Women in the 'Shark Tank': entrepreneurship and feminism in a neoliberal age.

Author:Keren, Hila
Position:Symposium: Female Perspectives in Commercial and Consumer Law
 
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TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction I. Defeating Gender Inequality A. Post-Feminism B. Neoliberal Feminism II. Perpetuating Gender Inequality A. Underrepresentation and Underinvestment B. Sexism C. Second Class (Again) III. Legal Feminism in Entrepreneurial Times A. Harm to Female Entrepreneurs B. Harm to Working Women C. Harm to AH Women and to the Feminist Project Conclusion INTRODUCTION

Shark Tank is the American version of a reality television format featuring entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas in orderto secure investment from a panel of venture capitalists. (1) Every episode of the show consists of several pitches. In each pitch, an entrepreneur or a team of entrepreneurs ("pitchers") presents an innovative business, seeking investment by one or more investors ("sharks") out of a panel of five, in exchange for equity in the presented business. All sharks are investing their own money, and successful pitches lead to deals that bring the entrepreneurs not only capital, but also the help of the investing shark(s) with business connections and mentorship. Currently on its seventh season, the show enjoys remarkable popularity. It has millions of viewers, (2) and in both 2014 and 2015 it won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Structured Reality Program. Numerous avid fans who not only follow the show but also write about it in a variety of mediums, including social media, further enhance its impact. (3)

My sons are devoted viewers of Shark Tank. Since spending time with them is one of my biggest pleasures, I have joined the ride. However, being a female law professor who teaches and writes about contracts and business associations for a living, what started as a family pastime has presented me with an intellectual puzzle that eventually became a scholarly endeavor. 1 found myself intrigued by the show's idealization of entrepreneurship and perplexed with regard to the role of women in this ideally portrayed world. In this Article, I treat episodes of Shark Tank as a social lab that produces an important cultural discourse. Of utmost importance to the way I use the show is the fact that Shark Tank's makers have made clear that their aspiration is to promote the idea of entrepreneurship by influencing the culture surrounding it. As the show's website announces: "the critically-acclaimed reality show that has reinvigorated entrepreneurship in America, has also become a culturally defining series." (4) These deliberate efforts to influence culture combined with the immense actual impact of Shark Tank allow a rare glimpse into the construction of the myth of entrepreneurship and the myth's interplay with reality.

The intentional idealization of entrepreneurship via the medium of a television show and the remarkable concrete success of Shark Tank can both be better understood, I argue, as part of a broader process: the dissemination of neoliberalism. The goals of such a dissemination process go far beyond our economic world and the belief in market economy. Rather, as Margaret Thatcher once said: "[economics are the method ... but the object is to change the soul." (5) But how can such changing of souls be achieved? As Wendy Brown has argued, the neoliberal project utilizes many mediums through which it disseminates its logic beyond the economy; (6) and, as I will argue next, Shark Tank is one such medium. With its focus on entrepreneurship, which is a key component of neoliberalism, the show exposes masses of people to entrepreneurial logic in a simplified and enjoyable format. It is thus valuable to recognize that in doing so, Shark Tank operates as a mechanism through which neoliberalism gains access to people's souls and becomes the common sense, thereby achieving hegemony. The effectiveness of the mechanism is proved by Shark Tank's exceptional popularity, which demonstrates that the neoliberal project has gone so deep that it has changed even the way we are being entertained. As part of a symposium that focuses on women, this Article reveals, traces, and documents this intricate dissemination process with particular interest in the state of female entrepreneurs. It uses the social experiment of Shark Tank--taken as both a reality show and a show of reality--as an opportunity to critically examine the good, the bad, and some of the ugly that comes as women increasingly "do entrepreneurship" in a neoliberal age.

Methodologically, this Article treats Shark Tank as a discourse. Inspired by Foucault, (7) I use the term hereinafter to mean the acts of communication through which, in a complex social process, ideas get widely circulated, turn into "truths," and become the "common sense." As Foucault and his many followers have argued, dominant discourses have constitutive power: they can make some things "normal" and mark others as a deviation in a way that seems natural and therefore defeats questioning. Or, in Wendy Brown's words, discourses have the ability to "constitute a particular field and subjects within it."8 In a nutshell, this Article follows Brown's articulation in exploring how Shark Tank participates in constituting one such field--the entrepreneurial field--and one group of subjects within it--female subjects. To do that, I offer a discourse analysis of the special multidimensional discourse presented by television. Accordingly, in what follows I mainly, but not merely, track spoken and written language. I also pay attention to other meaning-producing resources such as visual images and even musical sounds. At moments, I even note the effect of clothes and shoes on verbal communications and their meaning. Due to all these components and their accumulation, the richness of the message offered by Shark Tank is, I argue, particularly strong and thus especially influential. For that reason, watching Shark Tank closely can add much to the very few works that have so far explored female entrepreneurship by carefully listening to female interviewees, (9) and closely reading public policy texts. (10) Following those works, I explore how the discourse on women's entrepreneurship produced by a show like Shark Tank positions women and their entrepreneurship, and how this positioning may impact the general status of women today. In engaging with this question with the law in mind, I seek to contribute to the recently emerging non-legal body of critical work relating to women's entrepreneurship. (11)

Beyond its entertaining qualities, a reality show such as Shark Tank is worth careful examination because it affects our cultural imagination, and in that way configures what makes sense to us. As others have noted before, "modern Americans learn to be proper citizens not only from each other, but also from reality television, self-help books, talk shows, novels, magazines, and films." (12) Moreover, paying attention to discourse is especially productive as it allows us to "move something from the field of the objective to the field of the political, from the silent and obvious to something one can be for or against, opening up for discussion, critique, and therefore change." (13) This is particularly true with regard to discourse produced by Shark Tank because the creators of the show are not only self-aware of their power to influence others but also use it intentionally and explicitly to sway their audiences. Offering several alternative readings of the configuration of female entrepreneurship by the show, my "interpretative" (14) project critically explores--from a feminist perspective--the impact different understandings of this discourse may have on the problem of gender inequality and its regulation.

This Article unfolds in three Parts. Part I is dedicated to describing how Shark Tank's discourse is structured to circulate the story of defeating gender inequality in the market via entrepreneurial activity. This story comes in two versions: one that celebrates the accomplishment of equality while rendering feminism unnecessary and another that recognizes (some) inequality while suggesting that entrepreneurship is the way to cope with it. Part II digs deeper. It treats the discourse critically and uncovers many troubling moments in which the show actually works not to defeat but rather to perpetuate gender inequality. It defines three ways in which the process occurs in the entrepreneurial setting presented by Shark Tank: underrepresentation of women, sexism, and a gendered division of businesses along the traditionalist lines that associate women with the domestic sphere. Part III analyzes the conflicting messages presented in the preceding Parts from a feminist perspective, with an emphasis on their impact on current legal feminist battles for economic gender equality. I argue that given the dominance of entrepreneurialism in our neoliberal age, the status of women in the entrepreneurial world--as reflected and produced by Shark Tank--severely challenges feminist epistemology. I also suggest ways by which feminists can begin to respond to the challenge and propose that such response should include recognition of, and legal care for, female entrepreneurs. However, I conclude that to advance gender equality for all women--at home, in the workplace, and in the business arena--feminism ought to reject the neoliberal framing promoted by Shark Tank and the framing of entrepreneurship (and everything else) as individual issues. Accordingly, feminism should keep insisting that social structures matter and it must remain a political project. But to do all that we must first "sit back and enjoy the show."

  1. Defeating Gender Inequality

    More than anything else, Shark Tank portrays a world of triumphant people. The real heroes are, of course, the sharks. Every episode opens with dramatic music, presenting the sharks as a group of powerful people, followed by a celebration of the legendary individual success each shark has achieved. Visually and rhetorically, the message is loud and cohesive, telling a victorious story of...

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