Poetry Against Neoliberal Capitalism in Ali Alizadeh and Melinda Bufton

By | 1 October 2020

The titles throughout the collection signal early on to the reader Bufton’s interest in the power dynamics in workplaces, most especially along gender lines, by mirroring the instructive tone of self-help advice books or think-pieces meant to empower women, i.e. to climb the corporate ladder or get the most out of a negotiation. Poem titles like ‘Scramble Your Signals to Protect Your Plans’ or ‘Ask Forgiveness Not Permission’ read as conspiratorial reminders, like the speaker is sharing their hard-won insider knowledge with other women to combat the office patriarchy and use the power structures to their advantage. The interests these kinds of self-help texts show in helping individual women achieve career success is indicative of a neoliberal influence on feminist thought where the individual is prioritised over the collective. As Banet-Weiser writes, corporate culture has taken up the mantra of ‘empowerment’ for women in recent years as a gender re-invention of the neoliberal ‘self-governed entrepreneur’ (Banet-Weiser 265—266). Rather than address the systemic issues of power in the workplace, neoliberalism turns the focus onto how an individual can change themselves to better navigate the dominant system. In using the language of this discourse for her poem titles, Bufton establishes her work within the same considerations of power, gender, individualism, and work but allows herself the room to unpack these ideas in the body of the poems.

Digging deeper into Bufton’s mimicry of self-help career advice, the poem ‘Counter Their Sneak Plays’ names the media of the ‘empowerment’ movement while directly criticising their tactics.

The features of characters sharpen up towards archetypes and you run them
                  down
with example. Truth: I have never seen a ‘mega-bitch’ trying to run a department
                  Truth: Yes, people
sometimes believe a copy of Leaning In plus the Marie Claire ‘career pages’ will
                  bring them good. (36)

Bufton’s speaker references ‘Leaning In’ as a direct allusion to the self-help book Lean In written by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. The 2013 release sparked a wave of additional franchises and campaigns centred around Sandberg’s message that being more assertive and confident in the office is the key to women’s corporate success (Banet-Weiser 267). Bufton’s speaker ridicules publications like this and ‘the Marie Claire ‘career pages’’ for perpetuating archetypes and clichés that do not bear out in reality. However, later in ‘Event Management’, Bufton grapples with the complex combination of expectations for women’s success. The speaker recalls images of successful women that inspired her in childhood but describes them as ‘over-achievers’ (Bufton 51), acknowledging that they want too much by society’s standards. She attributes their ‘hardness’ and ‘frowns’ to the pressure to fit into male-dominated spaces but reassures, ‘It is not your fault. The lads want your entrepreneurial spirit to look like their entrepreneurial spirit’ (51). In this line Bufton illuminates an often-unexamined aspect of empowerment sentiment: women are advised to imitate masculine models of success as they are the only available examples in workplaces governed by patriarchal power structures. Later, Bufton brings to the fore the apologetic tone often taken on by women who are made to feel like intrusions to the workforce: ‘Although I’m not directly qualified. Although I cannot say I’ve done. Although times like these / are hard to come by …’ (51). This is the sound of the lack of confidence Sandberg writes against. In order to score a promotion or establish one’s reputation, texts like Lean In advocate for women adopting a confidence and assertiveness traditionally demonstrated by men and typically rewarded by corporate cultures that value masculine behaviour over feminine behaviour. This is an example of how feminist messaging has been influenced by neoliberal individualism such that the larger concern of patriarchal power structures are decentred from discussions of eliminating oppression and inequality. The contradiction of women being expected to emulate masculinity displays the patriarchal double-bind between femininity and career success which Budgeon describes as ‘living a tension between exercising the traditional feminine mode of relationality and the exhibition of individualised agency previously associated with masculinity’ (Budgeon 285). The balancing act of how women should navigate patriarchal expectations is something Bufton returns to frequently in Moxie and is demonstrative of her interest in the way postfeminism attempts to straddle irreconcilable binaries.

Interestingly, Bufton hints at the way individualism can backfire when tied up with the constant churn of capitalism. Then the female empowerment messages and the neoliberal entrepreneur model turn the individual worker, in this case the woman, into a personal brand (Conor, Gill and Taylor 13), a commodity that offers constant self-improvement (Budgeon 287). ‘Counter Their Sneak Plays’ repeats this effect in the hollow mantra ‘Messy brand, messy mind’ (Bufton 36) which again places the responsibility of efficiency and success on the individual. Bufton then subverts the language active in these corporate feminist spaces with the seeming mistake of ‘Hit me up. I want your back’ corrected to ‘To have your back’ (36). A more sinister and competitive subtext is revealed under the façade of community and support. While the ‘best boss eva’ wants to convey a collective care and a sense of the sisterhood looking out for one another, the closing request ‘I want to meet you so I can care about your career/s progression/s’ (36) reads like an ingenuine email template meant to be duplicated indiscriminately. In this way, Bufton’s harnessing of the language of female empowerment allows her to demonstrate its hollow intentions and its loyalty to capitalism. The empowerment message lacks any collective action but instead ‘rearticulate[es] dominant patriarchal and capitalist values, while not substantially disrupting power relations’ (Riordan 282).

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