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When women receive a ‘wife bonus’ capitalism is winning

Make no mistake: patriarchy and capitalism are completely entwined. Shehan Peruma/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

When women receive a ‘wife bonus’ capitalism is winning

Even before last week’s publication of Wednesday Martin’s semi-autobiographical, semi-anthropological book Primates of Park Avenue much had been made of her exposé of the supposedly widespread practice of “wife bonuses” – that is, rich, male executives, in New York’s Upper East Side, paying their wives set amounts for homemaking.

Since Martin’s New York Times article on the subject in May there has been reaction and counter-reaction.

Polly Phillips, a so-called “glam SAHM” (Glamorous Stay-At-Home-Mum) caused controversy with an article in the NY Post on May 28 outlining why she deserves a “wife bonus”. She described how her husband “pays” her a percentage of his hefty annual bonus from the oil industry, which she then, apparently, swiftly spends on designer clothing.

The tone of her article is fairly obnoxious and, I’d say, tongue-in-cheek (it’s titled “I get a wife bonus and I deserve it so, STFU”). But what is most interesting about Phillips’ account of the division of finances in her marriage is that she proclaims that the “wife bonus” is “feminist”:

To me, there can be nothing more feminist than believing that staying home to take care of our daughter — as well as the day-to-day washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning — is just as worthy of a wage as going out to a job outside the home.

The Post comments section predictably slams Phillips’ wanton spending, her credentials as a mother, and speculates whether her husband’s imagined mistress gets a bigger cut. I am cautious of (if not completely over) internet “take downs” of women as “bad feminists”.

So, I’m not interested in judging Phillips as good or bad. What I will say, though, is that her piece – and the comments – do tell us a bit about what feminism means in contemporary culture.

Feminism has been well and truly mainstreamed. That’s fabulous. Girls now blog about rape culture, call out misogyny and Beyoncé can rock the VMAs in front of a giant light show spelling out FEMINIST.

Beyonce has boldly claimed feminism as a label. © MTV

We’ve seen twitter and tumblr wars over #feminismisforwhitewomen calling for intersectionality, and twitter solidarity for trans women’s comings out, most recently for Caitlyn Jenner.

These are all great! And I applaud how far feminism has come – even since my undergrad days (no! not that long ago!) where I was the only one who put my hand up to identify as feminist in a cultural studies tute (what a hero!).

But – and I hate to be a feminist killjoy – the call out that feminism remains the domain of white women is a serious one. This recent claim by Polly Phillips that living a life of thousands of dollar bonuses for housework is feminist also suggests it remains the domain of white, middle-class, women.

The discussion about feminism, and how we think feminism in popular culture, is mostly around civil rights within a Western liberal legal framework. These are good battles. In the patriarchy we live in rapists should be jailed.

Misogynist jokes should be called out as oppressive. And it’s great that the world’s biggest pop star can proudly self-proclaim as feminist and normalise – indeed, celebrate – that identity.

All this is breathlessly (generally) celebrated by popular media – Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, Beyoncé-as-feminist is heavily giffed and breakfast TV can discuss rape culture in between infomercials.

That’s because this type of feminism does not challenge the system that constitutes and maintains patriarchy: capital. Patriarchy and capitalism are so completely entwined that even being feminist has become productive of surplus value. Being a feminist is so hot right now. To return again to Beyoncé – it’s her brand.

Feminism has been co-opted as a selling point. © Look Human

The reams of posts and petitions on social media; the clicks; likes and shares all form data (her profile is “feminist”) which is then onsold and mined to sell products back to us, most likely a sassy feminist T-shirt.

Polly Phillips article then, curiously, should not generate outrage at all. Phillips simply lays the economics of much popular feminism bare. Phillips’ notion that feminism means the ability to shop til she drops and be a doting wife and mother is hardly new (think Sex and the City).

Here, the ability to consume is framed as liberation, as a civil right and as choice. Phillips can choose between Louboutins or Chanel pumps. And that’s just the way capital likes it.

Phillips also has the “choice” to go back to work – as an insurance broker – or leave her marriage – or stay – or get a nanny. But all of these choices lie within capital. The choice to opt out of a thoroughly commodified life is impossible and unthinkable.

The limitations of consumer feminism are again made redolent in Phillips brief account of a girlfriend who cared little for designer brands … she instead “chose” to buy an expensive paddle board with her “bonus”.

It’s utterly banal. But often banality is where oppression is at its most insidious.

Phillips’ willingness, also, to describe her self-proclaimed “feminist” marriage as primarily an economic relationship should also be unsurprising. Commenters called out Phillips as “noveau riche” for boasting about the cost of her lavishly expensive wedding dress (US$4,500 if you’re wondering).

That’s missing the point. What I see here is a plain statement that weddings, and marriages, are completely entangled with capital and money.

I’m not (and it bores me to say this) calling for an ascetic feminism. I am calling for a revolution. I believe – to coin a phrase (and echo a slogan) – in the radical potential of pleasure and, sure, shopping is fun, sex is fun and these things are not antithetical to feminism.

But I do think capital’s incorporation of feminism is limiting and stymying to feminist liberation.

To slam Polly Phillips for being a bad feminist misses the point. She is simply #justsaying that feminism in its current, popular, state is about choice – it just seems to be limited to commodified choice.


See also:
No, feminism is not about choice