Cultural intelligibility of anxiety: young women, consumer culture, and the ‘project’ of the self
Lambert, Aliette Victoria
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This thesis critically explores the role of consumer culture in young women’s understanding of self. Drawing on media and cultural studies literature as well as post-structuralist and critical perspectives, this study asks: how does consumer culture guide or influence a young woman’s way-of-being in everyday life? Despite arguments that consumer culture, underpinned by neoliberal principles of personal responsibility and individualism, has become the institution of reference for young women, consumer research on the experiences of women, and from feminist perspectives, is generally sparse. Moreover, claims that consumer culture may covertly subjugate young women by encouraging practices of self regulation are in contention with consumer research that emphasises consumption as a means of self-expression and agency. Therefore, a qualitative, feminist study was conducted in which, over 18 months, fifteen women, aged 20 to 34, engaged in multiple in-depth interviews. The data generation process typically consisted of four interviews over a nine-month period: the first interview covering life history and background was followed by an in-home ‘show-and-tell’ interview about the participant’s ‘stuff’. The third interview addressed participants’ engagement with digital technologies also through a ‘show-and-tell’ approach and the final interview was semi-structured, addressing themes emerging from previous interviews. This generated 50 interviews lasting two hours on average, as well as data from observation, photographs and engagement with social network sites. From a critical thematic analysis, four significant findings emerged. Firstly, in relation to being a woman, participants felt pressure to ‘have it all’ in terms of both traditional (e.g., getting married, raising children, being attractive) and progressive (e.g., achieving career success) ideals. Whilst some disagreed that women continue to be subjugated, most participants experienced a sense of mounting pressure and expectations compared to men and subscribed to neoliberal principles of personal responsibility in combatting gender inequality. Secondly, participants reflexively experienced being a consumer as an unavoidable, often burdensome and anxiety-provoking position that encouraged the making of the self through appearance, as well as adherence to hegemonic feminine ideals. A consumer orientation was further reinforced by increasingly pervasive digital spaces, particularly social media, infused with advertising and consumption. From this, a third finding emerged related to the understanding of self: participants often experienced or expressed a sense of self as a task, an individualistic project for which they felt responsible. Constantly comparing themselves to others to benchmark the project of the self, participants worked to continually craft a story of success and agency despite unpredictability of the life course and contradictory events sometimes conspiring. Moreover, participants who did not feel they had achieved career goals placed greater emphasis on crafting an ideal appearance. The fourth finding addresses the importance of others in understanding the self. Rather than experiencing an ‘identity’ as formed individually, participants looked to others (e.g., family, peers, media, ideologies) to understand the self. Focusing on the opinions of others was associated with anxiety, which varied in degree but was part of all participant accounts. This study suggests that consumer culture is indeed an institution of reference for young women as they experience a sense of self through consumption practices, increasingly digitally mediated. In this sense, the findings align with theorisations in consumer research. However, for the participants of this study, the experience of living the subject position ‘consumer’ is anxiety provoking, particularly in light of postfeminist, neoliberal discourses that encourage experiencing the self as a ‘project’ for which the individual is responsible. As reflected in the data, a self-as-project orientation triggered anxiety given disjointedness between the desire to manage or control the self fostered by dominant discourses, and the impossibility of doing so as reflected by lived experience. This positioning engendered alienation from the self and therefore anxiety that was further sparked by increasing individualism and competition with others; feelings of shame and envy; and a forward-looking temporal positioning. Therefore, findings suggest that consumer research’s conceptualisations of ‘identity’ as a ‘project’ in which individuals can express themselves through marketplace resources is problematic, if not further perpetuating the subjugation of women by rendering them as ‘free’ to consume their way into being. This calls into question individual agency and the role of cultural influences in the making of subjects. Therefore, findings suggest that, from an emancipatory perspective, consumer research examining processes of subject constitution might be more productive to understandings ‘identity’ and the ‘self’ in a particular space and time, with attention to implicit power relations.