Post-Feminism’s Sexual Contract & Property-In-Person

This is an excerpt from a longer piece, but I thought I’d reproduce this here because it’s an analytic that’s useful beyond the narrow context of that piece.


In general, post-feminism is the idea that feminism is obsolete.  As Angela McRobbie (2014) explains, “post-feminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings which emphasize that it is no longer needed, it is a spent force” (256). There are specific variations of post-feminism, each citing different reasons for its obsolescence and instituting different norms about feminism’s acceptability. Unlike the backlash-style post-feminism of the 1980s, which rejected feminism as harmful and unnecessary, neoliberal post-feminism makes feminism compulsory: explicit, overt feminism is a necessary part of 21st century femininity. Patriarchy hides itself behind the superficial acceptance of feminist women: if we like feminists, if we even have friends who are feminist, how can we be sexist? “Gender retrenchment is secured, paradoxically, through the wide dissemination of discourses of female freedom and (putative) equality” (McRobbie 719-20).

So, in order to keep its cover, patriarchy requires women to incorporate feminism into their gender identity; to count as a normal woman, you have to be “gender aware” (McRobbie 732) and profess and practice feminism. The ability to, as Jack Halberstam puts it, “catapul[t] anachronistic formulations of men, women, and everyone else” is one component of the overall flexibility and adaptability neoliberalism expects us all to embody. But, as Dawn Foster, bell hooks, and plenty of other feminists have shown, it’s a really narrow sort of feminism, focused on economic empowerment and ownership of one’s self (one’s sexuality, image, body and body image, etc.). This idea of self-ownership and economic empowerment is central to post-feminism’s “new sexual contract” (McRobbie 718). The original sexual contract, as theorized by Carole Pateman, is grounded in “the political fiction of property in the person” (Pateman & Mills 17). According to 18th century English philosopher John Locke, property in person is the private property interest one has in the products of one’s labor; this property interest lets you obtain more private property (by improving things with your labor) and, more important, political personhood. “By being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it” (Two Treatises 2.44), one can consent (or not) to t social contract. Owning your property-in-person is what gives you voice, in the sense of political personhood and participation. Traditionally, women as a class are defined as the group of people who permanently sign away their ownership of their property-in-person–and thus their civil personhood–in marriage contracts.[2] Post-feminism gives women their civil personhood–their voice–back by giving them back ownership of their property-in-person. Because the original sexual contract defines civil personhood not just as ownership of one’s own property-in-person, but also as the “use of a woman’s body (sexual property)” (Pateman 184-5), post-feminism’s new sexual contract construes women’s newfound civil personhood/voice in both economic and sexual terms: women can now own both the products of their labor and the use of a woman’s body–THEIR body–as sexual property. Sexuality is central to post-feminism’s new sexual contract, and to the kinds of femininities that it sets up as new norms. Women’s voices must express the use of one’s body as sexual property. This is why pop critics and fans think “there’s a lot to love about this ode to sexual agency from pop superstars Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande [titled “Get On Your Knees”]…but, mostly, it’s refreshing to hear two women reject objectification and assert their status as sexual subjects” (Dunlap, 2014). Similarly, Meghan Trainor’s 2013-14 megahit “All About That Bass” treats heterosexual appeal–what “boys like” and “boys chase”–as the ultimate ground of women’s positive body image. Post-feminist voices express women’s civil personhood as cisheterosexuality.

In this context, sexual deviance or abnormality registers as a lack of “voice”/civil personhood. Women and femmes whose gender expression doesn’t transcend the limits and low status traditionally placed on feminine things read as backwards or pathological or deviant. Femininities that lack spectacular agency are queer in the sense of “abnormal,” especially when that spectacle doesn’t include using one’s own body as cisheterosexual property.


[2] The permanence is the main thing that distinguishes marriage contracts from employment contracts, which are also about signing over one’s property-in-person to one’s employer: employment contracts are limited in duration, both in terms of hours per day or week, and overall.