Postfeminism is one of the most important and contested terms in the lexicon of western feminist cultural critique. The term signifies something that is either after or beyond feminism in some way, yet still maintains a distinctive relationship to it. The notion of postfeminism was first used in the 1920s to describe the reaction against women’s activism in the early part of the twentieth century (Faludi 1992), but it is only since the early 1990s that it has come to prominence as a central term in the field of gender and media.
In recent years, debates within feminist media and communication studies about topics as diverse as the history and exclusions of feminism, the gender consciousness of young women, and the ideological nature of contemporary media have crystallized in disagreement about postfeminism. The term is used both to signal a theoretical orientation or approach, and to capture empirical changes in the way that gender is represented. Broadly speaking, it is possible to identify four major ways in which the term is used, each of which is considered below.
Postfeminism As Epistemological Break
For a number of writers, postfeminism represents an epistemological break with second wave feminism and marks “the intersection of feminism with a number of other anti–foundationalist movements including post-modernism, post structuralism and post colonialism” (Brooks 1997, 1). “Post,” as it is used in this sense, implies transformation and change and signals a critical engagement with earlier/other forms of feminism. It is alleged to have arisen partly as a result of critiques from black and third world feminists who destabilized dominant feminist theorizing and interrogated the right of (predominantly) white western (northern) women to speak on behalf of all others.
Combined with this were the critical challenges mounted by postmodernism and poststructuralism, which called into question the ways in which feminist theory relied on dualistic thinking and upon totalizing concepts (such as “patriarchy”). Postfeminism in this sense marks a shift away from a focus on equality to a focus on debates about differences, and from structural analysis and meta-theorizing toward a more “pluralistic conception of the application of feminism” that “addresses the demands of marginalized, diasporic and colonized cultures for a non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and postcolonial feminisms” (Brooks 1997, 4).
In cultural and media analysis, postfeminism in this sense is mostly encountered as an analytic perspective, rather than a description of the nature of any particular cultural product. Its value is in stressing the manner in which gender is connected to other forms of marginalization and other axes of power such that it can never be examined separately from “race,” colonialism, sexuality, and class. Amanda Lotz (2001) has suggested that for a text to be considered postfeminist (in this rather positive sense) it should contain the following four features: narratives that explore women’s diverse relationships to power; depictions of varied feminist solutions; attempts to deconstruct the binaries of gender and sexuality; and illustrations of contemporary struggles.
Postfeminism As Historical Shift
In this perspective, a historical rather than epistemological or theoretical shift is considered important. This approach attempts to periodize feminism and regards postfeminism as a period after (the height of) second wave feminism. Sometimes it is used synonymously with “third wave feminism” (particularly in the US context, where the notion of a third wave is more fully developed than elsewhere). It seeks to mark a time not after feminism per se, but after a particular moment of feminist activity and a particular set of feminist concerns. For Joanne Hollows (2000) postfeminism is not necessarily antifeminism, but represents a new kind of feminism for a new context of debate. Hollows is angered by a type of feminist analysis that holds new writing and contemporary cultural texts (whether films or sitcoms or chick lit novels) up against a “1970s version” of feminism – only to find them wanting. The feminism in such popular texts is always said to have been “neutered” or “co-opted” or “emptied of its radical potential,” she argues, whereas it may in fact have simply changed – for a new moment. Such critique, Hollows suggests, serves to reify feminism, and works on a “recruitment” model, rather than thinking of feminism as dynamic, negotiated, and in a process of permanent, ongoing transformation.
Similarly, Rachel Moseley and Jacina Read (2002) argue that the polarization in feminist thought between feminism on the one hand and femininity on the other is a product of the thinking of the mid-1970s. Discussing criticisms of the successful US television show Ally McBeal that attack it for wanting to “have it both ways” (with Ally as a mini-skirted male fantasy and a successful, professional woman), they ask: why shouldn’t she have it all ways? She is, they suggest, a postfeminist heroine, a female protagonist for our times, who wants it all and does not observe (what may seem to her and to her audience) arbitrary boundaries around behavior, address, or aspiration.
This is a powerful argument and the critique of second wave ideas as the “one, true way” is an important one. The problem comes in specifying what, if anything, might constitute the content of postfeminism. It seems infinitely flexible. Critical observers might note also the way in which a politically sanitized, neo-liberal, and highly sexualized version of postfeminism circulates in the media, where girl bands like the Spice Girls, “babes” like Ally McBeal, and a collection of silicon-enhanced supermodels are among its most celebrated icons.
Postfeminism And The Backlash
A third way in which postfeminism is used is to refer to discourses that constitute part of a backlash against feminist achievements or goals – the “post” in postfeminism, here signaling a reaction against feminism (Faludi 1992). Backlash discourses take many contradictory forms. They often work by attributing all women’s unhappiness to feminism, but may also suggest that “all the battles have been won” or, conversely, that “you can’t have it all – something has to give;” that “political correctness” has become a new form of tyranny; that (white) men are the real victims, and so on.
Imelda Whelehan (2000) argues that contemporary postfeminist discourses are often characterized by “retrosexism,” premised on real fears about the collapse of masculine hegemony. She has explored the nostalgic quality of much contemporary television, which harks back to a time and place peopled by “real women” and humorous “cheeky chappies,” and argues that representations of women “from the banal to the downright offensive” are being “defensively reinvented against cultural changes in women’s lives” (Whelehan 2000, 11). Similarly, in her recent writing about advertising, Judith Williamson (2003) argues that contemporary postfeminist sexism operates in two main ways: through the frame of a period style in which the retro styling offers an alibi for notions about men and women and gender relations that, if expressed in contemporary language or settings, would garner significant critique, and, alternatively, through increasingly fetishistic sexual imagery that “depicts power relations as about S&M sex rather than who washes up or chairs the board” (2003, 2).
These arguments are valuable for trying (unlike the other two approaches considered so far) to say something about the normative or ideological content of postfeminist discourses, but they do not tell the whole story. In particular, the focus on harking back may miss what is new about contemporary depictions of gender. Moreover, while notions of backlash and retro-sexism have been crucial in highlighting the reactive (as well as reactionary) nature of many contemporary representations, the elision of postfeminism with anti-feminism misses a crucial feature of current media discourses: namely the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas within them.
Postfeminism As A Sensibility
The notion of postfeminism as a sensibility is an attempt to fashion an understanding of the term that could be used analytically, but which would not be limited to studying media products that were obviously backlash texts. For scholars who use it in this way, postfeminism is the critical object of analysis, rather than a theoretical orientation or a new form of feminism. The approach does not require a static notion of one single, authentic feminism as a comparison point, but instead is informed by postmodernist and constructionist perspectives, and seeks to identify what is distinctive about contemporary articulations of gender within media and cultural texts.
The notion of postfeminism as a sensibility originated out of a dissatisfaction with other models of postfeminism – in particular, the difficulty of specifying with any rigor the features of postfeminism, and the problem of applying the notion to any particular cultural or media analysis. The notion of a sensibility aims to answer questions such as: what makes a text postfeminist? What features need to be present in order for any media scholar to label something postfeminist?
The notion emphasizes the contradictory nature of postfeminist discourses and the entanglement of postfeminist and anti-feminist themes within them (McRobbie 2004). It argues that postfeminism is best thought of as a sensibility that characterizes increasing numbers of films, television shows, adverts, and other media products. A number of relatively stable features that together constitute a postfeminist discourse characterize this sensibility. These include the notion that femininity is a bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline; a focus upon individualism, choice, and empowerment; the dominance of a “makeover paradigm”; a resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference; the marked sexualization of culture; and an emphasis upon consumerism and the commodification of difference. These themes coexist with and are structured by stark and continuing inequalities and exclusions that relate to race and ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, and disability – as well as gender (Gill 2007).
Debates And Dilemmas
It should be clear that postfeminism is at once a central critical term within feminist media studies, and a term about which there is little consensus. Recent attempts to reconceptualize postfeminism as a sensibility go some way to beginning the process of attempting to “map” or chart the nature of postfeminism – but existing attempts are likely to produce further disagreement. In addition, the term may be challenged for its northern-centrism and its lack of applicability to the global south. It has emerged and been most contested in the Anglophone cultures of the US and the UK, and it is not clear that the notion would have much value in developing countries, where feminism itself takes such different forms. Linked to its lack of global applicability is the tendency to restrict analysis to a highly selective number of media texts. The principal ones are Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Each of these has been subjected to extensive analysis, while most media output remains, as yet, entirely unanalyzed from this perspective. It is therefore difficult to draw any conclusions about the extent to which contemporary media are showing postfeminist tendencies. The white, middle-class homogeneity of most texts discussed as postfeminist is also worth noting. Finally, the term has been used almost exclusively in relation to media texts, and its relevance or usefulness for audience research or for organizational or political economy studies have yet to be explored.
- Brooks, A. (1997). Postfeminisms: Feminism, cultural theory and cultural forms. London and New York: Routledge.
- Faludi, S. (1992). Backlash: The undeclared war against women. London: Chatto and Windus.
- Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the media. Cambridge: Polity.
- Hollows, J. (2000). Feminism, femininity, and popular culture. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
- Lotz, A. (2001). Postfeminist television criticism: Rehabilitating critical terms and identifying postfeminist attributes. Feminist Media Studies, 1(1), 105–121.
- McRobbie, A. (2004). Post feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media Studies, 4(3), 255–264.
- Moseley, R., &. Read, J. (2002). “Having it Ally”: Popular television and postfeminism. Feminist Media Studies, 2(2), 231–250.
- Projansky, S. (2001). Watching rape: Film and television in postfeminist culture. New York: New York University Press.
- Whelehan, I. (2000). Overloaded: Popular culture and the future of feminism. London: Women’s Press.
- Williamson, J. (2003). Sexism with an alibi. Guardian, 31 May.
- Yeatman, A. (1994). Postmodern revisionings of the political. London and New York: Routledge.