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SEXISM RELOADED,1 OR, ITS TIME TO GET

ANGRY AGAIN!

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Rosalind Gill

Happy birthday, Feminist Media Studies! And warm congratulations to Lisa


McLaughlin and Cynthia Carter for a decade of editing this hugely important journal.
The site of consistently interesting research and discussion, the journal has played a key role
in constituting the field of study and becoming a critical space and must read destination
for everyone interested in gender and the media. It gives me great pleasure to celebrate the
journals tenth birthday and to witness it going from strength to strength, and I would like
to express my appreciation to Cynthia and Lisa for their tireless work as editors, and also for
giving me the opportunity to contribute to this special anniversary edition.
I have chosen to title my piece: Its time to get angry again, and aim to offer some
brief reflections on the state of the field. These are necessarily selectiveignoring much
that is importantand also rather polemical. I will argue that we need to start talking about
sexism again, and call for a (re)turn to more politicised, intersectional, transnational and
conjunctural thinking, which should alsoI contendpay attention to the psychosocial
dimensions of power.
Ten years ago, Katherine Viner (1999) warned that feminist academic research was in
danger of losing its politics completely, falling into High Theory with overly complex
and obscurantist language and becoming conceptually sophisticated to the point of
depoliticisation (p. 3). In what follows I want to argue that conceptual sophistication and
feminist politics need not be mutually exclusive. I want to make a plea for an attention to
complexities, subtleties, and nuances that can and should aid and inform a feminist project,
not depoliticise it.

Sexism is a Dirty Word


Back in 2005, I heard a young woman ask the feminist media critic Judith Williamson
what was to be done about the parlous state of representations of women in advertising.
Williamson paused, and then replied, The problem is that sexism didnt go away, we just
stopped talking about it. She then went on to explain how we (the assumed feminist
audience) had allowed the word to be mocked and hijacked by the media, and because no
one wanted to be seen as uptight, frigid, or humourless the term sexism fell out of use,
latterly acquiring a quaint, old-fashioned ring to itin a way that was strikingly not
paralleled by notions of racism or homophobia. One thing we could do, then, Williamson
concluded, is simply start using the term again.
Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2011
ISSN 1468-0777 print/ISSN 1471-5902 online/11/010061-71
q 2011 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2011.537029

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I was enthralled! What a simple idea, and what an inspiring one! To revitalise the term,
and refuse the meanings with which its detractors have burdened it. For is it not striking
how the term sexism has quite literally disappeared from much feminist academic writing,
as well as from everyday parlance. It soundsas Williamson notedtoo dated, but also too
crude, too clunky, and, yes, unsophisticated. Yet if we think about sexism not as a single,
unchanging thing (e.g., a set of relatively stable stereotypes), but instead reconceptualise
it as an agile, dynamic, changing and diverse set of malleable representations and practices of
power, how could it be anything less than urgent to have this term in our critical vocabulary?
Surely part of the project of feminist media studies isor should beabout understanding
and illuminating the varied ways in which sexism (and its intersections with other axes of
power) operates through the media. Below I set out five brief arguments that relate to
putting sexism back on the agenda again.

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Unspeakable Inequalities
One area where a revitalised understanding of sexism is needed is in studies of media
productionitself marginalised within media studies more generallyand this has been a
preoccupation in my own work. My research on cultural workersmedia producers,
creatives of all kinds, from women DJs to web designersis concerned with the changes
and continuities in the way sexism operates in media labour markets. Writing twenty years
ago about the lack of female broadcasters on pop music radio in the UK, I coined the term
new sexism (Rosalind Gill 1991, 1993) to try to capture the apparently novel ways in which
discrimination was practised. None of the producers or radio station bosses I interviewed
argued that women were not good enough, or that their place was in the home, but on the
contrary they produced accounts that stressed their great admiration for women and their
genuine desire to hire them. However, through subtle discursive moves they also
simultaneously put forward persuasive justifications for why they actually employed so few
female DJs (in many cases not a single one): women didnt apply, the audience preferred men,
women who went into broadcasting wanted to be in news not entertainment, etc. What
fascinated me about this pattern of accounting was how it quite literally did discrimination
in new ways. Like new racism (Martin Barker 1981; Margaret Wetherell & Jonathan Potter
1992), it appeared to be a mutation in the way that sexism was practiseddesigned to seem
to take on board feminist arguments and to anticipate and rebut potential accusations of
sexism. As Star Treks Spock might have put it: Its sexism, Jim, but not as we know it.
More recent research with artists, web designers, film and television post-production
workers, etc., has continued this interest in the dynamics of discrimination. With others
working in this field (Elisabeth Kelan 2009; Angela McRobbie 2003, 2004a; Diane Perrons
2002), I have explored the new forms sexism takes in a postfeminist climate in which
equality is assumed, yet in which men are privilegedwhether we take as our indices pay,
access to jobs, social networks, or any number of other factors. My work has explored
flexible sexism, as well as the ways in which the neo-bohemian informality of media
workplacesunderstood as cool, creative and egalitarian (Rosalind Gill 2002)helps to
produce sites in which discrimination flourishes. Importantly, Deborah Jones, Judith Pringle
and Sarah Proctor-Thomson2 have named such practices unmanageable inequalities
because they exist and operate outside of the interventions and management strategies
invoked to challenge such injusticese.g., Equal Opportunities programmes, diversity
policies, and anti-discrimination law. More than this, I would argue, they are actually

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unspeakable inequalitieslargely unnoticed and unspoken about even by those most


adversely affected by them. For in these media workplaces rhetoric of the meritocracy
prevails and not making it is interpreted through a toxic discourse of individual failure:
you werent good enough, you couldnt hack it (with significant resonances with academia!)
(Gill 2009b).
It seems to me, then, that a key way in which sexism operates in contemporary media
workplaces is precisely through the invalidation and annihilation of any language for
talking about structural inequalities. The potency of sexism lies in its very unspeakability.
Here, just using the word sexism, naming it, opening up a conversation about its novel
forms, would be an important political actat a moment when the recession and
economic downturn are disproportionately affecting women in media and cultural
industries.

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Post-feminism as New Sexism?


A second area where a revivified understanding of sexism might be productive is in
discussions of postfeminism. Feminist Media Studies has been, from its earliest issues, a site
of keen and animated discussion of this notion, which has sought to capture the novel
features of contemporary gender relations and representations.
By the early 1990s, it was clear that media representations ofat least somewomen
were changingand also those of men. Some of the older critical languages seem to have
lost their purchase as a means of grasping gender in the media; some of the stable findings of
earlier research no longer seemed to hold. Voiceovers were no longer predominantly the
province of authoritative sounding men; women were not any more almost exclusively
shown on television in the kitchen or the bathroom; journalism was said to be becoming
feminised; and cropping and objectification were increasingly used in eroticised portrayals
of the male, as well as female, body. Sexism had not disappeared, but it was taking on new
forms. Writing about advertising, Robert Goldman (1992) introduced the notion of
commodity feminism to capture the ways in which advertisers sought to appropriate and
harness the cultural energy of feminism and sell it back to women, emptied of its political
content. Other feminist writing deployed the terms incorporation or recuperation to
describe similar processes (Myra Macdonald 1995).
It was in the notion of postfeminism, however, that scholars found their most
inclusive and apparently all-encapsulating term to make sense of changing representations
of gender. The term is contested. To some it signalled an epistemological break within
feminism. For others, it was used to mark an historical shift after the height of second-wave
feminist activism (see Gill 2007 for longer discussion of different perspectives). Yvonne
Tasker and Diane Negra (2007, p. 1) describe it as based around a set of assumptions,
widely disseminated within popular media forms, having to do with the pastness of
feminism, whether what is supposedly past is merely noted, mourned or celebrated.
Another way of understanding postfeminism was to see it as connected to a backlash
against feminism (Susan Faludi 1991)and it is in these accounts that post-feminism is
connected most explicitly to sexism (Judith Stacey 1987). Imelda Whelehan (2000) argued
that post-feminist discourses are characterised by retro sexism premised on fears about
the collapse of male power. In an influential essay, published in this journal, Angela
McRobbie (2004b) argued that what is distinctive about postfeminist culture is the way in
which a selectively defined feminism is both taken into account and repudiated.

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Drawing on Judith Butlers work she argues that this double entanglement facilitates both
a doing and an undoing the feminism. (Young) women are offered particular kinds of
freedom, empowerment, and choice in exchange for or as a kind of substitute for real
feminist politics and transformation (McRobbie 2009).
My own work has sought to build on all these ideas to articulate the notion of
post-feminism as a distinctive sensibility linked to neoliberalism. I wanted to explore how
the term could be used to understand what was new, unique, and distinctive about media
representations of gender at the current moment, what made them different from
straightforwardly pre-feminist or anti-feminist portrayals. I attempted this by highlighting
the specific modalities of postfeminist sexism, e.g., its emphasis upon self-surveillance,
monitoring, and self-discipline; its preoccupation with discourses of individualism, choice,
and empowerment; the resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference; its commitment
to a profoundly gendered makeover paradigm; and, suffusing all of this, an ironic tone
that rebutted easy critique, usually even before one could start it.
Little of this work explicitly formulates its aim as an understanding of contemporary
sexism, but I think it mightand perhaps it should. This would not be to assume a priori
that any particular media productions were sexist, but rather to open up a much-needed
conversation about what counts as sexism, how we might identify it, how it operates, and
so on. It would also be to make visible moments of rupture and refusal, lines of flight.
Above all, though, it would reinvigorate a critical vocabulary for interrogating gender
representations and make possible the revitalisation of feminist cultural politics. In doing so
it could expand from its preoccupation with a relatively small number of predominantly
British or North American white and middle class focused texts (e.g., Sex and the City,
Ally McBeal, Bridget Joness Diary, etc.) to open up questions about the exclusions of
post-feminism both as a practice of sexism and as an analytic category, itself marked by
profoundly classed, racialised and heteronormative assumptions.

Sexualisation or (Classed, Racialised, Hetero)sexism?


In recent years much feminist passion and energy has been excited by what has
variously been understood as the sexualisation of culture, porno chic, pornification or
the rise of raunch. The termsand the phenomena they describehave captured the
popular imagination, and have also inspired a new generation to become involved in
activism around, for example, the licensing of lap-dancing venues, the mainstreaming of
pornography, and the renaissance of beauty pageants in college and university settings.
I became involved in these debates long before the spate of popular books (M. Gigi
Durham 2009; Diane Levin & Jean Kilbourne 2009; Ariel Levy 2005) and policy interventions
(e.g., American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls 2007)
which propelled the issue into the mediated public sphere. My interest came via what I saw
as a shift in the way womens bodies were being represented in the media and public
spaceand the way in which some young women seemed to be taking up or even
championing these modes of self-presentation, for example in T-shirts declaring porn star
or fcuk me. In this context, I was interested in the extent to which one of the key words in
the feminist critical lexiconthe notion of objectificationstill held force at a moment
when, far from being presented as passive sex objects, some women seemed increasingly
to be represented as active, desiring, playful heterosexy subjects. Over the last few years
I have sought to explore the contours of this representational practiceto look at its

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exclusions, its costs and to advance understanding of it as sexual subjectification rather than
objectificationa notion connected to the Foucaultian idea of technologies of the self
(Michel Foucault 1988). Drawing on Hilary Radners (1993) formulation, I discussed this new
female figure as someone compulsorily required to display and demonstrate technologies
of sexinesswhose power no longer derived from a supposed innocence or virtue, but
from her bodily capital, sexual skills, and appropriately made over sexual subjectivity
(Gill 2008; Laura Harvey and Rosalind Gill 2010)
In this writing I have used the word sexualisation a great deal, but mostly in scare
quotes. I now wonder if this was enough to signal my misgivings about the notion, and
whether I should instead have opted for the term sexism. Despite the way they appear to
speak to something apparently new and real, there are many problems with the notions
of sexualisation or pornification. The terms are too general; they are difficult to
operationalise and therefore to use analytically. More than this, they tend to homogenise,
ignoring differences and obscuring the fact that different people are sexualised in
different ways and with different meanings. Sexualisation does not operate outside of
processes of gendering, racialisation, and classing, and works within a visual economy that
remains profoundly ageist, (dis)ablist and heteronormative (Gill 2009a). Furthermore the
terms seem to pull us back into a moral domain, rather than one of politics or ethicsthey
pull towards judgments about explicitness and exposure rather than questions about
context or justice. For all their force in animating and inspiring a new generation of
feminists, I worry too that these terms threaten to reinstate the terms of the sex wars of
the 1980s, with their familiar polarisations and discomfiting alliances between procensorship feminists and right-wing religious organisations.
This is made worse by the profoundly classed, racialised, and heteronormative
framing of the debates themselves whose privileged object of concern has been the
white, western, middle-class, girl child. Whilst there is a growing body of important queer
and post-colonial scholarship around sexualitye.g., Jin Haritaworns (2010) work on how
the figure of the Thai prostitute haunts and shapes performances of Thai femininities, and
Noor Al-Qasimis (2010) analysis of uploading queer transnational subjectivities in the
United Arab Emiratesit is striking how this remains almost entirely marginalised in
debates about sexualisation. It is not simply that the literatures are separate, but, more
troublingly, that through a performative politics of cultural analogy (Carolyn Pedwell
2010) the hypersexualised, western girl is repeatedly counterposed against various nonwestern Others. Against the problematic and narrow focus of sexualisation discourses,
I want to argue for a stance that is sex positive, but anti-sexism and also refuses the
racialising and colonialising moves discussed above. In this way we could make questions
about equality and justice pivotal, rather than questions of sexualisation. It would not
obliterate contestation, to be sure, but at least it would shift the terrain on which we fight to
a political one, forcing us to ask difficult and rigorous questions about what sexism is (and
how it intimately intersects with other dynamics of power).

Rethinking Subjectivity: Sexism and the Psychosocial


Fourthly, I want to argue that feminist media and cultural studies urgently need a
conceptualisation of the psychosocial. The revitalization of sexism I am proposing does not
see it as residing in single images or in a handful of problematic stereotypes. Nor does it
regard it as a thin veneer of meaning that could, in the right circumstances, be skimmed off

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leaving everything else unscathed. On the contrary, it sees sexism as a thoroughgoing


ideology or discourse that is constitutive of common sense and of our most taken for
granted ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world.
This ideology is not fixed or static, but dynamic and changing, and varies across time
and place. Sexist ideas that held sway in Western Europe even a few decades agosuch as
the idea that boys are cleverer than girlsno longer have the force they once did.
Meanwhile new forms of sexism emerge. Witness, for example, the way that the meaning of
cosmetic surgery has changed in less than a generation from being seen as an extreme
pursuit of the super rich and/or super vain, to a normatively demanded practice in which
most British and North American young women now expect to participate at some point in
their lives.
How can we understand a shift like this without some notion of the psychosocial,
without an understanding of the intimate relationship between culture and subjectivity?
What I mean by this is that we need a critical vocabulary to understand how it is that what is
out there gets in here to reconstruct our deepest yearnings and sense of self.
What makes this understanding of ideology different from the groundbreaking early
work of Stuart Hall (1982, 1988), Angela McRobbie (1977), Janice Winship (1978) and
others is its interest in ideology operating in the affective realm as much as the realm of
ideas. It operates not just on how we think, but on how we feelthe very texture of our
emotions. It mobilizes powerful affects such as disgust or shame, as Imogen Tylers work
on the figures of the chav and the asylum seeker illustrates powerfully (Tyler 2006,
2008). Such figures become loaded with what Sara Ahmed (2004) vividly describes as
sticky affects.
An understanding of the psychosocial dimensions of power and ideology is all the
more important now, for two reasons. First, the rapid expansion of DIY media via the
blogosphere, social networking, and other features of Web 2.0 necessarily complicates
much of the existing literature in feminist media studies because of the proliferation of
representations that are self-produced and could be considered freely chosen. Binary
splits between subject and object no longer hold when distinctions between producers
and consumers have become so blurred. Secondly, a revitalised notion of subjectivity is
needed because notions of active, agentic, and resistant audiences or consumers
seem to have become virtually hegemonic within media studies. In theunderstandable
and quite properaspiration to reject an older vocabulary of influence which cast media
users as passive cultural dopes, some contemporary media scholarshipincluding
feministseems in danger of rejecting any notion of influence altogether and, in the
process, reinstating precisely the model of the rational, deliberative, unified self that the last
twenty-five years of post-modernist, post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, post-colonial and
feminist social theory sought to interrogate. It offers an overly rational and unified view of
the self, with no space for fantasy, desire or unconscious investments, or for splits or
contradictions. Indeed, this figure appears peculiarly affectless and a-social or a-cultural,
operating in some pure realm that makes them totally immune from culture. As such, work
invoking this figure avoids all the important and difficult questions about the relationship
between the psychic and the social or culturalhow it is, for example, that socially
constructed ideals of beauty or sexiness are internalised and felt as our own? That is, really,
truly our own, felt not as external impositions but as authentically ours, all the way down.
Moreover it remains complicit with, rather than critical of, the discourses of individualistic,
post-feminist neoliberalism.

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Connecting Sexism: Dreaming Big and Thinking Conjuncturally


To call for a revitalization of a notion of sexism is not treat it as a stand-alone ideology,
but rather to reassert its place in a thoroughly intersectional analysis and politics. The notion
of intersectionality, though only coined in 1989, articulates a set of ideas that have informed
feminist work for decades, namely the understanding that social positions are relational
rather than additive, and the need to make visible the multiple positioning that constitutes
everyday life and the power relations that are central to it (Ann Phoenix & Pamela
Pattynama 2006, p. 187). As Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix (2004, p. 6) put it, the concept of
intersectionality signifies:

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[t]he complex, irreducible, varied and variable effects which ensue when multiple axes of
differentiationeconomic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential
intersect in historically specific contexts. The concept emphasizes that different
dimensions of social life cannot be separated out into discrete and pure strands.

This, then, is a call to think sexism with racism, ageism, classism, homophobia,
(dis)ablism and also to think transnationally (Aniko Imre, Katarzyna Mariniak & Aine OHealy
2009). But it is not simply a matter of integrating sexism with other axes of power and
difference, but alsoas noted in relation to the debates about sexualisationfacing up to
the complex dynamics and complicities in play in the current moment. This involves
recognising that one reason why the term sexism has seemingly disappeared as a
category of analysis or a political claim in the Western Academy is precisely because of the
Wests comforting liberal fiction of itself as egalitarian. This fiction has involved the
systematic displacement of the need for feminism on to Others in need of rescue, e.g.,
the oppressed Muslim woman (Christina Scharff 2011) who is the contemporary iconic
exemplar of Chandra Mohantys (1988) critical figure the Third World woman. It operates
through repeated tropes of comparison between liberated Western women and their
oppressed (usually) Muslim counterpartsrhetorics that have been mobilised powerfully
in justifying the intensification of racism, the assaults on civil liberties and human rights,
and the securitisation and militarisation that have marked the War on Terror, alongside
the savage attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.
In their important article Monster, Terrorist, Fag, Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai (2002)
ask, how are gender and sexuality central to the current War on Terrorism? They unpack
the intertwining of heteronormativity, sexism, and racism in US nationalism after the
attacks on the World Trade Center, showing the systematic articulations of monstrosity,
sexual dysfunction, race, and religion to produce queer terrorist corporealities.
Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauquir and Esra Erdem (2008) also present an analysis of how racist
and Islamophobic claims about both gender oppression and homophobia have been
mobilised not only by the state, but also by seemingly progressive voices. Moreover,
Gargi Bhattacharyya (2008, p. 7) writes:
The key components of the justificatory narrative surrounding the war are taken from
progressive sexual movementsthe defence of womens rights, the celebration of more
diverse masculinities which can express emotion and enact relations of care, the
affirmation of multicultural existence and the implication that backward cultures remain
trapped in uncontrollable and excessive homophobia in contrast to our tolerance within
careful confines.

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It is striking to note the extent to which writing in queer, post-colonial and critical
race studies increasingly regards the brutality of the New World (Dis)Order as a cultural
project intimately bound up with gender and sexuality. One might expect, then, to see
scholarship in feminist media studies playing a leading role in exploring this. Yet, by
contrast, there appears to be a relative silence on such concerns despite the important
critical space opened by this journal. Paradoxically, the state as an object of analysis seems
to have disappeared from view at precisely the moment when its role in war and nationbuilding feels so painfully palpable to so many. And if the vocabulary of sexism has become
muted, then any talk of capitalism in our field seems to have been largely evacuated
perhaps it sounds even more dated? Moreover, we appear to have becomeand
I include my own work in thispeculiarly narrow in our preoccupations and foci of
interestbeauty, celebrity, sexualisation to name but a few of the most dominantand
curiously timid in our thinking. We seem to have lost the confidence and boldness of earlier
scholarshipboth in its political vision and in its canvas: to dream big and to do what Hall
(1988) called conjunctural analysis thinking the relations between things.
But it seems to me that scholarship in feminist media studies has a huge amount to
contribute to this project of bigger, bolder, conjunctural analysis. For this field is marked by
its understanding of both mediation and power. We understand, in a way that other
disciplines do not, the importance of the media to the emergence and dominance of
neoliberalism and to the continued acceptance of the injustices of global capitalism, even
by those who experience them most brutally and harshly. We are also in a position to
investigate the uses of media in resisting such injustices. The challenge, then, is to think the
current emergencies (Bhattacharyya 2010), and resistance to them, in relation to old and
emerging media and intersecting axes of power. It is time to get angry again.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I am very grateful to Imogen Tyler for her generous and inspiring comments on my
first draft of this essay, and to Cynthia Carter and Lisa McLaughlin for their immensely
helpful suggestions and edits.

NOTES
1. I am borrowing the idea of sexism reloaded not just from the Matrix films, but also from
Abigail Bray, whose forthcoming book, Misogyny Reloaded, looks set to be a brilliant and
searing critique of a world still utterly shaped by sexism.
2. This formulation is found in their call for papers for a stream on cultural work at the Gender
Work and Organisation conference June 2010, available at: www.wiley.com/legacy/wiley
blackwell/images/Call-for-papers-GWO2010-Creative-Industries.doc (20 June 2010).

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AHMED, SARA

AL-QASIMI, NOOR

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Rosalind Gill is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at the Centre for Culture, Media and
Creative Industries, Kings College, London. Rosalind is author of numerous
publications including The Gender-Technology Relation, Gender and the Media, and
New Femininities. She is currently working on a new book for Polity Press entitled
Creatives: Working in the Cultural Industries. E-mail: Rosalind.gill@kcl.ac.uk