Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). YouTube screenshot.

Postfeminism: A Primer

Distancing oneself from the word “feminist” while celebrating empowered femininity is the central paradox of postfeminism.

By MIRIAM KENT

A lot has changed since the days of the first- and second-waves of Western feminism. In many countries, women have the right to vote, have access to birth control, are able to gain an education, and have legal rights with regards to marriage and divorce.

An exaggerated picture of these achievements might even suppose that women have all the rights they need, that we don’t need women’s rights movements anymore — that we have reached a point where we can be past or “post” feminism.

The term postfeminism (or post-feminism) has been a buzzword in certain academic circles for a few decades now. It is used to describe a cultural and political landscape which is characterized as being somehow past feminism, or no longer in need of it. This is despite the myriad forms of oppression experienced by women everywhere, from the ways in which sexual violence is handled to issues of equal pay and beyond.

Media studies has thrived on analyses of postfeminist culture. Popular texts that have been discussed in relation to postfeminism include the film Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and TV shows like Ally McBeal (1997–2002), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), and Sex and the City (1998–2004). More recently, there’s been interest in Desperate Housewives (2004–2012), Cougar Town (2009–2015), and Girls (2012-).

Sex and the City. Image: The Odyssey Online.

Postfeminist culture has been around since at least the 1990s and continues to develop today. That said, postfeminism is complex and often elusive, acting in subtle ways and for different purposes. It can be hard to point out and articulate, so I’ve decided to break down the (very basic) key points. At the bottom of this entry you’ll find a (hopefully informative) reading list.

I see references to postfeminism all over the place, and yet it’s not something that is often referred to by name. For instance, Wonder Woman artist David Finch doesn’t consider the character feminist, but “strong.”

This distancing from the word feminist while simultaneously celebrating empowered femininity — the same femininity celebrated by, you guessed it, feminism — is a recurring theme in postfeminist culture. This is the central paradox of postfeminism.

Wonder Woman via IGN.com.

So what does postfeminism stand for?

1. We don’t need feminism anymore — but girl power is cool (and profitable).

As described above, postfeminist culture suggests that gender equality has been achieved, so women are essentially free to worry about other things: things like body image and boys. Bearing this in mind, there is often a marked celebration of feminine empowerment — hence the spread of terms such as “girl power.”

I am empowered because I can be super AND hairless.

This kind of empowerment also often carries a commercial dimension. Think of how the Spice Girls were marketed in the ‘90s, or today’s ads such as Always’ #LikeAGirl, which sell a certain brand of feminine empowerment. (A favorite of mine is the Gillette Venus #UseYourAnd ad, which encourages women everywhere to take a stand against labels and define themselves… but they should have silky smooth hairless legs while they do it!)

2. Choice

Choice is a crucial part of postfeminist culture simply because it aids in the previous point about presenting women as being fully emancipated. Theoretically, because the genders are equal, women are free to choose to do as they please, from being housewives to wearing make-up to becoming business women.

Choice is no doubt an important aspect of women’s autonomy and we should keep in mind that many women today are offered choices which were previously inaccessible. However, postfeminism’s emphasis on choice and individual empowerment rests on the notion that choices are without political context. The autonomous postfeminist subject is therefore depoliticized; her actions are of no political significance.

In popular media we’re then faced with representations of women who are being pulled in every direction, unsure how to balance “having it all.” Do I want to be a mother? Have a great job? Be a housewife? Own an expensive pair of shoes? Own a dog? Own a baby? These are all choices that the postfeminist woman must make, because she can.

Postfeminist choices. Image: Journal Sentinel.

3. White, heterosexual, middle-class

The empowered postfeminist woman is most often assumed to be belonging to all three of these groups. I’ll touch more on the role of race in postfeminism later on, but for now it’s fairly obvious that the ideal image of postfeminist femininity is a white one.

It’s about “girls.” All girls everywhere. They’re all exactly like this.

Similarly, postfeminist culture is obsessed with maintaining differences between the sexes. And there are only two — men and women. This means that we get a resurgence of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” discourses, and the promotion of traditional gender roles as being somehow inherent or God-given.

Empowered women in postfeminist culture are crucially economically empowered, having well-paying jobs and being functioning members of capitalist society. This, in turn, relates back to the commercialization of women’s empowerment outlined in point #1. Empowerment is measured in terms of how much money women have, and how they function as consumers.

4. Sex

Postfeminist culture incorporates a celebration of women’s sexualization. Think of this as a highjacking of the sex-positivity movement.

Empowered postfeminist women self-monitor their sexualized bodies and are always “up for it.” As with the other points discussed here, this in itself might not be a bad thing, but should be considered within a broader political picture, such as the ways in which such ideas contribute to rape culture.

Also, bearing in mind the above point, the definition of “sexy” femininity is generally restricted to particular races and body types (i.e. white, slim, hairless, traditionally feminine).

Sex (and enormous knickers) in Bridget Jones’ Diary. YouTube screesnshot.

5. Irony

Because sexism is over, it’s okay to make sexist jokes, right? According to postfeminism, it is! Postfeminist culture incorporates a “knowing” sensibility, the idea that everyone knows that none of that sexist stuff has any consequences because the genders are equal.

This results in an ironic use of sexist (as well as racist and homophobic) discourses, or statements which reach back to the distant (but really no-so-distant) era in which women were oppressed. It’s as if to say good job, it’s not like that anymore, right guys?! when actually, we still need feminism. Many women are still in many ways oppressed, and sexism isn’t really funny.

What does race have to do with it?

Race is an important aspect of identity and affects people’s lives every day, whether they realize it or not. Unfortunately, talking about it has become increasingly difficult since we supposedly live in a postracial or multicultural time in which issues of race are sidelined or ignored.

Postfeminism plays a big role in contributing to these postracial discourses. For instance, you might notice I’ve extensively used the word women throughout this article. I’ve also highlighted the ways in which postfeminism privileges white femininity. This is because postfeminism promotes a universalized experience of “womanhood” which applies to all women around the world. Women therefore only face oppression because they are women, not because they are women of color or queer or disabled.

At the same time, postfeminism is keen to prevent solidarity between women across different races and cultures and so creates distancing mechanisms such as presenting women from (poor) Eastern countries as “oppressed” while (rich) Western women are “liberated.”

This focus on white women is not limited to media texts, but even the feminist academics who critique them — many of whom simply claim that women of color are not represented in postfeminist culture, which isn’t necessarily true. Women of color may appear less frequently in postfeminist media texts, but their portrayals still need to be analyzed in terms of the ways in which they fit into postfeminism.

Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane. YouTube screenshot.

What about third-wave feminism?

As I mentioned, postfeminism presents somewhat of a highjacking of some of third-wave feminism’s goals, such as sex-positivity and the importance of choice. Sometimes the terms postfeminism and third-wave feminism are used interchangeably, but I like to think there are nuanced differences.

Third-wave feminism has, for instance, been markedly more political than postfeminism could ever be. It also aims to remedy some of the pitfalls of the second wave, such as its exclusion of women of color.

Significantly, we may well be entering an era which is both marked by a fourth-wave and a culture with is potentially something beyond postfeminism. The cultural landscape has changed since the early days of postfeminism, and since it is both weirdly intangible and adaptable it will be interesting to see how those complexities develop.

So next time you read an article lamenting pop culture’s “girl power without the feminism” or considering the “Dunhamisation of feminism,” remember that postfeminism is always there, worming its way into everyday life — and ultimately reinforcing patriarchal structures.


Essential Reading

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2007. “What’s Your Flava? Race and Postfeminism in Media Culture.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 201–26. US: Duke University Press.

Chatman, Dayna. 2015. “Pregnancy, Then It’s ‘Back To Business’ Beyoncé Black Femininity, and the Politics of a Post-Feminist Gender Regime.” Feminist Media Studies, 1–16.

Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147–66.

Hua, Julietta. 2009. “‘Gucci Geishas’ and Post-Feminism.” Women’s Studies in Communication 32 (1): 63–88.

Lemish, Dafna. 2003. “Spice World: Constructing Femininity the Popular Way.” Popular Music and Society 26 (1): 17–29.

McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: SAGE.

Negra, Diane. 2009. What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. Oxon: Routledge.

Projansky, Sarah. 2001. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Tasker, Yvonne, and Diane Negra. 2007. “Introduction: Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 1–25. US: Duke University Press.

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