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For Reflection: The Lived Realities of Women Under the Influence of Globalization

March 6, 2011

[Life politics] is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope. (…) [L]ife politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence global strategies. ~ Anthony Giddens*

The concept of globalization has been defined as the influence that large, industrial, Western countries (i.e. America) have on smaller, less economically influential countries. Development advocates argue that the process of globalization, through which this influence takes place, often destroys the communities of nations that are generally located in the global South. They contend that globalization can destroy local cultures through forced industrialization and modernization. Moreover, the introduction of advanced communication technologies (satellite television, mobile telephony and the Internet) has altered the ways in which individuals see themselves as part of the larger world, often straining long-held communal bonds. As Freeman writes, “[in this view] the local, in other words, is always the victim of global capitalist domination” (1015).

However, many also argue that this same process has given individuals throughout the world greater access to jobs and wealth as well as new ways to interact with people outside their communities. Some even suggest that globalization has given rise democratic revolutions and has furthered human rights campaigns.

Yet, as the broad social and economic impacts of globalization are debated, there remains a general underlying assumption that the process is one-to-many, whereby the products and lifestyles of wealthy nations are adopted without protest and question by the communities within poorer nations. I offer McDonald’s, Starbucks and the television show Friends as examples.

However, the authors below support Anthony Giddens’ argument (quoted above) that globalization is more of a many-to-many process, through which individuals self-reflectively take from the global influence what has meaning to them, incorporate that meaning into their local, lived experience, and share with the world their personal interpretation of a globalized product or lifestyle. Just as Ien Ang questioned the “hypodermic needle” hypothesis with regard to media consumption and gender, so do Freeman and Kim with globalization and gender.

The New Style of Caribbean Higglers

Higglers are women who have traditionally managed the informal labor markets of the nations of the Caribbean islands. They are, as Freeman suggests, “a powerful image in Afro-Caribbean history, a woman who symbolizes local economic ingenuity and female independence” (1019). Traditionally, higglers travel great distances to buy agriculture and household goods and then resell these goods in rural communities on the black market. These woman are known to be creative, skirting the law while supporting and nurturing their families and communities.

A cartoon from a Jamaican newspaper on the migration of higglers

Freeman notes that as a result of modernization and globalization, today’s higgler may find herself working as a typist or call-center employee for an international company that outsourced these functions to the Islands. By way of her ethnographic study of higglers in Barbados, Freeman notes that this modern “pink-collar” worker is not in the same situation as a factory laborer, who may also work for an international organization. (Arguably, the passive factory laborer is a more common depiction of “woman as worker” in the global economy.) Rather, Freeman notes, the worker in the “offshore informatics industry in Barbados takes her wage … and invests it in the purchase of goods abroad, with the eventual goal of reselling them in informal networks back home” (1026).

In this way, these women reject the common — masculine — assumption that globalization only flows in one direction, thereby penetrating the markets in which it enters. Rather, because the higgler buys goods abroad with the intent to sell them in local markets, she navigates a complex world of cultural differences. Thus, she uses her new wealth, which is a result of globalization, to more broadly pick and choose the foreign products that will carry meaning in her own community. This is her agency. Freeman writes:

[The higglers’] roles as transnational informatics workers and marketers … represent forms of global action on local stages whose significance affects directly the ways in which they and their customers live their lives and define themselves. (1032)

Individualizing Globalization in Cultural Terms

Youna Kim introduces us to a different, albeit arguably more popular, interaction with globalization — American television and movies. The mass import of Hollywood films is common throughout the world (few studios outside of the US have the budgets to be competitive with American production companies) and many scholars debate the impacts these films and TV series have on vulnerable cultures.

In her ethnographic study of working and middle class Korean women in their early twenties, Kim finds that American movies are used by the women to reflexively consider their own culture in light of their knowledge about the West. Kim’s study demonstrates that “people have a reflexive and critical engagement with the new global television culture, which involves learning to deal with their life conditions with new information” (29).

Kim found that working class women used American television shows and movies to escape their lived realities, in which their own social mobilities are limited by gender and class roles. The women generally appreciated the sense of identity fluidity and freedom of American women, as presented on screen. To the Korean women, the lives of Western women seemed exciting and meaningful, as compared to their self-described dull and routine existences. In this way, the women often imagined that they were living the lives of those on film, disembedding themselves from their own realties to explore the opportunities of another, if only temporarily (35).

Moreover, middle-class, college-educated women viewed the television series and movies as ways through which they could articulate difference. The women described Korean society as being rigid and strictly defined by a pre-defined set of standards. In many ways, the Korean women admired the free lifestyle of American women, who seem on screen to have control over their own destinies. Kim writes:

This manifests television’s great capacity for evoking reflexivity in an endless chain of referentiality, intersected with the microcosm of everyday life. In the context of new cultural experiences, Korean ways of life and traditional norms are interrogated and criticized (38).

However, neither the working nor middle class women interviewed fully embraced the idea, or ideal, of the Western woman as presented on television. In fact, the women generally rejected the perceived loose sexuality of the stars and questioned the morality of an open sexual environment. In this way, the Korean women contested and rejected many of the images being presented to them, as they did not mesh with their desired perceptions of themselves.

Kim’s study thereby best highlight’s Giddens’ assertion that identity is defined through a self-reflexive process, in which some elements of the globalized image are accepted, while others pushed aside.

Incorporating Global Images into the West

Although relevant to the the broader discussion of globalization, the two studies are limited in that they consider only how globalization impacts cultures that are not “Western” — and by  that I mean they are the receivers of globalized products as distributed by the West, specifically the United States. In both examples the women actively incorporated elements of global culture into their lives, but they did so in a way that asked them to question or reject elements of their own cultures. This is especially the case with the Kim study.

My question is to what extent do Western — especially American — audiences incorporate the reflected, globalized images of other cultures? If we follow the logic of Giddens, Americans would also be asked to reflexively consider their own individualities in light of global world. However, I would argue this is not the case — the onus of reflexivity is left on the individuals outside of Western borders. Thus, I disagree that globalization is somewhat multilateral, as Giddens may suggest. Although the dominant culture may not be accepted in its totality, it still drives global change economically, socially, and culturally. Perhaps the receivers are not passive in the globalization process, but they are certainly being imposed upon and forced to ask questions that Americans (and a few of their Western counterparts) are not.

To reinforce this point we return to Lazar‘s piece “Discover the Power of Femininity!,” in which she outlines the role of global female identity in post-feminism (see link for reference). For Lazar, the modern global sisterhood is rooted in consumption — specifically in beauty products. She notes that although many marketing campaigns highlight regional difference, there is an underlying assumption of sameness. Lazar writes:

… with very few exceptions, the global empowered woman is also remarkably uniform. She may be racially varied to some extent, but otherwise curvaceously slender, of moderate height, and with symmetrically proportioned facial features. She is able-bodied and heterosexual. Membership in the global sisterhood of power femininity, therefore, is premised upon certain criteria for inclusion. (2006, 515).

Thus, the question I raise here is what elements of globalization not mentioned in the articles above were adopted by the women a priori? In other words, what normalized images were understood as status quo so that other aspects of Western life could be either adopted or rejected into these women’s lived realities?

*For further reading:

Freeman, Carla. “Is Local : Global as Feminine : Masculine : Rethinking the Gender of Globalization.” Signs 26.4 (2001): 1007-1037. Print.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991. 214. Print.

Kim, Youna. “Experiencing Globalization: Global TV, Reflexivity and the Lives of Young Korean Women.” Media consumption and everyday life in Asia . New York: Routledge, 2008. 27-44. Print.

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