The cult of Plastic Woman

How fantastic is life in plastic? I’m not talking about Barbie here, though of course the film’s defining moment is Gloria’s bitter feminist monologue: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.” I mean the longer-running cult of plasticity, popularised in the 2000s with the help of sociologists such as Anthony Giddens, which emphasised flexibility, adaptability and transferability as core “graduate attributes” and employment skills. From then on, success in the modern world required the willingness to juggle many things at once. The ability to do one thing well was not only outdated; it was enough to qualify you for a position “on the spectrum”.

The plasticity imperative was aimed at everyone, but some were quicker to adapt than others. Women, we were reminded, had been multitasking for years — and suddenly this made us marvellous. “Plastic Woman” was the protagonist of Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men: and the Rise of Women: during the past century, Rosin wrote, Plastic Woman has “performed superhuman feats of flexibility”, going from “barely working at all to working while married and then working with children, even babies”. She has embraced her liberation from “ladylike standards” to engage in everything from sexual adventurousness to demanding better salaries. Trailing far behind her was “Cardboard Man”, who “hardly changes at all”. Men have “lost the old architecture of manliness”, argued Rosin, without replacing it with anything more solid than “’mancessories’ — jeans and pickup trucks and designer switchblades, superheroes and thugs who rant and rave on TV”. Welcome to Kendom.

Rosin’s book expressed the insights of academic “crisis of masculinity” literature, and for all its oversimplifications, it had a point. Deindustrialisation had not only made the skills demanded by traditionally “male” jobs redundant by the late 20th century, but it had set the scene for a new kind of worker role that women seemed to glide into. This had less to do with a specific type of work, and more to do with a type of worker prized by the new deindustrialised economy. People have often assumed that women are better suited to service-sector jobs and care work than they are to the factory floor, but this doesn’t stack up; women for centuries have engaged in back-breaking physical labour in the fields, the home, and indeed in factories. Instead, in all sorts of workplaces, women fulfilled the criteria of the new model employee: one with a host of generic skills, whose expectations of continuity and stability were less firmly rooted than for the “job for lifers” of old, and whose workplace demands were tempered by gratitude that we were encouraged to be there at all.

For women in the Nineties and 2000s, working was seen as a privilege that our mothers had fought so hard to win. If work didn’t allow us to self-actualise to the degree Betty Friedan had promised, it was still better to be out in the world than suffocating in the “comfortable concentration camp” of the home. Or was it?

We are no longer so sure. Now perimenopausal and dreaming of retirement, the archetypal Nineties Plastic Woman finds herself “just so tired” by the demands of everything, everywhere, all at once that she has begun to wonder if it was all a bit of a con. Meanwhile, younger women are opting out of various aspects of the game, boasting of “lazy girl jobs” or deciding to remain childless. A new breed of “conservative feminist” argues that (other) women should re-focus their attention and affection back on the family and the home, reclaiming the fulfilment of motherhood from the bad press given to it by the Women’s Liberation Movement.

But amid this furious backlash against Girlboss feminism, the deeper problem with the cult of plasticity is obscured. It’s not about all the things we have to do, but about who we think we are. The promotion of Plastic Woman did not come at the expense of men — who, as many pointed out when Rosin’s book was published, were already well on their way to being plasticised. It came at the expense of the ideal of self-determination, which lay at the core of both the labour movement and the campaign for women’s liberation. What drove both movements, albeit often in different directions, was the desire for more control over one’s life: you might have to do a lot of hard and boring stuff, at work or at home, but that did not define who you were.

In paid work, the authority of the boss stopped at the end of the working day, and your personal “well-being” was your own bloody business. For stay-at-home mothers, it was more complicated: the boundaries between the work of childcare and the role of motherhood had been mashed together, such that women often struggled to work out where the role ended and “I” began. That’s why feminists demanded social childcare: not because they thought all mothers should get a paid job, but because it placed a conceptual boundary between the understanding of oneself as a woman and mother, and the tasks involved in caring for children.

The cult of plasticity turns this boundary-setting on its head. Constantly “juggling” a range of tasks and commitments is prized, because it keeps people on their toes and weakens the stubborn pride that comes with doing one thing properly. People who are confident about what they are doing — whether that is raising children, or being skilled in a particular kind of work — are less amenable to being pushed around than those who find themselves constantly unsettled by demands to do things in a new way. So, on one level at least, the promotion of plasticity allows Human Resources departments and parenting “experts” alike to manufacture a culture of compliance.

In this vein, diminishing the boundaries between home and work — a trend shamelessly accelerated during the pandemic, via the embrace of “hybrid working” — may not be doing great things for productivity, but it sends an effective signal that even when we are not at work, the company is still with us. Yet the hybrid working fiasco points to a contradiction: it seems pretty obvious that surveillance and micro-management do not encourage people to work more efficiently or effectively. When ticking boxes and jumping through hoops become the job description, employees end up bewildered, defensive, and distracted from the task at hand.

The sensible course of action would be to back off. Instead, HR departments seem to be doubling down in their quest to create the new model employee, by further breaching the boundary between work and our internal lives. The latest incursion on self-determination is the growing demand to declare our pronouns. The symbolic replacement of “I am” with “refer to me as” represents far more than a clarification of office etiquette. Gender-critical feminists have rightly pointed to the obliteration of “woman” or “man” as meaningful categories, once anyone can claim to be either (or neither, or both). Once these categories become free-floating flourishes in an email signature, the pretence that “we” are the ones choosing them will be short-lived. In practice, this is already being revealed — the use of gender-neutral language to avoid misgendering means that we are all rapidly becoming “they”: non-binary, non-specific, generic, plastic.

At least to this, fantastically, Plastic Woman seems to be kicking back. In the untidy coalition of Terfs, Hags, conservative feminists, and colleagues muttering quietly in corners, we see the holding of one important line: the desire to determine oneself, rather than submit to being endlessly moulded. It’s a reminder that people will bend only so far; as Weird Barbie shows us, we can be played with “too hard”.

First published by UnHerd, 7 August 2023. 

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