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Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms

Ann Brooks

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eBook - ePub


Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms

Ann Brooks

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About This Book

Once seen as synonymous with "anti-feminism" postfeminism i now understood as the theoretical meeting ground between feminism and anti-foundationalist movements such as postmodernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialsm. In this clear exposition of some of the major debates, theorists and practitioners, Ann Brooks shows how feminism is being redefined for the twenty first century. Individual chapters look at postfeminism in relation to feminist epistemology, Foucault, psychoanalytic theory and semiology postmodernism and postcolonialism, cultural politics, popular culture, film and media, and sexuality and identity For all students looking for guidance through the sometimes murky waters of contemporary feminist theory, this book wil provide a reassuring first port of call.

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Part I



Issues of diversity and ‘difference’ in feminist theorising


This first chapter investigates feminism’s location at the intersection of modernity and postmodernity, and examines some of the debates which have been leading feminism towards a possible paradigm shift. As it confronts critiques from within and outside its own discourses, contemporary feminism is reassessing its epistemological foundations within modernism. This chapter considers some of these critiques and assesses the implications for feminist theoretical and political debates in the 1990s.


Feminism has always engaged with the ‘master’ discourses with which it has found itself allied, whether they are the discourses of modernity or postmodernity. It cannot be denied that the theoretical frameworks and principles of operation which have characterised feminism have been the result of feminism’s intersection with these discourses, either the ‘metanarratives’ of modernity, e.g. Marxism, or the postmodernist and poststructuralist discourses of postmodernity.
The relationship between feminism and modernity is not a straightforward one. Marshall (1994:148) notes the relationship of women to modernity and to social theory as a modern project is one riven with contradictions and ambiguities. She claims that feminism ‘constitutes both a critique of and a defence of modernity, so has a great stake in the modernity-postmodernity debates which are at heart about the possibility of a “subject” for social theory’. The failure of theories of modernity for feminism has been their inability to come to grips with ‘difference’ adequately. Thus, on the one hand, as an emancipatory politics and a body of critical and political theory, feminism continues to use ‘egalitarian rhetoric as the basis of most of its political demands’. In this sense, as Marshall contends, ‘feminism is wedded to the modern by virtue of its rootedness in the space opened up by rights discourse’. However, she notes that, at the same time, its commitment to ‘difference’ and diversity and its sceptical stance towards reason call forth the postmodern.
Moira Gatens (1986) highlights the significance of feminism’s deconstructive relationship to modernist theory, in this case philosophy:
By self-consciously demonstrating that any philosophical paradigm is not neutral these feminists make themselves, both as philosophers and women, visible. By making themselves visible, they in turn throw into question the legitimacy of claims and assumptions in philosophy that have been taken as axiomatic. Insofar as the approach questions the very foundation and status of philosophy it also reveals the investments and concerns of philosophy. It does this by demonstrating not only what is excluded from a particular philosophy but also why it is crucial for the very existence of that philosophy, to exclude it.
(Gatens 1986:25)
Gatens’ comments identify two dimensions to feminism’s critique of modernism: first, feminism’s approach to theoretical deconstruction, as Yeatman (1994:17) claims, ‘evinces unwillingness to evacuate the ground of knowledge production, to leave a particular discipline to its phallocentric leadership’; second, it anticipates feminism’s critique of modernism’s metanarratives. Central among such metanarratives has been Marxism and the ‘production-paradigm’. Feminist philosophical critique as outlined by Benhabib and Cornell offers a direct challenge to the production paradigm. They raise the question of whether
the concept of production, which is based on the model of an active subject transforming, making and shaping an object given to it, can adequately comprehend traditional female activities, such as childrearing and caregiving, which are so thoroughly intersubjective.
The challenge to metanarrative as an explanatory framework came from within and outside feminism, perhaps the most serious critique being that of the theorisation of the ‘subject’. Marshall (1994:96), drawing on the work of MacDonald (1991), contends that it is in their questioning of the ‘subject’ that Marxists, feminists and poststructuralists have found some intellectual affinity. Marshall notes that ‘there is increasing doubt cast on the premise of orthodox Marxist theory that an individual’s identity, consciousness and in essence social being, are derived from one’s position in the social division of labour’ (ibid.).
Feminism’s critique of modernist metanarratives has been thrown into relief by feminism’s engagement with postmodernism. Fraser and Nicholson’s (1990) work in this area has been seminal.1 They argue that feminist theorists must abandon their own versions of the modernist metanarratives which have inspired the great general theories of modernity.2 Yeatman (1990b:290) contends
that if ‘postmodernism empowers, as in a sense it is empowered by, feminism and feminist-inspired democratic visions, feminist theorists will have to give up their own “trained” subscription to modernist perspectives which sustain monovocal, monological constructions of authority’.
Fraser and Nicholson (1990:31) cite the work of Nancy Chodorow (1979) as one of a number of feminist social theorists who ‘has constructed a quasimetanarrative around a putatively cross-cultural, female-associated activity’. In addition, Yeatman notes that they identify a number of second wave feminists whose work has followed a similar pattern. She identifies Ann Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, Nancy Hartsock and Catherine MacKinnon (among others), who ‘have built similar theories around notions of sex- affective production, reproduction, and sexuality respectively’ (Yeatman 1990b:291). The difficulty with these theories is their biological essentialism, their lack of a cross-cultural component, and their tendency towards social constructionism. She argues that ‘a genealogical’ construction of the ‘categories of sexuality, reproduction and mothering would avoid the universalistic assumptions inherent in these models’.
The response of feminist theorists to postmodernism and poststructuralism has not been characterised by consensus. Sylvia Walby (1990, 1992) has been in the forefront of critics of feminism’s theoretical incursions into postmodernism. She contends that ‘postmodernists are correct to point out that many of the existing grand theories of patriarchy have problems in dealing with historical and cultural variation. But their solution of denying causality itself is necessarily defeatist
’ (Walby 1992:36). While Walby herself rejects a return to modernist metanarratives, with their ‘totalizing’ frameworks, she contends that ‘postmodern critics go too far in asserting the necessary impossibility and unproductive nature of investigating gender inequality’. She argues that the problem with a traditional Marxist framework is that it attempts to incorporate all forms of social inequality into that of class, utilising ‘a simple basesuperstructure model of causal relations’. Walby’s solution is to be found in theorising more than one causal base. She contends that the ‘ability to theorize different forms of patriarchy is absolutely necessary to avoid the problem of simple reductionism and essentialism’. However, Yeatman (1990b:291) points out that it is important to emphasise that, if postmodernism means abandoning universalistic, general theories and instead exploring the multivocal worlds of different societies and cultures, ‘this is not the same thing as abandoning the political-ethical project of working out the conditions for a universal pragmatics of individualized agency’.
It is the issue of agency and of subjectivity more generally, which lies at the heart of feminism’s ambiguous ‘positioning’ between modernity and post-modernity. As Marshall (1994:148) notes, ‘feminist analysis must recognise and build upon the insight that it can fully embrace neither an unreconstructed modernism’s subject nor postmodernism’s rejection of the subject, by virtue of the fact that women as subjects have never been accorded the coherence, autonomy, rationality or agency of the subject which undergirds an unreconstructed modernism, and which postmodernism has deconstructed out of existence.’
The fragile consensus of second wave feminism was increasingly challenged from both within and outside feminism. One of the key texts that brings together these two sets of pressures is Michùle Barrett and Anne Phillips’ book Destabilizing Theory (1992).3 Barrett and Phillips outline three reasons why feminism has gone through a period of radical self-criticism: the political impact of women of colour within feminism; the issue of sexual difference, highlighted as an area that had not been sufficiently articulated within feminist theories of the second wave and more generally the whole area of subjectivity, diversity and difference within feminist theorising; and the impact of poststructuralism and postmodernism on feminism. The shift of emphasis from ‘equality’ to ‘difference’ emerging from within feminism’s own ranks as a result of critiques from women of colour, Third World feminists and lesbian feminists has been described by Barrett (1992) as ‘paradigm shift’ of the same order as that of feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism and postmodernism.


Postmodernism and poststructuralism, with their emphasis on ‘deconstruction’ and difference, reinforced critiques that had already been directed at the ‘essentialism’, ethnocentrism and ‘ahistoricism’ of branches of feminist theory. The problematic nature of terms such as ‘patriarchy’, ‘women’ and ‘oppression’ was for those ‘at the margins’ of feminism further highlighted in the debates within the feminist movement instituted initially by women of colour. Carby (1982) and hooks (1984) comment on the universalisation of terms by an essentially white, middle-class, heterosexual, feminist movement as if they referred to the experiences of all women. As hooks (1984:4) argues, ‘Race and class identity create differences in quality of life, social status and lifestyle that take precedence over the common experience women share—differences which are rarely transcended.’
The universal application of ‘black’ as a concept was shown to lack any cultural and historical specificity in the way it had come to be used. In Britain the use of ‘black’ had a political dimension and was used in a ‘generic’ sense to apply to groups who shared an experience of colonialism and racism. Its application in terms of both race and ethnicity was imprecise and was applied to ‘Afro-Caribbean’ and ‘Asian’, ignoring national, regional, cultural, ethnic and linguistic particularities. In the United States, ‘black’ was again used in a generic sense, but usually applied to Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean groups who had a shared experience of slavery. In Australia, ‘black’ was frequently applied to Aborigines as an indigenous group (see Pettman 1988).
Writers such as Carby (1982), hooks (1984), Sykes (1984) and Ramazanoghu (1986) have raised different issues around the limitations of second wave feminism for women of colour. All acknowledge that second wave feminism has neglected the lived experience’ of racism. This neglect renders second wave feminism’s theoretical framework and categories inappropriate and its practices problematic. Many of the critiques have coalesced around the theorising and application of the concept of ‘patriarchy’.
Just as critiques of second wave feminism by women of colour have pointed to limitations in the application of the concept ‘black’ as not recognising cultural and historical specificity, so women of colour maintain that ‘patriarchy’ is equally ethnocentric in its application. As Carby (1982:217) states, ‘black men have not held the same patriarchal position of power that white males have established’. At a more general level of critique, Michùle Barrett (1988) argues that the term ‘patriarchy’ has lost all analytic or explanatory power, and is now used synonymously with ‘male dominance’. Both Carby and Barrett, while approaching the issue from different positions, agree that a more contextualised, culturally specific concept of patriarchy must be developed in order to more accurately reflect a range of experiences of oppression. Ramazanoglu (1986) claims that, while an understanding of ethnocentrism is important in feminist theory, this alone does not lead to an understanding of black women’s experience of oppression, further that the failure of feminist theory arises not only from its ethnocentrism but also its failure to address the issue of racism.
Roberta Sykes, in speaking for/of Aboriginal women, raises the same issues for indigenous women. As Sykes claims:
White women merely have less power and control than white men. I do not doubt that white women experience this state acutely but in comparison to both black women and black men white women are extremely powerful and have control over many resources.
The intersections of race, ethnicity and class within second wave feminism, and the implications for feminist theory and practice, have been shown to be problematic. Second wave feminist theory failed to address the fact that there are different ‘sites of oppression’ and potentially different ‘sites of struggle’. It is at this level of analysis that, Walby (1990:16) maintains, ‘postmodern critics have made some valuable points about the potential dangers in theorizing gender inequality at too abstract and general level’. She notes that sites of oppression for women of colour may be different from those of white women, and this may change the basis of gender inequality. Elsewhere Walby claims that
some black feminists such as hooks, have argued that since the family is a site of resistance and solidarity against racism for women of colour, it does not hold the central place in accounting for women’s subordination that it does for white women.
It is not only ‘a question of recognizing ethnic inequality, and the different sites of oppression for women of different ethnicities, but the particular ways in which ethnic and gender relations have interacted historically change the forms of ethnic and gender relations’ (ibid.). However, Walby raises doubts about postmodernist critiques of feminist theory, and maintains that there is sufficient evidence of commonly shared oppressions among women to identify ‘patriarchy’ as a significant source of oppression in advanced Western capitalist society. However it is clear that ‘patriarchy’ is experienced in different ways by different women and results in different ‘sites of oppression’ and ‘sites of resistance’.
The critique raised by women of colour to feminist theory and practice has been one of a number of critiques the history of feminist theory has undergone. De Lauretis (1993:86) charts some of the periods of conflict within feminism, and notes that in the 1970s the debate in the US was characterised by a debate between academic feminism versus activism defined as an opposition between theory and practice, which led to a polarisation of positions either for theory or against theory. De Lauretis identifies a further fragmentation within feminism with the subsequent internal division of the movement over the issue of separatism or ‘mainstreaming’, which ‘recast the practice/theory opposition in terms of lesbian vs heterosexual identification and of women’s studies vs feminist cultural theory
’ (ibid.).
The issues of pornography and representation were the focus of conflict within feminist debates in the mid-1980s. De Lauretis (1993:87) contends that ‘the so-called feminist sex wars
have pitched ‘pro-sex’ feminists versus the anti- pornography movement in a conflict over representation that recast the sex/ gender distinction into the form of a paradoxical opposition’. As she notes, on the one hand sex and gender are collapsed together and become both analytically and politically indistinguishable as can be seen in the work of Catherine MacKinnon and Nancy Hartsock. On the other hand sex and gender ‘are severed from each other’ and are recombined in a series of ‘boundary’ crossings such as ‘transsexualism, transvestism, bi-sexualism, drag and impersonation (Butler), cyborgs (Haraway) etc’ (ibid.). Central to all these areas are issues of identity, subjectivity and difference within feminist theoretical debates.


The issues of subjectivity and identity within feminist theorising are closely related to issues of epistemology within feminist theoretical analysis and the relationship between feminist knowledge and women’s experience. Feminist debates in the 1990s are more reflective of the ongoing debates around feminist epistemology and theory both from within and outside feminism (see Chapter 2). Sandra Harding’s ‘Reinventing Ourselves as Others: More New Agents of History and Knowledge’ (1993) is a case in point, reflecting on her earlier...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I Challenging and Fragmenting the Consensus of the ‘Second Wave’
  9. 1 Consensus and Conflict in Second Wave Feminism Issues of diversity and ‘difference’ in feminist theorising
  10. Part II Feminism's ‘Turn to Culture’—a Paradigm Shift in Feminist Theorising?
  11. 2 Challenging the Basis of The Feminist Epistemological Project
  12. 3 Foucault and Postfeminism Discourse, power and resistance
  13. 4 Psychoanalytic Theory, Semiology and Postfeminism
  14. 5 THE ‘Landscape OF Postfeminism’ The intersection of feminism, postmodernism and post-colonialism
  15. Part III Postfeminism and Cultural Forms
  16. 6 Postfeminisms and Cultural Politics Feminism, cultural difference and the cultural politics of the academy
  17. 7 Postfeminism and Popular Culture Representations and resistance
  18. 8 Postfeminist Variations Within Media and Film Theory
  19. 9 Postfeminisms and Cultural Space: Sexuality, Subjectivity and Identity
  20. Conclusion
  21. Notes
  22. Bibliography
  23. Index