Confidence – how has it achieved ‘cult’ status in the 21st century?

How has the notion of ‘confidence’ infiltrated consumer body culture and discussions about gender and work? Authors Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad, writing in Australian Feminist Studies, pitch the idea that there is a new "cult(ure) of confidence" in contemporary society, in which almost whatever the question, the solution posed will be ‘improve women’s confidence.’ The study questions, ‘What is the confidence cult, and why has it achieved such affective force in the early twenty-first century?’

Authors Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad argue that "to be self-confident is the new imperative of our time." Their argument is that the cult(ure) of confidence in society has become a technology of self, which calls on us to ‘act upon ourselves.’ What make this distinctive is its gendered address to girls and women, and its apparent embrace of feminist language and goals.

The authors analyse two broad areas of social life in which the notion of confidence has taken hold in the last few years: in the workplace and in consumer body culture. They show that there has been a turning away from structural or cultural understandings of gender inequality, to be replaced by a focus on building up women’s self-confidence. Advocates of the "confidence cult(ure)" such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and the "body love" advertising of Dove and Weightwatchers, incite women to believe in themselves and feel comfortable in their own skins, but in doing so they implicitly place the blame and responsibility in women themselves. The solution advocated is an individualistic and psychological one - to work on developing self esteem, rather than changing an unfair world.

Gill and Orgad conclude that "confidence as a technology of the self is a response to and a product of earlier feminist critiques of neoliberal culture," particularly within the beauty industry. They also conclude that there "…is new spirit, embodied by the confidence cult(ure), incites women to makeover their psychic lives, and in doing so makes over feminism itself—into a neoliberal feminism that is complicit with rather than critical of patriarchal capitalism."

Imogen Catling

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