In this book, Guardian journalist Laurie Penny attempts to “chart some of the ways in which women’s bodies are marginalised and controlled under capitalism” (2). What is most significant is her claim to set out the “parameters for the trade in female flesh as sexual and social capital, and demonstrate…how women are alienated from their sexual bodies and required to purchase the fundamentals of their own gender” (2). Her Marxist, materialist reading is quite enlightening. Importantly, she points out that “it is not enough to locate women’s physical oppression in the sexual body”: “By the late 20th century, the partial dislocation of reproduction and labour from sexual intercourse following the widespread acceptance of contraceptive methods in most parts of the West had meat that the post-Fordist capitalist control of women’s gendered labour needed to be extended beyond the sexual and into the substantive, the nutritive and the semiotic architecture of gender and physicality itself” (2-3). Ultimately, this market alienation results in the separation between the marketable erotic and the repulsive flesh of real sex: what Penny sees undergirding much of twentieth century women’s issues is a disgust and fear of female flesh, which is “fear of female power, the sublimated power of women over birth and death and dirt and sex” (32).
Penny also points out that femininity itself has been commodified: “when femininity is intimately tied into the labour of objectification, the cues of gender itself can be bought and sold on the the labour market. As such, any woman wishing to free herself from the mechanisms of misogyny imperils her social-constructed sex. Why else are feminists so consistently de-sexed in the public imagination?” (36). This is a brilliant insight, going a long way in explaining the general hostility towards feminism in the marketplace: feminism does, in fact, pose a “threat to gender as labour capital” (36). Penny goes on to point out that what second wave feminism got wrong was, in trying to reject the “susbmissive, spayed, stilettoed stereotype of misogynist fantasy,” they instead posited an equally fantastic feminine essentialism: “A fantasy feminine essential, set against patriarchal feminine constructions and placed in binary opposition to the masculine, was never going to be an adequate foil to the machinations of capitalist patariarchy. The feminine as fact and as ideology is too dispersed and too pervasive for any one ‘feminist’ physicality to suffice” (37).
She then asks crucial questions which such essentialism evades: “what the female body is, who has one, and how it is made” (37). In considering many facets of trans life and how they inform this debate, Penny notes that many trans women, even those who undergo surgery to alleviate the dissonance they feel with their bodies, often end up experiencing gender as a fluid aspect. Importantly, she notes that while many feminists see many trans women as reinforcing gender stereotypes, both anti-trans feminists as well as trans women themselves can see that much of this stereotyping is imposed by the medical establishment, as psychiatrists are the ones who “define gender deviance” and set “gender performance criteria,” even defining what “living as a woman” means and entails before deeming a patient worth of sex reassignment surgery (43). Further, Penny points out the ignorance behind the kind of feminist thinking which defines womanhood on a solely biological basis, as such binary definitions ignore quite a bit of biological reality. Finally, the violence perpetrated against trans women reveals that they are “despised by gender fanatics because they do something unforgiveable: they take the rules of the game and they make them explicit. The show that femininity is a mode of being that can and must be purchased….The bodies of transsexual women are marginalised and punished precisely because they expose the mechanisms by which the modern carapace of gender capital is maintained, threatening its hold over women’s bodies” (47).
In her conclusion about the ramifications of the “neoliberal repugnance for women’s bodies,” Penny says that “Individual women’s anxiety about keeping our own bodies under control is part of the same structure of oppression under whose auspices cultural, physical, and sexual violence is done to the bodies of low-status women, poor women, migrant workers, transsexual women, sex workers, and every other person living and working at the coalface of the so-called gender war” (64). Penny’s answer? The power of refusal. She sees contemporary pseudo-feminism as a fascism of agreement: “Only by remembering how to say ‘no’ will the women of the 21st century regain their voice and remember their power” (66). Brilliant, insightful, concise political analysis.