Busting the ‘post’?
Postfeminist genealogies in millennial culture
in Post-everything

Postfeminism is a concept loaded with contradictions. Loathed by some and celebrated by others, it appeared in the late twentieth century in a number of cultural, academic and political contexts, from popular journalism and media to feminist analyses, postmodern theories and neoliberal rhetoric. Critics have appropriated the term for a variety of purposes and movements, ranging from conservative backlash, Girl Power, third wave feminism and postmodern/poststructuralist feminism. This chapter untangles the semantic confusion surrounding a ‘post-ing’ of feminism by tracing postfeminism’s genealogy and considers its position within feminist histories. From here, the chapter investigates different incarnations of postfeminism and contemplates the possibility of a twenty-first-century, post-boom postfeminist stance – what the author calls bust postfeminism – that has emerged in response to a disillusioned and indeterminate recessionary environment characterized by deepening inequalities, dashed hopes and constantly lurking fears. It is proposed that bust postfeminism has given rise to distinct recessionary patterns and themes of heightened visibility in order to bare and illuminate the structural inequalities and power dynamics that have become glaringly obvious in the harsh post-oughts climate. In this sense, the current historical juncture requires that we re-examine how, or even whether, postfeminism is still relevant and in touch with a precarious post-millennium context.

Introduction

Postfeminism is a concept loaded with contradictions. Loathed by some and celebrated by others, it has appeared in the late twentieth century in a number of cultural, academic and political contexts, from popular journalism and media, to feminist analyses, postmodern theories and neoliberal rhetoric. Critics have appropriated the term for a variety of definitions, ranging from conservative backlash, Girl Power, third wave feminism and postmodern/poststructuralist feminism. In popular culture, it is used as a descriptive marker for a number of (particularly) female characters that have emerged from the 1990s onwards, with Helen Fielding’s chick-lit heroine Bridget Jones and the Spice Girls often held up as the poster girls of postfeminism. In academic writings, it sits alongside other ‘post’ discourses – including postmodernism and postcolonialism – and here, it refers to a shift in the understanding and construction of identity and gender categories (like ‘Woman’, ‘Man’ and ‘Feminist’). Likewise, in political philosophy and social theory, postfeminism has been read as indicative of a ‘post-traditional’ era characterized by dramatic changes in basic social relationships, role stereotyping and conceptions of agency. More recently, postfeminism has been anchored within neoliberal society and consumer culture that cultivates individualistic, competitive and entrepreneurial behaviour in its construction of a self-regulating and enterprising subject whose consumption patterns come to be seen as a source of power and choice. Linked to this, postfeminism has also been discussed in relation to contemporary brand culture that shapes not only consumer habits but wider political, cultural and civic practices. Here, the term acquires ‘affective relational qualities’,1 emblematic of contemporary experience economies where consumers no longer merely consume goods and services but are looking for memorable events that engage them in a personal way.

While commentators have found fault with postfeminism’s interpretative potential and flexibility – Coppock and Gamble, for example, deplore that ‘postfeminism remains a product of assumption’ and ‘exactly what it constitutes … is a matter for frequently impassioned debate’2 – they also acknowledge its significance and impact. The term continues to be divisive, causing some critics to abandon it because, as Susan Douglas notes, ‘it has gotten gummed up by too many conflicting definitions’.3 At the same time, the cultural presence, resonance and longevity of postfeminism have become hard to ignore, specifically as it continues to evolve with changes in political, cultural and economic environments. As Rosalind Gill concedes, the term’s ‘continued relevance’ and pertinence cannot be denied and ‘[t]here is, as yet, no parallel for postfeminism’.4

To start, I want to trace postfeminism’s genealogy and consider its position within feminist histories in order to discuss the semantic confusion surrounding a ‘post-ing’ of feminism. Here the modes of distance and proximity combine in complex ways as the disagreements over and multiplicity of postfeminism’s meaning(s) are to a large extent due to the indefiniteness and precariousness of the ‘post’ prefix itself. Then I will consider postfeminist transfers by investigating different incarnations of postfeminism and contemplating the possibility of a twenty-first-century post-boom postfeminist stance – what I designate bust postfeminism – that emerges in response to an indeterminate post-2008 recessionary environment. The current historical juncture requires that we question and re-examine how, or even whether, postfeminism is still relevant and in touch with a precarious post-millennium context. In other words, has postfeminism and its associated themes and conceptual vocabulary exhausted their critical usefulness, or does its inherent generativity and adaptability ensure its continuing importance and applicability? How might we categorize this ‘new’, post-boom postfeminism that responds to this complicated moment in time?

The genealogical approach that I adopt seeks to demarcate a postfeminist landscape that takes into account successive modifications in meaning, allowing for different postfeminist strands to co-exist, overlap, build upon, revise and replace others. Here, postfeminism emerges as a complex and dynamic analytical category – a ‘frontier discourse’5 – made up of an array of relationships and conceptual webs within/between social, cultural, academic and political arenas. The relevance and usefulness of postfeminism rest precisely in its ability as a critical concept to complicate longstanding binary distinctions and expose the paradoxes of a late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century setting in which old certainties of selfhood/citizenship and erstwhile notions of progress, hope and freedom – what Henry Giroux calls ‘the promises of modernity’6 – have been reconfigured and increasingly appear to be under threat.

Positioning postfeminist genealogies

In order to unravel the definitional possibilities of postfeminism, the continuities and discontinuities with its root concept need to be examined. Confusion rules as postfeminism is variously identified or associated with an anti-feminist backlash, pro-feminist third wave, Girl Power dismissive of feminist politics, trendy me-first power feminism, self-branded celebrity feminism, corporate/neoliberal feminism and academic postmodern feminism. There appears to be a simultaneous denial, use and misuse of feminism, a concomitant and ongoing process of embedding and disembedding that negotiates areas of tension that, I maintain, can be used productively within critical practice and theory. Even though postfeminism concretized as a cultural phenomenon and critical concept in the late twentieth century, the term emerged as early as 1919 after the vote for women had been won by the suffrage movement.7 This initial mention of postfeminism relied on the supposed success and achievements of the ‘first wave’ of the feminist movement and enacted a demarcating line between past and present, casting the ‘post’ in evolutionary or historical terms as a progression of feminist ideas. Yet, it is fair to say that this early-twentieth-century manifestation of postfeminism did not materialize or develop in any specific and tangible ways – cut short by important historical developments such as the outbreaks of both First and Second World Wars – and it was not until the early 1980s that the next significant postfeminist phase occurred. This time, it was the popular press that brought back postfeminism into the cultural limelight where it was discussed mostly as exemplary of a reaction against second wave feminism and its collective, activist politics. Postfeminism – meaning in this case post-second wave – came to signal a generational shift in feminist thinking and in understanding social relations between men and women, beyond traditional feminist politics and its supposed threat to heterosexual relationships.

Approached in this way, postfeminism could be interpreted as a cyclical process of feminist rejuvenation – emerging after momentous and organized stages (or ‘waves’) of feminist activism and politics – and could be discussed as ‘postrevolutionary’8 in its shift away from collectivist mobilization that characterized both first and second waves of feminism. As Julie Ewington suggests, ‘it is not feminism that we are “post” but one historical phase of feminist politics’.9 Postfeminism encourages feminism to develop an understanding of its own historicity, ‘an account of its own temporality that does not simply mimic the modernist grand narrative of progress’. It attributes a historical specificity to second wave feminism, for, as Charlotte Brunsdon asks, ‘why should 1970s feminism have a copyright on feminism?’10 In this chronological sense, the term ‘postfeminism’ is employed to describe a critical position in relation to the feminism of women’s liberation, signifying both the achievements of and challenges for modern feminist politics. Postfeminism’s interrogative stance could thus be read as a healthy rewriting of feminism, a sign that the women’s movement is continuously in process, transforming and changing itself. This is what Ann Brooks implies in her articulation of postfeminism as ‘feminism’s “coming of age”, its maturity into a confident body of theory and politics, representing pluralism and difference’.11

Unsurprisingly perhaps, such evaluations of postfeminism as the new ‘improved’ feminism free from the dictates of the second wave motherhood were short-lived, as critics started to undo the ‘illusions of postfeminism’.12 As Lynne Alice notes, the ‘inflammatory myth of new beginnings and revisionings’ disguises the fact that postfeminism can ‘operate like a chimera, or perhaps even a conceit’, misrepresenting and undermining feminist politics and reducing all feminisms – and their long and diverse histories – to a caricaturized version of 1970s feminism.13 Here, we need to take into account that the fault lines established between different feminist periods never follow a straightforward chronology but are always created and made to frame the past retroactively, often in line with specific, at times political, agendas. It follows that in some critical investigations, the ‘post-ing’ of feminism is denounced as an invasion of the feminist body and a vicious attempt to debilitate and sabotage the women’s movement.

In my work, I have sought to adopt a more nuanced understanding of postfeminism’s appropriation of feminism, beyond a simple rewriting or negation.14 In its various manifestations, postfeminism exhibits a number of relations to feminism ranging from complacency to hostility, approbation to repudiation. In its most denunciatory expressions, postfeminism clearly performs a historical ‘othering’ of feminism that shapes it as an archaic monolith unproductive for the experiences of contemporary women and men. Other postfeminist strands reinforce their connections with earlier forms of feminism and open up, as Braithwaite puts it, ‘the possibilities of finding and understanding feminisms in places and in ways very different from … that earlier period’.15 In this sense, feminist and postfeminist stances are allied and entwined, creating a dynamic context made up of various standpoints and theories. However, these interconnections have often been overlooked and passed over in many critical studies in an attempt to establish two different and easily categorized positions. Much pro- and contra- postfeminist rhetoric relies on a reductive binary structure in order to conjure up a pole of negativity against which postfeminism can be defined and lay bare the faults of feminist orthodoxy, or, alternatively, reminisce nostalgically about a mythical feminist past characterized by a homogeneous and unified women’s movement. This either/or formulation implies that only one term can subsist by obliterating the other: postfeminism can only exist to the exclusion of feminism, and feminism can only exist to the exclusion of postfeminism.

Instead I want to rearticulate these questions of ownership and definition that have dominated – and at times hampered – examinations of postfeminism and adopt a genealogical approach that highlights postfeminism’s multiplicity, its modes of distancing and proximity, embeddedness and disembeddedness in relation to its feminist roots as well as its interconnectedness and overlaps with other post- concepts. In so doing, I also seek to unlock postfeminism’s potential for transversing across (disciplinary, geographical, historical) boundaries and situate it within a broader conceptual network in order to deepen its meanings and investigate the range of ideas and themes that sustain it. Postfeminism is not a ‘new feminism’ in the sense that it represents something radically revolutionary and groundbreaking – it is both retro- and neo- in its outlook and hence irrevocably post-. It is neither a simple rebirth of feminism nor a straightforward abortion (excuse the imagery) but a complex resignification that harbours within itself the threat of backlash as well as the possibility for innovation. In this sense, postfeminism cannot be understood as an alternative to feminism and its social and political agenda. It does not exist in a bounded and organized form as a political and social movement and its origins are more impure, emerging in and from a wide conceptual and contextual web (academia, media and consumer/brand culture; neoliberal politics) that has been influenced by feminist concerns and women’s enfranchisement.

Moreover, postfeminism is also located outside of feminist historical periodization and epochal thinking – commonly epitomized by the ‘wave’ metaphor. This chronology or ‘oceanography of feminist movement’16 comprises the surge of feminist activism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – regularly referred to as the ‘first wave’ of feminism that culminated around the campaign for women’s suffrage in the 1920s – and the ‘second wave’ resurgence of feminist organizing in the 1960s. The latest invocation – third wave feminism – in particular defines itself as a budding political movement coming to the fore in the 1990s, with strong affiliations to second wave feminist theory and activism. The very invocation of ‘third wave feminism’ and the mobilization of the adjective ‘third’ indicate a desire to establish a link with previous feminist waves and ensure a continuation of feminist principles and ideas.17

Here, the contrast with postfeminism is clear as many third wavers understand their position as an act of strategic defiance and a response to the cultural dominance of postfeminism. From its initiation, the third wave has resolutely defined itself against postfeminism: in fact, third wave pioneers Rebecca Walker and Shannon Liss were keen to establish an ideological and political split between the two, pronouncing ‘[w]e are not postfeminist feminists. We are the third wave!’18 There are of course important differences between postfeminism and the third wave, significantly at the level of foundation and political alignment. Sarah Banet-Weiser for example maintains that postfeminism is ‘a different political dynamic than third wave feminism’,19 with the latter defining itself more overtly as a kind of feminist politics that extends the historical trajectory of previous feminist waves to assess contemporary consumer culture. Postfeminism, by contrast, does not exist as a budding political movement and its origins are more diverse and tangled, emerging from within mainstream culture, rather than underground subculture. Moreover, unlike the third wave, postfeminism is not motivated by a desire for continuity and a need to prove its feminist credentials – what Diane Elam terms the ‘Dutiful Daughter Complex’.20 Nonetheless, this rhetoric of antagonism is sometimes misleading as it does not account for the overlap between the third wave and postfeminism, nor does it allow for a politicized reading of the latter. For example, the third wave and postfeminism occupy a common ground between consumption and critique, engaging with feminine/sexual and individual forms of agency. Both third wave feminism and postfeminism draw on popular culture to interrogate and explore twenty-first-century configurations of female empowerment and re-examine the meanings of feminism in the present context as a politics of contradiction and ambivalence. As will be discussed below, the entanglements of feminism and postfeminism are multiple and varied and – as a debating couple – they should not be viewed reductively in opposition, nor in terms of a linear progression.

Post-ing feminism

While the prefix ‘post’ has long been the subject of academic and theoretical analyses (in particular in its expression as postmodernism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism), it has achieved particular notoriety ever since it attached itself to the social and political phenomenon that is feminism. Proponents and detractors of postfeminism have deliberated over the uses of the prefix and vied for their respective take on how a ‘post-ing’ of feminism can be effected and understood. What these debates centre on is exactly what this prefixation accomplishes (if anything), what happens to feminist perspectives and goals in the process and what the strange hybrid of ‘post-feminism’ entails. In my work, I choose to omit the hyphen in my spelling of postfeminism in order to avoid any predetermined readings of the term that imply a semantic rift between feminism and postfeminism. Also, by foregoing the hyphen, I seek to endow postfeminism with a certain cultural independence and critical history that acknowledges its existence as a conceptual entity in its own right. While postfeminism – in its current late-twentieth- and twenty-first-century manifestation – might still be considered an emergent critical concept, it has had over thirty years to solidify into an analytical category and develop a critical history that spans the backlash years of the 1980s, the ‘Third Way’ 1990s and the uncertain, post-9/11 and recessionary years of the new millennium.

Regardless of our spelling, it is not so much the hyphen but the prefix itself that has been the focus of critical investigations. As Misha Kavka observes, the question that has haunted – or enlivened, depending on your point of view – the discussions can be summarized as ‘how can we make sense of the “post” in “postfeminism”’.21 Even though the structure of postfeminism appears to invoke a narrative of progression insisting on a time ‘after’ feminism, the directionality and meaning of the ‘post’ prefix are far from settled. ‘Post’ can be employed to point to a complete rupture, for as Amelia Jones declares, ‘what is post but the signification of a kind of termination – a temporal designation of whatever it prefaces as ended, done with, obsolete’.22 In this prescriptive sense, postfeminism signals the ‘pastness’ of feminism – or, at any rate the end of a particular stage in feminist histories – and a generational shift in understanding the relationships between men and women. Here, postfeminism is often evoked by a generation of younger feminists as indicative of the fact that ‘we are no longer in a second wave of feminism’.23 This awareness of feminist change has resulted in a number of bitter ownership battles and wrangling, often cast in familial terms as mother–daughter conflicts.24

In response – and very much on the anti-postfeminist side of the divide – the feminist ‘foremothers’ have attacked their ‘daughters’ for their historical amnesia and misappropriations of the feminist/familial legacy. According to Lynne Segal, this new breed of feminists ‘were able to launch themselves and court media via scathing attacks on other feminists’ – even worse, this kind of feminism has been ‘appropriated by a managerial elite’ that works in the service of neoliberal values and is ‘eager to roll back welfare for workfare’.25 Segal describes how by the 1990s the radical spirit of feminist politics had waned and there was ‘a kind of cultural forgetting of the intellectual legacies of feminism’.26 These anti-postfeminist critics define postfeminism as a sexist, politically conservative and media-inspired ploy that guts the underlying principles of the feminist movement and transforms its collective activist agenda into an individualistic matter of self-interest. This largely pessimistic interpretation was prominent in early media articulations of postfeminism that link it to anti-feminist and media-driven attempts to turn the clock back to pre-feminist times, fuelled by the conservative governments that defined 1980s Reaganite America and Thatcherite Britain. From this point of view, postfeminism has been read as a ‘backlash’27 and hence primarily a polemical tool with limited critical and analytical value. However, such readings have been superseded increasingly from the 1990s onwards in favour of more complex accounts that argue for a more nuanced understanding of postfeminism that acknowledges the term’s diverse entanglements with feminism and other cultural and political theories.

Diametrically opposed to the view of ‘post’ as ‘anti’ or ‘after’ is the idea that the prefix denotes a genealogy that entails revision or strong family resemblance. This approach is favoured by advocates of another ‘post’ derivative – postmodernism – and here, the prefix is understood as part of a process of ongoing transformation. As Best and Kellner write in their analysis of postmodern theory, the ‘post’ signifies ‘a dependence on, a continuity with, that which follows’.28 In this sense, the ‘post-ing’ of feminism does not necessarily imply its rejection and eradication but it means that feminism remains in the postfeminist frame. A third, and perhaps more problematical, interpretation locates the ‘post’ in a precarious middle ground typified by a contradictory dependence on and independence from the term that follows it.29 As Sarah Gamble puts it, ‘the prefix “post” does not necessarily always direct us back the way we’ve come’.30 Instead, its trajectory is bewilderingly uncertain, making it unfeasible and possibly redundant to offer a single definition of any ‘post’ concept.

Adding to this interpretive struggle is the fact that the root of postfeminism, feminism itself, has never had a universally accepted agenda and meaning against which one could measure the benefits and/or failings of its post- offshoot. At best, feminism can be said to have a number of working definitions that are always relative to particular contexts, specific issues and personal practices. It exists on both local and abstract levels, dealing with specific issues and consisting of diverse individuals while promoting a universal politics of equality for women. Feminists are simultaneously united by their investment in a general concept of justice and fractured by the multiple goals and personal practices that delineate the particular conception of justice to which they aspire. Thus, the assumption that there is – or was – a monolith easily (and continuously) identifiable as ‘feminism’ belies its competing understandings, its different social and political programmes sharply separated by issues of race, sexuality, class and other systems of social differentiation. It follows that one cannot simply ‘hark back’ to a past when feminism supposedly had a stable signification and unity. For many feminist media critics in particular, it is postfeminism’s relationship with feminism – as a critical and political paradigm – that is paramount and they focus on how, to varying degrees, postfeminist culture incorporates, commodifies, depoliticizes and parodies feminist ideas and terminology, resulting in the worst case in an ‘undoing’ and ‘othering’ of feminism. Angela McRobbie (2009) for example has described this discursive process as a ‘double movement’ that takes feminism ‘into account’ only to repudiate it.31

For me, it is important not to fall into a critical trap that takes for granted the meanings of ‘post’ and ‘feminism’ and instead allow for contradictory and evolving notions of (post)feminism that may co-exist at the same moment. Moreover, we need consider the possibility that – rephrasing McRobbie’s formulation – twenty-first-century postfeminism now takes itself ‘into account’, demonstrating the ability to self-critique, rearticulate and interrogate its own significations, uses and constituencies for a millennial generation. In fact, current incarnations of postfeminism adopt a stance of (self-) criticality that calls up various postfeminist tenets in order to scrutinize them. We see this, for example, in popular culture texts like HBO’s Girls that explicitly and self-consciously address postfeminist issues – for instance in relation to representations of the female body – while anticipating and inscribing criticism within the narrative itself.32

Thus, throughout its critical history, postfeminism has acquired multiple, contested interpretations – from backlash and Girl Power to (neo)liberal feminism and ‘affective’ self-brand – and it is inflected differently in different historical, cultural, political and social contexts. From this perspective, the attempt to fix the meaning of postfeminism looks futile and even misguided as each articulation is by itself a definitional act that (re)constructs the meaning of (post)feminism and its own relation to it. There is no original or authentic postfeminism that holds the key to its definition. Nor is there a secure and unified origin from which this genuine postfeminism could be fashioned. Instead, I understand postfeminism as a dynamic critical concept capable of adapting to changing historical conditions and bringing to the fore a range of contradictions that speak to and inform generations of women and men. Rather than being tied to a specific epistemological field, postfeminism’s frame of reference opens out to include not just – as the term suggests – a conceptual and semantic bond with feminism but also relations with other social, cultural, theoretical and political areas – such as consumer brand culture, popular media and neoliberal rhetoric – that might be in conflict with feminism. Hence postfeminism is not the (illegitimate) offspring of – or even a substitute for – feminism but its origins are much more varied and incongruous, addressing the paradoxes of a late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century setting in which feminist concerns have entered the mainstream and are articulated in politically contradictory ways.

Due to its inherently ‘impure’ status and interconnected conceptual web, postfeminism has often been criticized for its disloyalty and bastardization, for ‘feeding upon its hosts’.33 It has been denounced – particularly by feminist critics – as a contaminating presence, a parasite charged with infiltration and appropriation. A particular point of contention has been postfeminism’s commercial appeal and its consumerist implications that are viewed by many as a ‘selling out’ of feminist principles and their co-option as a marketing device. Here we can identify distinctive postfeminist strands that connect feminist notions of gendered empowerment and choice with cultural practices of commodification and individualism. This thread also brings postfeminism into close political alliance with neoliberal ideas that promote competitive individualism and entrepreneurship in consumer-citizens. These accusations resurface for instance in examinations of popular postfeminist strands – like Girl Power, chick lit and (online) self-branding – that combine an emphasis on feminine ‘fun’ and female friendship with a celebration of (mostly pastel-coloured) commodities and the creation of a market demographic of (self-branded) ‘Girlies’, ‘chicks’ or ‘babes’. The end result of this mainstreaming and commoditization – it is feared – is a ‘free market feminism’ that works ‘through capitalism’ and is ‘based on competitive choices in spite of social conditions being stacked against women as a whole’.34

While I do not deny the validity of such critiques, I want to counter the assumption of causality that underlies many of these predominantly early investigations and forces postfeminism into a fixed and delimited structure of analysis and definition. The understanding of postfeminism as an unfaithful reproduction of feminism – or worse, ‘a ritualistic denunciation’ that renders feminism ‘out of date’35 – is problematic for a number of reasons: it presupposes a distinction between an ‘authentic’ and unadulterated feminism on the one hand, and a suspect, usually commercialized postfeminism on the other; it assumes that feminist engagements with postfeminism are uniform and it does not take into consideration the range and scope of issues involved in feminist identifications; it adopts a one-dimensional reading of the ‘post’ – and by implication the ‘post-ing’ of feminism – as ‘anti’ feminism; it glosses over some of the overlaps and contradictions that mark postfeminist contexts, thereby foreclosing the interpretative possibilities of postfeminism; it does not allow for an expansive and adaptable postfeminist ethos and new directions across a range of sites, for example in terms of transnational and intersectional perspectives.

At this point we should note the range of postfeminist transfers that have caused the concept to travel across disciplinary, geographical and historical boundaries. Indeed, in the few decades encircling the millennium, there has been a veritable explosion of postfeminism across a range of fields: while popular culture remains a key resource for scholars, postfeminism’s analytical and conceptual scope has expanded significantly with an upsurge in publications about masculinity, ageing, body politics, race and class. Postfeminism is now discussed as a global and transnational phenomenon, travelling across borders to become meaningful and localized in various, non-Western settings. As Dosekun has observed, ‘post-feminism is readily transnationalized, that is rendered transnational culture, because it is a fundamentally mediated and commodified discourse and set of material practices’.36 Moreover, the term has gained prominence outside representational and media culture and is now discussed in relation to education, health, digital culture and work, to name but a few current sites of investigation. Rather than its tiredness or redundancy, what this signals is postfeminism’s intrinsic productivity, its ability as a conceptual tool to make meaningful the paradoxes that characterize our ways of inhabiting and making sense of millennial existence and culture.

As I discuss in the next section, postfeminism’s adaptability and self-reflexivity are evidenced most recently in its shift from a boom model that emphasizes ‘choice’ and the ‘freedom’ to consume and self-fashion, to a recessionary bust postfeminist stance that retains a commitment to consumption but in a pragmatic, pared-down and downsized format that takes issue with the extravagant and ‘irresponsible’ spending of the Noughties’ ‘bubble culture’.

Beyond the ‘post’? Millennial bust postfeminism

While postfeminism has been the object of widespread critique since its inception, recent investigations have queried not only its social limitations and political allegiances but its intrinsic validity and raison d’être. In Charlotte Brunsdon’s eyes, postfeminism has become a ‘baggy’ concept,37 while for Imelda Whelehan, postfeminism is ‘frustrating to analyse because its message requires little unpacking’ – ultimately, it is an ‘empty signifier’ that is ‘overburdened’ with meaning.38 In some ways, given its links with the entrepreneurial boom culture of conspicuous consumption and individual gratification that dominated Western economies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, critical calls that proclaim the redundancy and outdatedness of postfeminism appear logical and even reasonable. It is not surprising then that there have been calls for a revised or updated postfeminism, a millennial rearticulation that reflects a recessionary context infused with anxiety. For example, Nash and Grant propose the term ‘post? Feminism’ to create a platform for ‘new debate’ and symbolize that ‘feminist engagement with post-feminism is multiple and shifting’.39 In a similar vein, Rosalind Gill has investigated the relevance of the concept, asking, ‘Are we now post-postfeminism?’40 For her, this question is motivated by what she perceives as the ‘new visibility of feminism’, a resurgence of interest in feminist issues and debates in corporate/neoliberal arenas, celebrity culture as well as (online) forms of activism. Focusing more directly on the recession as a frame of reference, Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker also query the pertinence and suitability of postfeminism to connect with the profound political, social and cultural shifts inaugurated by the 2008 economic crisis: ‘Postfeminism has shown itself to be significantly related (if not reducible) to the “bubble culture” of the twenty-first century’s first decade’ that celebrated the ‘postfeminist female consumer’ as ‘an icon of excess as much as admiration’.41

In addition, in the course of its proliferation and expansion – evidenced for instance by the ever growing and diverse corpus of postfeminist scholarship – we can detect a certain embedding of the term as postfeminism is consolidated into a kind of contemporary master discourse, a postfeminist grand narrative. Here, contemporary critics have evaluated and accepted postfeminism as a foregone conclusion, a predictable framework to demarcate their distinct analyses. For example, Angela McRobbie refers to the ‘post-feminist stranglehold’ that potentially is in the process of being exploded by the ‘blossoming of new feminisms across so many different locations’.42 In a slightly different manner, Gill argues for the continued importance of the critical idiom of postfeminism as ‘regrettably, we are a long way from being post-postfeminism’.43 Here the argument for ‘keeping, rather than jettisoning, the notion of postfeminism’ is based on the assumption of a ‘postfeminist sensibility in which “all the battles” are supposed to have been won, and accusations of sexism come always already disenfranchised: been there, done that, it’s all sorted!’44

For me, there is no need to coin ‘post-’ neologisms to reflect the current moment of investigation – indeed, the genealogical approach I have adopted forecloses the notion of a ‘closed’ postfeminism – postfeminism as fait accompli. Rather, at this historical juncture, it is time to ask (again), what has changed? How has postfeminism evolved and what does post-boom postfeminism – or, bust postfeminism if you like – imply? Indeed, we seem to be living in a perpetual state of crisis and anxiety and those points of reference and identification that provided a sense of security and directed our ways of being and seeing – in social, cultural, political and economic terms – continue to be evaporated and replaced by a sense of menace and foreboding. Gone are the days of social optimism, mobility and safety (or, the perception thereof) as we learn how to adapt and cope with the stress and trauma of a seemingly interminable economic crisis and political upheaval, the ensuing atmosphere of austerity and anger at corporate greed, the rollback of opportunities and transfer of risk to culture at large, and a global terrorism that feeds a generalized climate of fear. The current political and cultural moment is also complexly gendered, fears abounding that we are witnessing ‘the end of men’ and a concomitant ‘rise of women’,45 a trend not borne out by economic reality and rising numbers of unemployed women. On the whole, these diverse social, economic and political factors – and their resultant mediatization and effects on cultural forms and representations – necessitate that we investigate how current political changes and the end of a boom-and-bust economic model have affected the larger cultural climate and tenets of postfeminism. Certainly, if late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century postfeminism was characterized by optimism, entitlement and the opportunity of prosperity, then indisputably such articulations have become more unsustainable and uncertain in a post-2008 recessionary environment that complicates, and possibly nullifies, boom-market mindsets and Noughties confidence in (consumer) ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.

While the intricacies of a bust postfeminist stance are beyond the parameters of this chapter, I want to highlight a number of key characteristics that have emerged in a millennial context. The interplay of economic uncertainty and gender intensifies a number of (post)feminist dilemmas and points of contentions and casts doubt on the discourses of self-regulating entrepreneurship and choice that were the hallmark of celebratory postfeminism of the 1990s and early 2000s and that are embodied in the image of the ‘empowered, assertive, pleasure-seeking, “have-it-all” woman of sexual and financial agency’.46 For example, Lazar’s suggestion that ‘the postfeminist subject … is entitled to be pampered and pleasured’47 needs to be problematized in a recessionary environment that no longer guarantees (economic) success and reward to even the most hard-working individuals. This has a more general effect on postfeminist culture and its depiction of fictional characters: where for example in the case of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century heroines, ‘failing’ might have been conceived as a ‘virtue’48 – epitomized for example by the professional ineptness and persistent blundering of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones – such underachievement and incompetence are no longer held up as endearing signs of female identification and imperfection but now turn out to be equivalent to economic suicide as countless, qualified professionals compete in an ever more aggressive and merciless job market. In this sense, the prospect of prosperity and entrepreneurship that may have been viewed with confidence in the pre-recession decades appears less as an individual entitlement than a corporate obligation in times of austerity that masks the rollback of opportunities under the rhetorical guise of necessity, self-restraint and self-care.

Thus, it is plain to see that the larger culture and ethos of postfeminism need to be recalibrated and reassessed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Here, we need to engage with a new postfeminist vocabulary which pre-recession was marked by optimism, aspirationalism, and opportunity to prosper, while post-recession becomes unquestionably more pessimistic and less congratulatory. In this recessionary context, the neoliberal/postfeminist mantra of choice and self-determination is still present but becomes inflected with the experiences of precarity and risk and the insistence on self-responsibilization. Lauren Berlant’s theorization of the ‘good life’ is useful here as she analyses the shrinking or ‘fraying of fantasies’ of ‘upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy’.49 Despite, or maybe because of, these conditions of economic and intimate contingency, people remain bound to their situation of profound threat and uncertainty, holding on and hoping against themselves that their fantasies will come good. Berlant describes this affective state, this feeling of our times, as a ‘cruel optimism’ whereby we are encouraged to believe in the idea of a better and happier future – the ‘good life’ – whilst such attachments are, simultaneously, obstructed by the precarities and instabilities of daily life.

In the broadest sense then, we need to allow for a shift in postfeminist tone or register – from excess to frugality, carefree spending to economical thrift, light-hearted pleasure to nervous anguish – that can be witnessed for example in recessionary chick flicks such as Bridesmaids (2011) that now feature unemployed women and strain to ‘resolve female downward mobility through bridal fantasy’.50 This is in sharp contrast to boom postfeminist representations that hailed young women in particular as free and confident agents with supposedly infinite choice. Variously known as ‘can-do girls’, ‘top girls’ or ‘supergirls’,51 they were held up as the ideal postfeminist subject who is ‘flexible, individualised, resilient, self-driven, and self-made’.52 This kind of determined, self-motivating individual can be found across boom postfeminist culture, fostering a principle of competition that is both social – compelling individuals to constantly evaluate and compare their own self-enterprise with others – as well as self-directed. The reward for such relentless self-work was to be found in the material pleasures and choices of consumer culture.

This type of consumer postfeminism – exemplified by the urban glamour and shopping sprees of Sex and the City – is at odds with a context of austerity in which enterprising individuals might have earned the ‘right’ to consume but their consumer ‘freedom’ is now curtailed by limited funds and the value of their self-commodity is progressively in decline. Moreover, the much-touted recipe for success – self-work – is no longer necessarily delivering the promised rewards in a fiercely competitive recessionary marketplace that renders those incapable of capitalizing on their investment increasingly redundant and disposable. In short, if consumption is the key to ‘having it all’ and unlocking the individual’s ‘value’, then those who cannot ‘spend it all’ might have to forego their ‘freedom’ and undersell their ‘assets’ in neoliberal capitalist consumer cultures. In this context, postfeminism gets a ‘reality-check’ as the ‘right’ to be self-reliant now turns into a ‘risk’ and the promise of upward mobility is increasingly prohibited by the harsh post-boom climate that surrenders those who lack competitive edge – ‘failed’ consumers and workers – to a ‘politics of disposability’.53

Beyond these enduring postfeminist matters, I propose that bust postfeminism also gives rise to distinct recessionary patterns and themes of heightened visibility in order to bare the structural inequalities and power dynamics that have become glaringly obvious in the harsh post-Noughties climate. Here, visibility emerges as a discernible post-boom postfeminist motif that can be witnessed both in popular culture – where it takes the form of sexual sensationalism and liberal sexism that is unapologetic and blunt in its portrayal of gendered abuse, witnessed for example in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011–)54 – as well as in relation to contemporary sexualized forms of feminism and activism, exemplified for instance by the global ‘Slutwalk’ movement and the Ukrainian activist group FEMEN.55 A number of critics have commented on the increased visibility of feminism more broadly – as McRobbie writes, ‘after a long period of castigation and disavowal … feminism once again has a presence across the quality and popular media, and similarly in political culture and in civil society’.56 Here it is important to remind ourselves that ‘visibility’ does not always function in the same way – in fact, there might be different kinds of (un)critical visibilities in diverse cultural and political contexts – and ‘seeing’ does not necessarily lead to social change. Thus, we need to interrogate the nature of visibility itself and its relation to critique whereby making a (political) issue ‘visible’ or ‘speakable’ might not be enough as an act of emancipation and political awareness. This might have particularly problematic implications for a range of liberal activist stances – including feminism and gay rights – that have adopted a ‘politics of visibility’ to foster reconsiderations of gender, race, embodiment and power.57

If visibility is one of the recessionary motifs that define bust postfeminism, then affect is another key term that has come to the fore. My proposition here is that the blunt and precarious post-boom milieu engenders a more interiorized and affective postfeminist stance that encourages subjects to look inward and focus in on themselves in order to search for meaning/value in these uncertain times. Indeed, one of the reasons for boom postfeminism’s continued appeal particularly in popular culture is its promotion of self-goals like ‘confidence’, ‘independence’ and ‘empowerment’, linked to consumerist and neoliberal imperatives that demand that we work on the self as the means to achieve these aims. As a result of more intense external pressures that weigh down on the individual post-recession, these goals now become more inner-directed and internalized, focusing on deeply rooted psychological desires to develop and enhance our sense of self. Many are barred from the ‘rewards’ of material consumption at this particular moment of downturn when the postfeminist/neoliberal discourses of self-regulating entrepreneurship become, not so much a prerogative, but an institutionalized burden. Accordingly, they turn to affective spaces of selfhood in an effort to validate the self and mine meaning (i.e. value) from their individual experiences and attributes (creativity, originality, resourcefulness, etc.).58

In relation to postfeminism, what this implies is that we need to move away from the assumption that postfeminist culture and politics act upon individuals from the outside in order to socialize them, for instance in terms of compulsory heterosexiness, responsibilization and entrepreneurialism. Instead, postfeminism is involved in the complex processes of individuation whereby subjects construct their identity, express their agency and actively self-govern in spite of structural/collective barriers.59 As I have written elsewhere, we now need to ‘expand our understanding of the intimate connections between culture and subjectivity’ and supplement ‘examinations of what postfeminist subjectivity entails’ with ‘an interrogation of how postfeminism engages subjects in the perplexing double binds of discipline and choice’.60 This shift inward underlines postfeminism’s affective dimension that works from within to penetrate not only the intimate links between subjects but also the relationship of the individual with him/herself. Postfeminism’s ‘turn to interiority’61 thus gives rise to a process of intensified individuation that situates postfeminism at the heart of the individual’s psyche – as I describe it, postfeminism now ‘taps into emotion and affect as crucial elements in the construction, marketing and consumption of … subjectivity’.62

Ultimately, what this brief venture into bust postfeminism reveals is the concept’s intrinsic generativity, its ability to permutate and respond to changing historical conditions and contexts. While postfeminism as a conceptual category and discursive system might still be under construction, its critical history points towards a fertile and productive ‘site of risk’63 that charts new debates and raises new questions probing the inescapable levels of contradiction and diverse points of identification we are confronted with in late modern societies. Postfeminism continues to pose a challenge for critical thinkers, calling upon us to interrogate and possibly reimagine how we carry out critique and apply analytical frameworks – hence, in my eyes there is no doubt that postfeminism is set to extend and deepen its conceptual web and remain a firm fixture of future critical analysis.

Notes

1 Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2012), p. 9.
2 Vicki Coppock, Vicki, Deena Haydon and Ingrid Richter, The Illusions of ‘Post-Feminism’: New Women, Old Myths (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995), p. 4; Sarah Gamble, ‘Postfeminism’, in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 43–54.
3 Susan Douglas, The Rise of Enlightened Feminism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), p. 10.
4 Rosalind Gill, ‘Post-Postfeminism?: New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times’, Feminist Media Studies, 16:4 (2016), 1–22; Rosalind Gill, Gender and the Media (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 250.
5 See Patricia S. Mann, Micro-Politics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 208.
6 Henry A. Giroux, ‘Neoliberalism and the Machine of Disposability’, Truthout (8 April 2014), www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/22958-neoliberalism-and-the-machinery-of-disposability (accessed 11 September 2020).
7 See Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 282.
8 Judith Stacey, ‘Sexism by a Subtler Name? Postindustrial Conditions and Postfeminist Consciousness in the Silicon Valley’, Socialist Review, 96 (1987), 7–28.
9 Julie Ewington, ‘Past the Post: Postmodernism and Postfeminism’, in C. Moore (ed.), Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970–90 (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1994), pp. 109–21.
10 Charlotte Brunsdon, Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 101.
11 Ann Brooks, Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 1.
12 See Coppock et al., Illusions of ‘Post-Feminism’.
13 Lynne Alice, ‘What is Postfeminism? Or, Having it Both Ways’, Proceedings of the Feminism/Postmodernism/Postfeminism Conference, November 17–19, 1995: Working Papers in Women’s Studies (Albany, NZ: Massey University, 1995), pp. 7–35.
14 See Stéphanie Genz and Ben Brabon, Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009, 2018).
15 Ann Braithwaite, ‘Politics and/of Backlash’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5:5 (2004), 18–33.
16 Deborah L. Siegel, ‘The Legacy of the Personal: Generating Theory in Feminism’s Third Wave’, Hypatia, 12:3 (1997), 46–75.
17 See Siegel, ‘Legacy’, 60–1.
18 Quoted in Deborah Siegel, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 128.
19 Sarah Banet-Weiser, ‘What’s Your Flava? Race and Postfeminism in Media Culture’, in Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (eds), Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and The Politics of Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 201–26.
20 Diane Elam, ‘Sisters are Doing it to Themselves’, in Devoney Looser and Ann E. Kaplan (eds), Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 55–68.
21 Misha Kavka, ‘Feminism, Ethics, and History, or What is the “Post” in Postfeminism’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 21:1 (2002), 29–44, 31.
22 Amelia Jones, ‘Post-Feminism – A Remasculinization of Culture’, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writing, Theory and Criticism, 7 (1990), 7–23.
23 Stacy Gillis and Rebecca Munford, ‘Harvesting our Strengths: Third Wave Feminism and Women’s Studies’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 4:2 (2003), 1–6.
24 See Imelda Whelehan, The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and The Single Girl to Sex and the City (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 168, 179–80.
25 Lynne Segal, ‘Theoretical Affiliations: Poor Rich White Folk Play the Blues’, New Formations, 50 (2003): 142–56.
26 Lisa Adkins, ‘Passing on Feminism: From Consciousness to Reflexivity?’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 11:4 (2004), 427–44; Segal, ‘Theoretical Affiliations’, 152.
27 See Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women (London: Vintage, 1992).
28 Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 29.
29 See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 17.
30 Gamble, ‘Postfeminism’, p. 44.
31 Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London: Sage, 2009).
32 See Stéphanie Genz, ‘“I have work … I am busy … trying to become who I am”: Neoliberal Girls and Recessionary Postfeminism’, in I. Whelehan and M. Nash (eds), Reading Lena Dunham’s Girls: Feminism, Postfeminism, Authenticity and Gendered Performance in Contemporary Television (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 17–30.
33 Simon Dentith, Parody (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 188.
34 Whelehan, Feminist Bestseller, p. 155.
35 Angela McRobbie, ‘Post-Feminism and Popular Culture’, Feminist Media Studies, 4:3 (2004), 255–64.
36 Simidele Dosekun, ‘For Western Girls Only?’, Feminist Media Studies, 15:6 (2015), 960–75, 961.
37 Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘Television Crime Series, Women Police, and Fuddy-Duddy Feminism’, Feminist Media Studies, 13:3 (2013), 375–94.
38 Imelda Whelehan, ‘Remaking Feminism: Or, Why is Postfeminism So Boring?’, Nordic Journal of English Studies, 9:3 (2010), 155–72.
39 Meredith Nash and Ruby Grant, ‘Twenty-Something Girls v. Thirty-Something Sex And The City Women’, Feminist Media Studies, 15:6 (2015), 976–91.
40 Gill, ‘Post-Postfeminism?’, p. 2.
41 Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (eds), Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), pp. 4, 6.
42 Angela McRobbie, ‘Notes on the Perfect: Competitive Femininity in Neoliberal Times’, Australian Feminist Studies, 30:83 (2015), 3–20.
43 Gill, ‘Post-Postfeminism?’, pp. 16, 17.
44 Rosalind Gill, ‘Unspeakable Inequalities: Post Feminism, Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, and the Repudiation of Sexism among Cultural Workers’, Social Politics, 21:4 (2014), 509–28.
45 See Hanna Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, The Atlantic (July/August 2010), www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/ (accessed 11 September 2020).
46 Eva Chen, ‘Neoliberalism and Popular Women’s Culture: Rethinking Choice, Freedom and Agency’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16:4 (2013), 440–52.
47 Michelle Lazar, ‘Entitled to Consume: Postfeminist Femininity and a Culture of Post-Critique’, Discourse & Communication, 3:4 (2009), 371–400.
48 See McRobbie, Aftermath.
49 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
50 Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker, ‘Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality: Recession-era Chick Flicks and Male-Centred Corporate Melodrama’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16:3 (2013), 344–61.
51 See Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2004); Angela McRobbie, ‘Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-feminist Sexual Contract’, Cultural Studies, 21:4–5 (2007), 718–37; J. Ringrose and V. Walkerdine, ‘What Does It Mean to Be a Girl in the Twenty-First Century? Exploring Some Contemporary Dilemmas of Femininity and Girlhood in the West’, in C. Mitchell and J. Reid-Walsh (eds), Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), pp. 6–16.
52 Harris, Future Girl, p. 16.
53 See Henry Giroux, ‘Neoliberalism and the Death of the Social State: Remembering Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History’, Social Identities, 17:4 (2011), 587–601.
54 See Stéphanie Genz, ‘“I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them”: Sexist Liberalism and Gender (A)politics in Game of Thrones’, in R. Schubart and A. Gjelsvik (eds), Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones and Multiple Media Engagements (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 243–66.
55 See Stéphanie Genz, ‘Baring the Recession: Sexual Sensationalism and Gender (A)politics in Contemporary Culture’, in H. Davies and C. O’Callaghan (eds), Gender and Austerity in Popular Culture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2017), pp. 189–209.
56 McRobbie, ‘Notes on the Perfect’, p. 4.
57 See Monica J. Casper and Lisa Jean Moore, Missing Bodies: The Politics of Visibility (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
58 See Banet-Weiser, Authentic.
59 See Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Identity in the Globalising World’, Social Anthropology, 9:2 (2001), 121–9.
60 Stéphanie Genz, ‘My Job is Me: Postfeminist Celebrity Culture and the Gendering of Authenticity’, Feminist Media Studies, 15:4 (2015), 545–61.
61 See Tisha Dejmanee, ‘Consumption in the City: The Turn to Interiority in Contemporary Postfeminist Television’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 19:2 (2016), 119–33.
62 Genz, ‘My Job is Me’, 546.
63 Genz and Brabon, Postfeminism, p. 179.

Post-everything

An intellectual history of post-concepts

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