Thursday, 1 September 2011

Catherine Hakim's Ancillism: The Darkness Beyond Post-Feminism

Back in January 2008, I wrote about my concerns for the position and behaviour of both women and men in British society as a result of the growing prevalence of post-Feminist views:  My concern, which does not seem to have been contradicted by anything which has happened since, was that with the dismissal of Feminist attitudes as too austere and inappropriate for our hyper-consumerist age.  Consequently, girls and women were feeling that they needed to return to old fashioned views of femininity evoking a submissiveness and domesticity, yet, contrary to previous decades, shot through with over-emphasised sexuality encompassing body shape, plastic surgery, sexualised clothing and behaviour, rather than a demure attitude.   Conversely boys and men are increasingly re-subscribing to outdated modes of masculinity particularly involving violence and the treatment of women as simply sex objects, needing protection, but ultimately disposable.

Some of these things seemed to have retracted a little in the intervening years.  Total pink now seems to be less de rigeur for girls and their mothers, but other elements such as platform-soled shoes with dangerously high heels as office wear and the return of skin-tight leggings across the age ranges suggest that while the issue might mutate it has not gone away.  Then I came across the work of Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics.  Her book released last month is entitled 'Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital'.  From reviews it seems poorly researched and repetitive.  However, what is alarming is that it creates a kind of ideology for the extreme elements of post-Feminism that I had highlighted before.  I guess this needs a new terminology as I imagine that even ardent supporters of post-Feminism would feel alarmed at going as far as Hakim.  She talks of 'sexonomics'.  Perhaps more accurately it should be termed something around female servitude, disempowerment, deference, let me propose 'Ancillism', taken from the Latin word for 'slave girl', ancilla.

Basically Hakim feels that British and American women, as opposed to French women, have entirely 'forgotten' that a way to success for them is to draw on their 'assets' to create a 'striking effect' (a term she takes from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer).  She builds on Pierre Bourdieu's views of personal capital, i.e. those things that help us get on in life such as money; our intelligence, knowledge, training, education; and networks with friends, family, contacts, etc.  To this Hakim adds the blatantly titled 'erotic capital'.  Now, apparently, this has been used by American sociologists before, referring to physical appearance and sex appeal.  On top of those attributes Hakim adds charm, sociability and sexual 'expertise' into the mix. 

Her entire list includes, as journalist Zoe Williams noted in 'The Guardian': 'beauty; sexual attractiveness; social skills like grace, charm and discreet flirtation; liveliness, which is a mixture of physical fitness, social energy and good humour; social presentation, including dress, jewellery and other adornments; and finally, sexuality itself, competence, energy, imagination.'  Now, a few of these sound like you might have expected from a finishing school, especially charm and sociability, but the others, especially a need to have 'competence, energy and imagination' in terms of sex, are where Hakim takes the steps way beyond Post-Feminism.

The reason why Hakim feels that women alone need to boost their erotic capital, is because of the imbalance in sexual desire between men and women, what she calls the 'male sex deficit'.  Consequently her simple premise is that the reason why women are not progressing well in business or in many cases to even get a job is that they are too frumpy and thus are not attracting male interest whether to be employed or be promoted.  As Will Self sharply noted in 'The Guardian' this suggests that Hakim feels that to get on women should stop focusing on their education or their networks and should simply focus on physical appearance and how they project themselves in a sexual manner.  This means that they will then be appealing to aged men with power who are desperate for easy sex and are willing to reward women for providing it.  Does the model not sound rather like prostitution?  At the minimum it seems to be the motives behind those women who aim to become a Playboy 'bunny' and end up married to superannuated Hugh Heffner. 

Despite Hakim's inclusion of 'competence, energy and imagination' in terms of sexual skills, these are all to be tailored not for the greater pleasure of the woman or a shared pleasure with a partner, but purely towards the needs of a man.  Why should not the man need 'competence, energy and imagination' when engaging in sex?  This is why I feel Hakim is putting the woman very much into the slave girl role: entirely a provider with only the man as consumer.  The thrust of Hakim's thesis also suggests that clothing, jewellery, other adornments (not clear what she means, does this mean cosmetics? Tattoos?  Branding?) and beauty itself however augmented are purely to allow the woman to 'buy' provision from the man, nothing about the woman herself potentially enjoying these aspects of herself.

Hakim's philosophy seems to be consumerism taken yet another step.  It is probably unsurprising that Self ends up quoting Marx in terms of sexual usage.  She is incredibly dismissive of overweight women, blaming them entirely for their condition.  To quote Lucy Kellaway in the 'Financial Times', Hakim's view is that '[o]besity is self-inflicted'; 'has no benefit and destroys erotic capital' and '[f]atties deserve no sympathy or special treatment as their girth "is unnecessary and indefensible".'  Apparently Hakim feels too many women, not simply the overweight, simply do not make 'enough effort' in how they appear and claims that they lose 10-15% of the income they could be earning as a result. You just wonder why she did not stop there and question whether it is right that women and not men, have salaries dependent on how much they sexualise themselves. Again it brings me back to the slave girl analogy.

Naturally as you can see by the references I make, Hakim has been condemned by a string or reviewers, Claire Black in 'The Scotsman' is another.  Hakim seems quite robust in challenging those who challenge her.  Williams notes that after interviewing Hakim, she telephoned Williams's boss questioning about Williams frame of mind, assuming that her negativity to her ideas must stem from a relationship break up.  To a great degree, something very bad for an academic, Hakim has sunk so deep into her view of the world that she has real difficulty in even envisaging what a different perspective on her ideas might look like.  I have not noticed 'The Sun' newspaper with its daily photo of a topless woman and the common advice to women who find their man losing interest to be more sexy for him, picking up on Hakim's work, though it seems to fit in perfectly with their philosophy towards women.  Whilst the 'Daily Mail' apparently warmed to earlier comments from Hakim that women need to be more ambitious and 'marry up' to achieve financial success (as if we all lived in the era of Jane Austen), they do not seem to have embraced this further step down the post-Feminist road to Ancillism.

This is not to say that in the media Hakim has been without support.   Bryony Gordon writing in 'Daily Telegraph' has bought right into the philosophy, even making changes in her own life, having her hair styled, running to make her buttocks more trim and shopping at LK Bennett whose opening webpage says 'Exude Glamour' (though in fact their styles are very old fashioned looking like they have arrived from somewhere between 1955 and 1983).  She claims in her youth she was tutored that to appear sexy as a woman was to reduce one's IQ and now seems to be a convert entirely to Hakim's line.  She feels  Nigella Lawson, Tamara Mellon, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Clegg fit into this category too.  When the latter two are the wives of the prime minister and deputy prime minister you do wonder if it will be long before post-Feminism if not Ancillism, becomes government policy, as it seems to have become under the Berlusconi administration in Italy. Gordon feels Hakim's philosophy should be made part of the curriculum for school girls.  More support comes from Sarah Vine writing in 'The Times'.  It is probably unsurprising that the right-wing press support Ancillism, for them having ranks of deferential, nubile young women servicing wealthy men, rather than spending the money to offer women real opportunities, probably seems some kind of solution to 'broken Britain'.

Of course, Mrs. Cameron and Mrs. Clegg have adopted the traditional, pre- and post-Feminist approach of getting on through marrying rich men.  They like everyone in the public eye these days, have been packaged by image consultants.  In addition, possibly because they have no need, do not seem to tap into Hakim's list of attributes women should foster.  Perhaps this is because women make up more of the electorate than men.  The trouble is, not for those women like Gordon and those she mentions but for the everyday woman, trying to start a career or progress in a career in an ordinary business.  With people in the media supporting Hakim and suggesting other leading women do too (even without their consent) and her ideas seemingly coming with academic credentials, then a bright young woman could not be criticised for thinking she has to increase her 'erotic capital' through dressing, adorning, behaving and becoming expert in the ways that Hakim lists. 

On these bases one does wonder what 'employability' on university courses of the future might include if this insidious attitude takes?  What then for the women who do not have the chance of university?  In the context Hakim is trying so hard to foster, will they see no alternative but to comply, that offering themselves up to appeal to some man with a 'sexual deficit' is the only way to survive?  It is interesting that the image heading Self's review was not of a string of successful women in smart dresses but of Indonesian prostitutes, from whom apparently the term 'honey money' derives.

While I do not believe in censorship, we need to see quickly and vigorously ideas and statements that challenge Hakim's Ancillism if we are not to see young women already advised that their best bet is to become a domestic drudge to some man, take further steps and commodify themselves just as Hakim advices.  It seems incredible that in the space of forty years we have gone from women being told to aspire to be prime minister to being told that their best hope is to prostitute themselves.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

I have found that I am not the first person to use the term 'Ancillism'. I have spotted used as an adjective, i.e. ancillist by an incredibly misogynistic blog commentator 'JB' posting to a discussion in June 2010, about women freezing embryos while they seek an ideal father. JB looks like an ideal purchaser of Hakim's book. Shockingly he writes: 'Women are children. Always have been, always will be.
Feminism is children demanding adult status and child privileges.' The reason why I quote him is because of his last sentence: 'Government should be ancillist, because women are ancillaries, being with few exceptions bound by self-delusion to an irrational sexual programming.' If this does not sum up Hakim's attitude precisely, I have no idea how better to describe it.