Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism
Zero Books, 2011
Laurie Penny’s Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism is a stirring call to political action. It aggressively challenges the claim that gender equality has been achieved in late-capitalist society and that for women the fight is over. However, despite its vocal invitation to feminist political action, Meat Market fails adequately to consider barriers preventing women from challenging the status quo. This is because, although Penny claims that women internalise patriarchal discourses and sentiments—indeed, her analysis of women’s inequality and subordination depends on this postulation—she under-appreciates the impact this process has on them. Although Meat Market is incredibly moving, and an important contribution to raising awareness about women’s continued subordination and oppression, one is left wondering how effective Penny’s solution for their emancipation can be.
Holding that in order to understand women’s continued inequality and subordination one must appreciate wider socio-economic arrangements, Penny claims that contemporary capitalism depends upon women’s underpaid and unpaid labour, purchasing power, and reproductive capacity in order to generate wealth. Society’s economic success therefore requires that women do the worst jobs, are underpaid, and are engaged in a constant process of buying and shopping; in sum, that they are materially unequal and occupy subordinate positions of power in society. Penny argues that this subjection is secured through women’s internalisation of patriarchal ideas, particularly idealised and unrealistic understandings about femininity. The patriarchal worldview denies the reality of women’s minds and bodies, teaching them to “shrink [themselves], silence [themselves], be small, be sexy, be nice, and never bite off more than [they] can chew.” As she writes,
[late-capitalism] quite literally brands the bodies of women. It sears its seal painfully into our flesh, cauterising growth and sterilising dissent. Femininity itself has become a brand, a narrow and shrinking formula of commoditised identity which can be sold back to women who have become alienated from their own power as living, loving, labouring beings.
Internalising these ideas, women and their activities are thus shaped to make them behave in ways that complement the demands of capitalism.
For Penny, society is both obsessed with women’s sexuality and horrified by it. The eroticised images confronting us in the media teach that women should always be willing and ready to have sex; yet, at the same time, young women are admonished for being too sexual and sexualised. Thus, while women understand that, in order to get on in life, they must “sell” their sex and sexuality, trading it for success in their jobs and praise from their friends, they are also alienated from their own sexual being. Indeed, even when women are “getting it right” in terms of their sexuality and sexual behaviour, they know not to enjoy themselves too much, lest they be judged as “whores” and “whorish”. Furthermore, for Penny, women’s subordination in late-capitalist society is connected to a denial of their corporeality; eating disorders, often dismissed as women’s misguided efforts to emulate celebrities, are in fact attempts to embody the patriarchal ideal of the female form. An alarming number of young women in late-capitalist society therefore engage in self-starvation in order to make their bodies fit with expectations that demand they be ever smaller, thinner, and take up less space. Because women are taught to fear their sexuality and loathe their bodies, Penny argues that they are thus made “controllable” and willing to comply with the demands that society makes of them. Suffering from acute insecurity and striving to attain ideals of femininity that are unrealisable and disempowering, they are transformed into an underclass of labourers that own a fraction of society’s wealth but are engaged in a never ending process of consumption.
Contemporary pseudo-feminism is all about the power of yes. Yes, we want shoes, orgasms and menial office work. Yes, we want chocolate, snuggles and straight hair. Yes, we will do all the dirty little jobs nobody else wants to do, yes, we will mop and sweep and photocopy and do the shopping and plan the meals and organise the parties and wipe up all the shit and the dirt and grin and strip and perform and straighten out backs and smile and say yes, again, yes, we will do it all. Yes, we will buy, more than anything we will buy what you tell us we need to buy to be acceptable. Yes, the word of submission, the word of coercion and capitulation. Yes, we will fuck you in gorgeous lingerie and yes we will make you dinner afterwards. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!
Against liberal feminism, with this emphasis on women’s exercise of choice as the means of their empowerment, Penny instead locates the solution to women’s subordination in refusing to act in these ways, rejecting society’s demands, and saying “no”.
Yet, whilst her rhetoric is incredibly rousing, Penny is unclear on how to prevent women from thinking, feeling, and acting in ways that, she argues, make them complicit in their inequality. Even if one does accept Penny’s underdeveloped claim that women internalise patriarchal discourses and sentiments, the issue remains: how do you get to women to reject these discourses when they honestly believe that to be thin is to be beautiful and that baking cup-cakes makes them a loving wife? Increasing women’s consciousness about these issues, a project to which Penny surely sees her work as contributing, is only the first step in answering this question. The second, more important step consists in finding ways to help women reject the discourses and ideas that they take for granted and in highlighting alternative ways through which they can gain social respect and self-esteem. Failing to consider fully the extent of women’s internalisation of patriarchal discourses, Meat Market fails to address this difficult practical issue: how does one persuade women to reject the comfort of familiarity and engage in antagonistic political activity?
This difficulty aside, Meat Market is a valuable contribution to understanding women’s inequality and a challenge to it. It is a welcome change to the claims that, because women are equal before the law, the fight for their emancipation is over, and it forces a consideration of how some of the ideas and understandings we take for granted are not as innocent as commonly thought.
Zo√´ May Sullivan is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Somerville College, Oxford.