Identity politics refers to the struggle for political recognition by marginalized social groups based on particular affiliations of individual identity, such as gender, sexuality, “race,” ethnicity, and nationality. Identity-based movements, as they grew in the west, challenged the limitations of political representation and citizenship offered within the liberal democratic state and institutions. Even as identity politics made visible more dominant social inequities, it also opened the door for rethinking and questioning within social movements based on identity, such as the movements for women’s liberation and feminisms in general. At the heart of feminist identity politics are the questions: who is the “woman” that is imagined as the subject of feminism or of women’s emancipation, and is there a singular significance to gender identity when the “woman” is embedded in a network of other social identities such as race, ethnicity, religious community, or nationality?
The Combahee River collective, an African-American lesbian feminist group, wrote one of the foundational feminist manifestos of identity politics, in which they insisted on the interlocking, intersecting nature of oppressions based on “race,” gender, class, and sexual identity. Gender politics, it followed from their argument, could not be analyzed through gender identity alone; it had to be mapped in and through the interlocked politics of racial identity, sexual identity, and class identity. Feminist work on “race” and gender in communication has constantly sought to unravel these intersections (see Bobo 1995), challenging work that solely focused on the white, middle-class, heterosexual woman as the subject of feminist media studies. Rather than “race” becoming a marker for minority identity, the shifting colors of “whiteness” became important for feminist media studies.
Both British cultural studies and French postmodern theories of language and representation have played critical roles in the way the questions regarding identity politics have been rethought in gender and communication since the 1980s. The work of postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and postmodern feminists like Julia Kristeva, Eve Sedgwick, and Monique Wittig, questioned the very identification of “identity” with sameness and continuity of the individual self. Identity was reconceptualized not as an essence that belonged to the individual bounded by body and self, but as an effect of the working of language, modes of representation, and systems of signification that produce meaning. Identity could no longer be thought of as the voice of individual or collective experiences; instead, identities themselves arguably emerged only through a play of differences in a network of signifying words and signs (Hall 1996).
For feminists, this was an important turning point, making it necessary to think not of sexual identity so much as sexual difference itself as an effect of language, representation, and signification. Clearly, this set the way for feminist media studies to theorize media and communication processes as an important site for the construction of sexual identity and difference. The fluid, shifting constructions of sexual identities and differences through media representations, media texts, language, and symbolic systems that mutate in historical and cultural contexts became the single most significant theme in feminist media studies. New and emerging forms of femininities, sexualities, and sexual differences, as well as new cultural trends such as postfeminism in the media could now be mapped through feminist critiques of representation (Dow 1996; McRobbie 2004). The concept of shifting, multiple, and contingent identities has proved to be particularly relevant to feminist research on new media (Sundén 2001).
The binary modes of thinking about sexual difference based on sex as biological nature, and queer theorists led by Judith Butler (1990), challenged gender as culture. These theorists argued that feminist identity politics could not be built on gender ontologies, or on foundational claims about gender that essentializes the differences between “natural” and “cultural” identities such as woman/man, feminine/ masculine, homosexual/heterosexual, and lesbian/gay. The body, which had remained a biologically constant artifact for earlier feminisms, was no longer perceived to be a mute physical surface on which culture was inscribed. Instead, the body was seen as something that fundamentally became intelligible only through sedimented knowledge, political contexts, and cultural meanings of sexual differences. Gender, Butler maintained, is performative; it is not a substantive reality belonging to the body nor is it a pre-existing social or subjective identity, but an act recreated through repeated performances by a body to produce cultural meaning. The argument led feminist scholars studying sexuality in communication to take both sexual subjectivities and the body as culturally constructed, and, as Henderson (2001) argues, as an arena for political struggle.
Given the centrality accorded to language and representation in postmodern feminism, women’s experiences were no longer authentic enough sources to validate feminisms. Thus, it became necessary to deconstruct the language of such experiences and subjectivities to show how they were mediated by history, culture, and politics. Since the authenticity of experience was questioned, so were the feminist collectivities that relied on the shared experience of women’s oppression as their ground, and the knowledge that was produced about women in academia. Processes of identification with another woman’s experience were central to feminism’s collective ground, and even to its academic knowledge production. However, that was now open to question. Power relations between women of different classes or races were now regarded as just as significant as male/female power relations. This reflected on the world of learning, where women were privileged to produce knowledge about other women and to represent the experiences of other women. Feminist work in cultural anthropology, for example, has foregrounded the power relations between academic feminism and women who were the subjects of inquiry. In feminist media ethnography, reflexivity, or the analysis of power relations between the woman academic and the women who formed the subjects of their research, became a key factor in the production of academic knowledge about women. The identity of the researcher, in terms of “race,” class, gender, and sexual orientation was seen to significantly affect the research process itself.
If “race,” gender, and sexual orientation were influential in creating discourses of identity politics from the start, postcolonial theory introduced a new dimension into the reconceptualization of identities. Edward Said’s work (1979) drew sharp attention to the frameworks of knowledge through which the west defined and produced an exotic, barbaric “Orient.” Chandra Mohanty (1991) argued that colonial frames of knowledge that haunt feminist work represented the “third world woman” as a voiceless, passive subject of age-old tradition in contrast to her “liberated” western counterpart. Gayatri Spivak (1988), a central figure in postcolonial feminist theory, showed how the speech of the “third world woman” is impossible in the Anglo American academy. The voice of the “woman at the other end of the international division of labor,” she argued, is forcibly muted through multiple filters of knowledge that the academy uses to understand her. Our knowledge about this underprivileged woman is always mediated by colonial or imperial ways of generating knowledge about the “east.” Postmodern thought, which leans toward cultural relativism, can only highlight regional and national patriarchal ideologies of womanhood, so that the voices of marginalized women are not heard on their own terms. Spivak thus initiated postcolonial feminist criticism, which aims to expose not only colonial and imperial frameworks of knowledge, but also knowledge generated through regional and national patriarchies. While identity politics led Anglo American feminists such as Butler back to the body, postcolonial feminism now recast the body into its wider contexts of imperialism and globalization. In the context of the overlapping, multiple histories of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, feminist work took on new, transnational dimensions that also questioned the first world location of feminist theory and practice. Transnational feminist media studies (Hegde 1998) involves the study of diasporic identities, immigrant identities, and national identities inflected by transnational processes of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, as well as by regionally dominant power networks that stabilize multiple patriarchies (Darling-Wolf 2004).
In the post-September-11 world, feminist media studies have particularly focused on how gender identity politics plays a role in the media’s construction of the global “war on terror” (Cloud 2004) and in global militarisms (Weiss 2003). Identity politics is now being rewritten in feminist media studies over a very different map: one that no longer stops within Eurocentric boundaries of thought, and instead insists on theorizing gender through a transnational geopolitics of knowledge and location.
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