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How the Market has Changed Notions of Female Empowerment

“Love, Actually” exemplifies a remarkable transformation from a society that understood female empowerment as a systemic concern to one that interprets all feminist concerns about empowerment through the ideological lens of market-based morality.

The other day, when I was watching “Love, Actually,” I couldn’t help thinking of my old feminist teachers, who have been lost to, well, the market. Ms. Klein, who sued to get her much-deserved promotion and won. Ms. Braun, whom everyone only called the man-hater and who couldn’t stop hammering structural inequality after structural inequality; Or Mrs. Tingel, the world’s biggest enemy of tradition (all names are synonyms). I was born in 1976 and so most of my female teachers were hardcore 1968-style second wavers. I couldn’t wait to move on.

For these educators, a movie like “Love, Actually” would have presented one hell of a field day. The idea that a Christmas-themed rom-com featuring nine tales of heterosexual monogamy in the making could be empowering would have been utterly foreign to the spirit of their time. They would have spent weeks with us unpacking and critiquing the movie’s many regressive tendencies: not one woman in it is in a position of power. The only same-sex couple is platonic. People fall in love without talking to each other, and so on.

Not these days. Discuss any of the female characters’ stories portrayed in the movie and students will use words like “uplifting,” “empowering,” and “encouraging.” Ask them about the film’s most problematic gender issues and the next thing they will do is protest Harry’s (Alan Rickman) infidelity. Start a class discussion about the movie’s central message and there is a good chance they will come down on some kind of consensus around the important value of trust. But ask them about issues my old feminist teachers would have broached with us, and the classroom will fall into utter silence.

“Love, Actually” exemplifies a remarkable transformation from a society that understood female empowerment as a systemic concern to one that interprets all feminist concerns about empowerment through the ideological lens of market-based morality.

Case in point: Sarah (Laura Linney), who is in love with one of her colleagues but also stretched thin taking care of her schizophrenic brother who, much to the chagrin of the entire office, constantly calls her cell phone. After the Christmas party, Sarah’s romantic opportunity finally arrives – and yet passes as she takes another call from her brother. For us, the case of Sarah would have automatically led to a critical discussion about a lack of workplace solidarity or what kind of health care system puts women under such immense caretaking pressure. These days, however, Sarah’s problem is prima facie for a discussion about individual market choice. Why didn’t she turn off her phone? Why didn’t she arrange a better treatment for her brother? Or why didn’t she fall in love with a nice guy – someone who supports her special situation?

Consider the opposite to overwhelmed and struggling Sarah: heartwarming Natalie (Michelle McCutcheon), a catering manager, who wins the prime minister’s heart – a man who had her previously removed from Downing Street after an attempted sexual assault by none other than the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) – using her top emotional communication and service skills in ways that cleverly overshadow her two main weaknesses: her lower class background and her (suggested but invisible) chubbiness.

Unlike Sarah who didn’t manage her network of stakeholders properly and doesn’t have it all in the end, Natalie is a successful butterfly entrepreneur – someone who develops her own human capital in order to find happiness, which is largely a matter of finding “the one,” and until then, doing entrepreneurial things, such as working two different jobs in two different countries, getting naked in front of cameras, remaining diplomatically silent in the right moments, staying attractive and, well, professionally serving men.

However, what would true empowerment be without a veritable threat? The feminist dramas I grew up with featured seemingly insurmountable traditions, backwards institutions, regressive legislation, or old boy’s networks. This was the old-fashioned way of feminism where battles were actually political. Not so in “Love, Actually.” Here, the feminist drama is moralistic, the focus is on the individual pursuit of happiness, and the villain is always another person – the free radical, the unfair competitor in the love game: single by choice and not looking always for “the One” and, as such, a veritable threat to the moral order.

At best, the free radical is rendered as a lonely individual who secretly hits on the married woman or man within his or her own circle of friends. And at worst, s/he is profiled as a destructive minx – a tragic figure that is unable to commit wholeheartedly and that only exists to corrupt the harmonious love economy.

Once the free radical commits the unthinkable, the audience gets so involved in taking sides and defending the virtues at stake – any sense of structural inequality of interest to my old feminist teachers would go completely out the door. For example, what role does workplace solidarity play compared to the damaging force of Harry’s (Alan Rickman) sex-hungry secretary? Or who actually cares that Jamie’s (Colin Firth) Portuguese love interest must work two service jobs to support her poor family in the face of a man who is relentlessly shagging his very own brother’s wife?

Where does all of this leave my old feminist high school teachers? Are they sitting somewhere in my German hometown listening to Joni Mitchell right now, like Karen (Emma Thompson), who discovers her husband’s affair with his secretary on Christmas eve? Probably not, as Karen’s case presents the audience with yet another moral choice: that between a combative, emotionally insensitive feminism (bad) and a market-based feminism that is feminine, emotional, and creative (good). “Get a grip, people hate sissies. No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time,” Karen advises Daniel (Liam Neeson) who just lost his wife earlier in the movie, thereby securing her spot as one of the biggest losers in “Love, Actually.”

And so, every year around Christmas, as “Love, Actually’s” endearing tales of butterfly entrepreneurship imbue the contemporary imagination with heightened moral significance, the real message the audience is left with, is this: a woman’s problems are never systemic. Rather, they are matters of cultivating, from whatever resources she may have, the kind of emotional management skills that make even prime ministers hunt her down on Christmas Eve. Who would have thought that I’d ever miss my old feminist teachers?


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