Postfeminism acts as an antidote to feminism and believes in “the active disavowal of feminism as a necessary politics” (Banet-Weiser, 2018, 153). Feminism is a movement that endorses the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Feminism and the fight for gender equality have been around since first-wave feminism began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the suffragist movement. Postfeminism argues that since women have already achieved equality in society, there is no longer a need for feminist thought; it refers to an ‘after’ feminism — a state where equality has fully been accomplished and gender discrimination is a feature of the past. Sarah Projansky (2001) contends that “the concept of postfeminism perpetuates feminism in the very process of insisting that it is now over” (p. 66). Feminist media scholars, like Projansky, have worked and continue to work in order to disprove postfeminism and discredit its validity.
The history of postfeminism is not linear. The 1960s and 1970s saw an emergence of mainstream liberal white feminism, which is now referred to as second-wave feminism. This second-wave movement made significant strides in bringing gender issues into the spotlight. Some women’s issues that became more regularly discussed in American society were “related to reproductive rights, equal pay, the family and legal realms, and the workplace” (Banet-Weiser, 2018, p. 152). Overall, feminists during this time were labeled as stereotypical misandrists. In the 1980s and 1990s, media representation of these feminists changed, and women came to be “represented as intrepid, choice-making agents” (Banet-Weiser, 2018, p. 153) nearing the turn of the 21st century. The mid-1990s birthed third-wave feminism, who focused on the acceptance of women’s individuality and diversity – including a greater openness and recognition of women of color and men. Around 2012, the fourth wave of feminism commenced, which will be discussed later in this paper.
Postfeminism can come in many forms, but every form still believes that feminism is unnecessary. In her book, Sarah Projansky defines five categories of postfeminist discourses, with the first being linear postfeminism. Linear postfeminism is the progression from pre-feminism to feminism to the end of postfeminism; it is a historical outlining of feminist theory. Projansky (2001) explains that “The construction of linear historical relations between feminism and postfeminism ensures the impossibility of feminism and postfeminism coexisting. Since postfeminism always supplants feminism, feminism logically no longer exists” (p. 67). Because a postfeminist society could only occur ‘after’ feminism has been achieved and obtained, then it is not possible for feminism and postfeminism to exist at the same time.
Contemporary society is currently in the fourth-wave of feminism, which is understanding and counteracting intersectional oppression. This is the belief that women of different races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities experience sexism in their own unique ways. If society is still in a state of feminism, as it is in present-day according to the fourth wave, then feminism has not yet been achieved; society is not in a state of postfeminism. Another subset of postfeminism is called backlash postfeminism, which is the ideology that previous feminist thought has been dominated by self-victimization and seeks to correct it. Both linear and backlash postfeminism shine a negative light on feminism; instead of advocating for an ‘after’ feminism, they fight against feminism.
Equality and choice postfeminism is the third category and differs from the first two by positively representing feminism. It “consists of narratives about feminism’s ‘success’ in achieving gender ‘equity’ and having given women ‘choice,’ particularly with regard to labor and family” (Projansky, 2001, p. 67). Despite this positive representation, however, it suggests that women have a more expansive variety in choice and have no need to fight for equality, stating overall that there is no need for feminism (Projansky, 2001, p. 67).
The fourth category is known as (hetero)sex-positive postfeminism. This category refers to itself as a more modern and progressive alternative to antisex feminism, while also integrating parts of feminism that affirms the independence of women. (Hetero)sex-positive postfeminism promotes individuality and independence within feminism (Projansky, 2001, p. 67). However, it promotes this while still reaffirming women as sexual objects under a patriarchal male gaze. Projansky’s fifth postfeminist category takes the focus off women and puts it on men. According to this category, since women have obtained equality thanks to feminism, “men can be feminists too” (Projansky, 2001, p. 68). Postfeminism is immensely complex topic of study, and these five categories help to clarify and complicate its vast broadness.
Well-known postfeminist scholars include Susan Douglas and Angela McRobbie. McRobbie (2009) developed a process called ‘feminism taken into account,’ which she clarifies in her book as the following:
The kind of feminism which is taken into account in this context is liberal, equal opportunities feminism, where elsewhere what is invoked more negatively is the radical feminism concerned with social criticism rather than with progress or improvement in the position of women in an otherwise more or less unaltered social order. (p. 14)
The context McRobbie (2009) is referring to is the “high profile or newsworthy achievements” (p. 14) of women in a variety of employment and media institutions. Also in her book, McRobbie identifies the existence of postfeminism in pop culture by addressing the film Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon McGuire, 2001). McRobbie (2009) introduces Bridget Jones as the following:
In her early 30s, living and working in London, [she] is a free agent, single and childless and able to enjoy herself in pubs, bars and restaurants. She is the product of modernity in that she has benefited from those institutions (education) which have loosened the ties of tradition and community for women, making it possible for them to be dis-embedded and to re-locate to the city to earn an independent living without shame or danger. (p. 20)
Despite the freedom that Bridget has, she frets throughout the movie about finding a man and getting married and having children. Many of her actions in the film actually work towards gaining a man’s affection and approval. For example, she keeps a diary
and tracks her calorie intake to watch her weight. Bridget Jones takes place in a postfeminist setting, where Bridget has achieved equality; she has the means to provide for herself and exists as her own entity. However, her quest to ‘better herself’ in order to “become the sort of woman who she thinks will be the kind of woman men want to marry” (McRobbie, 2009, p. 22) means that Bridget is actually still subject to a patriarchal society. Bridget’s belief that she has to change herself to please men proves that society still needs feminism.
Douglas, on the other hand, denounces the term postfeminism because she argues that, instead, the term sexism reinforces the patriarchy and is at the root of inequality between the sexes. Douglas (2014) has coined the term enlightened sexism, which she describes as “feminist in its outward appearance (of course you can be or do anything you want), but sexist in its intent (hold on, girls, only up to a certain point, and not in any way that discomfits men or pushes feminist goals one more centimetre forward)” (p. 37). While postfeminism states that society is past feminism, enlightened sexism attempts to negate feminism. Enlightened sexism recognizes the women’s movement and its accomplishments but uses those accomplishments as justification to “[still] [define] [women] by their appearance and their biological destiny” (Douglas, 2014, p. 37). Through her work on enlightened sexism, Douglas strives to clarify that feminism is still a necessity in this contemporary moment.
A common aspect of postfeminism in popular media culture is the use of the word girls to identify young women. Well-known postfeminist films such as The Princess Diaries and Mean Girls are examples of centralizing girlhood, “fusing empowerment rhetoric with traditionalist identity paradigms” (Tasker and Negra, 2007, p. 18). Girl becomes a broad term, and Tasker and Negra (2007) point out that its use could be to “simply treat women of a variety of ages as girls,” (p. 18) thus demeaning women and taking away their equal stance to men. By referring to women and young women as girls, not only their age but also their meaning and significance becomes diminished and belittled in comparison to men’s; women lose power by being addressed and seen as girls. This lack of equality justifies the continued need for feminism and the nonexistence of postfeminism in this contemporary moment.
Banet-Weiser, S. (2018). Postfeminism and Popular Feminism. Feminist Media Histories, 4(2), 152-156.
Douglas, S. J. (2014). Still living with sexism (after all these years). Soundings, (58), 34-43.
McRobbie, A. (2009). Post-feminism and popular culture: Bridget Jones and the new gender regime. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change (pp. 11-23). London, England: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Projansky, S. (2001). The Postfeminist Context. In Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture (pp. 66-89). New York, NY: New York University Press.
Tasker, Y. & Negra, D. (2007). Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture. In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (pp. 1-25). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Image Attribution: Image 1: “Renee Zellweger smoking 2” by Nicholas Andrew is in the Public Domain; Image 2: “Fourth Wave” by Garry Knight is licensed under CC BY 2.0; Image 3: “Women’s lib[eration] march from Farrugut Sq[uare] to Layfette [i.e., Lafayette] P[ar]k” by Warren K. Leffler is in the Public Domain.
Written by Hannah Sauer, 2018