Beautiful Israeli Girls: Between Being in the Present and Future Unpredictability
In this chapter I treat women’s beauty as a form of aesthetic labour and ask how it is represented in popular culture. Specifically, and using popular culture’s images and representations of Israeli girls and young women, this chapter identifies a tension between two temporal logics that characterise neoliberal outlooks. On the one hand, entrepreneurial and aspirational neoliberal subjects must be reflexive and always changing and in the process of subjectification or ‘becoming’. On the other hand, they must also act responsibly and render a self-assured personhood and ‘being’. This raises the following question: if projecting beauty, self-aestheticising and excitable self-presentation have become prerequisites for employability,
D. Kaplan (*)
Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication, The Open University of Israel, Raanana, Israel
© The Author(s) 2017
A.S. Elias et al. (eds.), Aesthetic Labour,
as critical theorists of neoliberalism suggest (see below), how does beauty make visible a person’s inner capacities for simultaneous ‘being’ and ‘becoming’? I will address the tension between personhood (being) and subjectification (becoming) through a brief examination of a 2014 coffee table fashion/art/erotic book entitled Israeli Girls that has provoked an interest in Israeli media. As the Israeli-born photographer Dafy Hagai explained in several newspaper interviews, she hand-picked her subjects according to whether she ‘felt connected to what they projected and to how they look’. Hagai also said: ‘If someone sparked an interest in me and we had a good vibe between the two of us then I took her picture. The outcome is diverse’ (Hagai, quoted in Shalev 2014, np). The photographer thus presents her work as a form of curation of individual singularities. As she describes it, it was through the supposedly authentic ‘appeal’, ‘beauty’, ‘connection’, ‘vibe’ or ‘attention’—the aesthetic labour of being herself that each of the models performed in real life even before she was actually photographed—that the book receives its value as a ‘diverse’ work of art. Specifically, this chapter argues that as a representative of contemporary popular cultural artefacts, Israeli Girls utilises an imaginary space between being and becoming, between local and cosmopolitan Israeliness (a point I shall return to below), and, ultimately, between art and commodified life. In this, Israeli Girls represents the logic of current capitalism, whereby non-work activities are deemed empowering, liberating and non-exploitive and lifeworlds become exchangeable assets for employment.
The dealings of popular culture with beauty and appearance are fascinating for two main reasons. First, as will be explained below, physical attractiveness and presentable, aesthetic appearance have gained a considerable weight in current working life. While standards of beauty are historically and culturally constructed, beauty is both and at the same time inborn, achieved and can even be technologically modified. Perhaps more than any other visible corporeal features, beauty is not simply performed but is ‘a double embodiment’ (Kuipers 2015) inscribed as we tend to conceive appearance (beautiful or not) as a property of a particular self that bears it and, hence at times we conflate it with the bearer, and at other times we separate it from that person’s being. This indeterminacy between the self’s true essence and the face-surface is further complicated by the ability to transform faces technologically. Beauty and its surrounding cultural narratives are thus one site to probe the relationships between what one is by birth and breed, namely, one’s personhood or ‘being’— and what one aspires to be or, more precisely, one’s ability to constantly change. Here I follow media scholar Zizi Papacharissi who addressed this ‘becoming’ capacity, by foregrounding what she terms ‘accelerated reflex- ivity’ as a contemporary temporality which invites us ‘not only to constantly readjust, but also to expect to have to readjust’ (Papacharissi et al. 2013, p. 603; also Scharff 2015).
Secondly, I probe entrepreneurialism, a main ideological tenet of neoliberalism through the ways it is being imagined, represented and transmitted in popular culture. Popular culture is one of the key vectors of neoliberal capitalism. It is not only a major business but also where identities, experiences and subjectivities are moulded. Popular artefacts therefore make of a good way to identify how neoliberalism works (Gilbert 2013; Gill and Scharff 2011). Unlike most critical popular culture analyses, I am less interested here in the ‘pedagogical’ effects of mediated neoliberal narratives, whether they are empowering or not. Rather, my aim is to look at individualised self-identities and human capital and how they are constructed as labour power (Feher 2009; Flisfeder 2015; Hearn 2008). My focus on contemporary Israeli culture is fitting since it exemplifies aesthetic labour in a hyper-neoliberal yet non-American/ European context. Significantly, and as I explain below, while Israeli Girls depicts the cosmopolitan, ‘model’ neoliberal subject—the white middle class, ‘can do’, ‘alpha girls’ (Duffy 2015b; Hey 2009)—it is nevertheless embedded within a local matrix of gender/class/ethnicity relations, with its own distinctive trajectory.
The chapter is organised as follows: I first discuss briefly the theoretical perspectives that inform my research. Specifically, scholarship on immaterial as well as literature on gendered aesthetic labour shed light on the role of beauty in neoliberal capitalism, whereby workers must constantly produce themselves as belonging to the class of the potential ‘employables’ and ‘winners’ (Dean 2008). I then proceed to analyse the Israeli Girls project as a form of aesthetic labour that amalgamates ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ within Israeli neoliberalism.