arena that young women today have emerged as the new neoliberal subject for post-industrial times (Griffin 2004, Taft 2004, McRobbie 2009, Harris 2004). Within an increasingly integrated global economy, their presence and influence is now being felt in fields such as business, politics, science, media and education, particularly in Western industrialised nations. Indeed, young females have been acknowledged as flexible, presentable and capable employees in the service- and communications-oriented new economy.
However, given the aforementioned implications of feminist struggle in the last century, a decisive political and cultural force was spent in the attempt to re-shape contemporary young womanhood in a way that would fit with the new neoliberal social and economic order. In this context, many parts of Europe and the United States have recently seen political shifts to the right and gender relations have been commonly secured in a postfeminist settlement. This has encouraged young women to become visible both professionally and personally on condition that feminism and its claims vanish from the political agenda (McRobbie 2009: 56-57). In The Aftermath of Feminism, McRobbie labels this tacit agreement the ‘New Sexual Contract’ which: primarily in the West, allows young women to come forward and make good use of the opportunity to work, to gain qualifications, to control fertility and to earn enough money to participate in the consumer culture which in turn will become a defining feature of contemporary modes of feminine citizenship. […] In the post-feminist guise of equality, as though it is already achieved, young women are attributed with capacity. They are urged to become hyper-active across key sites where their new found visibility then becomes most manifest. (McRobbie 2009: 54)
Notably, McRobbie’s ‘New Sexual Contract’ is embedded in four major fields, all of which, as she claims, have become sites of visibility for these new femininities and their post-feminist specifications on a number of levels: Firstly, on the level of self-image, self- definition and identification with regards to mobility, individualism and self-realisation; secondly, within the field of consumer culture which grants young women the right to become new consumer citizens in exchange for political subjectivity; thirdly, in the field of education and employment where female success and attainment reflect the new meritocracy of the neoliberal discourse; and, finally, in terms of the emergence of the ‘phallic girl’ (McRobbie 2009: 54-59). This is the term McRobbie uses to describe young women who are able to control their fertility and can therefore feel free to engage in numerous sexual relationships without fearing dire consequences. In this regard, part of McRobbie’s proposition of the New Sexual Contract will be used in the following evaluation of the interview data and applied to the discourse on new young femininities as a means of comparing and contrasting representations of young womanhood with actual, lived femininities.
3.1.1 Mobility and the Self
Today more and more young women engage in the process of ‘educational migration’ (McRobbie 2009:7) as they move around the world to attend prestigious institutions of higher education in Western Europe and the United States to increase their qualifications and, subsequently, their employment possibilities. This is said to be part of a ‘capitalist mobilisation of ‘global girls’ in the service of transnational corporations’ (McRobbie 2009:
At the other end of the spectrum there are many young women who find themselves actively seeking opportunities in a global context despite lacking any relevant qualifications. This large group of lower-middle class and working class females ‘scramble for positions in the sales, service, and communications industries, albeit often reluctantly’(Harris 2004: 52). However, contemporary global biographies are so diverse that it is difficult to define a clear set of prevailing trends as a means of immediate sociological understanding. Nevertheless, according to McRobbie (2009: 7) the common denominator underlying this mobility is the ‘route to female individualisation based on migration’ and leading to ‘new international divisions of labour’. Generally speaking, there is a notable desire for mobility, self-reliance and the opportunity to prove oneself in an unknown environment amongst the research subjects; this initially appears to be in relation to professional- and personal development within the social and economic dynamics of Western societies. However, the case study presents two main trends with regards to mobility as it is concerned with both British and non-British femininities.
On the one hand, two of the ten interviewees, Jayne and Sparrow Hawk, were both born and raised locally which renders mobility as a concept that is rather irrelevant to their life biographies to date. Echo, as the third British representative, is originally from London, although she moved to the South in order to start a law degree at Bournemouth University.
In contrast, the seven young women with non-British backgrounds, have all experienced international mobility, at least to some extent. They immediately proffered two reasons for a move to Bournemouth, the first being ‘to study English’ and the second being ‘to live another kind of experience’ (Interview Antonia 2009: 57). In a contemporary Western context, the English language’s prevailing impact and its global utilisation as a lingua franca invariably demands a fluent mastery for anyone seeking employment on an international platform.
Interestingly, despite the fact that most of the international interviewees were not exactly sure what kind of implications a stay abroad might entail, they pointed out that ‘coming and staying and working and stuff’ (Interview Vanessa 2009: 130) in the UK was something they had always wanted to do and that was, without doubt, worth making sacrifices for. The following short interview excerpt underlines the interviewee’s dedication to her plan of living abroad:
JULIA: Alright. I am from Brazil and I came to England for two main reasons. [Firstly]
because I wanted learn English and [secondly] because I wanted to live abroad, you know, to have an experience. I don’t know what I was expecting but I always knew since I was very, very, very young that I would go to live abroad, umm, you know, at some point. I was sure. [...]I moved to Sao Paulo and started working in my area. It was very, very good for me because I came from a small city and I was living in Sao Paulo, working for a big company and everything. It was good for me. Then I worked for two years and I came to England without any help from anybody. I just parted and left some things behind; a good job… my boyfriend of seven years…with big gaps [laughs] (Interview Julia 2009: 94).
Other young women in this case study include Özge, Echo, Dionysia, Kasia, Laila and Vanessa who came to Bournemouth with an educational purpose as either a primary or secondary goal. They were all involved in either college, language school or university courses at some point during their stay which, to an extent, confirms McRobbie’s proposition about education being an attempt to attain ‘female individualisation based on migration’.
However, another major determinant for the research subjects’ urge to be mobile and temporarily leave home is a common need to get away from their daily life routines in form of a more challenging gap year. Some had already begun their first jobs and were increasingly doubtful about their professional status when prospects of promotions failed to materialise or the workload was overwhelming. Unsurprisingly, a certain creeping dissatisfaction emerged among several women leaving them feeling ‘fed up’ with work and unable ‘to see [themselves] there for 40 years, doing the same job’ (Interview Antonia 2009: 63). Indeed, a move abroad, including the study of English as a foreign language, seemed like a good investment and, if nothing else, was surely guaranteed to postpone the dreaded questions about future career decisions and matters of professional self-realisation, at least for the time being. Still, for the majority of this research group, it turned out that their time away has not actually solved their issues but deferred them to a later time. In Laila’s case, her frustration about this dilemma is visible in the following excerpt:
LAILA: […] So I decided to come here and study English. Really, it was the year to decide [what to do with] with my life. To say, “I am gonna stop, I am gonna have a look [at] my life, my options, and decide what I want.” And I have been here for ten months but I still don’t know what I am gonna do with my life. […] I don’t know if I’ll come back from Brazil, if I’ll stay there longer, if I am going to Berlin, if I am going to Madrid to have a family with my ex-boyfriend or…[Laughs] I don’t know.
Kathrin: Too many choices?
LAILA: But all are possible!
Kathrin : Do you want to keep open your options?
LAILA: I should decide for something. I am always thinking, What am I going to do with my life 2 ? But I think I shouldn’t worry because…I don’t know. I’ll make up my mind for sure in four months so…it’s stupid. I don’t have to decide now (Interview Laila, 2009: 111)
It therefore appears that global mobility offers individuals an unlimited number of possibilities and opportunities for self-realisation abroad whilst simultaneously providing them with a sense of freedom to relocate if preferred. An internationally integrated educational system, including further education schemes, particularly has the potential to open doors for young women and presents them with new opportunities, individual empowerment and personal responsibility. Nevertheless, in times that lack continuity and consistency per se, global mobility can clearly enhance a sense of insecurity, fragmentation and discontinuity and, in that case, can become a burden on both a personal as well as a professional level. As a result some young females describe themselves as ‘professionally lost’ (Interview Julia 2009: 94) and ‘not as happy as [they] used to be’ (Interview Laila 2009: 111) with their current lives.
However, and with regard to McRobbie’s classifications of global girls, the young women in this case study do not appear to fit into either of the two categories she highlights. In actual fact, they rather represent a group of young, unmarried and generally childless Western middle-class women with qualifications and professions who deliberately leave what they consider lives of boredom, stress or lack of opportunity behind to seek a challenge overseas. These young women commonly associate their mobility with ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘individualism’ and seek a way of slowing their increasingly accelerated lives. In this respect, the implementation of drastic external changes to an individual’s life biography is being deployed as a means of distraction from the difficult questions of success, ambition and competition which have become benchmarks of contemporary young womanhood.
In her interview, Julia reveals the double-edged sword that mobility affords her as it promises an abundance of possibilities whilst, at the same time, causes her to feel lost amid the vast array of choices now available to her:
JULIA: I mean, I live in a situation that any person could really wish for but at the same time it’s really scary because at this moment I can do whatever I want. I could go to India, if I wanted to, or go to Africa or go back to Brazil to my life [there]. Or I could stay here or go anywhere. Of course, I am limited because of money but I have the conditions to go. I speak English, I will be fine anywhere. So I cannot believe how lucky I am. I mean, I am not studying now and I don’t have the best job in the world. I really don’t have any guidelines! I think this is amazing, it’s amazing but at the same time it’s scary. I have all the opportunities. I have all the possibilities (Interview Julia 2009: 100).
Julia’s comment expresses a common fear among the research subjects: the young women are generally afraid of making the wrong choice because, by doing so, they might miss an opportunity that could positively change their lives. In turn, not choosing and deliberately remaining in a certain arrangement offers temporary stability, yet often at the cost of personal and professional development.
3.1.2 Success, Ambition and Identity
As argued by various feminist scholars, including Anita Harris in Future Girl, late modernity has appointed the young female as an ideal subject who is ‘flexible, individualised, resilient, self-driven, and self-made and who easily follows non-linear trajectories to fulfilment and success’ (Harris 2004:16). In this context, young women have been ascribed a variety of attributes and qualities, resulting in the creation of dicta such as ‘Girl Power’, ‘future girls’, ‘can-do girls’ or ‘top girls’ (Harris 2004, McRobbie 2004, 2007, 2009 Griffin 2004) .
These terms associate power and success with young females whose youth, ambition and, ostensibly, transnational force make them an integral part of the ‘new meritocracy’. This term, as McRobbie (2009: 57-58) asserts, is commonly used in the promotion of ‘more individualistic and competitive values’ by New Labour, notably within education. Typified as the most self-assured and empowered of all demographic groups affected by risk, young women are therefore now expected to be weighted towards confidence, ambition, success, attainment, self-actualisation and individual responsibility.
Indeed, among the research subjects, independence is quoted as a key goal to strive for in life, particularly in a financial sense. Interestingly, some interviewees stated that the notion of ‘anybody supporting’ them on a regular basis would compel them to ‘say yes to everything [men] require [them] to do’ and, thereby, entail a situation in which it becomes a ‘necessity […] to please them’ (Interview Echo 2009: 74). This concern reflects a dismissive attitude towards the more traditional forms of femininity that confine women to leading a life as mere ‘homemakers’. Indeed, Echo associates independence with the freedom to ‘please yourself’ since ‘the best way to guarantee happiness is to please yourself […] and then in pleasing yourself and being happy with yourself, the people around you should be happy for you if they really care about you’ (Interview Echo 2009: 74). This overt focus on the female self, instead of the prioritisation of others and their needs-, traditionally attributed to the feminine, characterises a woman’s place in the ‘new meritocracy’ and suggests that modes of striving for individualism and success, not in social but in professional or educational career terms, are the ‘new feminism’. Accordingly, Echo refers to herself as a clever girl who deserve[s] to have a degree by [her] name because she know[s] that [she is] a clever and accomplished person’ (Interview Echo 2009: 79).
Özge from Turkey displays the same confidence that many young females today embody as she conveys her hunger for achievement:
Kathrin: What does being independent mean to you?
ÖZGE: Um, actually, if possible, to earn my own money. That’s the most important thing. And to live alone without anybody supporting me. I don’t know. I think the first thing is to have my own money and a good career. […] I am really ambitious. My aim is to be successful and to get to where I want to go (Interview Özge 2009: 119,123).
As post-modern subjects, young women are now fully integrated into education and employment and, hence, must practice the same self-reliance and -responsibility it takes to earn a living experienced by their male counterparts. Yet, rather than being a choice, as is suggested in official public discourse, their performance as economically active female citizens has become a necessity. With the demise of old structures such as social class and the welfare state that was created in the earlier period of modernisation, young women are increasingly disembedded from communities that were formerly based on traditional gender roles (McRobbie 2009:19).
A direct consequence of this process is the emergence of a non-expectant attitude towards the political and social system aligned with the understanding that anybody who wants to ‘make it’ in post-modernity , must invent their own individual structures and life projects. Young women, in particular, have internalised a need to prioritise concerns with themselves and engage in continual efforts of self-monitoring and self-improvement if they are to secure successful careers and comfortable social positions. Indeed, as McRobbie (2009: 19) asserts, ‘as the overwhelming force of structure fades, so also does the capacity for agency increase’.
In Echo’s case, the desire for self-completion is a central focus of her narrative.
Contemplating her relationship with herself, her determination and willingness to seek selfperfection represent the major exclusively self-referential ambitions:
Kathrin: If you were to name three things you would call your priorities at this moment of your life. What would these be?
ECHO: Me because I want to be around me. I wanna spiritually develop myself. I wanna be attune with myself and with who I am. Myself - I want myself to be happy. You know, I want to look the way I want to look. I want to dress whatever way I want to. You know, I want to get whatever I want to get. Buy whatever I wanna buy. And I - I want to learn what I want to do. I want to accomplish something. You know, me is for the spiritual, myself is for the physical, and I is for the mental (Interview Echo 2009: 81).
Moreover, McRobbie (2001) suggests that political, media and advertising interests ‘have converged in the construction of young women as standard bearers for the new economy, as creators of wealth’ who seize their opportunities and map out career plans from an early age in order to attain prestigious positions in the new economy. It is therefore in the reconceptualisation of work that they are ‘doubly constructed’ as beneficiaries of ‘feminist achievements and ideology, as well as from new conditions that favour their success by allowing them to put these into practice’ (Harris 2004:8).
However, representations of young women as self-inventing, driven workers generally omit a discourse on how these females actually react to the prevailing working conditions they enter the labour force. While increased opportunities in education and career building have resulted in women populating universities and obtaining prestigious degrees, ‘academic excellence’ is not a guarantee for a professional career. In contrast to the marketing of many contemporary female workplaces as ‘fresh, fun, young, sexy and flexible’, or to further quote Harris (2004: 112), ‘a lifestyle choice and an expression of identity’, the reality of work routines is usually far from this desired image.
Interestingly, most of the interviewees gave what they experienced as stress in their direct working environment as main reason for leaving their jobs before coming to England. Unable or unwilling to solve their work-related grievances or to change jobs, they opted to leave the country and engage in low-skilled labour abroad. This decision deserves closer analysis as it prevails among the majority of the research subjects. Leila and Julia contemplate their decisions to leave work and, subsequently, home in the following extracts:
JULIA: I loved living in Sao Paulo but…because of the traffic, my job and the pollution I was very stressed. Sometimes I was going home crying because I was living very close to my job and I used to take two hours to get home.[…] And because I was very involved with my boyfriend, I wasn’t thinking about going to a very busy place to meet people. I had decided to come, learn English very well and then go back to Brazil (Interview Julia, 2009: 95).
LEILA: So…because I was working in Madrid at the beginning in a really, really stressful job; always with computers, always traveling; working 50 hours a week with a lot of responsibility. [...] And it’s like, oh my god what am I doing? I am 23 and all the bosses are looking at me like Ok, ok, do the thing, do the thing! I had a headache. And Madrid was a really horrible city, with too many people and two hours to go to any place. So I decided to come here and study English (Interview Laila, 2009: 111).
What these two comments capture is a noteworthy phenomenon that, among certain young Western middle-class women, illustrates the need for self-preservation and - protection in times of exhaustion and strain which supersedes career ambitions and the desire for professional self-realisation, at least on industry-imposed terms. As the two excerpts reveal, having experienced professional working lives in the new economy, the two interviewees eventually sought a simplified life-model. Both, Julia and Laila, were reluctant to remain in an environment they considered a hazard to their physical and mental health despite the promise of independence and material security that their work engagements entailed. Consequently, they turned their backs on ‘being what you want to be’ and packed their bags.
This attitude certainly highlights class as central paradigm in the representation of new femininities. As Echo asserts, ‘[she] come[s] from a middle-class background so [she] is used to being middle-class not working class’(Interview Echo 2009: 79). Obviously, there is an awareness of class among the interviewees that is reflected in their identification as middle-class Westerners who ‘could not deal with having less financial freedom’ (Interview Echo 2009: 79). Nevertheless, there is also a group of young women who have developed a critique of the ‘future girl’ by living alternative biographical projects which are juxtaposed with their original sense of belonging.
Kathrin: So you arrived here in England as a Spanish middle-class-girl and basically entered into a working-class-lifestyle?
ANTONIA: Yeah. You know, to me it’s funny to try out different things in life. In Spain I would never work at a restaurant or a shop but here you have to. […] And when I got my first job in a hotel cleaning baths, I was happy. I was happy. Yeah I got a job cleaning toilets! Ok, let’s go, it was a new experience; another thing in your life. You know I was studying for something else, to work in an office not to clean toilets in a hotel! (Interview Antonia 2009: 58, 63).
Antonia, for example, claims that ‘in Spain, [she was] middle class’ [as she] was ‘earning her own money but could keep all of it to [her]self’ [whilst] ‘living with [her] parents’ (Interview Antonia 2009: 57). When she left Spain and moved to the United Kingdom, she decided to assume responsibility for determining her own life trajectory, which turned out to be a challenge to her established middle-class identity.
LAILA: Sometimes I think we are machines working for machines. In my old job I felt like a machine because you have to fix machines. They [...] don’t care about your feelings, your life. [...] At school [...] they don’t teach you how to be a good person. [...] In engineering, they don’t teach you how you can be a good engineer. Thinking about if you are producing a lot of pollution or not. Or thinking about if you produce this machine, a lot of people will be fired because they will have nothing to do. [...] It’s all about money! Business, business, business. It’s horrible, I think it’s horrible (Interview Laila 2009: 117).
Laila, the electronic engineer from Jerez who is now working as a waitress, is very direct in her critique of the demanding role she feels has been ascribed her in this class system of globalised capitalism. Quitting her job in Madrid and moving to Bournemouth therefore presents an expression of resistance to the opportunities offered in the new social and economic order.
In turn, young women whose ideal lifestyle is centred on a dominant male figure as breadwinner, appear to regard their definition of successful womanhood as inappropriate. They even feel guilty about their longing for a conservative family model and the achievement of personal goals such as, in Kasia’s case, recording the music she writes.
KASIA: […] So I want family, basically. That’s the most important thing and maybe my record. For the future I would like to maintain good health and be in contact with my parents. And having a family. What a boring life, I guess? [laughs] Kathrin: Why is that a boring life?
KASIA: I don’t know. Everybody would call it a boring life, I guess, but I just want a normal life. […]Someone said that only boring people get bored. I don’t know. I just really want a normal life with a family. And I would like to see my children grow but not necessarily here (Interview Kasia 2009: 110).
In this context Kasia readily admits that she has no ambitions to be ‘a director or anything’ in the family business she has with her husband Lucas and that ‘the most important thing for [her] is [her] relationship to work out’ (Interview Kasia 2009: 103).
Rather, she feels ‘pleased’ to be ‘just an employee’ because ‘the pressure is less’. However, in her current job, Kasia is ‘struggling a little bit but only because [she] would like to grow as well’ and ‘to do something [she] really likes [doing]’, hence her dreams of retraining as a paramedic in the future. She ‘thinks saving people’s lives is something that is…that gives you a kick every day’ (Interview Kasia 2009: 104). At the same time, this means that Kasia is conscious that motherhood and family is not considered an ‘exciting career’ among her peers.
Overall, the young women who were interviewed repeatedly expressed a common desire for independence and success, relying heavily on a pronounced sense of self- perfectibility and personal responsibility as strategies for personal and social achievement. Given the abolition of traditional social and political structures that largely constitute their post-modern realities, this route is commonly perceived as ‘most available and viable’ (Burns 2004: 129). According to the meritocratic discourse, if girls work hard enough, they can have anything they want in life. However, only a ‘small minority of women are structurally located in ways that make that kind of success possible’ (Harris 2004: 62); Ringrose (2007: 482) calls the discourse of feminine success ‘contradictory’, however - both wildly celebratory and deeply anxiety ridden’. Indeed, young women’s increasing accountability results in enormous pressure to perform and achieve, holding them to exaggerated standards of self-making and self-sufficiency. Laila confirms this requirement in the comment below and admits her inability to admit mistakes in a work context:
LAILA: […] Maybe I have to be less demanding with myself. Ok, if somebody tells you -ff, you have to say, “No, it’s not my fault .” Or maybe it is your fault and then you have to forgive yourself. Ok, I made a mistake. If not, you are the worst in the world? No! Everybody makes mistakes. Maybe that is my problem because in all of my jobs I always want to be perfect. And it’s not possible (Interview Laila 2009: 118).
Given these high expectations that girls face in an attempt to make a living and ‘be successful’ today, it is unsurprising that some of these middle-class Westerners look for a way out from the spiral of opportunity because they feel overwhelmed by the real workplace experience and have ‘complex and ambivalent relationships to the normative discourses and practices about their success and power’ (Harris 2004: 11).
3.2 Making the Right Choice: Young Women in the New Economy
Young women’s fortunes today are intricately interwoven with late modernity as they are perceived as the real beneficiaries of the new economy. The common interest in their representation as symbols of what it takes to prevail or lose out in these new times has made them subject to intense scrutiny (Harris 2004: 14). Arguably, in the light of female individualisation, young women are being celebrated as potential candidates for educational attainment, aspiration and job prospects whilst simultaneously fighting the gender-based barriers in their professional and personal lives. In the production of this new mode of femininity, girls must now set objectives, create a life-plan and, in this context, continuously adapt to socioeconomic and ideological shifts that characterise our risk society. Logically, the key element in this discourse is the ability to make choices. As McRobbie (2009: 19) points out:
Choice is surely, within lifestyle culture, a modality of constraint. The individual is compelled to be the kind of subject who can make the right choice. By these means new lines and demarcations are drawn between those subjects who are judged responsive to the regime of personal responsibility, and those who fail miserably (McRobbie 2009: 19).
In fact, taking responsibility for personal choices is regarded as the foundation of latemodern individualism and calls for young women to examine every aspect of their lives, from an active participation in consumerism and lifestyle to taking the initiative in education and career as well as relationships and marriage. It is commonly put to them that only ‘making the right choice’ will render them a profitable investment and, consequently, entitle them to professional success and prosperity.
Conversely, it can be assumed that the inability to make good choices will result in repercussions, such as a life in remorse and shame as a failure. Nonetheless, in a wider context, choice has become a key term of ideology in market-driven neoliberalism in which young females ‘matter to globalized capital as both a labour force and a market’ (Harris 2004: 37). Hence, as the presence of young women in public has become central to the construction of a new social and political order, the question is to what extent they actually become ‘choice biographers’ (Beck 2002) who can craft their identities rather than in adhere to a fixed set of predictable stages and precast experiences? Moreover, the notion of free choice versus having no choice seems to be a pertinent issue worth contemplating, particularly in the context of new femininities and contemporary power relations.
3.2.1 Get Everything You Want: Young Femininities and Consumerism
In late modernity the so-called ‘individualisation and monetarisation of everyday life’ (Harris 2004:163) has delivered a drastic change in the way citizenship is regarded as economic security and the capacity to participate in civic life; these two key elements of citizenship, are being eroded. It appears that where the citizen used to make choices, it is now the consumer who holds the power to change contemporary social life (Harris 2004:163). In this context, girls are hailed as exemplars of consumer citizens, given their newly acquired financial power and desire for self-perfectibility. Femininity has been traditionally been perceived as the ideal consumer since consumption is linked to ‘notions of desire, and especially wanting material goods and services that one does not need in a strictly material sense’ (Griffin 2004: 35).
Yet, taking it one step further, Griffin (2004: 34) claims that young women have played a major role in the development of consumer culture and the creation of new consumption segments following World War II and today constitute a significant consumer group in First World markets. In the sphere of consumer culture, where personal choice accounts for entertainment, hedonism and personal gratification, young women are being celebrated as ‘shopping citizens’ who can regularly count on their ‘I-am-a-princess- spending-power’ (McRobbie, 2009) as reliable instruments of self-definition and empowerment.
Indeed, some feminist scholars suggest that the increasing emphasis on consumption has led to the redefinition of girl’s social power in terms of their purchasing power. It is also argued that, in order to perform as ‘economically active female citizens’ (McRobbie 2009: 58), young women must fully immerse themselves in consumer culture whilst, as part of the ‘New Sexual Contract’, renounce any critique of patriarchy in exchange for the capacity to work and be sexually independent. Thus, where women were formerly excluded from full citizenship due to their denied access to the public sphere and economic dependence, they are now aligned with new constructions of participation, market choice and consumer citizenship.
With a focus on the dominant role of consumption in neoliberal societies, financially independent women are regarded as ‘confident, bold’ consumers who have ‘gained a reputation for being every advertiser’s dream’ (McRobbie 1991: 200). In this context, they are perceived as subjects of consumption who mirroring the ‘agentic individualism’ (McRobbie 2004) of new times. ECHO: Some people don’t have ipods, I am like, Ok I can ’ t not have an ipod [Laughs]. Are you crazy? [Laughs] I can ’ t not have like a whole cinema network, I can ’ t not have that. I mean, I got myself a laptop. I had to get myself a laptop. I’ve got a two grant computer but I still wanted a laptop. I got it. ‘Cause I wanted it. […] I love the good quality stuff. I like, I am…without a doubt, I am not saying that I buy everything nice. Like, not everything has to be expensive; some cheap stuff is really good, too. Don’t get me wrong, I just want to have the choice (Interview Echo 2009: 79).
Echo’s above comment reflects her determination as a consumer who knows exactly what she desires and how to get it. Interestingly, she seems to take the access she has to consumer commodities, like the laptop she refers to, for granted and is clearly pleased by the notion that is was her choice to buy it, rather than a simple necessity. The fact that she can apparently buy a new laptop despite already having a high-quality PC so effortlessly, creates the impression that the sense of empowerment such a purchase triggers effectively attributes value to her capacity for choice and self-invention. If so, her excitement around her ability to buy the laptop might be of greater relevance to her personal well-being than to physically owning the device.
Indeed, modern constructions of femininities around consumerism in which young women actively want things and pursue them is presented as a prominent display of their ability to make good consumer choices. Corporate communication recognises this as an effective marketing strategy that draws directly on empowerment and free choice rhetoric: ‘If you want to sell to the girl-power crowd, you have to pretend they are running things; that they are in charge’ (Munk in Taft 2004:74). Nevertheless, a strong emphasis on consumption and spending power obviously deems the financially liquid girls powerful, yet makes Girl Power unaffordable for those without access to popular commodities or services.
SPARROW HAWK: […] And I was thinking what I do is I save up because art books are expensive. And I remember there were a few times when I saved up £25, gone to Border ’ s and bought a book that was like £20. For me that was a huge thing and I would be reading the book cover to cover, reading it all the time. (Interview Sparrow Hawk, 2009: 128).
Sparrow Hawk’s comment refers to a situation in which her friend appeared unappreciative of the material assets, in this case the art books that were provided by his parents. She seems upset about his careless attitude regarding what, to her, are invaluable items; she has placed an emotional value on them knowing how long she would have to save to purchase just one book. Ultimately, this is an example of how a girl’s relation to consumption is shaped in ‘part by her financial circumstances and access to monetary means, but also by the availability, or lack, of subject positions in contemporary discourses around consumption that resonate with their everyday lives’ (Skeggs in Griffin 2004: 35). In Sparrow Hawks’ case, having ‘started working when [she] was twelve’ in her dad’s shop has taught her ‘to understand the worth of money’ (Interview Sparrow Hawk 2009: 124). However, Sparrow Hawk considers her attitude as rather alternative to common perspectives on consumerism as she notes, ‘I don’t know but I am probably slightly different since I have been at Art College for a year. So there no one is that conventional and I really like that’ (Interview Sparrow Hawk 2009: 124).
When asked about their desired lifestyles, both British and non-British research subjects unanimously prioritised educational investments before investments in consumer products, revealing that in order to be able to afford an affluent lifestyle on a long-term basis they would have to obtain the right degrees and qualifications first. Among middle- class girls, high rates of success in gaining relevant qualifications have become benchmarks of achievement (McRobbie 2009: 75) whereas decisions about luxurious consumer products are intentionally being deferred as they are not considered pertinent for the time being.
Kathrin: Talking about lifestyle, how important are material goods, like cars and flats or fashion, to you?
ÖZGE: I mean, ok, at the moment I am working and earning but it’s not to buy a car or a house. It’s only for my education because I will have to pay for my PhD soon. And that’s why I have to save some money now. That’s my priority. Actually, I am not a materialist at all.
1 For a detailed introduction to the interviewees’ life biographies and the full transcripts of all ten interviews, consult the appendix section. However, since anonymity for respondents is assumed to be an integral feature of ethical research, all participants who preferred to remain anonymous were allocated a pseudonym in any publication using extracts from their narratives.
2 In the interviews, italics are commonly being used when either discussing concepts or abstract ideas. Furthermore, they identify comments as interviewee’s inner monologues or contemplations.
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- Post-feminist Global Mobility Consumer Culture Educational Migration Choice Biography Meritocracy Women's Employment Conditions