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Home arrow Political science arrow Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism


As SAHMs, both Jools and Bridget perform similar aesthetic practices and ‘body projects’ (Tyler 2011) to those demanded from and exercised by their maternal and non-maternal counterparts within the labour market. Jools performs a successful and desirable maternal femininity, predicated on intensified aesthetic labour. Bridget performs a failed maternal subjectivity, continuously upholding Jools’ norm of perfection and striving to achieve it, thus, conforming to and defining the norm by failing (McRobbie 2009, 2015).

Yet their aesthetic maternal labour is simultaneously masked, obscured and marginalised. The intense labour Jools invests in creating and maintaining her attractive appearance is smoothed and hidden by her celebrity persona. Bridget’s aesthetic labour and continuous exercise of self-monitoring and self-policing is used primarily to create comic effect;

thus, even when it potentially exposes some of the painful and disturbing consequences of beauty and aesthetic practices, they are diffused and overridden by humour. The hiding of Jools’ and Bridget’s aesthetic labour supports their construction as dependent and domestic carers, rather than active aesthetic and maternal labourers. Thus, they demonstrate a new twist: not only must mothers look ‘hot’ (Littler 2013), they should keep and/or help keep invisible the price of living up to this demand by repudiating and plastering over aesthetic labour and its consequent injuries for confident selfhood (Gill and Orgad 2015).

Ultimately, then, the contemporary SAHM figure, embodied by Jools and Bridget, is doubly subjugated: her subjectivity is increasingly constituted through intensive (and oppressive) aesthetic labour, self-surveillance and beauty practices demanded by neoliberalism, while simultaneously constructed as dependent and relegated to the domestic sphere, outside the neoliberal market and its exclusive valuing of economic productivity.

The SAHM, by ‘self-choosing’ to ‘opt out’ of the labour market, has seemingly breached the ‘new sexual contract’, which demands women to be simultaneous economic labourers and carers (McRobbie 2009). She could, therefore, be a maternal figure that voices a critique of and resistance to the increasing capitalisation and commodification of neoliberal maternity. SAHM figures, like Jools and Bridget, could potentially muddy the myth of the perfect good-looking mother and expose the enormous price women are demanded to pay in trying to achieve this myth. However, as we have shown, rather than critiquing the neoliberal sexual contract, contemporary representations inscribe the SAHM into the realm of ‘the perfect’ (McRobbie 2015) through her individualised, autonomous, ‘free’ choosing to exercise aesthetic labour and body self-disciplining, and collude in its masking. In so doing, such media representations continue to play a fundamental role in the masking and marginalisation of maternal labour: domestic, childcare, emotional and now also the aesthetic.

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