“Look, I Overcame!”: Feminine Subjectivity, Resilience, & Multi-Racial White Supremacist Patriarchy

In his recent essay in Radical Philosophy, mark Neocleous argues that the ideal of “resilience” has replaced the ideal of “security,” both as a structure of individual subjectivity and a principle of social/national policy.[i]Briefly, he defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back after a crisis or trauma.” Resilience is an ethical and political ideal, a sort of transformation of Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” into a universalizable maxim (yep, a categorical imperative): “you ought to be stronger.” Strength, here, is figured as flexibilityrather than rigidity; instead of preventing bad things from happening, you are optimally prepared to meet any and all challenges. Resilience is the ability to recover from disaster, to turn, as Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel would say, a crisis into an opportunity. So, as an ethical imperative, resilience might look something like this: you will always be threatened with death, and you ought to overcome the threat in a way that does not deplete your resources, but in fact grows them—you ought to become stronger.

“Resilience,” he argues, “connects the emotional management of personal problems with the wider security agenda and the logic of accumulation during a period of crisis.” To illustrate this connection, Neocleous uses the example of a “young woman…dominated by an overpowering and angry bully of a man” thinks resilience is the “solution to her problem.” Neocleous’s choice of example tells us something about the gender politics of resilience. While anyone can be the victim of domestic abuse, patriarchy makes domestic abuse a problem that disproportionately affects women (indeed, gender norms contributed to her economic situation—it is conventional that women follow their male partners’ careers, and she “moved in with him to land a job in his town”). As feminists have long argued, these “private” struggles are thoroughly enmeshed with broader, “public” systems of privilege, like patriarchy. Neoclaus assumes as much, and uses this one woman’s experience as a microcosm of the macrocosmic phenomenon he analyzes in the essay: “the only thing a sad, lonely, and oppressed young woman thinks might help her turns out to be the very same thing being taught by the world’s largest military power,” and this commonality “takes us from mundane tips about how to live well to the world of national security, emergency planning and capital accumulation.”

Why is it that the clearest hinge between subjectivity and the social manifests in a woman’s gendered experience as a woman? Why is women’s emotional management of their feminized problems as women the ideal example of the logic and practice of resilience?

Changes in properly feminine subjectivity (which means, privileged feminine ideals) reflect not only this shift from security-thinking to resilience-thinking, but also from classical white supremacist patriarchy to multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.

Resilience and overcoming

Traditionally, ideal (by which I mean: white, bourgeois, able-bodied, cisgendered) femininity required the performance of fragility. As Iris Marion Young puts it in her famous “Throwing Like a Girl” essay, normative femininity trains women to:

approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy. Typically, we lack an entire trust in our bodies to carry us to our aims. There is, I suggest, a double hesitation here. On the one hand, we often lack confidence that we have the capacity to do what must be done… The other side of this tentativeness is, I suggest, a fear of getting hurt, which is greater in women than in men. Our attention is often divided between the aim to be realized in motion and the body that must accomplish it, while at the same time saving itself from harm. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the medium for the enactment of our aims. We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our bodies to make sure they are doing what we wish them to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies. (TLGOE 34).

As Young argues, traditionally feminine body comportment is tied to traditionally feminine structures of subjectivity: women are fragile, and thus both (a) incapable of realizing intentions in action, and (b) in need of support and therapeutic control/discipline (to “make sure they”—both women and feminine bodies—“are doing what we wish them to do”). Feminine subjectivity and corporeality needs therapeutic monitoring and control to keep its fragility in check.

            Neoliberalism replaces fragility with a new ideal. As Neocleous puts it, “rather than speak of fragility and its (negative) connotations, we should be speaking of resilience and its (positive) connotations.” In post-feminist society, feminine identity and corporeality shouldn’t be a drag, because we’ve solved patriarchy, right? Nowadays, ideally feminine subjects are asked to overcome precisely this traditional logic of femininity: they must overcome the fragility we tell them they’ve learned to embody and to believe. Ideally feminine subjects ought exibit a different relationship to their bodies than the one Young outlines in her essay. As Autumn Whitefield-Madrano puts it, ideally feminine subjectivity involves “problematizing something essentially human—cognizance of our own bodies—and framing it as something that we must overcome… We’ve turned our relationship with our bodies into a therapeutic narrative.” The therapy here is not disciplinary control, but entrepreneurial overcoming—i.e., resilience. Ideally feminine subjects must turn their gendered damage into human capital (whose surplus value is exploitable by them, but ultimately by “us,” by hegemony). Whitefield-Madrano evocatively and provocatively shows how feminine body comportment, especially one’s relationship to one’s “body image,” takes the form of a therapeutic narrative of resilience. 

Key to the therapeutic narrative are four things: 1) a once-whole, once-healthy self that was damaged by 2) a negative incident or pattern that incites a protective formula, which 3) leads to suffering—but luckily we have 4) self-awareness, the key to returning to one’s natural state of pure psychological health through a full understanding of one’s “damage.” Enter the inordinate focus on women’s bodies and its adherence to the therapeutic narrative: the once-innocent girl, the incident of damage, the bodily self-loathing, and, by the time the tale is told, self-acceptance. 

Feminine subjects still ought to feel their bodies as encumbrances, but this encumbrance is the very medium for transcendence—it does not prevent you from doing, but provides you the very materials with which you can do something. You have to be damaged and/or have damage in order to have something to overcome. Post-feminism recognizes that women are damaged by sexism; they just have to turn this damage into human capital. Sexism, then, is not a bug but a feature.Without misogynist feminine body ideals, what would women have to overcome? Because it’s not the sexism that needs collective overcoming, but individual women that need to be “resilient” in the face of unavoidable, persistent sexism. This is not about overcoming patriarchy, but about extracting even more surplus value from it by allowing individual women to capitalize on the damage it does to them.
       Though Neocleous rightly identifies resilience as a general phenomenon, I think it is especially suited to “different” subjects–feminine, queer, non-white, disabled, etc.–the very subjects whose conditional, incomplete inclusion in multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy or homonationalism or whatever you want to call neoliberal hegemony distinguishes “us” from the more “primitive” Others (like “Muslims,” “rednecks,” etc.).

“Look, I Overcame!”

I call this feminine resilience the “Look, I Overcame!” narrative for a number of reasons. (1) it resonates with Frantz Fanon’s account of mid-20thcentury colonial racism in Black Skin White Masks. His famous “Fact of Blackness” chapter centers on his racial interpellation by the phrase “Look, a Negro!” To be “a Negro” is to be objectified by the white supremacist gaze—it fixes him as an object, rather than an ambiguous transcendence. The LIO narrative differs from Fanon’s account in the same way it differs from Young’s: the gaze does not objectify, but activate. (2) As in Fanon’s “Look, a Negro!” narrative, the “Look, I Overcame!” is a technology of power that requires visibility: it is not just enough that one overcome—there is also an imperative to overcome in a visible or otherwise legible and consumable manner. Both the looking and the overcoming are necessary.

            Overcoming must be visible because in the same way that individual feminine subjects use their resilience as proof of their own ideal feminine and ethical subjectivity, hegemony uses the resilience of its best women as proof of the ideally ethical and just character of its own social/political practices.  Feminine resilience is profitable for women at the micro-level because it is ultimately profitable for multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy on a number of fronts. For example, the “resilience” of “our” women is often contrasted with the supposed “fragility” of Third-World women of color. Or, the resilience of some African-American women (their bootstraps-style class ascendance) is contrasted to the continued fragility of other African-American women (and thus used to reinforce class distinctions among blacks.) If the classic virgin/whore dichotomy used proper and improper femininity to mark differences between white and non-white women, the resilience/LIO narrative re-cuts the virgin/whore dichotomy to function in multi-racial white supremacy. As Neocleous argues,

Good subjects will ‘survive and thrive in any situation’, they will ‘achieve balance’ across the several insecure and part-time jobs they have, ‘overcome life’s hurdles’ such as facing retirement without a pension to speak of, and just ‘bounce back’ from whatever life throws, whether it be cuts to benefits, wage freezes or global economic meltdown…

“Good girls” are resilient, whereas “bad girls,” insufficiently feminine subjects, continue to be fragile and in need of rescue and/or protection. If women of color are resilient enough, they are included within multi-racial white supremacist privilege; if they are insufficiently resilient, they are further marginialized as women of color. (Think, for example, of the way formerly negative stereotypes about African American women are being revalued—their independence, toughness, fierceness, when combined with appropriate class/gender/sexual privilege, is not a negative, masculinizing thing, but a distinctive and valued feature of their black femininity. So, you have artists like Ne-Yo (Ms. Independent) and Webbie’s “I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T” positively valuing black women’s resilience in a very explicit way.) In multi-racial white supremacy, resilience cuts the color line.

            One last, somewhat tangential remark. Resilience is such an ethical ideal, such incontrovertible evidence of a subject’s “goodness,” that we are shocked, I say, shocked, when a bona-fide overcomer behaves in morally unpraiseworthy ways. The public response to the Oscar Pistorious murder charges shows just how much credence we give resilience as an index of moral character. Up until early 2013, Pistorious was the quintessential example of resilience & overcoming. He is a double-amputee who competes with able-bodied runners in the “un-special” Olympics. He “overcame” his disability to beat many, many able-bodied runners and compete in an elite event (even if he didn’t win it, he was still among the world’s running elite). So, when he is charged with murdering his girlfriend in a pretty violent, non-self-defense and non-accidental way, we are shocked that he behaved in a non-morally-ideal way. We are shocked that his overcoming/resilience is not in fact evidence of his morally praiseworthy character.

[i] Mark Neoclaus. “Resisting Resilience” in Radical Philosophy178 (Mar/Apr 2013).