The question of what counts as “feminist popular culture” arises from an engagement with foundational debates within cultural studies as to the primary site for cultural reproduction and contestation. These debates are reflected in the competing definitions of “popular culture” that circulate in the literature, namely: (1) the ideological products of mainstream commercial culture addressed to the mass audience, (2) an alternative, negotiated culture based on a “lived” sensibility of subordination and marginalization, and (3) an oppositional culture developed through the political consciousness necessary for a radical critique of the status quo.
These three sites are connected through the hegemonic processes by which resistant meanings are co-opted into the mainstream in an attempt to neutralize their power, and thereby maintain the status quo. Thus it is argued that the more radical implications of contemporary feminism have been side-stepped by the incorporation into mainstream culture of the demands for greater female visibility, autonomy, sexual freedom, and economic equality through the figure of the “independent career woman” who takes on many of the attributes of the successful middle-class man while remaining sexually alluring and feminine in appearance. Nevertheless, the performance of gender in contemporary culture allows for a much wider range of legitimate identities as a result of the questioning of gender norms that feminism has provoked.
There are also differing views among feminist producers and critics about how cultural representations can adequately address political questions about women’s place in society and, crucially, what those political goals should be – different strands of feminism have different ideas about what their utopian society would be like, ranging from the liberal feminist goals of integration and equal rights, for example, to the more separatist implications of radical feminist valorization of women’s distinctive identity and culture.
There is also a diversity of methods: from an initial concern with textual issues of gender equity drawing on semiotics, psychoanalysis, theories of ideology, the analysis of mainstream stereotypes, and “progressive texts”, feminist studies of popular culture soon took on a wider cultural agenda with research into audience pleasures, the politics of taste, the integration of popular media into the routines of everyday life, and the influence of feminist cultural critique on everyday gendered discourse. An integrated approach researches feminist influences on textual meanings through the political, economic, and cultural contexts of their production and reception. Feminist critical discourses are themselves influenced by the portrayal of feminism in popular culture – they are “part of the same social and cultural struggles over the meaning of feminism” (Hollows & Moseley 2006, 15).
One of the outcomes of feminist studies of popular culture has been the identification of a “canon” of feminist texts, whether found in mass-produced culture or on the margins. A range of criteria has been used by commentators to identify them; it has been argued, variously, that they must (1) be female authored, (2) be produced and distributed outside mainstream patriarchal institutions, (3) be ideologically unambiguous and politically radical, (4) represent women’s experience and subjectivity accurately, (5) deconstruct the codes of patriarchal culture, (6) provide positive images of women, (7) express female desire and fantasy, and (8) be addressed to and give pleasure to women.
There are some obvious contradictions in this list that reveal divergent values and purposes. For instance, calls for a realistic portrayal of women’s lives imply a very different approach than required for utopian expressions of women’s desires and fantasies. Similarly, it is difficult to reconcile the demand to accurately portray women’s suffering and powerlessness with the desire for “positive images of women”. It is also clear that, while calls for female authorship and alternative institutions of production and distribution have helped to deconstruct the embedded sexism of established cultural forms and working practices, the effect of working on the margins has limited the impact of women’s oppositional cultural production. Nor can female authorship guarantee a feminist perspective. Increasingly, interventions into mainstream media have been seen as equally significant for political change, and a popular feminist culture has emerged that engages with and pragmatically adapts familiar generic forms to express the social and political impact of feminism on women’s experiences and perceptions. But there is a two-way permeable relationship between the mainstream and the margins, with feminist artists, for example, producing work that both draws on and influences the more popular cultural forms addressed to wider audiences.
To tease out some of the difficulties that arise in designating texts as “feminist,” Thelma & Louise (1991), a film about two women escaping from capture after one of them shoots a rapist, provides a useful example as it has been extensively discussed in these terms in both the popular press and academic articles (Projansky 2001, 121–153). Its popular success was regarded as either surprising given its feminist perspective, or simply evidence that it was not really feminist at all in that it conformed to Hollywood conventions of narrative and visual pleasure and was made by a well-known male director, Ridley Scott. Yet it was scripted by a woman who reworked the road movie genre so that two women were the central characters in control of the masculine technologies of the gun and the car. The film was not marketed as “feminist” and so avoided the liberal dislike of propaganda, remaining sufficiently ambivalent to be read in divergent ways. It fitted into a changed context where selected feminist ideas had become more generally accepted and the use of “role reversal” as a textual strategy was already well established. The film has been claimed for feminism on the basis that it offers empowering images of strong, independent women and produces an intensely pleasurable response in women audiences. It is celebrated as a fantasy of revenge for the disempowerment and injustices that women experience in their everyday lives. But equally it is condemned as antifeminist for promoting violent masculine values and relying on masculine visual pleasures of technological excess to draw its audience in. In this view, the women take over the male hero’s role without really transforming it and their death at the end is a punishment for their transgression of acceptable femininity. In this reading, their driving over the edge of the Grand Canyon when pursued by the police is a confirmation of the women’s subjection to patriarchal law, but for other viewers it offers the ultimate escape fantasy as the women are suspended in mid-air in the final shot, a confirmation of their assertion that “there’s no going back” to their lives under patriarchy.
These diverse interpretations of the film’s textual politics highlight the problems with the concept of the “progressive text” that relies not only on an assumption of shared political values but also on shared interpretations of the meaning of a text. This difficulty intensified as feminist academics turned their attention to the increasingly ambivalent texts of what came to be known as “postfeminist” popular culture, in which contradictory discourses are rendered open to interpretation by an aesthetic of irony, parody, and excess that celebrates as well as critiques the established forms of popular culture and their gendered conventions. The ideological work performed by these texts in undoing or reconfirming the disciplinary norms of femininity is therefore undecidable, except as an empirical question in local contexts using ethnographic techniques of research.
Feminist Modes Of Reception And Participation
When feminist popular culture is studied as a sensibility rather than as a set of texts, the focus turns to the ways in which people participate in cultural activities in their everyday lives. Feminist scholars seeking to validate women’s enjoyment of romance novels or television melodramas argue that they have value in the face of a dominant hierarchy of taste in which they are labeled as “trash,” but there is a problematic gap between the tastes of the majority of women and their own politically motivated criteria of value. One approach has been to maintain the political importance of women “carving a space” for their own pleasure through consumption of escapist fantasies when their role requires prioritizing other people’s needs. A case has also been made for “Oprah-style” confessional talk shows, which focus on the problems of women’s lives rather than the “happy ending” of the romance, offering a means to convert painful personal experience into a politicized consciousness of how to overcome shared experiences of oppression.
Ethnographic studies in countries undergoing rapid modernization have shown that both global and locally produced female centered television serials play a significant role in mediating women’s everyday negotiations of traditional and feminist conceptions of female identity (Mankekar 1999; Kim 2005). The empowering potential of popular culture has also been studied in “fan” communities in which the pathologized passivity of feminine consumption of “trash” is reconfigured as active appropriation. A well-known example is the production of “slash/ fiction” by female fans of Star Trek who circulate homoerotic stories based on the series that subvert the patriarchal ideology of the original narrative. Internet communication has enabled fan activity to escalate to a new level in response to cult television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior Princess. The presence of female action heroes and explicit or implied lesbian relationships in these series encourages feminist and queer interpretive pleasures that spill over into imaginative and critical writing.
Feminist activists have wanted to educate taste, to develop new cultural competences and communities of practice, through formal courses in women’s studies or informal exhibition or workshop spaces, for example, that teach women to read “against the grain” of hegemonic patriarchal meanings and build their confidence to engage with (and produce) alternative feminist cultures. But new feminist practices also emerge in sub-cultural contexts such as the predominantly masculine cultures of rock music, digital gaming, or hip hop, for example. Studies of youth sub-cultures as a “site of resistance” hold a privileged place in the development of cultural studies, but few initially gave any attention to the way in which young women carve out a space for expressive resistance in the home or the more masculine spaces of the street, school, or club.
More recent “third wave” feminist studies have emphasized the positive effects of young women’s entry into previously male-dominated cultural activities. The “riot grrrl” network, for example, seeks to subvert the masculine codes of rock culture through performing hard rock alongside an assertive expression of female difference derived from girlhood experiences. Work on women and girls playing digital games reports on how they learn to negotiate their enjoyment of the masculine pleasures of competitive game play and technical prowess alongside the more traditional pleasures of cooperation and communication that playing affords. “B-girl” break dancers challenge their own sexualization within hip hop sub-culture by adopting a masculine style of dress and learning the dance skills required to participate as equals in a culture that Ogaz considers to be “a powerful third space of play, resistance and creative achievement” (2006, 180), which not only empowers them as women but forges an alliance with male break dancers in their resistance to the dominant racist culture.
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- Hollows, J. (2000). Feminism, femininity and popular culture. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
- Hollows, J., & Moseley, R. (eds.) (2006). Feminism in popular culture. Oxford and New York: Berg.
- Kim, Y. (2005). Women, television and everyday life in Korea: Journeys of hope. London and New York: Routledge.
- Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening culture, viewing politics: An ethnography of television, womanhood and nation in postcolonial India. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.
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- Ogaz, C. (2006). Learning from b-girls. In J. Hollows & R. Moseley (eds.), Feminism in popular culture. Oxford and New York: Berg, pp. 161–182.
- Projansky, S. (2001). Feminism and the popular: Readings of rape and postfeminism in Thelma and Louise. In Watching rape: Film and television in postfeminist culture. New York: New York University Press, pp. 121–153.
- Whelahan, I. (2005). The feminist bestseller. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.