This post is concerned with the book chapter, “Narcissism, Femininity and Alienation” (1982), that draws from Marxisms’ theory of alienation to demonstrate how women have been estranged and cut off from their own human existence because of their feminine preoccupation. I found it fascinating how the author was able to move so fluidly between such strong statements, particularly regarding the expression that the masochistic labour of femininity is a way for women to attempt to compensate for their bodily deficiencies; their lack of penis. I have spoken about this briefly in previous posts, so I’m glad to have read this text as it has given further clarity to my thinking. Throughout this post I will discuss a few key points from the text and add a few additional thoughts.
In order to understand the framing around this argument, it is relevant to discuss Marxism in further depth. In basic terms, Marxism is concerned with economic factors of social change that are based on political, economic and social philosophy. An example used is that jobs that require workers to complete laborious tasks, day after day, with no intellectual or creative integrity, can be damaging to both the mind and body of the worker. Yet, because people have to work to make a living, they are left with no choice but to remain under the control of the company who profits from their work. This presents a binary whereby the worker can obtain the pleasure of feeling secure because they go to work and earn a living, yet this work is promoting disembodiment and detachment from their being due to the nature of the robotic and monotonous work. This can be described as fragmentation.
When this notion of fragmentation is applied to women and the work they put in to be woman, you might see that women have been and continue to be alienated under a cultural production that feeds off of the promotion of femininity and self-improvement. We are sold hundreds a products we don’t need, yet we buy them to feed our own and societal expectations of a gender (feminine) that is attached to our sex (female). As a result of this, the female body becomes a restricted and beautiful object that should be decorated, pampered and treated gently. To create such a valuable body takes a lot of work, time and effort. From this, Bartky notes the prominent difference between laboured work and laboured femininity; workers have no choice to work because they have to make a living, whereas women who are becoming infected by femininity have choice. Moreover, not only do these women have choice, some women express enthusiasm about the toil of femininity, as confirmed by Playboy, Miss America and the array of popular literature that teaches women how to be better at femininity. This introduces the paradigm of “feminine narcissism” – a term that iterates the simultaneity of pleasures and estrangement within femininity.
To unravel feminine narcissism I will define femininity and narcissism, before bringing them together again. Femininity aligns with the qualities of being female and is tightly attached to the capitalist production of objects that “make up” woman. – think high heels, hair straighteners, anti-wrinkle cream, waxing, make up, hair dye and so on. Narcissism, specifically Freud’s theory of narcissism, on the other hand, is self-adoration in light of being an object of sexual desire. Here then, in order to create an object of sexual desire, one must learn to engage in self-sexual-objectification through the application of femininity. This is a space whereby the woman takes on the dual role of objectifier and the objectified. She begins to internalise the gaze of “other” as she attends to exaggerating her natural womanly features. The more she decorates her body with girly and provocative things, the more she becomes her own sex object and experiences auto erotic pleasure from stepping outside of her body to look at her beautiful creation; herself.
As you can gather, if one steps outside of their body to look in, disembodiment and detachment occurs – similar to that of the robotic worker. This is the negative side of the dualism, whereby the woman is trapped in thoughts about her own appearance. Yet, because there are so many products available for her to remain disengaged and occupied, she is focussed on the positive outcomes of her project and is therefore blissfully unaware of her predicament.
Overall, this reading has shed some light into the “pleasures” of femininity, suggesting that women who continue to buy into it are in a space of fabricated consciousness, whereby they “they simply prefer the reverent and self-absorbed pleasures of the mirror to the challenges of freedom” (p.135).
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Bartky, S. L. (1982) Narcissism, Femininity and Alienation. Social Theory and Practice. Florida State University Department of Philosophy, 8 (2) pp. 127-143