INTERROGATING POSTFEMINISM Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture
Duke University Press Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4014-0
Postfeminism and Popular Culture BRIDGET JONES AND THE NEW GENDER REGIME
Complexification of Backlash?
This article presents a series of possible conceptual frames for engaging with what has come to be known as postfeminism. It understands postfeminism to refer to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s come to be undermined. It proposes that, through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to "feminism." It then proposes that this "undoing," which can be perceived in the broad cultural field, is compounded by some dynamics in sociological theory (including the work of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck) that appear to be most relevant to aspects of gender and social change. Finally, it suggests that by means of the tropes of freedom and choice that are now inextricably connected with the category of "young women," feminism is decisively "aged" and made to seem redundant. Feminism is cast into the shadows, where at best it can expect to have some afterlife, where it might be regarded ambivalently by those young women who must in more public venues stake a distance from it, for the sake of social and sexual recognition. I propose a complexification, then, of the backlash thesis that gained currency within forms of journalism associated with popular feminism.
The backlash for Susan Faludi was a concerted, conservative response to the achievements of feminism. My argument is that postfeminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings, which emphasize that it is no longer needed, that it is a spent force. In Britain this was most vividly seen in a newspaper column, "Bridget Jones's Diary," and in the enormously successful book and films that followed. For my purposes here, postfeminism permits the close examination of a number of intersecting but also conflicting currents. It allows us to examine shifts of direction in the feminist academy while also taking into account the seeming repudiation of feminism within this same academic context by those young women who are its unruly (student) subjects. Broadly, I am arguing that for feminism to be "taken into account" it has to be understood as having already passed away. This is a movement detectable across popular culture, a site where "power ... is remade at various junctures within everyday life, [constituting] our tenuous sense of common sense." Some fleeting comments by Judith Butler suggest to me that postfeminism can be explored through what I would describe as a "double entanglement." This comprises the coexistence of neoconservative values in relation to gender, sexuality, and family life (e.g., George W. Bush supporting the campaign to encourage chastity among young people and in March 2004 declaring that civilization itself depends on traditional marriage) with processes of liberalization in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual, and kinship relations (e.g., gay couples now able to adopt, foster, or have their own children by whatever means and, in the United Kingdom at least, full rights to "civil partnerships"). It also encompasses the existence of feminism as at some level transformed into a form of Gramscian common sense, while also fiercely repudiated, indeed almost hated. The "taken into accountness" permits an all the more thorough dismantling of feminist politics and the discrediting of the occasionally voiced need for its renewal.
Feminism Dismantling Itself
The impact of this "double entanglement," which is manifest in popular and political culture, coincides, however, with feminism in the academy finding it necessary to dismantle itself. For the sake of periodization, we could say that 1990 (or thereabouts) marks a turning point, the moment of definitive self-critique in feminist theory. At this time, the representational claims of second-wave feminism come to be fully interrogated by postcolonialist feminists such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Trinh Thi Minh-ha, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, among others, and feminist theorists such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, who inaugurated the radical denaturalizing of the postfeminist body. Under the prevailing influence of Michel Foucault, there is a shift away from feminist interest in centralized power blocs (e.g., the state, patriarchy, and law) to more dispersed sites, events, and instances of power conceptualized as flows and specific convergences and consolidations of talk, discourse, attentions. The body and also the subject come to represent a focal point for feminist interest, nowhere more so than in the work of Butler. The concept of subjectivity and the means by which cultural forms and interpellations (or dominant social processes) call women into being, produce them as subjects while ostensibly merely describing them as such, inevitably means that it is a problematic "she," rather than an unproblematic "we," that is indicative of a turn to what we might describe as the emerging politics of postfeminist inquiry.
In feminist cultural studies, the early 1990s also marks a moment of feminist reflexivity. In "Pedagogies of the Feminine" Charlotte Brunsdon queried the (hitherto assumed) use value to feminist media scholarship of the binary opposition between femininity and feminism, or as she put it the extent to which the "housewife" or "ordinary woman" was conceived of as the assumed subject of attention for feminism. Looking back we can see how heavily utilized this dualism was and also how particular it was to gender arrangements for largely white and relatively affluent (i.e., housewifely) women. The year 1990 also marked the moment at which the concept of popular feminism found expression. Andrea Stuart considered the wider circulation of feminist values across the landscape of popular culture, in particular magazines in which quite suddenly issues that had been central to the formation of the women's movement, such as domestic violence, equal pay, and workplace harassment, were now addressed to a vast readership. The wider dissemination of feminist issues was also a key concern in my own writing at this time, in particular the intersection of these new representations with the daily lives of young women who, as subjects ("called into being") of popular feminism, might then be expected to embody more emboldened (though also of course "failed") identities. This gave rise to the idea of feminist success. Of course, no sooner is the word success written than it is queried. How could this be gauged? What might be the criteria for judging degrees of feminist success?
Admittedly there is some extravagance in my claim for feminist success. It might be more accurate to remark on the keen interest across the quality and popular media (themselves wishing to increase their female readers and audiences) in ideas of female success. As feminist values are indeed taken on board within a range of institutions, including law, education, to an extent medicine, and likewise employment and the media, high-profile or newsworthy achievements of women and girls in these sectors show the institutions to be modern and abreast with social change. This is the context, then, within which feminism is acknowledged, and this is what I mean by feminism taken into account. Feminist success has, so far, only been described sporadically. Within media and cultural studies, both Brunsdon and myself have each considered how with feminism as part of the academic curriculum (i.e., "canonized"), then it is not surprising that it might also be countered; that is, feminism must face up to the consequences of its own claims to representation and power and not be so surprised when young women students decline the invitation to identify as a "we" with their feminist teachers and scholars. This interface between the feminist academy and the student body has also been discussed in American feminist journals, particularly in regard to the decline of women's studies. Back in the early 1990s (and following Judith Butler), I saw this sense of contestation on the part of young women, and what I would call their "distance from feminism," as one of potential where a lively dialogue about how feminism might develop would commence. Indeed, it seemed in the very nature of feminism that it gave rise to disidentification as a kind of requirement for its existence. But, still, it seems now, over a decade later, that this space of "distance from feminism" and those utterances of forceful non-identity with feminism have consolidated into something closer to repudiation than ambivalence, and it is this vehemently denunciatory stance that is manifest across the field of popular gender debate. This is the cultural space of postfeminism.
In this context, it requires both imagination and hopefulness to argue that the active, sustained, and repetitive repudiation or repression of "feminism" also marks its (still fearful) presence or even longevity (as afterlife). What I mean by this is that there are different kinds of repudiation and different investments in such a stance. The more gentle denunciations of feminism (as in the film Bridget Jones's Diary) coexist, however, with the shrill championing of young women as a "metaphor for social change" on the pages of the right-wing press in the United Kingdom, in particular the Daily Mail. This anti-feminist endorsement of female individualization is embodied in the figure of the ambitious "TV blonde." These so-called "A1" girls are glamorous high achievers destined for Oxford or Cambridge and are usually pictured clutching A-level examination certificates. We might say these are ideal girls, subjects par excellence, and also subjects of excellence. Nor are these notions of female success exclusive to the changing representations of young women in the countries of the affluent West. As Spivak has argued, in the impoverished zones of the world, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also look to the minds and bodies of young women, for whom education comes to promise enormous economic and demographic rewards. Young women are a good investment, they can be trusted with microcredit, they are the privileged subjects of social change. But the terms of these great expectations on the part of governments are that young women must do without more autonomous feminist politics. What is consistent is the displacement of feminism as a political movement. It is this displacement that is reflected in Judith Butler's sorrowful account of Antigone's life after death. Her shadowy, lonely existence suggests a modality of feminist effectivity as spectral; she has to be cast out, indeed entombed, for social organization to once again become intelligible.
The media have become the key site for defining codes of sexual conduct. They cast judgment and establish the rules of play. Across these many channels of communication, feminism is routinely disparaged. Why is feminism so hated? Why do young women recoil in horror at the very idea of the feminist? To count as a girl today appears to require this kind of ritualistic denunciation, which in turn suggests that one strategy in the disempowering of feminism includes it being historicized and generationalized and thus easily rendered out of date. It would be far too simplistic to trace a pattern in media from popular feminism (or "prime-time feminism," including that found in such TV programs as LA Law) in the early 1990s to niche feminism (BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and the Women's Page of the Guardian newspaper) in the mid-1990s and then to overtly unpopular feminism (in the new century), as though these charted a chronological "great moving right show," as Stuart Hall once put it in another context. We would need a more developed conceptual schema to account for the simultaneous feminization of popular media with this accumulation of ambivalent, fearful responses. We would certainly need to signal the full enfranchisement of women in the West, of all ages, as audiences, active consumers of media and the many products they promote, and, by virtue of education, earning power and consumer identity a sizable block of target market. We would also need to be able to theorize female achievement predicated not on feminism but on "female individualism," on success that seems to be based on the invitation to young women by various governments that they might now consider themselves free to compete in education and work as privileged subjects of the "new meritocracy." Is this, then, the New Deal for New Labour's "modern" young women: female individualization and the new meritocracy at the expense of feminist politics?
There are various sites within popular culture where this work of undoing feminism with some subtlety becomes visible. An advertisement showing the model Eva Herzigova looking down admiringly at her substantial cleavage enhanced by the lacy pyrotechnics of the Wonderbra was throughout the mid-1990s positioned in major high-street locations in the United Kingdom on full-size billboards. The composition of the image had such a textbook "sexist ad" dimension that one could be forgiven for supposing some ironic familiarity both with cultural studies and with feminist critiques of advertising. It was, in a sense, taking feminism into account by showing it to be a thing of the past, by provocatively "enacting sexism" while at the same time playing with those debates in film theory about women as the object of the gaze and even with female desire. The picture is in noirish black and white and refers explicitly through its captions (from "Hello Boys" to "Or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?") to Hollywood and the famous lines of the actress Mae West. Here is an advertisement that plays back to its viewers well-known aspects of feminist media studies, film theory, and semiotics. Indeed, it almost offers (albeit crudely) the viewer or passing driver Laura Mulvey's theory of women as objects of the gaze projected as cityscape within the frame of the billboard. Also mobilized in this ad is the familiarity of the term political correctness, the efficacy of which resides in its warranting and unleashing such energetic reactions against the seemingly tyrannical regime of feminist puritanism. Everyone, and especially young people, can give a sigh of relief. Thank goodness, the ad seems to suggest, it is permissible, once again, to enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful women. At the same time, the advertisement also hopes to provoke feminist condemnation as a means of generating publicity. Thus, generational differences are also produced; the younger female viewer, along with her male counterparts, educated in irony and visually literate, is not made angry by such a repertoire. She appreciates its layers of meaning; she "gets the joke."
When in a TV advertisement (1998-99) another supermodel, Claudia Schiffer, takes off her clothes as she descends a flight of stairs in a luxury mansion on her way out of the door toward her new Citroën car, a similar rhetoric is at work. This ad appears to suggest that, yes, this is a self-consciously "sexist ad." Feminist critiques of it are deliberately evoked. Feminism is "taken into account" but only to be shown to be no longer necessary. Why? Because it now seems that there is no exploitation here; there is nothing remotely naive about this striptease. She seems to be doing it out of choice and for her own enjoyment. The ad works on the basis of its audience knowing Claudia to be one of the world's most famous and highly paid supermodels. Once again the shadow of disapproval is evoked (the striptease as a site of female exploitation) only instantly to be dismissed as belonging to the past, to a time when feminists used to object to such imagery. To make such an objection nowadays would run the risk of ridicule. Objection is preempted with irony. In each of these cases, a specter of feminism is invoked so that it might be undone. For male viewers, tradition is restored, or, as Beck puts it, there is "constructed certitude," while for the girls what is proposed is a movement beyond feminism to a more comfortable zone where women are now free to choose for themselves.
Excerpted from INTERROGATING POSTFEMINISM Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.