Post by Elizabeth Nathanson, Muhlenberg College
If one only listened to such early twenty-first century public figures as Carly Fiorina or Sheryl Sandberg, one would believe that the troubles working women face are troubles they alone should solve. The seductive rhetoric of postfeminism rears its head in the language of “lean-in” and in Fiorina’s proclamation that “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses.” Presumably, the work of femininity is unfettered and the woman who struggles in her labors has clearly made poor decisions. However, American neoliberal promises of free choice ring false in the face of such discriminatory practices as unequal pay for equal work and grossly inadequate maternity leave policies.
If the world of politics and big business all too often offers the illusory promises of free choice and the hegemonic fantasy of “having it all,” so too do popular culture depictions of cupcakes, Kim Kardashian, and Pinterest. But, these media texts also reveal the desire for work that does something more for the women who perform it. The authors of the third section, titled “Labors” in Elana Levine’s new anthology Cupcakes, Pinterest and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, address the pleasures and pitfalls of popular renderings of feminized work. From new media to chick lit, reality television to cupcake culture, the essays in “Labors” explore how diverse popular cultural forms construct feminized labor. Taken together this collection of essays paints a picture of femininity as always laboring, working hard in public and private spheres, while also striving for creativity, community, and sisterhood.
The authors in “Labors” refuse to blame women for having chosen wrongly in the work they perform, but rather highlight how feminized labor is haunted by the threat of failure. As Julie Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim succinctly put it: “neoliberalism has rendered all of life precarious.” Popular depictions of feminized labor are faced with such conditions as the global financial crisis, rising economic inequalities, and jobs defined by contingency and flexibility. According to Suzanne Ferris, chick-lit heroines embody the anxieties prompted by such conditions of precarity; their dead-end jobs limit their well-educated potential. Furthermore, the conditions of the postfeminist sensibility hold women to unattainable standards, expecting them to seamlessly manage home, self, and work, all while being punished for their own ambition. Reality television celebrities Kim Kardashian and Bethenny Frankel strive to achieve all the markers of the feminine lifecycle while also becoming successful career women; but as authors Alice Leppert, Suzanne Leonard and Diane Negra demonstrate, the joys these celebrities take in their professional successes are routinely mitigated by the pain of failed romances.
The women discussed in “Labors” struggle to do work that is often performed at the messy, blurred line between public and private worlds. Many popular renderings of feminized labor capitalize upon notions of entrepreneurialism in which the private self is monetized and branded in the interests of professional “success.” Kim Kardashian and Bethenny Frankel’s intimate lives are commodified on their reality television programs and in the marketing of their affiliated products. As Leonard and Negra argue: “Frankel both created and was the ‘Skinnygirl,’ a feedback loop that masterfully associated her brand identity with the affective qualities and class positioning that came to be associated with her as a person.” Combinations of self and product reward the ambitious, self-sufficient laborer who satisfies the requisites of neoliberal individuality. Such entrepreneurialism structures many of the depictions of feminized work by highlighting how success depends upon flexibility and creativity, but only when such flexibility and creativity is performed within strict parameters. On programs like Cupcake Wars I explore how contestants are encouraged to bake cupcakes with high degrees of individual ingenuity, thus presenting their cupcakes as an extension of themselves. But, contestants’ culinary artistry is sharply critiqued by a panel of judges who establish the limits of confectionary (and by extension feminine) acceptability.
These authors show how work that conflates the market with the self promises both economic and affective rewards. Sarah Ahmed’s theory of happiness informs a number of the authors’ discussion of the affective power of such feminized labor. As Wilson and Yochim explain, in the “mamasphere” of Pinterest, the act of pinning operates as digital care work that upholds the family as a “happy object.” On 2 Broke Girls, cupcake baking promises to grant heroines Max and Caroline happiness by releasing them from the drudgery of working as waitresses in a Brooklyn diner. As “happy objects,” cupcakes activate affective structures that maintain relations of power. Cupcakes promise to make Max and Caroline happy by offering them liberation from the diner, where the work environment is marked by racial diversity. Their professional aspirations thus ultimately affirm the ideal of the white, upwardly mobile, heteronormative feminized subject.
The entrepreneurialism explored in these chapters appears to be an efficient solution to the inevitable stresses resulting from the demands of the postfeminist “work-life balance.” Family businesses abound: sisters create their own cupcake business on DC Cupcakes and the Kardashians monetize their family across multimedia ventures. And yet, here we find room for optimism. For while many of the authors argue that this work upholds existing inequalities, mediated renderings of feminized work may also offer a critique of the alienation resulting from the demands of neoliberal individuality. Numerous authors argue that the pleasures offered by such depictions of feminized labor speak to the desire for interpersonal connections and community. We see this in the pinning care work of Pinterest, and in the friendship between Girls characters Hannah and Marnie who gossip while eating cupcakes in the bathtub. As Alice Leppert argues, the sister-branding and sister-entrepreneurship exhibited by Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian “suggests that young women do value and desire bonds with each other.” Such examples reveal how intimate and sometimes surprising connections between women offer the working heroines of popular culture, and the audiences who take pleasure in them, relief from the relentless labor required to be successful or happy.