Confidence Culture and the Remaking of Feminism

By Gill, Rosalind; Orgad, Shani | New Formations, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Confidence Culture and the Remaking of Feminism


Gill, Rosalind, Orgad, Shani, New Formations


PROLOGUE

A friend who is the Equality and Diversity Director of her firm recommended that we watch the TED Talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. A committed feminist, over the years, she had read, heard and talked about gender equality extensively. But this online talk was a 'real life-changer', she said. It had affected her deeply and she had incorporated it into the various equality programmes she designs and delivers. She wasn't alone: participants in these programmes repeatedly told her that they had been 'completely transformed' by that talk.

We followed the friend's advice and joined the millions who have already watched the second most viewed TED Talk of all time. In this twenty-oneminute video, Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy lays out her theory of 'power posing', referring to 'nonverbal expressions of power and dominance'. While she formally addresses both men and women, she explains that women in particular 'feel chronically less powerful than men'. They 'often shrink in public settings', tend to touch their face or neck, and cross their ankles tightly when seated - postures and gestures associated with powerlessness that keep them from expressing who they 'really are', Cuddy explains.1 Thus, she exhorts women to practise power poses daily:

Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors. That's what you want to do. Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. Don't leave that situation feeling like 'oh, I didn't show them who I am.' Leave that situation feeling like, 'I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am'.2

In the video, Cuddy tells of suffering a head injury in an accident sustained at the age of nineteen, being told she would not be able to finish college, but, ultimately, against the medical profession's pessimistic forecast, transforming herself through self-work and self-belief. Cuddy explains how she replicated her own lessons when coaching a female student who felt 'totally defeated' - teaching her to believe in herself by assuming a series of 'power poses', so she could 'fake it' till she could 'become it'. Redolent of the advice of Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in the bestseller 'feminist' manifesto, Lean In, Cuddy impels women to practise power poses 'until you actually become it and internalise' - advice she accompanies with an image of Wonder Woman in her famous pose with arms akimbo and feet wide apart, staring confidently forward. Cuddy concludes her talk with a simple message: 'Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes'.

As we watched the video, it was hard not to feel critical. Here was yet another powerful example of celebrating individual solutions to structural problems, couched in the psychological language of empowerment, choice, and self-responsibility. Here again is the injunction that by exercising a set of behavioural, instrumental DIY-type changes, women can overcome inequality and transform their selves: 'if you learn to tweak this a little bit, it could significantly change the way your life unfolds', in Cuddy's words. Another individualist, corporate-friendly iteration of feminism that left power relations unexamined and simply called on women to change.

However, at the same time, Cuddy's talk struck a chord. It moved us. It affected us. It resonated with what we 'know' in a profound and embodied way about being women in the world. As Sara Ahmed has recently put it, 'when you lose confidence, it can feel like you are losing yourself, like you have gone into hiding from yourself'.3 Cuddy's talk not only has an affective force which is hard to deny but it offers tangible, concrete, and simple solutions, and demonstrates that they 'work', that they have a real positive effect on people's lives, including, as she shows compellingly, her own. …

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