Poetry Against Neoliberal Capitalism in Ali Alizadeh and Melinda Bufton

By | 1 October 2020

Additionally, Bufton explores the particularly gendered aspects of neoliberalism’s influence on the workplace and postfeminism in the way her characters navigate the expectations placed on their appearance. In ‘Always Collect Your Earned Medallions’ the scene of an office panel meeting becomes a moment to compare women on the outcome of their strategies for dealing with workplace sexism.

On occasion you whore it up a bit
for a strategic move. Two of the panel
like you. The third is the boss-in-waiting,
luxury choices at her feet. She has triaged
all her emotion out of the skin, so that you are left
with husky shank. (18)

Bufton frames these women as opposites for comparison along the virgin/whore dichotomy and further aligns these identities with workplace power. While the first woman retains her feminine sexuality she has no power but the ‘boss-in-waiting’ has ‘drain[ed] the sex out / just for business hours’ (18). The ‘husky shank’ of the second woman is explained as a strategy to avoid unwanted sexual attention when she realised ‘her heartbeat drew men like / mosquitos to her warm things’ (18). The poem’s speaker is then the example of the opposite where her overt sexuality makes her precarious, playing ‘contract skip-hop’ (18), unable to establish permanent professional roots and left hanging on the sexual inuendo of ‘Loose’ (18). In this poem Bufton makes manifest the phenomena of choice feminism. Ostensibly, this rendering of feminism equates female freedom and empowerment with the ability to choose as opposed to being ‘forced’ into decisions by societal pressures. As Angela McRobbie explains, the individualism of late modernity has shifted the focus of feminism away from emancipation politics and towards women’s ability to choose her lifestyle (McRobbie 35). But she further identifies the dilemma of choice as ‘a modality of constraint’ where ‘[t]he individual is compelled to be the kind of subject who can make the right choices’ (McRobbie 36). In Bufton’s poem it’s clear that the choice for women between their sexuality and femininity and career advancement or power is not fair or easy. Whichever choice the speaker of the poem makes, she remains trapped within the confines of patriarchal oppression and workplace sexism.

Furthermore, the pressure placed on women in the workplace to change their own appearance, rather than addressing systemic power imbalances, demonstrates the uniquely gendered aesthetic labour required of women in neoliberal ideology. When the second woman experiences sexual harassment, she changes her appearance and plays up symbols of intelligence and respectability: ‘She did her job, breasts remaining tacit / while deploying a series of big sensible glasses. She waited to get older’ (Bufton 18). In investigating beauty politics under neoliberalism, Ana Elias, Rosalind Gill, and Christina Scharff identified the conception of the neoliberal entrepreneur as a constantly self-optimising subject and including a particular link to appearance for women. They specifically explained, ‘the link between femininity, self-transformation and the body is key to understanding the interplay between gender and subjectivity in the neoliberal era’ (Elias, Gill and Scharff 24). The female subject is now also an aesthetic entrepreneur, subjected to the aesthetic labour demands of her workplace to monitor and manage her appearance as well as her voice, demeanour, body language, etc (Elias, Gill and Scharff 34—35).

In ‘In your Spare Time you Climb the Ladder (Competition is the Prize)’ Bufton uses the internal monologue of one female worker to unpack the insidious influence of aesthetic labour expectations on the performance of femininity. When compiling a list of accessories to consider in her work wardrobe, including fake tan, stockings, and a manicure, the speaker includes her voice.

You have said things with the right
clamour and the wrong diction [time to get that voice coach back]. You have
                  toughened your syntax until it is
muscular and your arm reaches for the phone once more, elegant wrist,
creamy mannequin hand, square-jewel nail with peach. (42)

In the patriarchal workplace, the most important considerations for this speaker is how she is perceived or read against a list of characteristics labelled ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ but also silently coded as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Like someone preparing for battle she has ‘toughened [her] syntax until it is / muscular’ and she polices her speech to avoid ‘the internationally hated word ‘panties’’ (42). This process of preparing the self properly for the workplace directly involves moderating and changing both personal appearance and speech patterns to achieve the ‘correct’ degree of feminine and masculine so as to most appeal to the patriarchal expectations of a working woman. However, rather than letting the all-too-common scene unfold uninterrupted, Bufton peeks defiantly in to gloat ‘Ah you got panties in a poem. Finally’ (42) as though in rebellion against the limitations her speaker abides by. It seems a small victory in the face of a neoliberal postfeminism that prioritises self-transformation over dismantling inequitable structures of power, but it demonstrates the flexibility of poetry to engage with large global concerns and to be simultaneously playful for the reader and writer. For a moment Bufton finds power in a word.

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