Postfeminism and Its Entanglement with the Fourth Wave

The concept of postfeminism as associated with a time after, or even reaction against, feminism, can in part be attributed to Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash (1992). Faludi’s analysis of discussions of feminism in the media suggested that the term ‘postfeminism’ was being used to discredit the notion that feminism was still a valuable or relevant political movement. As such, Ann Brooks links this understanding of postfeminism with a ‘widespread “popular” conception’ that is the ‘result of the appropriation of the term by the media’ (Brooks 1997, p. 2). In contrast, Brooks suggests that ‘postfeminism,’ as associated with ‘the conceptual shift within feminist debates around equality to a focus on debates around difference,’ particularly as a result of feminism engaging with postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism, is linked to ‘the feminist academic community’ (p. 4). However, the idea that postfeminism can be limited to the interaction between postmodernism and feminism, confined to academia and thus distinct from a postfeminism as presented in the media, belies the links between the two, particularly evident in assertions that feminisms’ embrace of postmodernism is said to have rendered it meaningless and thus irrelevant. Furthermore, as feminist academics increasingly turn their attention to both media portrayals of women, and the impact of popular culture on women’s lives, this binary between discussions taking place inside and outside academia is being steadily eroded.

Indeed, it is these locations—popular culture, advertisements, films, music videos, and media discussions—that the slippage between postfeminism(s) and the phenomenon of postfeminism as a ‘sensibility’ (Gill 2007) can be most strikingly located and observed. Rosalind Gill suggests postfeminism can be understood as a sensibility, something that characterizes various contemporary depictions of women and femininity within popular culture. As such, postfeminism as a sensibility is not fixed or reliant on a singular understanding of the term; instead it ‘emphasizes the contradictory nature of postfeminist discourses and the entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes within them’ (Gill 2007, p. 149). The understanding of postfeminism as a sensibility is perhaps most suited to the analysis provided within this book, not least because of its location as a phenomenon in popular culture, but also due to the movement it allows between seemingly static interpretations of postfeminism(s). Indeed, popular culture and contemporary discussions of feminism have arguably become so saturated with this postfeminist sensibility that it is hard to tell where postfeminism ends and the fourth wave begins.

The fourth wave is already being discussed as a rejection of the third and the notion of feminism as being reassuringly in the past or even hindering women today (Aitkenhead 2014). Similarly however, the third wave was also to an extent conceived as a backlash against postfeminism, which was taken as simultaneously a celebration and rejection of the ideals and gains promoted by the feminist ‘mothers’ of the second wave (Shugart et al. 2001; McRobbie 2007, 2009, 2011; Budgeon 2011). Although the notion of feminist ‘mothers’ in this context is primarily symbolic; the feminist mothers that third-wave feminists are thought to be rallying against are not necessarily biological mothers, but rather the mothers of the second-wave movement. However, there are examples of third-wave feminists rejecting the ideas of their own biological mothers, most notably the daughter of Alice Walker, Rebecca Walker.

In an essay for Ms. Magazine, published in 1992, Rebecca Walker stated, ‘I am the third wave’ (Walker 1992). Despite the fact that at the time of announcing herself as ‘the third wave,’ Rebecca Walker was not expressly renouncing her mother, they have since become estranged, something that Walker directly attributes to her rejection of her mother’s specific feminist ideals. Discussing her relationship with her mother in 2008, in a Daily Mail article with the titillating title, ‘How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart,’ Rebecca Walker is quoted as stating, ‘my mother’s feminist principles colored every aspect of my life’ and asserting that the reason she is no longer in contact with her mother is due to ‘daring to question her ideology’ (Walker 2008). Though less forthcoming about their relationship, Alice Walker has responded to some of the accusations leveled at her, writing on her blog, ‘I learn via Wikipedia that my daughter was banished because she questioned my “ideology”!’ This is clearly something Alice Walker disputes as she argues, ‘I’m the kind of mother who would cheer’ (Alice Walker 2013).

Helene A. Shugart, Catherine Egley Waggoner, and D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein suggest that ‘third-wave feminists define themselves first in terms of what they are not; namely, they reject the feminism of the second wave, claiming that it reflects almost exclusively the perspectives and values of white, middle-class, heterosexual women’ (Shugart et al. 2001). However, Walker’s rejection of her mother’s values can hardly be seen as moving away from a heteronormative, white, middle-class position, a criticism commonly leveled at second-wave feminism. Rebecca Walker is quoted as commenting in a 1992 interview for The Times, ‘“I hope I never have to hear the word post-feminist again,”’ (Muir 1992), referring to the idea that feminism is no-longer relevant. However, her subsequent pronouncements on the issues she associates with her mother’s politics could equally be read as a rejection of postfeminism as a distinct ideology, developed through the interactions between feminism and postcolonial, postmodern and poststructuralist theory. As suggested earlier in relation to Barbara Smith’s championing of Alice Walker, much of Walker’s work can be seen to problematize the notion of a singular view of feminism that promotes a white, Western view of women’s liberation as universal, thus advocating for the space that postfeminism offers in theorizing the experiences of black and minority women, within a broad feminist, or ‘womanist’ framework.

Indeed, despite Rebecca Walker’s initial proclamations declaring the third wave as a movement intent on challenging the notion of postfeminism—as signaling the end of the feminist movement, either because it’s goals had been achieved or because it’s theories had become irrelevant— much of the feminist activism and theorizing that broadly falls within the third wave can, in fact, be seen to cement the assumptions of a postfeminist society. Even at what can be considered the very start of the third wave, ideological differences surrounding how the feminist movement should progress showed that there was often no more unity amongst peers, than across generations. Although published only four years after The Beauty Myth, another prominent third-wave feminist’s text, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism (1994), written by Katie Roiphe, also the daughter of a well-known second-wave feminist, already begins to show signs of a shift from Wolf’s vision of the third wave that advocates an intergenerational approach to combat the perceived feminist backlash. Instead Roiphe appears to be advocating a postfeminist stance that positions feminism as the problem.

However, this vision was certainly not shared by everyone. Just as there were clashes between feminist waves, and disagreements between feminist mothers and daughters, there was also no real consensus amongst peers over what constitutes a feminist wave or what feminism could offer a new generation of young women. Astrid Henry describes her experience of reading Roiphe’s, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, commenting, ‘I was quick to dismiss Roiphe during that initial reading in great part because, to put it bluntly, I thought she was dead wrong about the state of contemporary feminism. What she described bore little resemblance to the feminism I knew’ (Henry 2003, p. 209). Henry stresses that although both she and Roiphe ‘share a generational label’ and even ‘seemed to have read the same books, taken some of the same sort of classes, and participated in the same “feminism on campus,”’(p. 209) each had developed considerably different impressions of feminism. Henry argues that ‘[f]or Roiphe, feminism was like a stern mother telling women how to behave. She described feeling constrained by feminism, her individuality and freedom curbed by its long list of rules and regulations’ (pp. 209–210). Roiphe’s feminism fits with the popular, and popularized, notion of the third wave as a rejection of the second. Paradoxically, the backlash against feminism, initially identified by Wolf as part of the problem, was later presented by Roiphe as a solution to feminism’s failings. Henry describes the presence of postfeminist ideology in Roiphe’s text, observing, ‘[i]n Roiphe’s description of contemporary feminism, it is no longer misogynist men, patriarchal attitudes, or sexist culture that “regulates” women’s behavior. The task of regulating women’s behavior has been taken over by feminists’ (p. 210). Of course, it wasn’t long before Wolf also shifted her perspective.

Following the publication of The Beauty Myth (1990), Wolf quickly renounced ‘victim feminism,’ (Cole 1999, p. 75) a form of feminism easily associated with her work that focused on the structural inequalities impacting on women, in favor of promoting a ‘new’ power feminism that stressed the importance and capabilities of the individual. Her vision of the third wave of feminism, set out in The Beauty Myth, described a movement that must focus on the collective and analyze how the marketplace was repressing women through a ‘divide and conquer’ (Wolf 1990) technique. However, by 1994, with the publication of Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It, this focus was swiftly replaced with a ‘feminism’ whose ideals were more broadly in line with postfeminism. Women suddenly went from being a collective, oppressed or restricted by a society, and crucially, industry, that dictated how they should look and behave, forcing them into competition with one another, to individual agents, capable of ‘choosing’ to manipulate the ‘beauty myth’ to suit their own ends.

The move from the potentially off-putting idea of ‘victim feminism’ to the more palatable, and certainly from the position of selling books, profitable, notion of so called ‘power feminism,’ can be seen as a response to market forces as well as shifting ideologies. As Alison Phipps has noted in her work, The Politics of the Body (2014), feminism has not been immune to the coercive and co-opting influence of the neoliberal and capitalist ideologies dominating the Western political landscape at this time. Building on Nancy Fraser’s earlier analysis of the relationship between feminism and capitalism (Fraser 2013), Phipps suggests ‘it is not just liberal but postmodern, postcolonial and “third wave” forms of feminism that have been seduced by the market’ (Phipps 2014, p. 4). The influence of this ‘seduction’ can be seen within the third wave as encouraging the placement of the individual at the center of the feminist movement, and valuing the importance of identifying and establishing individual agency over a wider structural analysis.

Postfeminism in this form presented a media friendly vision of feminism where the old dragon of patriarchy had been slain and the future was female, if women were only brave (or liberated) enough to reach out and take it. Thus, in celebrating the ‘successes’ of feminism, postfeminism not only consigned the feminist movement to the past, it also shifted the responsibility for women’s success from the collective to the individual, reinforcing the notion of Western society as predicated on the model of meritocracy and strengthening the relationship between postfeminism and neoliberalism. This in turn allowed for the easy slippage between postfeminism as a time after feminism, and postfeminism as a backlash against the movement, whereby Angela McRobbie’s theory of ‘double entanglement’ suggests ‘[t]he “taken into accountness” permits an all the more thorough dismantling of feminist politics and the discrediting of the occasionally voiced need for its renewal’ (McRobbie 2007, p. 28). With the shift from the focus on ‘victim feminism,’ that stressed women’s collective experience of patriarchy, to the promotion of individual empowerment, in part supported by the rhetoric of postmodernism that challenged the idea of any universal experience of being a ‘woman,’ there was a seemingly natural progression from third wave to postfeminism. Although Phipps rightly highlights the turn to neoliberal, capitalist ideals that took place within third-wave feminism, these principles, and questions of how they influence or co-opt feminist ideals, are not confined to the third wave, and indeed rumble on as we move into the fourth.


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