One Dimensional Woman

November 9, 2010 § 11 Comments

My review of Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman appeared in last weekend’s The Sunday Star. It’s an important, intelligently-argued book, and I highly recommend that the world reads it. Yes, the world. I’ve reproduced it in full here:

For all of us who happily imagine contemporary feminism to be a uniform and linear yellow brick road that delivers us right into the heart of the Emerald City of equality, there’s no one better than Nina Power to take a sledgehammer to that useless utopian dream. With One-Dimensional Woman, Power, a British philosophy professor at Roehampton University, has set out to untangle and reveal the underlying irrationality and contradictions of much of modern-day feminism – wedded as it is to the ugly and false emancipatory “ideals” of capitalism. The title of Power’s book comes from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a treatise published in 1964 that offered a critique of the false needs created by modern industrialist society – the idea that people were “free” in their choices when they were actually deeply bound to an insidiously rigid system of production and consumption.

One-Dimensional Woman is a slim book that packs a wallop; it is both angry and hopeful in that it charts out a problem – “What looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” – and sets out to imagine ways in which work, culture, and gender issues can be radically transformed. Power beams a laser-sharp clarity on topics as diverse and intricately-linked as burqa-banning and Sarah Palin to current labour and economic conditions and pornography to show readers how the commodification of both subjective autonomy and freedom of choice have lead us round and round in a self-defeating loop where feminism is concerned. It attempts to show how people who could care less about the increase in crime rates against women or domestic abuse will suddenly come out of the woodwork to defend a woman’s right to enter a beauty pageant or become a porn star, or lament on how Wonder Woman’s costume transformation from underwear to leggings is an affront to ideal womanhood.

Power describes the subtle yet potent dangers of feminism being co-opted for political, economic, or social purposes that serve to only defend the status quo and further entrench policies of inequality and imperialism. As she puts it, feminism is now used for everything besides the actual fight for equality. In the example of the burqa-banning hysteria that has besieged large parts of Europe, Power adopts a different spin from typical secular proselytizing to explain how conservative zealots and pro-imperialist “feminists” have stepped up to the plate to defend a Muslim woman’s right to wear less clothes, but not to wear what she pleases.

In the market-logic of capitalism, it’s required of women to bare more, reveal more, share everything. Quoting French philosopher Alain Badiou, she writes: “It is used to be taken for granted that an intangible female right is only to have to get undressed in front of the person of her choosing. But no. It is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant. Let’s argue the following, then, a pretty strange point: the law on the hijab is pure capitalist law. It orders femininity to be exposed.”

So while contemporary urban feminists hoot and holler about being able to wear less clothes and trot about in heels because it’s their “choice” to do so, Power brings up the uncomfortable notion of how much of a choice is really a choice if it’s the only option available? The moment a woman opts out of the “game” – and chooses to cover-up and not wear make-up, for instance, certain doors start closing in her face – doors that would have opened to jobs, financial success, relationships. Power basically asks: Is this what true emancipation feels like?

To be sure, Power notes that capitalism’s stringent demands are not limited to only women. In her chapters on the “feminisation of labour”, however, she clearly and intelligently maps out how the market has allowed people to think that women have “made it” when all it has done is only alter the landscape and terrain of jobs and careers. She calls it the feminisation of labour because the labour market is now represented by what is traditionally conceived as feminine traits – the ability to acquiesce and be accommodating – rendering each person a walking advertisement for his or herself. You have to be always “on”; become always ready to sell yourself, lay yourself bare, be willing to give just a little bit more, in order to keep your job or get one in the first place. The reality of the current job market – with its precariousness and instability – has always been the case for jobs held by women in the workplace. Now, it’s across the board. Is it any coincidence that more women are touted as “doing well” in the current job market than ever before at the precise moment when the job market, and the economy at large, is in shambles?

Power is merciless on her attacks on consumer-feminism, which is how it should be. But there’s no need to be alarmed; reading One-Dimensional Woman won’t transform you in a radical Leftist or property-relinquishing, ration-card-carrying communist – unless you want to. But not being able to critique the forward-moving momentum of capitalism is akin to standing by and watching as it subsumes everything meaningful into its machine, spitting out only the detritus. As Marcuse wrote more than 30 years ago, “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority.”

The book does have its weak point: Power’s thoughts on Shulamith Firestone’s radical reimagining of the family in The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, would have been better served with some acknowledgement of Firestone’s problematic conception of race. But Power’s clear-headed critique of feminism and gender relations in relation to economics and politics is bracing and much-needed. It’s a book that attempts to widen the discourse on feminism beyond “I am so happy to be living in a time when I am free to wear to work and drive a car and wear high heels.” And we’ll all do so much better if we can heed its heartfelt call for more, not less, serious thought and critique on contemporary capitalism, economics, politics, and gender relations.

(This is cross-posted at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.)



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§ 11 Responses to One Dimensional Woman

  • […] (This is cross-posted at The Blog of Disquiet.) […]

  • cycads says:

    Great review. For a slim tome, it does appear to attempt to cover quite a fair bit on current consumer feminism. Though I wonder to whom and about whom is Power actually addressing her concerns. It might seem that this is just another Western feminist polemic, but I wonder how much this relates to feminists say in Malaysia? No doubt, with globalisation of “culture” creeping into the crevices of non-Western societies, there is no way we can entirely ignore the impact of “free” choice, empowerment and heels feminism on our shores. Or can we?

    • Subashini says:

      Alicia, thanks for the comment. I enjoy reading your blog, although it does seem that the cycads url is no longer valid?

      I don’t think this book necessarily speaks to every woman in the same way – even within “the West”. But I do think Power’s critique of consumer feminism is valuable because this is the particular brand of choice/consumer feminism that’s being propagated from the developed countries to the “developing” or “undeveloped” countries, through the media and popular culture, as well as through intervention efforts via developmental work. I think Power does a singularly important job of showing how capitalism tends to flatten out crucial historical, cultural, and political contexts within specific societies and countries. For that reason, it’s a useful book for Malaysian women (and for Malaysian feminism, in general) in understanding how capitalism can often elide actual feminist concerns and issues precisely even when it frames and presents itself as a form of showy consumer feminism. And not just in terms of Western feminism vis-a-vis Malaysian feminism, but within the various strains of feminism in Malaysia itself.

      • cycads says:

        The cycads url is gone. Deleted.

        Perhaps I’m not in the right kind of circles in Malaysia, but as far as I know there aren’t that many Malaysians claiming to be feminists, so I still find it quite hard to assess the different kinds of feminisms present locally particularly when it’s feminist who are outside NGO/developmental work.

        Anyway, my thoughts do not in any way invalidate your point about the impact consumer/market feminism has on Malaysian women and men. I was just thinking aloud….

      • Subashini says:

        Well, count me in as being outside all of the right circles, as well. 🙂

        I do also wonder about the term “feminist” – the problematic relations non-Western (or even non-white) women might have with the term and what exactly it represents. (I haven’t figured that one out for myself yet.) Especially in relation to the survey results you posted on your blog. I should head over there and leave some comments. It was a bit of a depressing eye-opener, yet in some ways not so eye-opening at all.

  • […] Posted by Cengiz Erdem on November 9, 2010 · Leave a Comment  My review of Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman appeared in last weekend's The Sunday Star. It's an important, intelligently-argued book, and I highly recommend that the world reads it. Yes, the world. I've reproduced it in full here: For all of us who happily imagine contemporary feminism to be a uniform and linear yellow brick road that delivers us right into the heart of the Emerald City of equality, there’s no one better than Nina Power to ta … Read More […]

  • cycads says:


    (I’ve *just* realised what you were alluding to when you mentioned about my now-defunct cycads url. I hope my name links to my new blog now)

    Yep. I know about all the niggles with the term ‘feminist’ and that THE movement* was quite exclusive to a particular ethnic and class group. But I don’t think that we as Malaysians were ever part of that conversation. We were in a way carving out of our own political identity based on Western feminist principles but applied them to our own experiences. Abstract principles, like religion for example, when turned into experiences should not be invalid.

    • Subashini says:

      Yes, I do absolutely agree. Admittedly my knowledge of the history of women’s movements in Malaysia is very limited; I recently bought ‘Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia’ anthology published by Routledge in the hopes of it presenting some sort of a starting point for further reading.

      And yes – it links to your blog’s new url now. 🙂

  • […] Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, for example, examines this form of feminism via capitalism and the language of globalisation as […]

  • […] Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, for example, examines this form of feminism via capitalism and the language of globalisation as […]

  • […] Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, for example, examines this form of feminism via capitalism and the language of globalisation as […]

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