The Feminist Bravery Construct (in a nutshell)

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The archetype of the silent, stoic woman continues to endure, however the parameters for feminine bravery have expanded in the neoliberal context, making way for the figure of the brave, confessing woman. The brave, confessing woman is perceived in the mainstream as liberated from the proverbial bonds of silent, subjugated oppression. Yet, far from dismantling gender norms, this new ideal for feminine bravery serves to more insidiously reinforce these norms for women.

Today we see repetitive acts of suffering, divulging and subsequently recovering continuously on display in the mainstream, and they are framed as liberating and brave. Women are most typically rewarded as brave when they tell their story within the bounds of acceptable femininity—i.e. when they are composed and contained in the telling—and if there are elements of ‘the disorderly’ in the story (which there almost always are) then there is a narrative of overcoming to follow. The brave story of overcoming is either at that very moment been commodified in some way (like in a book or paid media interview) or will soon be.

Neoliberal feminist scholars agree that the emphasis on personal transformation is a central aim of the emergent neoliberal feminist project (Banet-Weiser 2018, McRobbie 2013, Rottenberg 2013). They argue that neoliberal feminism is not focused on confronting or changing social pressures, but rather on perpetuating an ideal female subject. However, individually ‘overcoming’ despite the difficulties, and then bravely telling everyone about it in a bestselling book, commodifies bravery, and implies that the patriarchy is a problem that women can solve individually rather than collectively through structural change.

According to Sarah Banet-Weiser (2018), popular feminisms, and by my inference feminine bravery, is thriving in the neoliberal capitalist context because digital media—with its expanded markets, its commitment to capitalism, its circulation capabilities and its metrics of numbers, clicks and likes—form the social, cultural and economic conditions that have enabled the level of visibility we now see. Circulating in what Banet-Weiser (2018) describes as an “economy of visibility” (p10), the braveries that are most easily commodified and branded are those that become most visible. This means, most of the time, that the braveries that are most visible are those which are white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative, and associated with a trajectory of capitalist “success” (p16)—those that are, as McRobbie describes ‘spectacularly feminine’.

Brave Girl is the epitome of the ‘spectacularly feminine’ and of course we do not shy away from references to our visibility and desirability as fetish—she is the fetishised emblem for contemporary feminine bravery.

Still life with cherries (film still) (2018)