Post-Feminism: An Essay

It must first be stated that there is no agreement about how postfeminism can be defined and consequently definitions essentially contradict each other in what they say about the term. At its most straightforward, the prefix ‘post’ in this context appears to mean ‘going beyond’ or ‘superseding’: it could therefore be seen as a confident announcement that feminism has achieved its key aims and that there is full equality for all women and a blurring of the boundaries between traditional ascriptions of gender. Given that a brief scrutiny of our current social formation does not support this view, we might, however, imagine that a post-feminist position is one formulated due to dissatisfaction with existing feminist politics and is to be located in an entirely new area or set of propositions altogether. Part of this dissatisfaction might be an awareness that even in its heyday, second wave feminism did not achieve its aim of speaking to the majority of women.

Either of these definitions seems possible and the notion of superseding or going beyond has been widely utilised in popular culture, and to some extent in academic discourse. Given that ‘feminism’ remains within the term post-feminism, albeit problematised by the prefix of ‘post’, this illustrates that ‘feminism is portrayed as a territory over which various women have to fight to gain their ground; it has become so unwieldy as a term that it threatens to implode under the weight of its own contradictions’ (Whelehan 2000: 78). The ‘post’ is not the end of feminism: actually feminism is constantly to be picked over only to be rapidly set aside again or dismissed as old hat. For Myra Macdonald, ‘post-feminism takes the sting out of feminism’ (1995: 100); it removes the politics and claims the territory of self-empowerment.

There are some more complex and challenging definitions of the term and according to writers such as Sopia Phoca who co-produced an introductory guide to it, ‘post-feminism is considered as a different manifestation of feminism – not as being anti-feminist’ (quoted in Ashby 1999: 34) and as being associated with the development of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, French feminism and post-structuralist theory, suggesting perhaps a permanent fracturation between second wave-style personal politics and ‘high’ theory. Ann Brooks (1997), however, would argue that it is not a question of depoliticising feminism, but of marking a conceptual shift between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ – from a model based on equality, to debates around the revivified and theorised concept of difference. For Brooks the term ‘post-feminism’ ‘is now understood as a useful conceptual frame of reference encompassing the intersection of feminism with a number of other anti-foundational movements including postmodernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism’ (Brooks 1997: 1).

Other critics would argue that the ‘post’ prefix added to modernism, structuralism or colonialism seems to unproblematically connote the ‘going beyond’ both spatially and chronologically that has occurred in modern theory; yet Brooks asserts that post-feminism used in this theoretical context signifies feminism’s maturity. She reflects that rather than ‘post’ meaning going beyond or breaking with, in these contexts it means ‘a process of ongoing transformation and change’ (Brooks 1997: 1). Other kinds of ‘rebranding’ for feminism of course include the use of ‘third wave’ feminism where again the prefix is used to imply key shifts in the meaning of ‘feminism’ itself and in this theoretically-informed definition of post-feminism there might be seen to be common ground between third wave and post-feminism, although third wavers would certainly reject any suggestion that feminism is over. Brooks herself acknowledges the way post-feminism is associated with a negative portrayal of feminism in the mass media – particularly in the way the rhetoric of post-feminism is summoned in the backlash against feminism (see also Faludi 1992).

One of the reasons it is argued that the move to post-feminism is essential is because of the influence of postmodern thinking which refuses the ‘grand narrative’ of gender difference, so that it becomes increasingly impossible to lay claim to the identity ‘woman’, because of the impact of ‘difference’ theories and the contestation of knowledges about how ‘woman’ is constructed. Ann Brooks’s version of post-feminism puts ‘woman’ under erasure; of course one could argue that this denies any political agency to a feminist who cannot lay claim to that identity, ‘modernist’ as it is, suggesting as it does a retreat to the self and ultimately the individualist framing of identity so favoured by enlightenment liberalism. The category ‘woman’, no matter how unsatisfactory as a means to summon up the wealth and diversity of women’s experiences and identities, allows at least a space to lay claim to a wealth of shared experiences (gendered pay differentials, the impact of sexual violence, the relationship of nation to gender for instance) which permits a collective oppositional response to injustices against women.

For critics who are still happy to call themselves ‘feminist’ without any prefixes, such a model of feminism does not readily allow for an acknowledgement of some highly productive shifts in feminism since the 1970s. Feminist politics has not remained static, and many of the central issues, so radical in the 1970s, are now accepted as part of mainstream politics. As Sylvia Walby notes, ‘Who would now call someone who believes in equal pay feminist? Yet before 1975 this was not law and was controversial’ (1997: 163). Rene Denfeld, in her critique of second wave feminism, The New Victorians, bears this out when she points out that while the next generation has problems with the epithet ‘feminist’, they have no problem supporting the principles of equal pay and educational opportunities (Denfeld 1995: 4). For Denfeld this change from broad support of feminism to scepticism and alienation is a response to a change in the terms of second wave feminism itself: ‘It has become bogged down in an extremist moral and spiritual crusade that has little to do with women’s lives. It has climbed out on a limb of academic theory that is all but inaccessible to the uninitiated . . . feminism has become as confining as what it pretends to combat’ (Denfeld 1995: 5). Denfeld is pointing to widely aired anxieties that feminism has become just one more arcane theory – stemming from what she perceives to be a majority of cultural feminist writers creating and delivering women’s studies curricula in American universities, containing an alleged anti-male agenda. It is as if she actually doesn’t want to dismiss feminism but rather to take it ‘back’ from whoever she feels has stolen it. The irony is that ‘post-feminism’ from both Phoca and Wright’s and Brooks’s perspective is in many ways just such another ‘inaccessible’ theory for the uninitiated.

Tania Modleski is more concerned that while ‘woman’ is being put under erasure in the debates about difference, conceptual shifts such as the ‘men in feminism’ debate (a debate about whether men should call themselves feminists or be feminist critics independently of women) might make women disappear from feminism altogether. Talking about one particular anthology of ‘male feminist’ criticism she observes that ‘[i]n an unusually strong post-feminist irony, the final essay of this volume which banishes women from its list of contributors is a complaint about the way heterosexual men have become invisible within feminism!’ (Modleski, 1991: 12). Modleski’s dissection of post-feminism in the critical sphere in many ways anticipates Susan Faludi’s arguments in Backlash where it is the appropriation of the language of feminism which is seen to be used against itself in popular culture. Modleski’s combination of questioning theory and using examples of popular film, television and news, suggests that this appropriation goes much deeper and, she would argue, drives us straight back to male-centred discourse and critical authority.

There is still the accusation that second wave feminism failed to cede the hegemony of white middle-class heterosexual women to other groups of women, and there is clearly some truth in this claim. But nonetheless it is clear that many feminists (particularly at the level of grassroots politics) did acknowledge the common links between different sites of oppression; and the growth in political and critical perspectives by women of colour, working-class women and lesbians suggests that for them the struggle is not over. One can think of key voices in black American feminism, such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins who emphatically lay claim to ‘feminism’ as a term which still has political resonance, and this suggests that not all proponents of feminist discourse are ready yet to cede the ground to post-feminism, but would rather address the gaps, in the belief that there might be some consensus about what feminism can do.

Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.

Ann Brooks (1997) gives a fairly comprehensive account of what ‘postfeminism’ means in a theoretical context; for those still struggling with French feminism, post-structuralism and Lacan. Phoca and Wright (1999) offer a crisp and concise account, liberally using illustrations and graphic narrative. Modleski (1991) and Faludi (1992) offer challenges which provide illuminating comparison.


Categories: Feminism, Literary Theory

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