Independent Woman is one of the most reliable girl-power playlist constants.
We all love this song, and that’s ok, not least because full economic participation and parity is an important frontier for women as a class.
But the women in this video aren’t talking about their work, its value and visibility in the communal apparatus. They are talking about their consumption.
The shoes on my feet/ I’ve bought it/ The clothes I’m wearing/ I’ve bought it /The rock I’m rockin’/ ‘Cause I depend on me/ If I wanted the watch you’re wearin’ /I’ll buy it/ The house I live in/ I’ve bought it/ The car I’m driving/I’ve bought it/ I depend on me
In order to reject the kind of infantilizing pet status that drove women of earlier times to abandon many of their class privileges for the sake of a job, the singer must position herself as an autonomous consumer. Independence is bought liberation–a series of commodities that represent the bearer’s place in the economic system and which create her sense of self in isolation. She’s not primarily your girlfriend, she’s the owner of a Porsche.
Woman-as-consumer is hardly a groundbreaking conception of feminine life, and it conveniently elides the reality of female labor. Women work–women have always worked. The leisure sex was always largely a polite fiction, but now the construct exists only in the most rarefied of circles. We don’t need to be told that we needn’t depend on a man; we need men, and the world at large, to recognize the extent to which they depend on women.
Women are invaluable and often exploited contributors to the social economy; the time for proving women’s competence is over. It’s time to ask why so much of the work is assumed to be women’s, why the work women do is so often de-valued, trivialized, or made invisible; why women are so often denied a public identity, and how the association of certain kinds of work with female identity helps preserve the status quo. The conversations about whether women can have it all or whether single mothers can raise well-adjusted children are dead. Why should they have to in the first place? The glorification of independence employs exactly the same ruse as the vintage Hoover ad: casting female labor as fulfillment by framing it in terms of consumption.
If independence is bought liberation, it’s lure depends on the promise that purchasing power will replace and obscure the ties in terms of which the singer might otherwise have understood herself. Independence is the freedom to reject relationships, and over and over we’ve had women onscreen, in novels, in songs, saying “I depend on me” presented to us as the pinnacle of feminist progress.
But people are dependent. You may have bought the car you’re buying, but you didn’t build it, and you didn’t build you. Dependence is how human relationships work, and forcing women to exclude themselves from a major component of the human experience can only undercut their commitment to equality and, eventually, to each other.
The fantasy of independence keeps women agonizing between two impossible choices: subjugation or alienation. Any alternative to patriarchy can only be an individual escape for the outliers–women possessed of the requisite talent for loneliness or superhuman self-sufficiency . You pays your money and you takes your choice–now, which do you want to be, Rosamond or Dorothea? Betty Draper or Liz Lemon?
Dependency is not a pathology endemic to the female sex, and freedom from the demands and limitations of relationships is not the final goal of feminism. Restructuring those relationships along more equitable lines is. The majority of women who take their husband’s name are not necessarily victims of internalized misogyny or social pressure. When the question of nomenclature routinely stalls at autonomy and independence, a certain amount of distance from the relationship rather than a legal identity that recognizes equally their mutual participation in a unity, why should they bother? Independence is a kind of strike, and no one wants to be on strike for a lifetime.
The logic of independence is usually implicitly limited to male-female relationships, but it’s not unusual for women to carry it to its conclusions. Hence we have the kind of cowboy feminist who insists that she’s not a victim, she’s not afraid to be a dissident, she’s strong and independent enough to take it and make it on her own. The aim is not to dismantle or even to escape the patriarchy, but to win it*.
I don’t mean to take up a Chestertonianly** obnoxious position towards female independence. Some degree of economic and personal independence can be a real necessity (particularly for victims of abuse), and was probably an important goal for incipient feminists. But it was important in the same way that adolescence is important, and to continue harping on it is to keep women stuck in an adolescent performance of personal prowess and individuality incompatible with coming into our own as fully equal adults.
*If someone knows how to make a badge that says “I Won the Patriarchy” that would be great.
*I don’t hate Chesterton, but he was completely obnoxious about women.