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Neoliberalism and the Feminine Subject*

Foucault’s radical intervention in feminist theory, and more generally in the philosophy of the body, has been the crucial claim that any analysis of embodiment must recognise: how power relations are constitutive of the embodied subjects involved in them. His studies of disciplinary technologies, for example, show how individuals are constructed through mundane, everyday habits and techniques as certain kinds of subjects. Similarly, feminist appropriations of Foucault’s thought have demonstrated how feminine subjects are constructed through patriarchal, disciplinary practices. In the first section of this paper, I will illustrate this process by discussing Sandra Bartky’s influential account of how the docile feminine body is constructed through disciplinary practices of beauty.

This first section only forms a background for the main argument of this paper: in the last decades new and fundamentally different mechanisms and rationalities of power have come to shape our bodies and technologies of gender. I will appropriate Foucault’s idea of governmentality, and particularly of neoliberal governmentality, as an alternative framework to discipline for studying the construction of the feminine body. It is my contention that analysing the neoliberal governmentality dominant in our society provides us with a more comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding the construction of the feminine body in its current form.


Sandra Bartky’s seminal and much anthologized 1988 article ‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ was one of the first appropriations of Foucault’s idea of disciplinary power to explicitly address feminist issues.[1] It gives a compelling account of the way in which a docile feminine subject is constructed through the disciplining of the female body. The key claim that Bartky adopts from Foucault is that an adequate understanding of women’s oppression requires an appreciation of the extent to which not only women’s social roles, but their bodies are constructed through an ensemble of disciplinary habits.

In Discipline and Punish Foucault argues that discipline was a historically specific technology of power that emerged in the 17th century and operated through the body. In disciplinary practices, habits and patterns of behaviour are broken down and constructed in new ways that are more productive for the aims of modern industrial societies. Discipline consists of various techniques, which aim at making the body both docile and useful. The human body becomes a machine, the functioning of which can be optimised, calculated and improved through the internalisation of specific patterns of behaviour.[2]

Bartky acknowledges the strengths of Foucault’s analysis, but contends that he is blind to those disciplines that produce a modality of subjection that is particularly feminine. She analyses habits such as dieting and fitness regimes as disciplinary practices imposed on women that aim at producing an ideal feminine body. These disciplinary practices of femininity aim at an exhaustive and perpetual regulation of the body’s size and contours, its appetite, posture, gestures and comportment, as well as the appearance of each of its visible parts. Expert discourses on how to walk, talk, style one’s hair, care for one’s skin and wear make-up create habits conducive to the requirements of submissive femininity: feminine movement as well as feminine faces are trained to the expression of deference. According to Bartky, the rationality of this disciplinary apparatus is clear: it aims at turning women into “the docile and compliant companions of men just as surely as the army aims to turn its raw recruits into soldiers.”[3]

I want to suggest that Bartky’s powerful analysis needs updating in light of the fundamental changes in the ways the feminine subject is constructed, which have taken place in the time since her article was published in 1988. Crucially, these intervening years mark the period in which the neoliberal hegemony became firmly established in both the USA and Europe. It is my contention that if we accept Foucault’s key claim about the ineliminable tie between forms of power and forms of the subject, this shift in techniques of government would have necessitated a shift in the corresponding construction of the subject.


Foucault’s lectures on “The Birth of Biopolitics,” delivered at the Collège de France in 1979, focus on the birth of liberal and neoliberal governmentality, forms of political rationality concerned with the government of the modern state.[4] What is distinctive about Foucault’s treatment of neoliberalism in these lectures is that he does not analyse it primarily as an economic theory, but as a governmental practice that is constitutive of a particular type of subject as its necessary correlate: it produces an economic subject structured by different tendencies, preferences and motivations than the political or legal citizen of a disciplinary society or a society of sovereignty. The neoliberal subject is understood as an atomic individual whose natural self-interest and tendency to compete for economic rewards must be fostered and enhanced.[5]

Foucault makes it clear that the shift from discipline to governmentality as the dominant technology of power in the 18th century was not a substitution, but an extension. Hence, it did not result in a complete nullification of the technologies aiming to influence individual behaviour, such as disciplinary techniques. But it meant that a level of behaviour could be identified as economic behaviour, and controlled as such. Subjects were understood to be responsive not only to social sanctions and rewards, but also, and primarily, to economic gains and losses. The habits installed in the subject no longer aimed to turn him or her primarily into a docile and efficient machine; they aimed to construct him or her as a consumer and an entrepreneur.

This means that the economic subject is someone manageable, but through different mechanisms than the docile subject of the disciplinary society: he or she is someone who will always pursue his or her own interests and who is – not in spite of this, but precisely because of it — eminently governable. He or she will respond systematically and in a predictable way to strategic modifications artificially introduced into the environment in the form of economic incentives.

Given that neoliberal governmentality has become so dominant and pervasive in contemporary society in the last decades, I will next ask what its consequences are for the construction of the feminine subject. Can this model of exercising power contribute to our understanding of the feminine subject? If a docile feminine body is the correlate of disciplinary practices, what kind of feminine body is the correlate of neoliberal practices of governing?


It seems incontestable that the normative practices of feminine beauty that Bartky describes have dramatically increased in both volume and variety since 1988. The cosmetics industry has reported huge increases in profits globally and many multinational cosmetics companies have expanded to new territories such as China. Technical innovations in cosmetic surgery as well as in anti-aging techniques such as botox have become widely available and form part of many women’s normal beauty routine. Both the very young and the very old are also included now in the target group for cosmetics as well as other normative techniques of shaping the feminine body such as dieting, exercising and hair removal. There seem to be no signs suggesting that the disciplinary techniques that Bartky so aptly describes and catalogues have in any way waned or even come under heightened critique in contemporary society.

I want to suggest that there have been changes in the rationality underpinning these techniques, however, which have emerged in tandem with the rise of the neoliberal, economic subject. In neoliberal governmentality, with its excessive emphasis on the economic, women have now seemingly become liberal subjects in the full sense of the term: they are not only individual subjects of political rights, but also egotistical subjects of interest. In other words, they not only have the rights guaranteed by political liberalism; they are now also the subjects presumed by economic liberalism — individuals pursuing their own interests and responding primarily to economic gains and losses. It has now become conceivable that a woman’s interest might not coincide with her husband’s and children’s interests anymore: women too are increasingly understood as atomic, autonomous subjects of interest competing freely for the economic opportunities available.

This implies that women are now also governed and subjected through new mechanisms, namely through the harnessing of their economic interests. It is significant that normative femininity has become firmly attached to economic gains in a new way. Women are increasingly rationalising their participation in the normative habits of femininity in terms of their own economic interests, not in terms of men’s interests: women no longer have long, manicured nails because their male partners find this sexually attractive and arousing, for example, but because manicured nails have now become a sign of professional and financial success, a sign that is likely to help them move forward in their career. Similarly, in interviews with cosmetic surgery patients, one of the main arguments women state for undergoing the operations is the fact that it can be a career move.[6] Feminine appearance has come to be seen as an important instrument by which women can increase their human capital. The neoliberal subject views feminine appearance as well as her own body increasingly as an investment for getting the returns she wants. This means that the practices of normative femininity are no longer upheld only through the subtle mechanisms of discipline described by Bartky — a system of social sanctions and rewards such as shame and sexual admiration. It is upheld now through a rationality based on financial loss and gain.

Whereas Bartky noted that successful provision of a beautiful or sexy body gained women attention and admiration but did not result in any real social power, the situation has, on the surface level, changed considerably. The link between idealised femininity and economic success has become tight and pronounced. The most successful performances of feminine appearance in our society no longer symbolise subservience — waitresses, flight attendants or secretaries. They are these days accomplished by women who have power and money: female executives and politicians. We live in a world in which appearances are more important than ever and the modern female consumer is well aware of this.


We must not be fooled into thinking that this means that the cultural meaning of femininity and its profound tie to subservience, selflessness and dependency has fundamentally dissolved, however. Nor is it the case that the structural dependence of liberalism on its “others” — beings who belong to the realm of familial selflessness and dependency making the autonomy and selfishness of others possible — would have disappeared. As long as our life form is fundamentally centred on families and on a gendered division of the sensibilities and activities of the subjects, the neoliberal, purely self-interested feminine subject would signal the collapse of our social order, a collapse that is in no way evident. While the defenders of family values loudly proclaim such collapse, we have to acknowledge that normative, subservient femininity still continues to largely provide the necessary support for the neoliberal political and economic order. Only the irreconcilable dualisms that constitute political liberalism — individual/family, autonomy/dependency, self-interest/selflessness — do not cut neatly between the two genders any more, but have now come to characterise increasingly the psychic life of working women torn between conflicting demands of femininity, as well as the divisions between different groups of women. The self-interest of particular women can be bought with the subordination and exploitation of others: the successful career woman can buy childcare and household help provided by other women.[7]

It is nevertheless significant to see that neoliberal governmentality operates with a different logic of gender subjection. Rather than disciplining the feminine subjects through the normalising habits connected to shame, social sanctions and sexual rewards, it installs the habits constitutive of normative femininity increasingly through their economic rationality. The focus is on the environmental variables that determine and constrict women’s behaviour as consumers and entrepreneurs of themselves. We must recognise that the personal freedom and choice that neoliberal governmentality entails is an integral aspect of this technique of power. The idea of personal choice effectively masks the systemic aspects of power — domination, social hierarchies, economic exploitation — by relegating to subjects the freedom to choose between different options whilst denying them any real possibility for defining or shaping those options.

This excessive focus on free choice has been perhaps the most insidious aspect of neoliberal governmentality for the subject of feminism. The measure of women’s liberation has become the individual choices we are able to make: to become executives or prostitutes, to have white weddings or to buy pornography. Power is increasingly understood as simply another thing that women can choose. Within this framework, the fact that many women choose to stay at home or opt out of more demanding and higher-paying employment opportunities is understood straightforwardly as their own free choice. The impediments to their social and political success are personal or psychological rather than political. Because the neoliberal subject is a free atom of self-interest fully responsible for navigating the social realm by using cost-benefit calculation, those who fail to succeed can only blame themselves.

The obvious problem with this excessive focus on choice is that women cannot choose power like they can choose between different wedding dresses. Women have to make their choices in a network of highly unequal power relations that not only restrict their possibilities and options, but construct their very subjectivities. The idea that feminine subjects have static interests and identities that precede their choices as well as the power relations they are engaged in obfuscates the systematic and constitutive aspects of male power. This means that, paradoxically, their belief in unlimited possibilities and freedom of choice makes women more, not less, vulnerable to sexism.

*A longer version of this text originally appeared as ‘The Neoliberal Subject of Feminism’, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol. 42, no.1, pp. 104–12.


[1] Bartky, Sandra Lee ‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in I. Diamond and L. Quinby (eds.), Feminism and Foucault: Paths of Resistance (Boston: Northeastern University Press), 61-85, p. 75. For other feminist appropriations of Foucault’s idea of disciplinary power, see, for example, Susan Bordo, ‘The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault’ in Allison Jaggar and Susan Bordo (eds.), Gender/Body/Knowledge (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1989), pp. 13-33 and ‘Feminism, Foucault and the Politics of the Body’ in C. Ramazanoglu (ed.), Up against Foucault (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 179-203.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1991). Foucault (op. cit., p. 135) argues that in the seventeenth century a soldier, for example, still learnt his profession for the most part in actual fighting in which he proved his natural strength and inherent courage. But by the eighteenth century a soldier had become a fighting machine, something that could be constructed through correct training.

[3] See Bartky, op. cit., p. 75.

[4] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008).

[5] See, for example, Jason Read, ‘A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity’ in Foucault Studies, no. 6, pp. 25-36.

[6] See A. Elliott, Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery is Transforming our Lives (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).

[7] See, for example, Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 164.

Johanna Oksala

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