Performing Vulnerability

Two Sides of the Same ‘Can’


Historically, class and gender have been fraught categories of intersectional analysis. From feminist critiques of Marx’s economic analysis as resting on ‘gender blind’ categories[1], to last year’s Institute for Public Policy Research finding that “feminism has failed working class women”[2], theorising these two oppressed groups together has proved difficult. I will look at how we understand the two categories, examining their differences and similarities, before considering the specific nature of working-class women’s oppression.

When speaking of ‘gender’ I recognise the problems that can result from using this term. However, following Joan Wallach Scott, I use it simply as “a useful category of historical analysis” and thus do not intend to be making any metaphysical claims as to the essence of gender.[3]

Analyses of the axes of oppression that are class and gender have frequently involved diametrically opposed understandings of the social regulations and structures at play. Feminism has looked at the way in which women’s (and men’s) position in society is constructed, whereas theorists focusing on economic oppression, both following and opposed to Marx, have focussed on the structural (material) nature of economic oppression. Consequently, simply changing social structures to remove hierarchies of social positions is enough to deal with class issues, but there is no analogous structure for feminism. Patriarchy cannot simply be removed in the expectation that gender oppression will just wither away. Gender inequalities are constantly reproduced at the individual level, in and through the very performance of gender.

Moreover, the emancipatory goals of class and gender analysis are entirely different. The totalising and multi-faceted nature of gender oppression means that within feminism there is no agreement as to what a society without patriarchy would look like. What is clear, however, is that it is not simply a question of making genders equal to one another. This is because we can have no understanding of what gender is prior to the performance of it. Yet if we recognise gender as performative, we can go some way to addressing the aspects of the performance that are most clearly problematic. Feminists disagree on which aspects are most problematic: for some feminists, it is the gender binary; for others it is the presumption that gender maps onto sex; for some it is the socially constructed cultural meanings attributed to and constitutive of gender; for others it is sex binaries. Class oppression presents a simpler picture, as there is no question of whether we simply need to make classes equal; it is the very existence of class that is problematic. Theorising class is far less controversial, because, whilst there are cultural signifiers, to occupy a class is largely to occupy a particular economic station. Class only exists in unequal, hierarchical and coercive societies, and thus, doing away with economic oppression and doing away with class are largely the same undertaking.

Whilst these tensions within intersectionality constitute part of the difficulty of any identity-based politics, I do not believe it is helpful to take a radical deconstructionist approach to these categories. This would take us close to nominalism and its understanding of radical subjectivity. There are clearly respects in which women – despite their differences and their heterogeneity – have been oppressed as women, just as there are clear ways in which the working class has been oppressed economically and socially.

It is also evident that there are similarities in the manner in which these oppressions manifest themselves in contemporary capitalist society. The categories of class and gender are able to be projected onto bodies, given the social and bodily signifiers (such as accent, dress and gait) and these signifiers must be carefully navigated by the performer.  Moreover, particularly in the case of gender, certain signifiers will be exploited. In women’s work, for example, ‘feminine charm’ is required to generate a particular emotion in the beneficiary of the labour power (Arlie R. Hochschild calls this “emotional labour”[4]). In order to examine an instance of class and gender oppression in contemporary capitalist societies, I will look at the concept of vulnerability in the instance of “emotional labour”.

In relation to my (albeit crude) depiction of these two complex theories, I suggest that we can understand two different poles of vulnerability. The first is material vulnerability, which has been understood in sociological terms as “precariousness”. Subjects are vulnerable here in the sense that they are dependent on a collective other for their means of subsistence. This collective other may be the state or an employer. These are particularly important in a post-Fordist capitalist society, complete with the phenomenon of zero-hour contracts, where dependence renders a subject vulnerable. The other pole of vulnerability is vulnerability as ‘liability to succumb’ – to use the dictionary definition – which is oriented towards a particular other: the liability to succumb to the desires of another. Women’s sexuality has been historically cast in these terms. Whilst men have assumed the role of dominance in normative heterosexual relationships, women have performed vulnerability (read: coyness, ability to ‘tease’) that makes them the potential objects of male desire.

These two poles of vulnerability provide an insight into the specific nature of working class women’s oppression. An example of this is in customer-service jobs such as waitressing and ‘hostessing’.  Catering companies that specialise in the mass provision of both of these employ workers on zero-hour contracts. Women (and men) relying on such work as full-time employment are required to travel long distances (uncompensated) and work fluctuates depending on the number of clients the company has in a particular week or month. Economic vulnerability, to both the employer and often the state, is clear here: workers depend on the provision of work by the employer, and frequently, given the inadequacy of the pay, will also depend on the state for benefits. When these benefits are late, this vulnerability is acutely realised.

Luce Irigaray noted that women’s exchange value is determined by society. In jobs such as waitressing and ‘hostessing’, women’s exchange value becomes clear. In these jobs, women’s exchange value is their sexuality, which is construed in terms of vulnerability. It is this that allows them to become the objects of men’s fantasies, and if the performance of this vulnerability is not adhered to, it is demanded: “Go on, give us a smile love.” For women in low-paid customer-service jobs, this exchange value is exploited, and sexuality as exchange value is what ultimately leads to the commodification of women. All women have sexuality as a potential exchange value within a heteronormative, capitalist society, but women who are educated and high earners tend to have other values that may be exchanged instead (or additionally), like degrees and social capital. Given our post-Fordist society’s requirement for one to become a “walking CV” (to use Nina Power’s term[5]), when sexuality is the only potential exchange value one can lay claim to, both forms of vulnerability are exacerbated. Working class women are therefore liable to sexualisation though the performance of femininity as vulnerability, whilst further being made materially vulnerable due to a lack of other tradable ‘skills’.

Performative vulnerability can be seen as a feature of jobs like these, highlighting their gendered nature. The case of ‘hostessing’ is the most explicit example of the sexualisation of women’s low-paid labour (although workers do get paid more than in waitressing given their greater exchange value deriving from their looks – read: greater potential for objectification). Companies such as Lola Events Staffing proudly promote these women on their website: “All around the country our event personnel can be found dressed as bunnies…”[6] The institution of ‘booth babes’ at electronic/trade shows also embodies this gendered, sexualised, low-paid form of labour. Even in waitressing, however, an insidious form of sexualisation takes place. Workers become faceless and homogenised; clothes are regulated, along with jewellery, makeup and hair, so that each waitress becomes simply another invisible person. Whilst some of these requirements are distributed equally for male and female workers (the men are also de-personified and objectified), the specific objectification of women requires the performance of sexual vulnerability. Where men are simply required to be ‘professional’ or ‘efficient’, for women this takes the form of performing ‘feminine charm’. Such a requirement exploits their exchange value as more than just blank objects for the customers’ consumption; they must be homogenously sexualised objects onto which customers can project their own desires.

By focussing on one aspect of intersectional oppression, I intended to shed light on the specific nature of class and gender oppression. Despite the differences between ‘class’ and ‘gender’ as categories of analysis, it is important to draw out specific similarities and recognise the dual oppression experienced by those at the intersection of these two axes of oppression. Moreover, I have suggested that the relation between the two oppressions is somewhat dialectical. In the instance outlined above, women’s economic vulnerability leads them to be exploited in terms of performative vulnerability, as this is their only exchange value. However, the constant performance of feminised sexuality that is required by the employment-logic vision of the body as a “walking CV”, becomes a signifier of and thus dialectically reinstates economic vulnerability.

Class and gender then, are two sides of the same ‘can’ in terms of potentiality. What working class women ‘can’ do is limited by their material position and also takes specific shape due to the feminised and sexualised nature of many low-paid jobs. Dependency on the employer, the state and the male gaze intersect specifically in particular types of work to require the performance of sexuality-as-vulnerability, which at the same time reproduces the material vulnerability necessary for this form of exploitation.


Emily Cousens is a Women’s Studies student at Wadham College, Oxford, and the co-founder of Wadham Feminists.



[1] Hartmann, HI. The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, 1979

[2] Institute for Public Policy Research, ‘How feminism has failed working class women’, 31st March 2013

[3] Scott, Joan W., Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis in The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 5. (Dec., 1986), pp. 1053-1075

[4] Hochschild, Arlie, The Managed Heart, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1983

[5] Power, Nina, One-Dimensional Woman, Ropley: O Books, 2009

[6] Lola Events, ‘Promotional Staff’,

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