Writing under the influence of Marx and cultural materialism, Michele Barrett in Women ‘s Oppression Today (1988) argues that a feminist analysis of “culture” is imperative today. Barrett’s engagements with aesthetics and subjectivity have proved to be the cutting edge of Marxist feminism. In her famous 1980 lecture “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics,” Barrett identified three main issues for a materialist feminism.
(1) The indeterminacy of literary and aesthetic meaning: Artistic meaning depends upon who is reading, and the actual process of reading. This however does not mean that there is the anarchy of interpretation. For Barrett every work has a “dominant or preferred reading” that limits the possibilities. Barrett argues that literary texts are dramatic performances that are marked by inner contradictions which cannot be easily traced to authorial lives or intentions.
(2) The relationship between women’s art and feminist art: Women’s art is not necessarily feminist. However, feminist political interests are also not necessarily served by the recovery of a female literary tradition.
(3) The problem of judging aesthetic value and pleasure: Questions the feminist rejection of aesthetic value and pleasure. The assumption that value judgments have to be made becomes problematic because values are inevitably the values of the dominant classes.
Barrett argues that feminist critics lay an undue emphasis on the work’s content, while ignoring the role of the reader in producing/reproducing meanings that may be phallocentric. She argues that there is no intrinsic merit in modernist/avant-garde forms, and the pleasures from soap operas and such politically “regressive” art forms must not be ignored. Barrett writes: “cultural politics, and feminist art, are important precisely because we are not helpless victims of oppressive ideology. We take some responsibility for the cultural meaning of gender and it is up to us all to change it.”