Monday, 26 November 2007


My Feminist and Cultural Theory course has thrown up some interesting questions for me about my feminist politics. There's a hell of a lot of material on the concept of postfeminism, how it's interwoven with neo-liberalism, in particular, a UK-centric Blairite focus on 'women's issues' and makeover culture (particularly 'symbolic violence' to women in makeover shows like What Not To Wear or the more odious 10 Years Younger as a metaphor for postfeminist values.

My tutor (who writes primarily on postfeminism and pop culture) and I have been at loggerheads over the definition of postfeminism and related issues for the past couple of weeks, and I do not see that changing. She defines postfeminism as a culture in which feminism is acknowledged and credited, but largely discarded in favour of a more individualistic 'choice' orientated politics coupled with some pre-feminist values that are established as being part of that 'choice' (see the popularity of self-identified postfeminist Laura Doyle's book and accompanying self-help movement Surrendered Wives). She refers frequently to a backlash against feminism in popular culture and the media - particularly the resurgence of the New Lad in the mid-90s, the accompanying ladmags (which also reduce masculinity to something pretty damn degrading), ever-present criticism of women who think they can 'have it all', and etc.

Me? I'm not so sure. My first question was really to express confusion as to what kind of feminism the backlash we're talking about is rattling against. Are we talking the second wave? Her response wasn't clear. I asked questions about the Third Wave - which I suppose I count myself as being part of (post-Butler/queer-informed feminism, I guess) and how 'we' differ. I suppose what irritates me most about the term and its implications is, as my tutor described, a notion that we're the naughty bad gals undoing all our elders' good work.

Calling oneself a feminist, in this place, at this time, is not always easy. Most of my friends refer to themselves as feminists, support feminism, understand feminist values, that a feminist does not automatically = dungarees wearing hairy man-hater (though I'm pretty lazy about shaving and fuck it if my (well, if they're male - never had a female partner who gave a damn, interestingly enough) sexual partner is has a problem. what preening are they pressured into doing, ffs?), generally pretty Sexism Aware types. But there's still aggression towards feminism, still an assumption that men and women are two entirely different species. There's usually a way to blame feminism for most of society's ills.

But still, what this postfeminism is 'post' is unclear to me. Is being not-entirely-anti-sexwork post-feminist? Or being not-at-all-anti-SM? Or, indeed, as my tutor put forward last week, not entirely anti the commercialisation of sexuality? I still see a way through. I'm not entirely negative about feminism's future in the West. Most of that lies in claiming agency for what we do, the choices we make - still seeking radical changes in gender politics. Not always easy in the face of our older feminist aunties telling us we're wrongwrongwrong and that we're not radical enough, but important to me all the same. While I'm no Andrea Dworkin I'm no Camille Paglia, either. I don't see feminist empowerment as being as simple as being female and doing something that makes me feel good, secure or validated.

I don't think the state of contemporary feminism is 'post'. In truth, I hate the fucking term. But if not, where, then, are we?


a very public sociologist said...

I remember writing a paper on postfeminism ten years ago when I was an undergrad. If I remember rightly, I distinguished between two forms of postfeminism - the situation you describe in your post, and the (academic) branch of feminism heavily influenced by the linguistic turn and post-structuralist thinking.

Basically I performed a lit review of developments from the late 70s to the then present day, developments that as we know led to progressive fragmentation. The rather pessimistic conclusion I ended up reaching was how (post)feminist thought had ended up as but one postmodern trend among many. In other words, paraphrasing and mangling Heidi Hartmann, the marriage of postmodernism and feminism has brought them together as one, and that one is postmodernism.

Anonymous said...

It seems strange to me that you could have "post-" anything when that thing hasn't yet existed.

"Postfeminism" would seem to me to refer to a movement that existed after a feminist revolution had taken place; some might argue that Second Wave feminism was that revolution, but it seems self-evident to me that that is not so. The feminist movement has changed gender politics a great deal, but the same basic inequalities still underlie most of society. How could anything be "post" feminism, when feminism has only just got started?

The "New Lad" movement was not "post" but "anti" (in as much as it had any real reference to feminism as a political or social movement). However, I would claim that New Ladism was more of a backlash against "New Man-ism" (the supposedly more touchy-feely approach to getting a girl, that was in some ways a response to the criticisms of the old Patriarchal family order).

I think so-called postfeminism, inasmuch as it relates to feminism at all, is actually very much a reactionary movement; it acknowledges feminism only in the same way that late 19th Century capitalists acknowledged communism and socialism - a new threat to be driven back. the rest of what is identified as "postfeminism" doesn't strike me as being a movement so much as people quietly getting on with being socialised into the Patriarchal system and not really too bothered by the fact. Feminism isn't so much ignored as just they don't see it as relevant. The media (still run largely by male Patriarchy figures) is what describes it as a movement and generates that impression. And, as I suggested above, I think that this is not "post" but "anti", a new way to persuade people to ignore the troublesome wimmin.

Louisefeminista said...

Well, opression and discrimination of women still exists in a capitalist patriarchal society therefore how can we postfeminism?

"In other words, paraphrasing and mangling Heidi Hartmann, the marriage of postmodernism and feminism has brought them together as one, and that one is postmodernism."

AVPS: Poor Heidi Hartmann....
Overall, I think that is correct and what saddens me is some committed socialist feminists have drifted over to postmodernism like Michele Barrett and Carol Smart ("postmodern woman meets atavistic man"). I think, Smart especially, felt disappointed and fed-up with the lack lustre and somewhat hostile approach from Marxism towards feminism. Smart believed postmodernism was more accomodating towards feminism.

Frankly, I think the Left needs to understand that feminism is integral to socialism. And turning towards an anti-materialist approach like postmodernism is a retrograde step.

And i agree with Verte, neither Dworkin or Paglia. But for me, socialist feminism.