Book Review: The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age by Alison Phipps

Phipps, A. 2014. The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Cambridge: Polity Press. 207 pp $22.99

Pic3Two anecdotes in the opening pages of Alison Phipps’s The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age set the scene for what is a thorough, if at times frustrating, investigation into the ‘difficulties of positioning for contemporary feminist theory and activism’ (2). The first pertains to Phipps’s recollection of a male member of her ‘left-leaning crowd’ (1) advising her that ‘giving birth should come naturally to women…it was something we had all been designed to do’ (1). The second relates to a class discussion in which a European student, interrupting her Iranian classmate’s criticism of the veil, argued for the ‘empowerment she felt could be granted and expressed through the choice to cover’ (2). For Phipps these role reversals – a notional leftie espousing the biological ‘facts’ of womanhood, and a European critiquing an Iranian woman’s hostility to the chador – are indicative of how neoliberal and neoconservative discourses surrounding women’s bodies now severely compromise the possibility for a unified feminist politics.

An important rejoinder here, of course, is that feminism has never enjoyed the totalizing applicability that complaints about its current incoherence suggest has been lost. As Judith Butler noted a quarter of a century ago, insistence on the ‘unity of the category of women (…) effectively refuse[s] the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of “women” are constructed’ (1990, 19). For Phipps the task is to maintain an ‘intersectionality principle’ (138), but also to understand it ‘as a structural, as well as an experiential and performative, dynamic’ (138). Indeed, the idea that feminism today requires a more rigorous engagement with political economy runs throughout Phipps’s case studies, which offer symptomatic readings of debates over women’s bodies in order to expose ‘taken-for-granted meanings’ and ‘underlying assumptions’ (4). If this genealogical approach sounds a little tried-and-tested (and Phipps admits that ‘many of the issues covered in this book are over-researched and debated’ (4)), she still manages to offer illuminating insights into the contemporary dilemmas facing progressive sexual politics.

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24:  Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California.  (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

INGLEWOOD, CA – AUGUST 24: Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

Chapter one frames such dilemmas within the ‘dominant contemporary economic and political rationalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism’ (7). For Phipps the ‘unholy alliance’ (8) of these rationalities in the U.S. and Europe is so pervasive that their ‘hegemony sometimes suggest[s] that one cannot reject one element without embracing another’ (12). So, for instance, the radical feminist engagement with neoconservative objections to the sex industry has led, at times, to sex-positive feminists defending the same industry through a neoliberal lexicon of individual freedom and choice (12). Sexual consumerism is in fact the topic of one of Phipps’s four case studies, the other three considering victim politics, gender and Islam, and articulations of ‘natural’ birth and childrearing. In each of these studies Phipps draws upon a diverse array of primary and academic sources to navigate the tangled webs of neoliberal and neoconservative conjuncture that, as she boldly puts it, mean that feminism has never ‘operated in a more difficult political and cultural milieu’ (3).

Boston SlutWalk 2011 Photograph: JOSH REYNOLDS

Boston SlutWalk 2011 Photograph: JOSH REYNOLDS

Phipps’s ‘political sociology of the body’ (7) is at its strongest when, ‘starting from particular case studies and progressively taking a wider and wider lens’ (4), she shows how specific contradictions begin to make sense when set in a wider context of neoliberal and neoconservative consensus. She notes, for instance, the incongruence of feminist Naomi Wolf defending accused sex offender Julian Assange because ‘sex with a sleeping partner was not rape’ (29), and that ‘an incident in which a woman did not fight back against her assailant did not merit this definition’ (29-30). For Phipps this is emblematic not only of a tendency on the Left to forgo women’s rights in the name of ‘more important’ issues – Assange’s supporters also ‘included…Women Against Rape’ (27) – but of how a neoliberal ethos of individual responsibility has allowed rape myths to emerge in the unlikeliest of places. Phipps exhibits similar verve in unpicking how ‘breast is best’ arguments support a neoconservative focus on women’s ‘innate’ maternal capabilities. On an example by example basis, then, The Politics of the Body is illuminating, Phipps convincingly arguing that a ‘neoliberal/neoconservative political coalition’ (137) now sets the grounds for progressive sexual politics.

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There are problems, however, with Phipps’s fairly loose deployment of her study’s overarching key terms. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism – not to mention Left and Right – are by no means the homogenous discourses that Phipps at times suggest they are. She is attentive to this blind spot, confessing that ‘I have used the terminology “Left” and “Right” to facilitate description’ (136) with an awareness of ‘these terms [being] problematic’ (137); ‘of course, some generalizations can and should be made’ (136). Phipps’s desire to maintain an intersectional focus frays here under her attachment to ‘strong structural critique’ (18). Her oblique hostility to the relativistic dangers of ‘the politics of recognition’ (126) is evident too in the short shrift she gives to postmodern theories of subjectivity – a two paragraph section of her introduction that quickly asserts that said theories carry a ‘problematic (…) emphasis on difference’ (14). There is no doubt that an effective feminist movement must engage with ‘broader political structures’ (135), but in her readiness to see issues of identity as always and already tainted by neoliberal individualisation, Phipps risks implying that such issues are superfluous cultural additions to the ‘real’ concerns of political economy.

By the end of her study, Phipps notes that ‘in terms of ways forward, I am afraid I do not have a clear programme’ (137). Given the complex and fraught discursive fields she has explored, this is understandable. Nonetheless, The Politics of the Body is far from defeatist. We can fault Phipps’s tendency to simplify abstract concepts, but the rigor of her analyses offers an excellent starting point for theorizing feminism in a time when neoliberal and neoconservative ideas define the horizons of political intelligibility.

References

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Oxon: Routledge.

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About Edward Jackson

Edward Jackson holds a PhD in English from the University of Birmingham. He is the author of David Foster Wallace’s Toxic Sexuality: Hideousness, Neoliberalism, Spermatics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
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