New book: Working Women on Screen: Paid Labour and Fourth Wave Feminism

Nathalie Weidhase

Everybody talks about work. From social media trends discussing #QuietQuitting and #GirlBossing to TV that depicts different working lives and cultures such as Severance(2022 – present) and SheHulk: Attorney at Law (2022), mediations of work are everywhere. These mediations often take on a particular gendered nature. For women, the notion of ‘having it all’ looms large. The aspirational image ofsuccessfully combining work, motherhood, and romancecontinues to dominate, and books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (2013) offer supposed solutions to make this work. But how achievable are these standards? And at what cost are they achieved? We (the editors Ellie Tomsett, Nathalie Weidhase, and Poppy Wilde) often asked ourselves these questions during lockdown, as we tried to stay connected and keep our spirits up by organising weekly watchalongs to interrupt the monotony of work (made more labour-intensive and stressful due to the sudden shift to online teaching) and domestic labour. The women we saw on screen seemed to ask themselves the same questions, and thus the idea for this book was born. In the current fourth wave of feminism, screen cultures and representations are a central arena within which questions of labour, femininity, and feminism are negotiated (McRobbie, 2020). Contemporary feminism has begun to open spaces to critique these representations, and has centred work as an area of activism, e.g. in the #MeToo movement that highlighted and fought harassment in the entertainment industries.

Our edited collection aims to present analyses of key examples of screen representations of women at work, andexplore the role of fourth wave feminism in these. Our contributors approached this topic from a range of theoretical viewpoints, and in a variety of screen media genres, from film to video games to social media. 

Chapters in the first section of the book discuss representations of the aesthetic labour required of women in the workplace. This is in evidence across media genres, as Adrienne Evans shows in her discussion of how contemporary fitness influencers such as Alice Liveing (formerly Clean Eating Alice) perform aesthetic and digital labour to conform to the postfeminist imperative to always improve yourself, especially aesthetically. Jingyi Gu’s digital ethnography reflects on how female live streamers in China employ affective labour amidst China’s strict anti-pornography laws, performing intimacy on a grand scale. In the realm of television, Silvia Díaz Fernández explores the ways in which protagonists in the Netflix reality show hit Selling Sunset(2019 – present) exploit their postfeminist sexual capital in order to sell LA’s most glamorous and expensive real estate.In contemporary US comedy set within creative industry workplaces, we can see a similar focus on appearance, as Ellie Tomsett highlights in her analysis of the aesthetic and emotional labour demonstrated by the protagonists of Shrill (2019-2021) and Mythic Quest (2022- present). 

Shifting the focus to politics and neoliberal industries as workplaces, the second section explores how women navigate politics and policies on screen. Hannah Hamad analyses the ways in which the controversial Health and Social Care Act in 2012 shaped the NHS as a neoliberal workplace, and how nurses on screen navigate deteriorating working conditions, competitive tendering, and outsourcing. Analysing key spaces for TV and film industry professional recognition, Adelina Mbinjama and Sisanda Nkoala turn their attention to iconic American TV producer Shonda Rhimes and her use of the rhetorical strategy of bragging in her awards acceptance speeches. The next chapters turn their attention to the ways in which women navigate male-dominated workspaces. In the context of video games, Poppy Wilde explores the workplace structures and hierarchies protagonist Jesse Faden encounters in the critically acclaimed action-adventure Control (2019), considering the tensions between neoliberal subjectivation and feminist resistance. Eleonora Sammartino examines representations of tech industry workplaces and ‘women in tech’ in the TV musical Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (2020-21). Nathalie Weidhase explores representations of female politicians in Veep (2012-2019) in the context of Trump’s America, analysing how representations of incompetence serve to critique notions that White feminism is a solution to current political crises. 

The final section explores the intersections between work and interpersonal relationships in film and television. Leanne Dawson critiques the representation of paid care work and its intersection with the labour of motherhood in the film Tully(2018). Anne-Lise Mithout explores representations of disability and sexuality in Japanese cinema in the post-#MeToo context. Turning to the fantasy genre, Louise Coopey examines the – often controversial – representations of sex work in television blockbuster Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Finally drawing on feminist and posthumanist theory, Judith Rifeser and Irina Herrschner analyse the German film I’m Your Man [Ich bin dein Mensch] (2019) and its depiction of a female academic’s relationship with work and love. 

Working Women on Screen: Paid Labour and Fourth Wave Feminism is published by Palgrave MacMillan in the (Re)Presenting Gender series and is out now. Celebrate International Women’s Day with us at its book launch at the BFI Reuben Library on 8th March. Tickets can be purchased here.