What might a mashup of feminism, self-help culture, and neoliberalism look like? No need to wonder, as scholars Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill analyze the ubiquity of what they have termed confidence culture. Among their feminist academic community in London, Orgad and Gill began gathering instances in popular culture focused on a rhetoric of confidence, assuming this discourse was just having its moment. Yet the encouragement, and insistence, that women “lean in” to their confidence persisted in women’s magazines, advice books, apps, and subsequently in everyday conversation. While it might seem that giving women myriad ways to boost their confidence is a positive gesture, Orgad and Gill dissect this discourse to make clear that the confidence culture makes women fully responsible for whatever they lack:
The confidence cult(ure) exculpates social, economic, and political forces from their responsibility for producing and maintaining inequality, instead placing emphasis upon women self-regulating and finding the solutions to their problems within a newly upgraded form of confident subjectivity.”– Confidence Culture
As the book details, that confident subjectivity is turned into commodities, advertisements, public policies, social movements, and philanthropies. The authors mobilize the language of the confidence culture, explaining terms like the “LYB” (Love Your Body) discourse, also called “femvertising”, in which women are encouraged to love themselves no matter what their bodies look like. This instance is typical of the double bind of the confidence culture: LYB or not, your self-worth and self-image are still predicated on your appearance.
In their chapter on work and professional life, Orgad and Gill argue that the confidence culture’s remedy to gender inequality is not for women to change the system, but to change themselves. If you are the problem, then it’s up to you to fix it, by fixing yourself. How different is this set of messages from the exhortations of lack and imperfection that have always been directed at women in a patriarchal culture?
Indeed, the confidence cult(ure) repackages long-repeated ideas to make them more appealing, and to hold women responsible for the damage done to them by the conditioning of societal structures. As women are told in the LYB discourse that they create their own self-doubt, similar messages are packaged in the work-related confidence culture, encouraging women to practice positive poses, self-talk, and exercise that will enable them to undermine the imposter syndrome they use to make themselves feel less-than. Women are encouraged to believe the gender inequality is situated in their own psyches, leaving the burden in their hands – and their heads.
Building on longstanding self-help culture, some of the books and programs prominent in the confidence culture are rather seductive: Orgad and Gill single out Rachel Hollis’ book Girl, Stop Apologizing (2019) for encouraging women to throw themselves into overly demanding professional positions and insisting that the best way to manage negative feelings is to turn them into positive mantras. For women who routinely experience hostility and verbal and psychological abuse in the workplace, a positive spin is an act of denying the reality of an unequal landscape. Some of the postfeminist discourse in the confidence culture seems to create a spectrum with being kind and enthusiastic at one polarity and being an unhappy bitch at the other.
Embracing vulnerability is also part of the confidence culture. Like imposter syndrome, the idea of vulnerability here is truly aligned with privilege. Women made vulnerable by circumstances such as poverty or mental illness, for example, are not invited to call upon issues that might actually be barriers to confidence or could make others uncomfortable. Vulnerability is a performance of stepping up or leaning in: giving your first TED Talk or setting up your Instagram page to declare yourself an influencer. The call to harness vulnerability is highly gendered: this advice and the culture that surrounds it is addressed strictly to women and based on the notion that women inherently suffer feelings of vulnerability that is not even on the radar for men.
The confidence cult permeates romantic and sexual relationships as well, as magazines, websites, and social media influencers enthusiastically extol confidence as a key to happy and successful intimate relationships. Orgard and Gill report that in the first four months of 2020, downloads from and subscribers to self-care apps grew by 80 to 250 percent. Many of the apps are focused on the quantified self, enabling women to adopt systems to track behaviors, activities, and habits.
The research that is the foundation of Confidence Culture was conducted prior to the pandemic and the book was published in early 2022. Considering the extraordinary transformations that many women experienced in their everyday lives during the pandemic, the continuity of confidence culture was disrupted. The authors acknowledge this, giving readers a framework for how we might see confidence culture also transform post-pandemic.