Home Political science Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism
Beauty as Aspirational Labour Power
Women’s aesthetic labour, self- or other-directed, is commonly perceived long-term processes of socialising others by instilling durable aesthetic dispositions and embodied cultural capital. As such, it is deemed reproductive, affective and communicative rather than productive, economic and instrumental (Rioux 2015). However, recent theorisations have challenged the notion that ‘gender capital’ necessarily affixes women to the reproduction sphere. Rather, some emotional, communicative and aesthetic skills, traditionally associated with the social roles of women in the reproductive sphere, have become desirable in the productive sphere as well (Adkins 2005). This chapter addresses women’s self-aestheticisation and perceives it as signalling an entrepreneurial self-identity. Especially, I refer to those aesthetic skills such as self-styling and branding that, furthermore, manifest an aspirational entrepreneurial subjectivity geared towards an unpredictable future.
My point of departure is that while the bodies, demeanour and appearance of young women and girls have always been a ‘social problem’, they are increasingly considered the model aspirational, self-branding middle- class subjects of neoliberal capitalism (Banet-Weiser 2012, p. 56; Gonick 2006; Hey 2009; Landen 2012). Sociological works on the neoliberal subjectification of young women focus on consumption practices and on gender ideologies proffered by the beauty, fashion, glamour and media industries. Another major strand of research focuses on the aesthetic labour now demanded in the production sphere, particularly in the cultural and interactive service sectors (Entwistle and Wissinger 2006; Haynes 2012; Mears 2014; Pettinger 2008; Warhurst and Nickson 2007). In explicating beauty and appearance as a labour power commodity, this chapter is informed by a growing body of work on gendered social media entrepreneurship (‘instafamous’ beauty/fashion vloggers, etc.) that is premised on ‘contemporary logics of individual self-branding, consumer empowerment, and worker autonomy’ (Duffy 2015b, p. 711). Similarly, I see neoliberal subjects not just as consumers, but, primarily as the producers of their self-brands (Feher 2009). In the neoliberal attention economy beauty is a central branding resource that has exchange value in employment at large and not just in those sectors that directly commodify workers’ good looks and presentability.
In order to theorise beauty as an essentially neoliberal labour power I use insights from both social reproduction theorists (SRTs) such as Bakker (2003) or Ferguson (2008) and immaterial labour theorists. SRTs have noted how social identities, such as gender or sexuality that are forged outside the sphere of production, become productive labour power through the social marking of bodies. According to this perspective, collective identities are inscribed onto specific bodies. The body thus becomes valuable (or not) ‘according to whether it expresses its capacity to generate a surplus in production or the reality of its differentiated valuation’ in culture and society at large (Rioux 2015, p. 200). The economic value of labour power is already historically determined as collective social identities but experienced as a subjective, personal and embodied set of differences. SRTs aim to explain the continuous material and social marginality of women and their bodies. Yet, and more relevant to my argument, in proposing that the marginality of collective identities is always inscribed on particular bodies SRTs also acknowledges that singularities of ‘embodied subjectivities’ (Sekimoto 2012) are part of capitalist production.
Other theorists have recently noted that non-marginal, individualised bodies and subjectivities are being exploited, too. This, however, takes the shape of voluntary practices of self-inscription and self-branding. According to Teresa L. Ebert, a prevalent contemporary belief is that ‘the only way out of capitalism is the way back into it, namely, setting up your own ‘free’ enterprise’ (Ebert 2009, p. 5). Ebert further argues that ‘delectable materialism’—everyday experiences that generate inner feelings of choice, pleasure, entrepreneurialism, critique, transgression and freedom—becomes part of capitalist production (Ebert 2009, pp. 46-47). Individualised non-work practices of ‘delectable materialism’ such as shopping, sports, going to therapy or having sex, all contribute to performing a singular, ‘embodied subjectivity’ (Sekimoto 2012).
The immaterial labour scholarship provides structural explanations for this shift, whereby middle class embodied subjectivities are put to work. It is argued that in the last 25 years sociality ‘has become interiorised into the logic of economy to a historically unprecedented extent’ (Konings 2015, p. 13), making affects, communicative and aesthetic skills a dominant part of working life (Adkins 2005; Lazzarato 2004; Morini and Fumagalli 2010; Virtanen 2004). In this view, we are witness to a simultaneous increase in the exploitation of labour power and the social power of labour. Under these circumstances, capitalism tends to take ‘back into value relations what had been ‘outside of capitalism’ (Kennedy 2010, p. 829). Employment ‘hinges on a more intensive utilisation of labour power’ including ‘workers’ tacit knowledge and skills... as well as mobilising new sources of emotional and aesthetic labour’ (Thompson 2010, p. 10). Indeed, ‘compared to ‘old work’, where personality was a handicap, which the division of work and organisations tries to demolish, today’s work is rather a subjective attitude, the workers’ skills are indistinguishable from his or her personality and habits, aptitudes and experiences’ (Virtanen 2004, p. 225). It is also not separated from how they look. Thus, workers’ singularity—their self-identities, embodied cultural capital and appearances have all become prerequisites for being hired and for doing your job. Workers must use their (supposedly) non-work time and activities to cultivating, designing and performing an embodied subjectivity that is entirely adapted to the employment imperative, and, furthermore, must ‘always be on’ (Entwistle and Wissinger 2006, p. 788). This requires workers to not only have experiences and develop distinct self-identities around them but also to employ new sets of skills for styling and externalising these singular, embodied subjectivities.
However, because the immaterial scholarship sustains a theoretical, macro perspective, it eludes the intricate ways middle-class subjects turn their embodied subjectivities and singularities into labour power. The following analysis of beauty in popular culture aims to illuminate the ways embodied subjectivities are simultaneously selved and branded, being at once the whole person and its potential labour power. This matrix shall be addressed by focusing on the temporal dimensions or logics within which these beautiful Israeli Girls are situated. Temporality is ‘the experience of being in time’ and it is inseparable from subjectivity and embodiment (Sekimoto 2012, p. 237). The following analysis shows that beauty simultaneously retains two temporal logics: that of an accomplished and responsible ‘being’ and of an experiencing and aspirational ‘becoming’ that reflexively adapts to the unpredictable futures of neoliberalism.
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