What is Postmodernism? An Introduction

Defining Postmodernism 

Postmodernism is a movement which emerged in the late twentieth century, characterised by suspicion of a universal ‘truth’, which had dominated Western philosophy since the 17th and 18th centuries. Postmodernism moves away from modernism’s utopian ideals, which suggested that reality could be explained by objective truth. Instead, postmodernism embraced complexity, contradiction and multiple layers of meaning in art, literature and philosophy. Postmodernism has resisted the idea of ‘grand narratives’ which are positioned as a universal truth. Examples of grand narratives (also known as meta-narratives) include Marxism and The Enlightenment, which had been essential for modernist thinkers. These grand narratives, postmodernists believe, are designed to oppress and control. 

In Understanding Postmodernism (2017), Stewart E. Kelly and James K. Dew Jr outline the main characteristics of postmodernism. They highlight that postmodernism ‘challenges the Enlightenment confidence in human reason’ and ‘[views] truth as something that is created/constructed by human beings, rather than something discovered that is (in some sense) already out there’ (2017). Their work further points out that postmodernists have a scepticism for the notion that history and social science can uncover an objective truth.  As Kelly and Dew demonstrate, the central focus of postmodernism is in challenging presumptions of traditional ways of representing the world, prioritising subjective and diverse experiences. 

The principles of postmodernism have formed through the work of philosophers, writers and artists in the twentieth century. This guide will discuss the work of key postmodernist theorists to trace the history and development of the theory and then go on to discuss how this theory is applied to works of art and literature. 

 

Key Postmodernist Theorists

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was a major influence on postmodernism through his theory of deconstruction. Deconstruction asserts that a work of art is not limited to one fixed meaning but, in fact, can be subject to multiple and often contradictory interpretations. For Derrida, much of Western art and philosophical thinking centred around a set of universal assumptions - deconstruction is about challenging these assumptions and recognising them. 

Deconstruction is a reaction against structuralism, which argued that if you understand the parts which make the whole, the structures around an object, then you could fully understand that object. Key structuralist thinkers include Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. An overview of structuralism can be found in Jayasudha Thiagarajan’s Modern Literary Theory: Structuralism and Post Structuralism (2011). 

For example, we can see that Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1623) is a play about a man who kills and overthrows the King to usurp his power. Deconstruction, on the other hand, would say that we cannot all arrive at the same meaning and that structuralism ignores the multitude of other interpretations that a viewer or reader can bring to a text. From the deconstructionist point of view, we learn to see Macbeth through the lens of various other interpretations and themes; we begin to see how ideas of masculinity or ideas around ambition, for example, contribute to the play; we can see how Shakespeare’s use of intertextual reference help to construct and give meaning to his work. 

As Hugh J. Silvermann writes in Derrida and Deconstruction (2004),

Derrida and Deconstruction edited by Hugh J Silverman

 

'deconstruction is the reading of texts in terms of their marks, traces, or indecidable features, in terms of their margins, limits, or frameworks, and in terms of their self-circumscriptions or self-delimitations as texts…deconstruction is concerned with offering an account of what is going on in a text—not by seeking out its meaning, or its component parts, or its systematic implications— but rather by marking off its relations to other texts, its contexts, its sub-texts.' (2004)

 

 

Therefore, we can look outside of a work in order to interpret it and examine what it excludes. The theory argues that we cannot arrive at a universal interpretation of a work due to the multitude of experiences and cultural differences the writer, viewer or reader may have. 

 

Jean Baudrillard 

Though Baudrillard has often distanced himself from postmodernism, much of his work has influenced the theory, particularly, his concept of the ‘simulacrum’. Baudrillard has even been described as the ‘high priest of postmodernism’ (Steve Readhead, 2019, 4). The simulacrum is a type of simulation in which reality and representation become indistinguishable. Baudrillard argues there are three orders of simulacra: 

 

    1. The first occurs in the pre-modern age whereby art is produced that is a clear counterfeit of the real, such as paintings of nobility or representations of religious icons. 
    2. During the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, we see representations become more real with the emergence of photographs and, later, video. Mass production of these cultural images misrepresents reality by imitating the original product with such exactness. 
    3. The final stage is associated with our post-modern society in which the consumer is bombarded so heavily with cultural products that it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from the representation. 

 

This final stage is further demonstrated by the intertextual quality of a great deal of our media. In this stage, Baudrillard argues, there is no distinction between reality and what it represents, only simulacrum. This is what Baudrillard calls ’hyperreality.’ A good example of this would be social media; though someone’s social media is only a representation of a person’s life as shown through curated images and posts, it comes to represent reality. Baudrillard uses the example of Disneyland to explain these concepts in Simulacra and Simulations (1981 [2020]), writing that: 

 

'Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation' (1981 [2020], 369). 

 

Baudrillard’s argument is that because Disney is presented as a world of escapism, a clearly unreal and imaginary space, it positions the world outside of it as ‘real’. This, Baudrillard argues, conceals the fact that much of our experience is manufactured. The hyperreality Baudrillard writes of reveals how our perception of reality is constructed, a key tenet of postmodernist theory. 

 

Frederic Jameson

Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991 [2013]) also saw the postmodern landscape as being a space in which the real is substituted for imitations. Jameson called postmodernism ‘an immense and historically original acculturation of the Real’ (1991 [2013]) arguing that it is difficult to distinguish what is real and what is a cultural product. Jameson’s argument continues as he suggests that, while modernism was concerned with all that was new, postmodernism has no interest in history: it merely churns out empty pastiche which is then consumed. It is for this reason that Jameson sees the postmodern world as a result of capitalist ideologies. 

 

Postmodern Art

We can begin to understand postmodern art through its opposition to modernist art. As Irving Sandler states in Art Of The Postmodern Era: From The Late 1960s To The Early 1990s,

Art Of The Postmodern Era From The Late 1960s To The Early 1990s by Irving Sandler

 

'Modernists believed that a work's content inheres in its form and that subject matter is incidental. Postmodernists emphasized subject matter and disregarded the form-content synthesis. Their different ways of seeing made it difficult for modernists and postmodernists to talk to each other. They were using different languages.' (2018)

 

 

 

As Sandler goes on to illustrate, modernists abhorred art which was seen as commercialised and mass-produced. ‘Kitsch’ in particular was regarded as the antithesis of high art (Sandler, 2018). Postmodernists reacted to these criticisms by arguing that there cannot be an objective value judgement for taste. The separation of high and low art was, for postmodernists, another example of a unified assumption, a universal truth about quality. 

One of the most popular postmodern artists was Andy Warhol (1928-87). Warhol sought to criticise mass culture by replicating and imitating it in his art.  Sandler writes that ‘Warhol chose to portray images of commodities because of his interest in them as commodities—as icons of consumerism. He emphasized their nature as commodities by employing the technique of commercial art to duplicate them… Warhol's commodities exemplified consumption—and advertising’ (2018). Examples of this included his work Brillo Boxes (1964) which were precise copies of the original packaging; Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) which handpainted the mass-produced advertising campaigns for Campbell’s soup onto canvas, imitating the repetitive nature of commercial advertising; and Marilyn Monroe (1967), a silkscreen painting of the famous actress consisting of fifty repeated images. Warhol’s work unveils the darker side of American consumer culture, and its need for uniformity. Thus, Wahrol challenged perceptions of what gives art value. There is a clear connection here to the work of Baudrillard who saw that postmodern society had begun to resemble nothing but a simulation, our reality constructed through copies of copies. 

 

Postmodern Literature  

Like postmodern art, postmodern literature sought to challenge absolute meaning. As such, this literature is often absurd, fragmented, metafictional and features temporal or narrative disruption. This type of fiction also challenged authority and was often political. The postmodern text often draws attention to its own artifice and comments upon the nature of literature and fiction, subverting conventional expectations of plot, genre and narrative. The playful use of the text’s construction often indicates the randomness of daily life which, whilst often comic is existential in nature, with the characters’ absurd actions hinting at the purposelessness of life.  Postmodern literature includes texts such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

This bleak outlook can be further seen through the Theatre of the Absurd, coming from the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus (‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, 1942). This philosophy posited that while there may well be a meaning to life, humans are limited in their mental capacity and cannot, therefore, ever find such a meaning. Humanity thus continues on lacking a true understanding of its purpose. Such absurdity can be seen in the work of Samuel Beckett. (1906-1989). Beckett’s work is often categorised as ‘tragicomic’ and reveals the bleak nature of human existence through absurdity and black comedy. Emblematic of this is his play Waiting for Godot (1953) two men engage in conversation while waiting for their friend Godot who never arrives. Zehra Gündar in Postmodern Absurdity writes that ‘[t]he uncertainties, the non-resolutions, the waiting for the end to come, the gaps and impasses accompanied with nonsense, incomprehensible language solidify the metafictional or the metatheatrical aspect of [Beckett’s] plays’ (2019, 12). Other famous postmodern writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker to name but a few. 

 

Criticism of Postmodernism 

Criticism of postmodernism has tended to be directed towards specific disciplines, rather than the broad theory. As Robert F. Barsky states in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent  '[t]heorists seldom agree on how to define postmodernism, and the problem is compounded when one moves from one discipline to another’ (1997, 193). Critiques of postmodern architecture, understandably, are different to those of postmodern literature or philosophy and so on. As such, this section will briefly outline some of the main arguments against postmodern philosophy, art and literature. 

Postmodern philosophy, particularly that of Baudrillard, has been condemned by Christopher Norris most notably in his work Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (1992). This was published in response to Baudrillard’s essay ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ (1991) which argued that the war had been a hyperreal event in which the circumstances of the war can be questioned due to the propaganda surrounding it. Norris condemns this line of thinking by arguing that by accepting this hyperreality as unreal, there is no need for resistance to such atrocities as those occurring during the Gulf War. It is worth noting, however, that Norris does not take issue with all aspects of postmodernism and finds Derrida ‘an example of postmodern lucidity’ (Barsky, 1997, 194). 

In Roy D’Andrade’s article ‘Moral Models in Anthropology,’ he criticises the theory’s definition of objectivity and subjectivity suggesting that moral and objective models must be separated as ‘they are counterproductive in discovering how the world works…Science works not because it produces unbiased accounts but because its accounts are objective enough to be proved or disproved no matter what anyone wants to be true’ (D’Andrade 1995: 402-4). 

Pauline Marie Rosenau provides a thorough examination of the contradictions within postmodernism in Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (1991). In this work, Rosenau argues that ‘post-modernism devalues any pretensions to theory building. But an anti-theory position is itself a theoretical stand.’ She further points out that although postmodernists stress ‘the importance of the irrational and expressing grave doubts about the Enlightenment’s intellectual tools of reason, logic, and rationality, post-modernists employ these latter instruments in their own analysis.’ 

In addition to postmodern philosophy being accused of using the theoretical models it criticises, postmodern art has likewise been criticised for its uneasy relationship with the mass production it tends to condemn. As Stefan Morawski argues in The Troubles with Postmodernism,

The Troubles With Postmodernism by Stefan Morawski

 

'Postmodernism is so consistently destructive that what it fears most – as the devil fears holy water – is its own mythologization. Those fears are not groundless. Even the most self-conscious postmodernists hardly avoid this trap. It is thus distinctly palpable in the works of Cindy Sherman and Julian Schnabel. They are mythographers who oscillate between distance from the surrounding stereotypes and the latter’s affirmation. However they too reinforce the myth of limitless and happy consumption.' (2013)

 

 

As Morawski identifies there is a difficult tension between what postmodernism condemns and what it promotes. Linda Hutcheon makes a similar argument on the use of pop art finding that there are contradictory and conflicting ways of interpreting the work of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97). Hutcheon asks in A Poetics of Postmodernism, 

'Is it totally and cynically commodified in its use of the techniques of advertising and comics? Or does the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein ironically appropriate that commodified American life in order to effect a critical reappraisal of mass culture and to comment upon the commodification of daily life under capitalism?' (1988)

Such contradictions mean that postmodern artists have benefitted from the commodity culture and mass production that they condemn. 

Discussions of postmodernism upholding that which it condemns can further be evidenced in literature. Hutcheon argues that in American postmodernism intertextual references appropriate and reformulate ‘the dominant white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Eurocentric culture’ (Hutcheon, 1998). She goes on to state that Postmodernist literature does not reject these hegemonic norms but ‘signals its dependence by its use of the canon, but reveals its rebellion through its ironic abuse of it’ (Hutcheon, 1998). Therefore, while many see issues of reinforcing these dominant ideologies, the use of parody is used to resist and criticise said ideologies. 

 

Further Reading & Resources on Perlego

 

Bibliography 

Barsky, R. F. (1996) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. EOW Press Digital. 

Baudrillard, J. (2020). ‘Simulacra and simulations.’ The New Social Theory Reader. Routledge.

Camus, A. (1990). The Myth of Sisyphus: Penguin. 

D'andrade, R. (1995). ‘Moral models in anthropology.’ Current Anthropology, 36(3).

Gündar, Z. (2019) Postmodern Absurdity: Metafiction in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Happy Days and Endgame. Lambert Academic Publishing 

Hutcheon, L. (2003) A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge. 

Jameson. F. (2013) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press. 

Kelly, S. and James K. Drew Jr. (2007) Understanding Postmodernism: A Christian Perspective

Morawski, S. (2013) The Troubles with Postmodernism. Routledge. 

Norris, C. (1992) Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War. University of Massachusetts Press 

Readhead. S. (2019) The Jean Baudrillard Reader. EUP

Rosenau. P. M. (1991) Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton Uni Press. 

Sandler, I. (2018) The Art of the Postmodern Era: From the late 1960s to the early 1990s.Routledge 

Thiagarajan, J. (2011) Modern Literary Theory: Structuralism and Post Structuralism. Lambert Academic Publishing.

 

 

Written by: Sophie Raine

Sophie Raine
Sophie Raine is a final-year PhD student at Lancaster University studying Victorian penny dreadfuls. Her work focuses on working-class popular culture and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic is due for release in 2022 with University of Wales Press. 

 

 


What is Postfeminism? An Introduction

Postfeminism’s Complicated Origins

Postfeminism is, in the words of Rosalind Gill, “one of the most important and contested terms in the lexicon of feminist cultural analysis” (2007, 147). As with postmodernism, the term “postfeminism” has become overloaded with various, sometimes contradictory, definitions. This introduction aims to make sense of the many meanings of postfeminism, and showcase them "at work" in popular culture.

The term “postfeminism”—sometimes spelled with a debated hyphen as “post-feminism”—first came into use in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This period was marked by cultural backlash against the “Second Wave” feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. On the one hand, this era welcomed a growing belief that feminism was no longer needed, as the movement’s major goals had been achieved; at the same time, the media exacerbated a sense that the quest for women’s equality had actually made things worse for women, leaving them unhappy and unconvinced of the achievability of a feminist ideal of success that required them to be superwomen or to sacrifice their femininity. The term “postfeminism” was thus used to describe both this new era of gender relations (after Second Wave feminism) and this specific backlash against feminism. 

Complicating the definition of postfeminism further, academics like Ann Brooks began using the term to describe a reconsideration of feminism necessitated by its shift “from debates around equality to a focus on debates around difference” (Brooks, 2002).  Mainstream feminism was finally grappling with the fact that patriarchal oppression is experienced by different women in different ways (an idea theorists of color had long written about). A major strain of Second Wave feminism sometimes called “hegemonic feminism” tended to universalize the feminist subject and, in so doing, assume a white, straight, middle class perspective, failing to account for how other factors and identities affected women’s experiences. Theories like Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity unsettled even the category of “woman” as a useful or stable one from which to build a political movement. 

In Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, Brooks uses postfeminism to describe a new way of thinking about gender and to critically re-evaluate feminism. Brooks argues that postfeminism does not entirely leave behind the “original” movement but rather engages with and interrogates the feminisms that came before it through new methodologies and perspectives. She writes: 

Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural theory and Cultural Forms by Ann Brooks

 

“Postfeminism expresses the intersection of feminism with postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism, and as such represents a dynamic movement capable of challenging modernist, patriarchal and imperialist frameworks. In the process postfeminism facilitates a broad-based, pluralistic conception of the application of feminism, and addresses the demands of marginalised, diasporic and colonised cultures for a non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and postcolonial feminisms.” (2002)

 

 

For Brooks, postfeminism named a movement that could diverge from “traditional” feminist models, acknowledge feminism’s previous failures, and embrace fluid, contingent, and multiple subjectivities in ways that feminism, strictly defined, could not.

So what is postfeminism? A historical shift within feminism? A backlash against feminism? Or an ideology emerging from feminism’s encounter with postmodernism and difference? Finding none of these definitions satisfactory, Rosalind Gill introduced her own take on postfeminism; thinking about postfeminism as a ‘sensibility’.

 

The Postfeminist Sensibility

In her 2007 article Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility, Gill tackled the question of defining postfeminism after almost two decades of debate. For Gill, postfeminism is best understood not as a coherent political perspective, a historical shift, or an anti-feminist backlash, but instead as a sensibility characterized by certain recognizable features. As a sensibility, postfeminism is an object of critical study rather than an analytical perspective. Postfeminism manifests in different ways in different pieces of media, but Gill identifies several common themes that characterize the postfeminist sensibility.

 

Femininity as bodily property: Postfeminist culture is preoccupied with the body and understands femininity as a bodily feature, not a social, structural, or psychological one. The woman’s body is simultaneously the source of her power (usually through motherhood or sex appeal) and an unruly surface to be regulated. From the way tabloids dissect celebrities’ bodies to the plethora of makeover-based television shows, women’s bodies are publicly scrutinized and assumed to reflect their inner life: i.e. a sleek, toned exterior symbolizes success in all aspects of life. 

The sexualization of culture: In a culture permeated by sex and sexual imagery (as analyzed by Brian McNair in Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire [2002]), feminity and “girlhood” are hypersexualized. Girls are sexualized from a young age and adult women have increased sex appeal when they take on girlish presentations (see Ariana Grande’s babydoll aesthetic or the use of the Playboy bunny on products marketed to pre-teens). Men are cast as hedonists while women must monitor their relationships with men, assuming responsibility for “producing themselves as desirable heterosexual subjects as well as pleasing men sexually, protecting against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, defending their own sexual reputations and taking care of men’s self-esteem” (Gill, 2007, 151). 

From sex object to desiring sexual subject: Postfeminism converts women from sexual objects to desiring subjects who choose to present themselves in an objectified manner to attain their ultimate goal: sex with a man. Postfeminism repackages the desire to please men as a desire to please oneself. Gill writes, “sexual objectification can be (re-)presented not as something done to women by some men, but as the freely chosen wish of active, confident, assertive female subjects” (2007, 153). The feminist rhetoric of sexual liberation is used to create the figure of “the sexually autonomous heterosexual young woman who plays with her sexual power and is forever ‘up for it’” (2007, 151). In other words, it’s okay because she wants it; and if she doesn’t, she must be a prude. Of course, this sexually autonomous figure is only allowed to be young, slim, beautiful, and heterosexual. Queer women (except when “performing” sex for men) and women deemed unattractive due to age or appearance are vilified for their desires. 

Individualism, choice, and empowerment: Postfeminism views all issues as a matter of personal choice. It explains trends like the increase in Brazilian waxes and breast augmentations in the early 2000s as women choosing to “use beauty” to please themselves. While “looking good for me, not the male gaze” is a line that works in theory, it fails to interrogate why, if women are following their autonomous desires, the valued “look” is so similar—hairless body, slim waist, firm buttocks, etc. This attitude avoids, Gill writes, “the difficult but crucial questions about how socially-constructed, mass-mediated ideals of beauty are internalized and made our own” (2007, 154).

Self-surveillance and discipline: The emphasis on personal choice leads to another aspect of postfeminist media culture: self-regulation. The individual woman is tasked with constantly working toward certain standards of femininity. For instance, she must learn to keep her skin clear of pimples and wrinkles, host successful parties, follow precise rules of flirting, keep her man satisfied in bed—all while appearing confident and unconcerned. Found in magazines under headings like “five ways to make your arms look firmer,” this work is presented as self-actualization or self-care. This self-discipline plays into what Gill calls postfeminism’s makeover paradigm: people (especially women) should believe their lives are lacking in some respect and work to transform themselves—through consulting experts, buying the right products, changing their clothes etc.—into someone better. 

The reassertion of sexual difference: The belief that differences between men and women boiled down to biology was largely rejected in the 20th century, especially as the accuracy of the sexual binary itself was challenged in the late 1990s by thinkers like Judith Butler. However, with the postfeminist sensibility came reassertions of this belief in sexual difference as some argued that any remaining inequalities between men and women after Second Wave feminism must be a result of biological differences. The new millenia’s “New Man” was accused of deficient sexuality and masculinity, and the search for the “gay gene” aimed to inscribe sexuality as well as gender in biology. Self-help literature and fictional media returned to tropes of the “battle of the sexes.” 

Irony and knowingness: The postfeminist sensibility embraces ironic or satirical representations of sexism as “a way of ‘having it both ways,’ of expressing sexist, homophobic or otherwise unpalatable sentiments in an ironized form, while claiming this was not actually ‘meant’” (Gill 2007 159). For example, Gill references a car advertisement featuring a beautiful woman whose dress is ripped off to reveal undergarments which match the red car. Iconography and music from the 1950s evoke nostalgia for an earlier time when sexism was “normal.” By setting the scene in the 1950s, the advertisement can indulge in sexism but call it ironic or satirical.

 

What makes postfeminism distinct from simple anti-feminism and so difficult to pin down is its entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas. Self-surveillance is repackaged as self-care; patriarchal influences are explained away through the language of personal choice. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, another important scholar on postfeminism, Angela McRobbie, writes that this relationship between feminist and anti-feminist ideas is precisely what defines postfeminism:

 

The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change by Angela McRobbie

 

 

“I envisage [postfeminism] as a process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s are actively and relentlessly undermined. [...] I propose that through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism, while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism.” (2008)

 

 

In postfeminist media, female protagonists are often presented as “empowered” and assertive, yet they still participate in heteronormative, traditional, and even regressive behaviors.

 

Postfeminism in the media - Bridget Jones's Diary Case Study

Many movies and tv shows from the late 1990s and early 2000s can be read as postfeminist pieces of media—Ally McBeal (1997-2002), Sex in the City (1998-2004), The Princess Diaries (2001), The Devil Wears Prada (2006). The postfeminist sensibility often appears in romantic comedies, “chick lit” books, and “chick flick” films which feature female protagonists who seem “empowered,” driven, and unencumbered by sexism but are ultimately driven and defined by their desire for or existing relationship with a man. Makeover montages and sexual escapades abound.

The film Bridget Jones’s Diary (Maguire, 2001) has become a poster child for postfeminist media. The main character, Bridget, is a product of the “successes” of Second Wave feminism: educated, childless, and single at 30, she is able to earn her own living and live independently in the city without too much shame or danger. However, something is missing: the man of her dreams. Finding a partner is a top priority for Bridget, to the point where success in her career and her love life seem to be mutually dependent. 

In this film, the self-surveillance of postfeminism is on full display: Bridget compulsively tracks her weight and journals about how to achieve a certain feminine ideal. Her appearance is meant to reveal her proximity to (or distance from) success: at the start of the film, when Bridget is pajama-clad and ”fat” (Renée Zellweger is decidedly not fat, but the intense standards for female bodies assure us she is), she is not happy or successful or self-actualized. Achieving happiness and success means becoming thinner and prettier. Bridget’s decision to reinvent herself (in accordance with the postfeminist makeover paradigm) is a transformation of both her physical appearance and her lifestyle; a regulated exterior, with a lower weight and more fashionable clothes, will emerge along with emotional health and control over her life. It is up to Bridget to make herself happier by pulling herself together. 

 

 

As is often the case in postfeminist media, the balance between “work life” and “personal life” (often limited to “love life”) is a major focus as Bridget seeks success and stability in both. The film leans into postfeminist irony: after flirty interactions with her boss (played by Hugh Grant) that poke fun at sexual harrassment and politically correct culture in the workplace, Bridget imagines herself marrying her boss..  We’re meant to simultaneously laugh at and indulge in Bridget’s flirtation and fantasy. We understand  their absurdity, but the film also seems to say, “the feminists wouldn’t like this, but it feels good, doesn’t it?” and “It’s okay if her boss sexualizes her at work and she sleeps with him, because it’s her choice.”

McRobbie discusses Bridget Jones’s Diary alongside other postfeminism films in which she notices a strong sense that the young women protagonists “somehow want to reclaim their femininity, without stating exactly why it has been taken away from them.” The blame, these films imply, in part lies with feminism itself: 

 

“These young women want to be girlish and enjoy all sorts of traditional feminine pleasures without apology, although again, quite why they might feel they have to apologise is left hanging in the air. But it seems we the audience, like they the characters, are meant to know the answer to this question because it is so obvious. Feminism, it seems, robbed women of their most treasured pleasures, i.e. romance, gossip and obsessive concerns about how to catch a husband” (2008)

 

Bridget is presented as a sexually liberated modern woman, actively pursuing her desires, but the postfeminist sensibility distorts that empowerment: Bridget meticulously self-regulates for men, from shaving to selecting the right underwear, and she inches close to that caricature of the desiring sexual subject, the woman who wants her own objectification.

Perhaps the most postfeminist part of Bridget Jones’s Diary is its ambivalence. The film seems to acknowledge the absurdity of societal standards placed on women—the time and effort that goes into maintaining a certain appearance, the necessity of settling down before one’s biological time runs out, the expectation of marriage. Viewers are encouraged to laugh knowingly along with Bridget’s pitfalls; the film’s overt and continual references to Pride and Prejudice suggest that our society is no less ritualized or sexist than Jane Austen’s. 

Yet, the film does not really repudiate the expectations Bridget struggles to manage. We can laugh and groan at the outlandishness of it all, but then again, we really should watch how many carbs we’re eating and find Mr. Right before it’s too late. According to Bridget Jones’s Diary and other postfeminist pieces of media, a woman can become her “best self” if she just puts her mind to it—and that “best self” just so happens to be several pounds thinner, sexually active, in a high-paying career, and only a step away from walking down the aisle. This entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist sentiments is what makes the modern postfeminist sensibility simultaneously so distinct and so malleable—easily marketed, deployed by systems of power, and internalized.

 

Related (Post)feminisms

If the many definitions of postfeminism share an understanding, it is that there is no longer a single template of normative femininity or feminism. Gill’s definition of postfeminism as a sensibility aimed to describe various trends in the media and culture of the 1990s and early 2000s. The way the media handles gender has shifted since Gill’s original formulation of postfeminism, and two other theories of feminism have built upon the foundation of postfeminism to describe these developments: neoliberal feminism and popular feminism.

Neoliberal feminism: Gill views postfeminism as entangled with neoliberalism, particularly in its emphasis on individual choice and self-regulation. Catherine Rottenberg, in The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, coined the term neoliberal feminism to describe a form of feminism that openly acknowledges gender inequality without threatening socio-economic or other cultural structures shaping our lives. Rottenberg (here) sees neoliberalism, 

 

“not just as not a set of economic policies but as a dominant political rationality that moves to and from the management of the state to the inner workings of the subject, casting individuals as human capital and thus capital-enhancing agents” (2020, 8). 

 

Neoliberal feminism is thus a form of feminism that embraces capitalism and self-management.

For example, neoliberal feminism critiques the wage gap but does not challenge the capitalist structures which maintian that inequality. Solutions often emphasize—as in Sheryl Sandberg’s (in)famous Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead—the ways women can learn to be more ambitious and to advocate for themselves rather than on how structural changes can be made. Women can reach the top if they only learn how to act like men. As Rottenberg writes:


“This kind of hyper-individualising neoliberal feminism, which construes women not only as entrepreneurial subjects but also as individual enterprises, is clearly more easily mainstreamed and popularised since it has been defanged of most if not all of its oppositional force. And while it might acknowledge that the gendered wage gap and sexual harassment are signs of continued gender inequality, the solutions it posits elide the structural or economic undergirding of these phenomena.” (2020, 8).

 

Popular feminism: In the 1990s and early 2000s, the period to which Gill was responding when she first formulated the postfeminist sensibility in 2007, feminist ideas were discussed more openly in the media than in previous generations, but “feminism” itself was not particularly embraced. It was either taken for granted (“everyone believes women are not subservient to men”) and unnamed, or repudiated as “harsh,” “anti-feminine,” and inauthentic to women’s desires. 

In recent years, however, the media’s treatment of feminism has shifted. It’s now fashionable to be a feminist, so much so that politicians across the political spectrum—Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Sarah Palin, and Boris Johnson, to name a few—have all claimed the label. Corporations and celebrities easily engage in hashtag activism, tweeting their support of women. Mainstream retailers sell crop tops reading “empower women” and mugs declaring “smash the patriarchy.”

The consumability of feminism is certainly related to Rottenberg’s neoliberal feminism, but it is also part of what Sarah Banet-Wesier calls “popular feminism. In Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Banet-Weiser discusses how popular feminism, powered by social media and online platforms, seeks to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Though the widespread visibility of feminism is, in many ways, a good thing, this visibility leads to a dilution of feminism’s meanings, sacrificing the movement’s radical edge for dollars and likes. In its efforts to be as appealing as possible, popular feminism emphasizes uplifting messages of empowerment rather than engaging in serious critique or discussion of “difficult” topics like racism and violence. Like neoliberal feminism, popular feminism is easily mainstreamed because it is defanged of its oppositional force. As Banet-Weiser writes in Empowered,

 

Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny by Sarah Banet-Weiser

 

“in a media context in which most circuits of visibility are driven by profit, competition, and consumers, simply becoming visible does not guarantee that identity categories such as gender, race, and sexuality will be unfettered from sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. The popular feminisms I explore in this book are typically those that become visible precisely because they do not challenge deep structures of inequities. That is, in order for some images and practices to become visible, others must be rendered invisible” (2018, 11). 

 

 

Postfeminism, neoliberal feminism, and popular feminism all deemphasize the impact of larger structures of power, focusing on personal choice and individual empowerment rather than on more complex systems. Through this kind of “choice feminism,” anything can be claimed as feminist, so long as it is presented as an individual decision. 

Theorists working on postfeminism, neoliberal feminism, and popular feminism seek to understand the ways in which feminist ideas are entangled with anti-feminist principles and incorporated into, rather than placed in opposition to, systems of power. While neoliberal and popular feminism claim to support “girl power,” they are only really invested in that power as consumer power, not as a threat to gendered power relations. Banet-Weiser captures the ambivalence of the current state of (post)feminism in the context of visibility: 

 

“The visibility of popular feminism, where examples appear on television, in film, on social media, and on bodies, is important, but it often stops there, as if seeing or purchasing feminism is the same thing as changing patriarchal structures” (2018, 4).

 

Further Reading & Resources on Perlego:

 

Bibliography

Banet-Weiser, S. (2018). Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Duke University Press.

Banet-Weiser, S., Gill, R., & Rottenberg, C. “Postfeminism, popular feminism and neoliberal feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill and Catherine Rottenberg in conversation” in Feminist Theory, 21(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1464700119842555 

Brooks, A. (2002). Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. Routledge. 

Gill, R. (2007). “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility” in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1367549407075898

McNair, B. (2002). Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire. Routledge.

McRobbie, A. (2008). The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. Sage Publications.

Sandberg, S. with Scovell, N. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf.

Slaughter, A-M. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic, July/August 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ 

Rottenberg, C. (2018). The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism. Oxford University Press.

 

Written by: Paige Allen

Paige Allen (MA)Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master's degree in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor's degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.

 


Understanding Doreen Massey's Concept of Space

Overview 

Doreen Massey (1944-2016) was a renowned geographer and social scientist whose work predominantly used Marxist and feminist theory to challenge conventional understandings of place and space. Massey’s research focused on globalisation, industrial development, regional inequality and how the experience of space can impact ideologies and politics and shape the communities in which we live. 

Massey moves away from traditional arguments made by geographers and social scientists that have tended to separate time and space, often viewing space as static and unchanging. Instead, she suggests that space is dynamic, changing and contains a multitude of identities. Her work has been enormously influential, shedding light on how space both conveys and produces social inequality as well as illuminating how space is experienced differently depending on our identity. Her work Space, Place and Gender (1994) brings together key papers from across her career as well as providing further insights into her theories of space, place and gender. As such, this study guide will refer to the papers compiled in Space, Place and Gender to discuss the key concepts within Massey’s work. Other key works of Massey's include For Space (2005) and World City (2015), all three of these books are detailed below.

 

Space, Place and Gender by Doreen Massey

Book Details:

This new book brings together Doreen Massey's key writings on three areas central to a range of disciplines. In addition, the author reflects on the development of these ideas and outlines her current position on these important issues.

The book is organized around the three themes of space, place and gender. It traces the development of ideas about the social nature of space and place and the relation of both to issues of gender and debates within feminism.

 

 

 

For Space

 

Book Details:

This book is for space in that it argues for a reinvigoration of the spatiality of our implicit cosmologies. For Space is essential reading for anyone interested in space and the spatial turn in the social sciences and humanities. Serious, and sometimes irreverent, it is a compelling manifesto: for re-imagining spaces for these times and facing up to their challenge.

 

 

 

World City

Book Details:

Cities around the world are striving to be 'global'. This book tells the story of one of them, and in so doing raises questions of identity, place and political responsibility that are essential for all cities.

World City focuses its account on London, one of the greatest of these global cities. London is a city of delight and of creativity. It also presides over a country increasingly divided between North and South and over a neo-liberal form of globalisation - the deregulation, financialisation and commercialisation of all aspects of life - that is resulting in an evermore unequal world.

 

Key Concepts in Massey’s Formulation of Space 

In Space, Place and Gender, Massey discusses how space is not neutral, but is charged with political and social meaning, infused with complex power dynamics. To articulate this, Massey refers to the concept of time-space compression and power-geometry. 

Time-space compression

 The Marxist idea of time-space compression is often referred to by Massey as a way to understand power and spatial relations in capitalism’s new phase of globalisation. Time-space compression refers to the processes by which places that are far apart start to appear closer. We can see examples of this in our everyday lives, as Massey highlights, with technology such as email and telephones bringing geographically distant people into close proximity in the blink of an eye. Massey argues that we can see that time-space compression is occurring through the ‘almost obligatory use in the literature of terms and phrases such as speed-up, global village, overcoming spatial barriers, the disruption of horizons’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). Massey further adds to discussions of time-space compression by querying the ‘ethnocentricity of the idea of time-space compression and its current acceleration’ and how our degrees of mobility are influenced by power-geometry. 

Power-geometry

Power-geometry, a term coined by Massey, describes how space and mobility are determined by power relations. As Massey writes of the mobility of different groups:

 

It is not simply a question of unequal distribution, that some people move more than others, and that some have more control than others. It is that the mobility and control of some groups can actively weaken other people. Differential mobility can weaken the leverage of the already weak. The time–space compression of some groups can undermine the power of others (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). 

 

An example Massey gives is the use of transport. Every time someone uses their own car, they have increased personal mobility. However, the impact of people using private transport is that public transport becomes less financially viable and thus the people who rely upon that system have their mobility decreased. She further argues that to maintain the lifestyles of the wealthy in First World societies, resources from across the world are depleted resulting in numerous environmental and social consequences.

 

Characteristics of Place 

Massey argues for the dynamic and relational nature of space. To demonstrate this, Massey puts forward four main characteristics of place. 

 

  1. Places have multiple identities

According to Massey, places resist one fixed, unique identity but are ‘full of internal conflicts’, something which is revealed by attempts of groups to define and control a particular space (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). An example Massey gives in her paper ‘A Place Called Home?’ is the urbanisation of the ‘Isle of Dogs’ and the emergence of London’s ‘Docklands’. The development at London’s Docklands in the 1980s showed groups seeking ‘the identity of a place by laying claim to some particular moment/location in time–space when the definition of the area and the social relations dominant within it were to the advantage of that particular claimant group’ (1994). This means, as Massey goes on to argue, that ‘the identity of any place, including that place called home, is in one sense forever open to contestation’ (1994).  By having a multitude of identities, a place is continually reproduced and reinterpreted throughout time.

 

  1. Places are not static; they are processes

Conventional readings of space, such as those by Ernest Laclau in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, have positioned it as the counterpart of ‘time’; space is seen as static and time as mobile and dynamic (1990). Massey refutes this notion by conceptualising space as being equally dynamic, containing multitudes which span across all dimensions. Globalisation confirms much of this if we take a city such as London. London is a key figure for financial trade across the entire world – powerful institutions are based there and neo-liberal economies were first envisioned there. This gives London power over other places across the globe and allows it, as an abstract space, to dominate. While London geographically appears static, it is dynamic due to its ability to influence, control and domineer other places across the world.

 

  1. Places are not enclosures with clear boundaries

 While we often think of a place as being enclosed or having clear boundaries, Massey suggests, instead, that places must be understood through their relationship to the outside world. As such, Massey argues that places are boundless and can be ‘imagined as articulated moments of networks of social relations and understandings’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). Boundaries are set up to divide regions and communities, categorising ‘them and us’; Massey’s reading allows for places to be read as ‘open and porous’(‘Introduction’, 1994).  Giving the example of Kilburn in London, Massey demonstrates how places come to be boundless; Kilburn has a history which encompasses many communities and groups of people and the effects of globalisation and immigration can be seen in its diverse population. By encompassing the ‘outside’ in the definition of what constitutes a place, we can ‘get away from the common association between penetrability and vulnerability. For it is this kind of association which makes invasion by newcomers so threatening’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). 

 

  1. The uniqueness of a place is defined by social relations

 Massey’s reconceptualising of space, however, does not deny the importance of the uniqueness of place. Instead, Massey argues that ‘the specificity of place is continually reproduced, but it is not a specificity which results from some long, internalized history’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). Massey sees globalisation and the subsequent uneven geographical development as a source of a place’s uniqueness. Places like Kilburn have specificity not because of a singular, unchangeable identity but because of the vast network of social relations found within the community. Moreover, as places do not have a fixed identity marked by their heritage, they are made all the more unique. Massey states that ‘a further element of specificity from the accumulated history of a place, with that history itself imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages, both local and to the wider world’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). A space, therefore, derives its uniqueness from its multitude of identities and its importance and historical significance to different groups at different time periods.

 

Gender and Geography

In examining gender in relation to spatial inequality, Massey argues that women have often been confined to private spaces such as the household, whereas men are able to move through public space unhindered. As previously mentioned, Massey argues that time is associated with dynamism and movement, whereas space is seen as flat and static. This distinction, Massey argues, contributes to our understanding of why space is typically ‘coded female and denigrated’ (‘Politics and Space/Time’, 1994). Women too were confined to and associated with this fixed space as Massey goes on to state that ‘women’s mobility… is restricted – in a thousand different ways, from physical violence to being ogled at or made to feel quite simply ‘out of place’ – not by “capital”, but by men’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994).  Women, therefore, comprise one of the groups which Massey argues are ‘effectively imprisoned’ by ‘differentiated mobility’ due to obstacles which prevent them from initiating ‘flows and movement’ (‘A Global Sense of Place’, 1994). 

Reactions to the transition of women to the workplace in the nineteenth century support Massey’s argument that gender impacts spatial inequality. Massey finds that it wasn’t the idea of work which threatened the patriarchal order, but the idea of women working outside the home, thereby moving away from their domestic roles and into a public, individual life, defined not solely by the family. Massey writes that:

 

It was…a change in the social and the spatial organization of work which was crucial. And that change mattered to women as well as men. Lancashire women did get out of the home. The effects of homeworking are different: the worker remains confined to the privatized space of the home, and individualized, isolated from other workers. Unionization of women in cotton textiles has always been far higher than amongst the homeworking women in London (‘A Woman’s Place?’, 1994). 

 

The organisation of space, therefore, can uphold or disrupt patriarchal norms.

Massey goes on to give a later example of the limitation of women in her discussion of modernist art. These cultural products of modernism often depicted women as illustrated by men – often these artworks presented women in spaces they were excluded from. In the art world, and in other public spaces such as the bar or the brothel, women who existed in these spaces were there solely to be consumed by men. This can particularly be seen in the flâneur – a prominent male figure of nineteenth and early-twentieth century urban life – who would idly stroll through the metropolis, objectifying with his gaze. The privileging of this gaze, and therefore a male perspective of the city, carries through into spaces of modern art as Massey notes, and establishes in which spaces women are agents and in which spaces they are objects. 

Massey does provide a potential remedy to the gendered division of spaces, writing that ‘[o]ne gender-disturbing message might be – in terms of both identity and space – keep moving! The challenge is to achieve this whilst at the same time recognizing one’s necessary locatedness and embeddedness/embodiedness, and taking responsibility for it’ (‘General Introduction’, 1994).  Interactions with space, therefore, can be controlled through the movements of a particular group and can be fundamentally changed by their resistance in such spaces, resistance in this case being characterised by an unfettered and unapologetic mobility.  

 

Influence and Critique

Doreen Massey has been highly influential with her work being praised by social scientists and geographers for its radical concepts of space. There are, however, areas scholars argue Massey has neglected. In a review of Space, Place and Gender, Ragnhild Skogheim wrote that

 

What [Massey] may be criticized for is neglecting the symbolic, historic and cultural aspects of places, which may be important for the identity of people (living in these places, but not necessary), although she argues that 'traditions' are frequently invented, and the past may not be more authentic than the present. Phenomenological perspectives may be relevant for understanding different meaning and perception attached to places for different groups of individuals. (1995, 279)

 

Skogheim further criticises Massey on the grounds that the book is primarily for an English audience and, as such, many of the examples and issues outlined in the text cannot be readily applied to other places.

In addition, Jamie Peck in Work-Place: The Social Regulation of Labor Markets has drawn attention to a ‘conceptual blind spot’ in Massey’s research: the local labour market. While Peck acknowledges that Massey discusses the processes of industrial restructuring and local outcomes, she fails ‘to specify the intermediating function’ between these (1996, 159).

Massey continues to influence the work of geographers and social scientists alike who have applied her work to the changing social and geographical landscape.

Kendra Strauss’s chapter ‘Geographical Imaginations of Pension Divestment Campaigns’ in Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues (2018) suggests how Massey’s work can be interpreted in order to further our understanding of relational space. Strauss writes that ‘if economic geographers are to use Massey’s work to further enrich the project of relational thinking and analysis, power-geometrics themselves must be treated as multiplicities.’ Strauss stresses that this is not a critique of Massey but of the interpretation and usage of her work which undermines ‘their relationality and their contingent geographical imaginations’ (2018). 

Moreover, Jayne Rodgers discusses the impact of Massey on our understanding of technological communication in ‘Doreen Massey, Information, Communication & Society’. Rodgers writes that, ‘[f]or those trying to make sense of the new forms of interactivity the Internet brings… Massey’s work provides a strong theoretical tool for interpreting the impact of these complex and apparently contradictory developments (2004, 274).’ Massey’s theories on space can be used to explore various other modern concerns such as food inequality as discussed by Alice Brooke Wilson in Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey  thus demonstrating Massey’s continued influence and the political potential of her work. 

Massey’s work has helped to shape the fields of social science and has been pivotal in our understanding of space. Moreover, as Callard identifies, Massey has contributed to encouraging geographers to engage with social theory as well as advocating for the recognition of the role of space and place within the social sciences (2004). This interdisciplinary approach and nuanced insights have led to widespread praise of her research. In the words of Jamie Peck and others in Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues (2018), ‘Doreen Massey changed geography…She launched critiques, both in the relatively small world of economic geography and the much bigger worlds of social theory and progressive politics’ (2018). 

 

Bibliography 

Callard, F. (2004). Doreen Massey. In P. Hubbard, R. Kitchin, & G. Valentine (Eds.), Key thinkers on space and place (pp. 219–225). London: Sage

Featherstone, D and J. Painter. (2013) Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey. John Wiley and Sons. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1013736/spatial-politics-essays-for-doreen-massey-pdf

Laclau, E. (1990). New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. Verso Books. 

Massey, D. (2013). Space, Place and Gender. Polity Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1535683/space-place-and-gender-pdf

Rodgers, J. (2004). Doreen Massey. Information, Communication & Society, 7(2), 273-291.

Skogheim, R. (1995). Space, Place and Gender. Acta Sociologica, 38(3), 278-281.

Werner, M, J. Peck, R. Lave and B.Christophers. (2018) Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues. Agenda Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/785740/doreen-massey-pdf

 

Written by: Sophie Raine

Sophie Raine
Sophie Raine is a final-year PhD student at Lancaster University studying Victorian penny dreadfuls. Her work focuses on working-class popular culture and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic is due for release in 2022 with University of Wales Press. 

 


What is Intersectionality? Intersectional Feminist Theory Explained

Defining Intersectionality & Intersectional Feminist Theory

Intersectionality was first coined and defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as “the various way[s] in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of black women’s employment experiences.” (Crenshaw, 1989, 139). Crenshaw sought to explain how African-American women experience prejudice and discrimination at the intersection of two aspects of their identity; their race and their gender. Crenshaw argued that the lived experience of these women was not merely a sum of being African-American and women; instead, that a unique lived experience existed at the intersection of identities. Although arguments laying foundations for intersectionality date back to the 1960s and 1970s (Geerts & Van der Tuin, 2013, 171), intersectionality as a term arguably originates in Crenshaw’s work. 

At its core, intersectional feminist theory & intersectional feminism aims to “[conceptualize] the relation between systems of oppression which construct our multiple identities and our social locations in hierarchies of power and privilege.” (Carastathis, 2014). To simplify, intersectional theory suggests that people experience marginalisation and discrimination because of social systems which determine value based on a person’s attributes, such as our aforementioned protected characteristics; and that the intersecting (not simply the addition or subtraction) of these attributes lead people to experience differing levels and types of privilege or inequality. 

It may serve us to visualise our aforementioned intersection: imagine a red line which overlaps with a blue line, creating an area in the middle where the two intersect. What exists in the middle is not “red plus blue”, merely stacked on top of eachother- it is purple. The combining of these characteristics creates a unique identity which is more than the sum of its parts. A good “real-world” example of how this intersection is visible in society is the existence of misogynoir; a term used to describe the ways in which Black women are discriminated against that goes beyond race and gender. For example, Black women are often deemed inherently more masculine than their White counterparts by mainstream contemporary society; a recommended reading on this subject is Untangling the Knots: Understanding the Hair Politics of Black Femininity in Post-Apartheid South Africa, which explores modern beauty standards which are grounded in the perception of White women’s features as inherently feminine:

 

 “the racial connotations in this representation of feminine are embedded in the social fabric that understands beauty as being white. The process of being gendered [...] is also racialised.” (Haanyama, 2011)

 

As a consequence, Black women are discriminated against and publicly criticised for the aspects of their gender and race that supposedly situate them out of White female ideals. One only needs to look at right-wing coverage from Michelle Obama’s time in the position of First Lady of the United States of America (in which she was sometimes compared to an ape based on her perceived lack of femininity.) 

Although Crenshaw chooses to utilise black women as her specific example of a marginalized group, intersectionality’s adaptability allows it to be applied to all individuals subject to ‘double-discrimination’; a form of discrimination unique in itself, instead of “the sum of race and sex discrimination” (Crenshaw, 1989, 149). This is just one example of a form of discrimination that hinges on the presence of more than one protected characteristic. 

Protected characteristics (under the UK Equality Act 2010) are defined as follows:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment (UK law at this time does not include nonbinary identities under this definition)
  • Marriage or civil partnership (protected under the Equality Act in the context of employment only)
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex (physical sex characteristics)
  • Sexual orientation.

(Note: the UK Equality Act 2010 is not considered a fully comprehensive list of protected characteristics, and prominent legal scholars have condemned the UK government’s “ongoing failure to include socio-economic status as a legally protected characteristic at a time of growing economic inequality”, suggesting that this “casts doubt on whether the protected characteristics align with the most significant axes of discrimination in the UK today.” (Malleson, 2018).) 

 

According to this theory, the aim of researchers or scholars should never be to quantify the human experience, or ‘homogenise’ it (e.g. suggesting all people from a particular background share the same experience of the world). Intersectional feminist theory argues that privilege and marginality cannot be measured on sliding scales, nor can we make sweeping assumptions about groups or sub-groups of people and how they are treated by society exclusively on the basis of their characteristics. 

 

How is Intersectionality Related to Feminism?

Intersectionality’s emergence from feminist thought can largely be explained by trends which emerged in second-wave feminism in the mid to late 1900s; trends where women’s equality movements became fractured along the lines of race and social class. Margins between the rights of white women and women of colour (to use a very broad term) which became evident during this movement included access to voting, access to healthcare and education and access to employment, to name a few examples. Feminist scholars (such as Crenshaw) sought to explain how the value of women and womanhood seemed, at least in Western culture at the time, to be contingent on these other factors of identity beyond simply gender. 

The critical discussion surrounding the concept of intersectionality initially arose in the late 1980s, with the intersectional feminist approach demanding a higher (albeit less quantifiable) standard for researchers and scholars, departing from the long-established positivism present in the interpretation of scientific and political knowledge and research. Positivism is best described as a philosophical system which recognizes only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof. This philosophical system has been increasingly deemed by scholars of the social sciences as incompatible with the study and interpretation of the human experience(s), on the grounds of how intersecting characteristics of researchers often inform research without complete conscious awareness of the impact. As Letherby, Scott & Williams wrote in Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research (2012):

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research

 

 

“The rise of second-wave feminism from the 1970s involved a number of writers who stressed gender divisions and the consequent male and female standpoints from which experiences necessarily inform knowledge construction.”

 

 

 

The key phrase here is “knowledge construction”; second-wave feminist academia sought to challenge what was considered ‘known’ or ‘factual’ in the field of social science research; a field long-dominated by White, male, middle class scholars whose lived experiences may have informed a more limited view of what was ‘known’ or ‘unknown’ about systems of social power. 

 

Why is Intersectionality Important?

Crenshaw’s criticism of “the sum of race and sex discrimination” has been referred to before as the additive method, or ‘additive separability’; at its core, the issue with this approach is that it “presumes that the categories are static and that the relationship between them is predetermined” (Hancock, 2007, 70). This can sound intimidating- but when we break it down, the issue we have here is that, from law to psychology, there is a practice of assuming how characteristics like race affect gender, how gender affects social class, how social class affects sexuality, and so on. Here’s a good example of why this is an issue: 

A study conducted in Australia by Bastos et Al (2018) wanted to look into how race and socioeconomic status both affected a person’s access to healthcare, intersectionally. Previous research had shown that being a racial minority adversely impacted healthcare access, as did being a person from a low socioeconomic status background. If we were to run this as a maths equation, we might expect that being a racial minority and being of low socioeconomic status would come together to mean a person would amount to significantly less healthcare access than for a person who was White and of low socioeconomic status or a racial minority of high socioeconomic status. However, what was found is that race was the strongest determining factor and that socioeconomic status, when combined with race, was not statistically significant. To break that down, this means that whilst White individuals did have reduced healthcare access if they were of low socioeconomic status compared to their high socioeconomic status White peers, low socioeconomic status did not significantly reduce the healthcare access of individuals who were a racial minority, compared to their high socioeconomic status peers who were also a racial minority in Australia. 

This example demonstrates how understanding the ways in which parts of our identities and social status influence and impact one another is more than just assigning a numerical value to a person’s “privilege” or “oppression”; it is a field of study in itself, which seeks to understand and explain these various complex relationships and influences. 

 

An Example of Intersectionality in Contemporary Society

Intersectionality in contemporary society is visible both in how intersectional identities are subject to discrimination, as well as in how some of these identities have increased access to various layers of socioeconomic privilege. For example, we see higher rates of White, middle class women in NGOs than any other demographic in this sector. In these circumstances, the experiences of these women are  often treated as ‘universal’ by the organisations for whom they work, and can lead to women of colour from less affluent backgrounds being overlooked (de Jong, 2009). This world view and lived experience that is being extended to represent all women is formed through whiteness, which often ties into and partially but not fully explains their middle class status- and then their position as women, meeting a certain level of gender diversity criteria within the organisation, ensures they are more likely to secure a role within a non-governmental organisation. This relationship between race and class is effectively explored and analysed in Richard Dyer’s White (2017). In writing on the subject of how labour informs class and thus informs perception of race based on skin tone, Dyer states that:

White by Richard Dyer

 

 

 

“Gender differentiation is crossed with that of class: lower-class women may be darker than upper-class men; to be a lady is to be as white as it gets.”

 

 

 

 

There is nothing inherently moral or amoral about a person being white, female and middle class - but it is insightful how all three of these characteristics informing one another create a perceived identity which a) is considered appropriate for NGO work and meets the relevant hiring criteria pertaining to (predominantly) gender and b) risks creating an over saturation of one community in an organisation. de Jong explores this in Intersections of Aid: Women NGO workers’ reflections on their work practices, stating that NGOs “can display blind spots in the lack of acknowledgement of other systems of power”, and found that when working with employees of said organisations, “this group of women was internally heterogeneous, in terms of their nationality, age, ethnicity, career trajectory etc.” (2009). In assessing these women’s perceptions of their own identity and social status, de Jong also suggests that “for white women the only apparent options concerning their attitude towards race was ‘either one does not have anything to say about race, or one is apt to be deemed ‘racist’ simply by virtue of having something to say’”. As a consequence of these factors, the experiences of women of colour and working class women are overshadowed in these spaces, due to a focus on gender equality often being upheld on the conditions of its severance from other characteristics, such as class and race. 

Intersectionality is never just about diversity. It is also about who we perceive to represent a social group, and how this impacts the welfare and opportunities available to those whose identities involve more complex intersections of privilege, marginality and invisibility. 

 

Prominent Writers & Theorists of Intersectional Feminism

Although intersectionality as a term was coined by and is best known through Kimberlé Crenshaw and her works, there are a number of prominent scholars in the fields of Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory and beyond who have contributed to the development of intersectionality into a field of study and even a facet of progressive research methodology. Patricia Hill CollinsIntersectionality as Critical Social Theory is considered seminal reading on the subject which both outlines the valuable application of Intersectional Theory whilst also acknowledging its pragmatic limitations and challenges. 

The writings of civil rights activist and feminist scholar Audre Lorde also contributed significantly to contemporary understanding of how intersectional feminism seeks to challenge and dismantle systems of power in which racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry and discrimination have shared motivations and impacts on marginalized communities. One final essential text which paved the way for Intersectional Feminist studies in mainsteam academia is the incomparable Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, by queer author and activist bell hooks; an arrestingly compelling and emotive exploration of the devaluation of Black womanhood in Western society. If you’re also looking for an accessible introduction to feminist theory in general, Feminism Is for Everybody is another outstanding publication of hooks'. 

If you would like to read and learn more about Intersectional Feminism, as well as Intersectional Theory more broadly, please find some further suggested reading and resources below.

 

Further Resources & Reading on Perlego

 

External Learning Resources

 

Bibliography

Bastos, J. L., Harnois, C. E., & Paradies, Y. C. (2018). Health care barriers, racism, and intersectionality in Australia. Social Science & Medicine, 199, 209-218.

Carastathis, A. (2014). The concept of intersectionality in feminist theory. Philosophy compass, 9(5), 304-314.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139-149.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, 1241-1299.

de Jong, S. (2009). Intersections of Aid: Women NGO workers’ reflections on their work practices.

Geerts, E., & Van der Tuin, I. (2013). From intersectionality to interference: Feminist onto-epistemological reflections on the politics of representation. In Women's Studies International Forum (Vol. 41, pp. 171-178). Pergamon.

Hancock, A. M. (2007). When multiplication doesn't equal quick addition: Examining intersectionality as a research paradigm. Perspectives on politics, 5(01), 63-79.

Malleson, K. (2018). Equality law and the protected characteristics. The Modern Law Review, 81(4), 598-621.

 

Written by: Georgie Williams

Georgie WilliamsGeorgie Williams is a deferred doctoral student in the field of Social Justice at University College Dublin and founder of gender & sexuality research hub, /Queer. Georgie’s research predominantly focuses on the development of gender and sexuality related social practices in post-colonial countries and the application of reflexive feminist methodologies to anthropological and sociological field research.

 

 


What is a Femme Fatale? A Film Noir Study Guide

What Type of Character is a ‘Femme Fatale’? 

The Femme Fatale is a female character archetype present across many storytelling forms, but is most closely associated with Film Noir. In Women in Film Noir, Janey Place famously describes the Femme Fatale as, 

Women in Film Noir (edited by E. Ann Kaplan)

 

 

‘the  dark lady, the spider woman’, claiming, ‘the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (2019). 

 

 

 

From portrayals of Eve and Salome in religious texts and artwork, to Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014), the Femme Fatale is the enduring motif of a defiant and dangerous woman who uses her sexuality to fulfil her desires. The characterisation of the Femme Fatale can even permeate contemporary news stories. In Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale Stevie Simkin proposes the now-acquitted ‘celebrity murderess’, Amanda Knox, as an example of the Femme Fatale, dissolving the distinction between the ‘real and the fictive’ (2014).  Throughout history, both filmic and real, the Femme Fatale figure constructs both the agency and the transgression of women. In this article we delve into the function of this character type within key Film Noir texts, trace where this figure emerged from historically as well as critically analyse the feminist debates that surround the notion of the Femme Fatale.

 

How does the Femme Fatale function in Film Noir?

The Femme Fatale  is an endemic and synonymous component of Film Noir. As such, in order to understand the Femme Fatale we must first define what Film Noir itself is. In Film Noir: A Critical Introduction, Ian Brookes expresses the difficulties of defining the ‘overextended use’ of Film Noir, describing the term as an ‘amorphous black cloud’ that has settled over film studies (2017). In the most classic and rudimentary sense, however, Film Noir refers to a set of generic conventions; images of a shadowy cityscape or of Humphrey Bogart in low-key lighting, smoking a cigarette beneath a tilted fedora have become indicative of the Film Noir aesthetic. Films like Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) exemplify the classical Film Noir narrative wherein a male protagonist, often a private eye, sets out to investigate some dubious activity of which he finds himself on the margins. Wrenched away from a stable and lawful – if somewhat mundane – life, he finds himself deeply entwined in a web of criminality. The Femme Fatale not only plays a crucial part in the unfolding of this Film Noir narrative, but her distinct visual style is a key visual signifier of the genre. The below clip from Double Indemnity gives an impression of these generic conventions in action:

First appearing in the 1940s, Film Noir developed from the gangster genre of the previous decade, where female characters were given very little - if any – narrative importance. The Femme Fatale, translating to the ‘fatal’ or ‘deadly’ woman, instead plays an integral part in Noir’s narrative conventions, usually bringing forth the downfall of the male protagonist, who is unable to resist her.  The visual style of Film Noir often portrays the Femme Fatale half in shadow, known as chiaroscuro lighting, creating the effect of an unattainable and mysterious beauty, irresistible to the observing male characters. She uses this sexual allure to her own ends; seducing the protagonist before double-crossing him; embroiling him in pernicious networks of gangsters and criminals. Occasionally, the protagonist escapes the dangers of this criminal world, however, a typical Film Noir narrative structure dictates otherwise; succumbing to the temptations of the Femme Fatale is an impulse that precipitates his demise. 

Despite the Femme Fatale’s deadly dramatic effect, she is sometimes sympathetic in her fallibility, often herself a victim of manipulation and misunderstanding. Tragic in her own right, the Femme Fatale manages to avoid the designation of the primary antagonist. She, too, often falls victim to her own vanity, her materialistic ambitions, and sexual exploits.  She is multifaceted, with moments of vulnerability amongst her displays of independence and ruthless wit. The Femme Fatale’s fate is one of punishment.  She often meets a bitter end, or at least, loses the things she comes to cherish, whether that be money, power or love. 

 

Where did the Femme Fatale emerge from? 

 

The Femme Fatale by Julie Grossman PDF

 

 

‘It is critical commonplace,’ writes Julie Grossman in The Femme Fatale, ‘that in the United States following World War II the Femme Fatale often reads as a projection of male anxiety about what the wives were doing when the men were in battle’ (2020).

 

 

 

 

During the second world war, women were required to join the workforce.  They did so in great numbers, taking on the jobs typically associated with men.  The state took measures to relieve them of their domestic responsibilities, putting a universal childcare system in motion.  Women went to work in factories, operating heavy machinery, as engineers, as nurses and in transportation, providing military support in a range of capacities. This mobilization brought about significant social change.  No longer reliant on a male breadwinner, women gained a sense of financial independence, providing them with the opportunity for more personal freedoms like social and sexual independence.  

After the war, returning servicemen were faced with the reality of a new social structure. In Women Workers in the Second World War, Penny Summerfield explores discourse around whether the quality of women’s lives were in fact improved post World War Two. On the one hand, the Second World War is often perceived as a turning point in the history of women’s rights, but on the other, a reversal of the mobilization efforts was initiated; many of the measures put in place to facilitate such independence were only temporary wartime action. In the absence of their husbands, women were financially independent and socially empowered; a circumstance which was met with significant resistance upon their husband’s return. This created tension between women’s traditional domestic responsibilities and their newfound independence. 

This is the historical context of classical Film Noir. Consequently the Femme Fatale can be read as the contemporaneous personification of female independence. She is brazen in her sexuality and autonomous in her actions. In Film Noir, the Femme Fatale is contrasted by a Girl Next Door character. In mythology, this relationship is comparable to that of the Madonna - whore dichotomy. They are the two archetypal poles of femininity: one is virginal and maternal, the other is sexual and sinful. In Film Noir, the Girl Next Door is often the protagonist’s original love interest, offering him a stable life of traditional values. Where the Femme Fatale has ambitions of wealth and social status, the Girl Next Door dreams of marriage and children. The Femme Fatale is associated with the debauchery of urban living; low-key lighting and shadows indicate her mystery and duplicity whereas the Girl Next Door leads a quiet, domesticated and comparatively controllable  life. 

 

Key examples of the Femme Fatale

In The Killers (1946, Siodmak), the Femme Fatale, Kitty (Ava Gardner), is first shown in a low-lit bar, in a long form-fitting gown, whereas her Girl-Next-Door counterpart, Lily (Virginia Christine), first appears in an apron. This iconography indicates the ‘type of woman’ that each represents: the sexual and the domestic. The protagonist in The Killers, known as the Swede, quickly abandons faithful Lily for the alluring Kitty; a decision that hastens his descent into the criminal world. Kitty is caught with stolen jewelry, a crime for which the Swede takes the fall. Upon his release from prison, Kitty has taken a new lover and the couple are intent on double crossing the Swede out of a large sum of money the three were to split after a robbery. By the end of The Killers, both the Swede and Kitty’s new lover have been murdered, and Kitty is left to answer to her crimes of robbery and deceit. A clip below from the Killers helps display's Kitty's function in the film.

The same basic narrative structure can be observed in Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur), released in some countries as Build My Gallows High.  Protagonist, Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who first appears in a peaceful pastoral setting with his girl-next-door love, Ann (Virginia Huston), is recruited to hunt down femme-fatale, Kathie (Jane Greer).  Kathie is on the run, having shot a man and escaped with a large sum of money. Once Bailey finds her in Mexico, she seduces him and the two run away together. By the end of the film, after a series of double-crossings and violent murders, Bailey intends to return to Ann, but it proves too late. He is shot by Kathie before she, in turn, is shot by police. 

It is important to note that revisionist renderings of the Femme Fatale are observable in contemporary cinema.  From the Neo-Noir Femme Fatale who is not typically punished for her duplicity of sexuality - like Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) in The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973) - to more current examples, such as Gone Girl, that use the character trope to critique the domestic and societal treatment of women, the Femme Fatale archetype often transcends genre and historical context.  

Out of the Past’s Kathie and The Killers’ Kitty, however, give an idea of the narrative function and characterisation of the Femme Fatale in classic Film Noir. She is financially independent and yields significant social power through her harnessed sexuality. In this way, the Femme Fatale is seen as the male rendering of the emancipated woman. She fulfils the imagined potential of such independence, living freely and lavishly, but always at the expense of the men around her who fall victim to this sexual power. It is this narrative pattern that stimulates the analysis of the Femme Fatale as a ‘projection of male anxiety.’  From the economic exigencies of war where women gained financial and social independence, sprung the hyperbolised rendering of such independence. As such, the Femme Fatale remains a fruitful means to explore the representation of women in cinema. 

 

Is the Femme Fatale a figure of empowerment, or a sexist trope? 

While it is generally agreed that the Film Noir Femme Fatale represents ‘male fears of an engulfing femininity’, there is a long-standing debate surrounding the moral message that the Femme Fatale sends (1986). 

Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic by Helen Hanson

 

 

‘The 1940s Femme Fatale’, observes Helen Hanson in Hollywood Heroines, ‘always contained a central ambivalence for feminist interpretation’ (2007). 

 

 

 

 

We have seen how the Femme Fatale is key in the momentum of the Film Noir narrative, often initiating the action to which the male characters respond. She is a symbol of female agency: smart, resourceful, and self-reliant. Sometimes perceived as a celebration of the powerful independent woman, the Femme Fatale has at times garnered feminist praise. She perhaps accommodates a reappraisal of women’s role in society.  The Femme Fatale’s defiance threatens patriarchal structures, and hence, ‘men’s very existence’ (2019). In contrast, the Girl Next Door exercises very little agency, often waiting on the male protagonist to come home to her. One interpretation of these juxtaposing female archetypes is that Film Noir reveres the sexually empowered woman and emphasizes the mundanity of a traditional domestic life. 

However, despite the life of luxury, allure and adventure that the Femme Fatale leads, her narrative fate cannot be forgotten. She is ultimately doomed, often in misery or death. In this way, the Femme Fatale can also be read as a cautionary tale. She suffers greatly for her disobedience and the destruction caused by her sexuality is manifold. Not only is the Femme Fatale’s independence punished, but so too are the men who are seduced by her. Hence, the Femme Fatale can be read as an ominous warning of the dangers of female sexuality. The Girl Next Door, however, offers safety and redemption. Often the only living character left in the Noir central network of lovers, she is rewarded for her virtue, her ‘goodness’, and remains an emblem of the protection of traditional family values. 

Whether the Femme Fatale is celebrated or disparaged, whether she is an object of desire or a symbol of dread, it is important to note that it is very often from the male vantagepoint that we are invited to speculate. Place asserts: 

 

‘Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus woman here as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not. That men are not so deterministically delineated in their cultural and artistic portrayal is indicative of the phallocentric cultural viewpoint; women are defined in relation to men’ (2019).

 

Depictions such as this have lead to wider speculation as to the function of the cinematic eye. The way that female characters are exhibited in relation to their sexuality - either as erotic objects or symbols of virtue - has formed the basis for crucial pieces of cinematic theory. Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’ is one such theory (1975). Mulvey proposes that the eye of the camera, and hence cinematic language more broadly, is male, inviting viewers to unconsciously participate in a way of seeing that perpetuates patriarchal power. Whether the Femme Fatale falls victim to this cinematic language, or subverts the male gaze, the archetypal character is an invaluable device in investigating film’s relationship to prevailing social structures. 

 

Further Related Reading on Perlego: 

 

Bibliography: 

  • Brookes, I. (2017) Film Noir: A Critical Introduction. (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Grossman, J. (2020). The Femme Fatale. Rutgers University Press. 
  • Hanson, H. (2007). Hollywood Heroines. (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Huyssen, A. (1986) Mass Culture as Woman in 'After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism'. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (pages 44-62).
  • Mulvey, L. (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in 'Screen', Volume 16, Issue 3, Autumn 1975 (pages 6–18).
  • Place, J. (2019). Women in Film Noir in ‘Women in Film Noir’ ed. E Ann Kaplan (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. 
  • Simkin, S. (2014). Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
  • Summerfield, P. (2013). Women Workers in the Second World War (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis.

Foucault's Theory of Power & Knowledge: An Introduction

What is Foucault's Theory of Power and Knowledge?

Michel Foucault (1926-89) was a French philosopher and sociologist notable for his works Madness and Civilization (1961), Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976). A persistent theme in Foucault’s work is the relationship between power and knowledge, culminating in his neologism ‘power/knowledge’. The term power/knowledge demonstrates how, for Foucault, power and knowledge are inextricably linked. Foucault writes that ‘the exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information…[t]he exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’  (1975, 52). Power and knowledge are not separate nor are they synonymous; instead, power both makes use of and shapes knowledge.

Throughout his work, Foucault has demonstrated what he means by this reciprocal power/knowledge relationship. While conventional theories of power have focused largely on top-down, hierarchical power (i.e. power from the state, law-makers or monarchs), Foucault, conversely, suggests that power circulates. Rather than knowledge enabling power, or enabling the maintenance of power, power allows for the dictation of what knowledge is produced and disseminated throughout society. In short, power decides what is knowable and by whom. Therefore, those who produce knowledge have this accepted as truth because of the other forms of power they possess such as political, academic or economic power. Foucault emphasises, however, that most knowledge is not hierarchical and exists at the level of everyday social interactions. Moreover, as power circulates, those with power accumulate said power due to cultural and academic assumptions of knowledge and truth. 

Unlike Marxist ideology which argues that the masses are oppressed due to prohibited access to knowledge, Foucault suggests that power has a reciprocal and productive relationship with knowledge. In Discipline and Punish, he writes:

Discipline and Punish

 

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production (194).

 

 

 

 

The reason power desires knowledge is simple: knowledge can be categorisable and used to control. Those in power shape knowledge about the world and ourselves, creating an accepted ‘truth’. Truth decides what behaviour is permissible, and who has authority to espouse the truth and to administer the remedy. Power derives from this body of approved epistemologies and is simultaneously responsible for bringing such epistemologies into existence. 

 

What are the Main Types of Power According to Foucault? 

In order to fully understand the relationship between power and knowledge, we must first understand what Foucault means by ‘power’ and how it is exercised. According to Foucault, there are three main types of power: 

  • Sovereign Power 
  • Biopower
  • Disciplinary Power 

Sovereign power was power derived from the authority granted to a king or similar figure. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that sovereign power was best demonstrated in the “right to take life or let live’ (1978, 136).  An example of this in practice would be the spectacle of public execution. At a public execution, a king’s subjects could see the extent of his absolute power. Though sovereign power existed in some forms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was radically diminished due to the rise of disciplinary power and biopower.

Disciplinary power viewed the body as a machine as a way of extorting it for economic reasons. Disciplinary power does not rely on force and, instead, controls the subject through hierarchical surveillance, normalising judgment and examination. The first aspect of this, hierarchical surveillance, means that power is exerted over the subject as they feel they are being continually watched. Eventually, the subject begins to act as their own overseer and behaves as if they are being watched at all times. Normalising judgments are used to categorise individual’s who do not adhere to the norm as abnormal and deviant. Examination involves the inspecting, judging and classifying of an individual using these bodies of prescribed knowledge . These three components make up disciplinary power and can be seen in the school system. For example, students are routinely observed in terms of their behaviour and act as though they are constantly being observed, often even when a teacher is not present. Schools also exert power by establishing norms such as responding to bells, putting hands up to ask a question and adhering to the behaviour rules set out by the school. Examination occurs in schools through penalties and rewards for behaviour; students are classified based on their grades and reports are written about their behaviour, effort and attainment. 

Biopower saw the body in terms of its biological processes and sought to regulate the population via control of an individual’s body. Biopower is achieved through the production of scientific knowledge, including information about health and fitness, which constructed ideas of the normal body. Jen Pylypa suggests that the presence of biopower means that ‘[i]ndividuals thus voluntarily control themselves by self-imposing conformity to cultural norms through self-surveillance and self-disciplinary practices, especially those of the body such as the self-regulation of hygiene, health, and sexuality’ (1998, 21-22).

In both biopower and disciplinary power, the individual, to a large extent, self-regulates and acts as their own overseer. While sovereign power was never completely replaced and still exists to a certain extent, disciplinary power and biopower became the predominant form by which the state could control populations. Rather than corporal punishments or other forms of violence being inflicted on the body, disciplinary power was enforced through regulation via the organising of space, time and behaviour. This can be demonstrated in the rigid timetabling of activities in schools, prisons and army barracks.  

 

Power and Knowledge in Practice 

Much of Foucault’s work focuses on hospitals, schools, prisons and asylums, places where he argues power dynamics can be clearly demonstrated. Looking at these spaces, rather than focusing on the holder of the power – such as prison guards, teachers, or doctors – Foucault is interested in how this power is exacted over the subject through their environment and rigid structuring of activities. Each of these environments have the individual conditioned to respond to their particular mode of authority. 

It is worth re-iterating that Foucault sees the relationship between power and knowledge as occurring throughout society, on the level of the institution and on the level of the individual. Two examples Foucault provides of this are in the medical establishment and in the Catholic church. In both these examples, as well as in other institutions Foucault writes of, the disciplining of the subject via observation shapes the subject’s own knowledge of themselves. Foucault states that:

 

We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the “social-worker”-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviors, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its system of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power (1991, 304)

 

In Madness and Civilization, we see how power/knowledge is utilised in the movement from the asylum to the psychiatric hospital. Due to the move from sovereign to disciplinary power, there was a shift in the late eighteenth-century discourses surrounding madness. The asylum became the hospital, the madman became the patient and confinement changed to curative treatment. Restraints were abolished and madness became something which was to be observed and studied. Foucault demonstrates this through the example of the York Retreat, a hospital founded on principles of humanitarian care, rest and self-control. Power over the patient was thus exacted through the medical practitioner’s understanding of the mind and the body, which came from his understanding of scientific knowledge. Asylum doctors, therefore, were given the power to determine what was considered normal and abnormal; those whose behaviour did not conform, or which society had deemed deviant, were to be subject to discipline and routine so that they may assimilate into society and monitor their own behaviour. Foucault builds upon this in The Birth of the Clinic (1963) in which he traces the development of medicine from the eighteenth century onwards and identifies the doctor’s authority coming from a quasi-mystical knowledge of the human body in the eighteenth century and being derived from his command of clinical knowledge in the nineteenth century.

The History of Sexuality: 1

 

Similarly, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that certain sexualities or sexual behaviours were categorised as deviant or transgressive due to the accepted truth of normative sexual practices. This not only shaped society’s views on sexuality, but also lead those alleged transgressors to internalise this ‘truth’ about themselves. This occurs as those in power claim to be the most knowledgeable and, therefore, can shape even our interpretations and understanding of ourselves.

 

 

For example, Foucault sees the Catholic confessional as a key example of the power/knowledge dynamic at work whereby a priest (who has power endowed through the Catholic Church) exerts this power to obtain confession thus increasing his knowledge; this knowledge (of morality and divine intention) is passed on to the confessing subject and is used to shape their behaviour to conform and repress sexual desire (Foucault, 1978). 

 

Critique of Foucault’s Power/Knowledge Theories

Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge have been the subject of much debate over the decades with critics drawing attention to inconsistencies, contradictions or oversights in his work. A reoccurring point of discussion for scholars regarding power/knowledge theory is how it discounts the idea of knowledge without power. Joseph Rouse has called attention to the limitations, and contradictions, in this assertion. In ‘Power/Knowledge’ Rouse writes that:

Foucault objects to the very idea of a knowledge or a truth outside of networks of power relations. The scope of his objection thus also encompasses the possibility of a critical knowledge that would speak the truth to power, exposing domination for what it is, and thereby enabling or encouraging effective resistance to it (2005, 102). 

 In other words, if all knowledge is constructed and shaped by those in power, how does Foucault have the freedom to critique and expose such structures? Moreover, if all knowledge is produced through power, how can there be such a thing as objective truth?    

A further issue arises when we consider Foucault’s stance on resisting power. While Foucault argued, ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (1978, 75), Charles Taylor argues that Foucault’s theory leaves no room for the subject to escape power (Charles Taylor, 1984). This is primarily because Foucault fails to provide a means by which resistance can occur. The inability of the subject to resist power structures, some scholars argue, means a lack of recourse to argue for social change. Hartsock is among these critics and accuses Foucault of a ‘pessimism’ and ‘passivity’ which undermines attempts at social change and the universality of reason (1990, 167). In addition to not offering any real avenues for resistance, Nancy Fraser argues that without providing a normative framework, Foucault does not give any reason as to why we should resist as the productive nature of power ‘rule[s] out those types of liberationist politics that presuppose that power is essentially repressive’ (1981, 272). In Foucault: A Critical Introduction (2013), Lois McNay further writes that Foucault’s theories on resistance are ‘theoretically underdeveloped, and… give the impression that the body presents no material resistance to the operations of power’. 

Foucault: A Critical Introduction [PDF]

 

Brent L. Pickett discusses why Foucault has such a contradictory and even ambivalent or apolitical attitude towards resisting power. Pickett suggests this is because Foucault ‘rejects placing limits upon resistance, lest those who are engaged become trapped in the very system of power they are trying to overcome-since any limits will be derived from ideals supported by modern power’ (1996, p. 447). Foucault, therefore, for some critics does not have a neutral stance in the face of oppression but wants to ‘maintain a philosophical position which holds that every social norm is normalizing and every set of morals is constructed by power’ (Pickett, 1996, p. 465). 

 

The Impact of Foucault's Theories on Contemporary Thought

The impact of Foucault’s research is far-reaching and extends beyond the field of sociology; Foucault has influenced contemporary work on history, politics, cultural studies and gender studies.


Feminism

Foucault’s understanding of power and knowledge has been divisive among feminist critics. In many ways, though Foucault does not directly discuss gender in his work, his theories on the constructs of gender have contributed to feminist discourses on the problem of essentialism (essentialism being the concept that women are fundamentally different to men). Lois McNay posits that Foucault’s work ‘indicates to feminists a way of placing a notion of the body at the centre of explanations of women’s oppression that does not fall back into essentialism or biologism’ (2013, 11). However, many critics have suggested that this failure to consider the role of gender in relation to constructs of power and thus “treats the body throughout as if it were one, as if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the same relationships to the characteristic institutions of modern life” (Bartky, 1988, 63-64). Moreover, as previously mentioned, Foucault’s concept of power and its creation of docile bodies leaves little room for resistance thus continuing to perpetuate ideas regarding passivity and lack of autonomy in women. This, feminists have claimed, undermines the goals of feminism and suggests resisting gender norms are futile, problematically indicating that the political and social agenda of feminism is a fruitless endeavour. As Lin Foxhall highlights ‘only male selves are admissible in [Foucault’s] analysis’ (2016, 134). This oversight has been remedied in the work of feminist theorists, most notably Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). In Gender Trouble, Butler applies the ideas of Foucault to modern feminist theory and suggests that gender is performative (see our guide to Butler's theory of Gender Performativity here) and offers methods of resistance via subversion of conventional gender norms.

 

Queer theory

Foucault’s view of sexuality as being socially constructed has been fundamental in the development of queer theory. Tamsin Spargo writes that:

 

Foucault’s work and life, achievements and demonisation, have made him a powerful model for many gay, lesbian and other intellectuals, and his analysis of the interrelationships of knowledge, power and sexuality was the most important intellectual catalyst of queer theory. (1999, p. 8)

 

April S. Callis suggests early queer theorists found resonance with Foucault’s work as he ‘believed that the individual was created through and by discourse, which itself was created by systems of knowledge power’ (2009, 221).  Callis goes on to state that Foucault’s ‘recognition of unstable sexual identities’ prompted these theorists to ‘move away from gay and lesbian scholarship’ into queer studies (221). As with feminist studies, a similar criticism of Foucault’s work on sexuality is that it is limited by his exclusive focus on the production of male sexuality (A. J. Cahill, 2000, p. 57). Moreover, Callis argues that, despite his prominent influence on queer theory, Foucault fails to account for bisexuality in his research (2009).

 

Recent scholarship

Despite these oversights, it is difficult to deny the enormous influence Foucault has had on sociology and beyond. Scholarship continues to draw upon Foucault and his work on power and knowledge in relation to a whole host of new topics. Petra Carlsson Redell’s Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology: The Mystery of Things (2018) examines Foucault’s philosophy in relation to performativity, materiality and politics in contemporary theology.  More recently, Christian Möller’s work Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty: Foucault in the Food Bank (2021) explores Foucault’s power/knowledge theory in the context of food charity. While Foucault has been critiqued for his abstract concepts, current research still relies upon the work of Foucault and makes clear how the power/knowledge relations Foucault writes of (as well as his broader philosophy) can be applied to contemporary society.

 

Further Reading and Resources on Perlego

Michel Foucault: A Research Companion

 

Book Details:

With special emphasis on Foucault's many recently published lecture series this book provides an updated, comprehensive presentation of his most important diagnoses, his many ground-breaking analytical concepts as well as a systematic account of his unique conception of philosophy.

 

Access here.

 

A Companion to Foucault

Book Details:

A Companion to Foucault comprises a collection of essays from established and emerging scholars that represent the most extensive treatment of French philosopher Michel Foucault's works currently available.

 

Access here.

 

 

Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance [PDF]

 

Book Details:

Political resistance is flourishing. In this context, there is a growing interest to reread Michel Foucault's work, especially from the late period, from the perspective of resistance, social movements and affirmative biopolitics. Yet what has been missing so far is a book-length, comprehensive study focusing on this topic. This volume undertakes this task.

 

Access here.

 

 

Bibliography 

Bartky, S. L. (1988). Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance. Northeastern University Press. 

Butler, J. (2010) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2nd ed.). Routledge. 

Cahill, A. J. (2000). Foucault, Rape, and the Construction of the Feminine Body. Hypatia, 15 (1), 43-63.

Callis, A. S. (2009) Playing with Butler and Foucault: Bisexuality and Queer Theory.  Journal of Bisexuality, 9 (3-4),  213-233. 

Carlsson, Redell (2018). Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology: The Mystery of Things. Taylor and Francis. 

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Penguin Randomhouse. 

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1998).  Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Penguin Randomhouse. 

Foucault, M. (1989). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception (3rd ed.). Routledge. 

Foucault, M (1975). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Pantheon. 

Foxhall, L. (2016). Pandora unbound: a feminist critique of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Dislocating masculinity. Routledge, 141-153.  

Fraser, N. (1981) Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions. Praxis International, 3, 272-287.

Hartsock, N. (1990). Foucault on power: a theory for women? Feminism/postmodernism, 162, 157-175.

McNay, L. (2013). Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self. Polity Press. 

McNay, L. (2013) Foucault: A Critical Introduction. Wiley 

Möller, Christian. (2021) Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty: Foucault in the Food Bank. Taylor and Francis. 

Pickett, B. L. (1996). Foucault and the Politics of Resistance. Polity, 28(4), 445-466.

Pylypa, J. (1998) Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body. Arizona Anthropologist, 13, 21-36. 

Rouse, J. (2005) Power/Knowledge. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Lauri Siisiäinen. (2018) Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance. Taylor and Francis. 

Spargo, T. (1999). Foucault and Queer Theory. Icon Books. 

Taylor, C. (1984). Foucault on Freedom and Truth. Political Theory, 12 (2) 152-183.

 

Written by: Sophie Raine

Sophie RaineSophie Raine is a final-year PhD student at Lancaster University studying Victorian penny dreadfuls. Her work focuses on working-class popular culture and urban spaces. Her previous publications have been featured in VPFA (2019) and the Palgrave Handbook for Steam Age Gothic (2021) and her co-edited collection Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic is due for release in 2022 with University of Wales Press. 

 

 


What is Judith Butler’s Theory of Gender Performativity?

What is Gender Performativity?

The theory of gender performativity was introduced by feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 text Gender Trouble. For Butler, gender is what you do, not who you are. Rather than viewing gender as something natural or internal, Butler roots gender in outward signs and actions. These performative acts do not express an “innate” gender but actually create gender itself; the performance of gender produces the identity it claims to reveal.

Gender is performed not through a singular act but through ritualized repetition. This repetition gives gender its illusion of stability; the repeated performance of gender in accordance with social norms (men ought to speak like this, women ought to dress like this) reproduces and reinscribes those norms, making them seem legitimate and fixed.

We are compelled to repeatedly perform gender in certain ways because societal structures reward those who perform gender “correctly” (according to a strict binary) and punish those who do not. Think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989): Ariel and Erik conform to normative gender expectations, and they are rewarded with a happy ending; on the other hand, Ursula—with her deep voice, short hair, plus-sized body, and makeup inspired by the drag queen Divine—is villainized and defeated.

Performing gender “correctly” gives us a designated role in society and allows us to be recognized as a full, “real” subject. Our conscious and unconscious awareness of gender constraints means we are always performing gender to an audience, even an imagined one. 

Gender’s performativity thus produces gender while concealing its own creation. As Butler writes in Gender Trouble, 

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler [PDF]

 

 

“Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.”

 

 

 

What are Butler’s arguments in Gender Trouble?

Twentieth-century feminists—like feminists today—faced a difficult task in building a political movement around “woman” as a category. Often, women seem more disparate than united. The experience of “womanhood” varies greatly based on other identities like race, nationality, and sexuality; lesbian feminists and Black feminists especially felt that the “woman” defended by twentieth-century feminism was not representative of their experiences or interests. Even women who call themselves feminists have different, even opposing, ideas about what “justice” for women looks like. 

How stable or useful is “woman” as a category? Butler begins Gender Trouble with this question, but it leads her to interrogate the concept of gender itself. Throughout the twentieth century, feminists troubled ideas of biological determinism, or the belief that differences between men and women were biologically inherent. Instead, some feminists proposed that sex (understood as the biological body) was different from gender (the cultural expectations and meanings of that sexed body). This sex/gender division aimed to emphasize that the differences between men and women largely resulted not from biology but from societal structures that could be changed, that gender was a “construct.” As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” 

In Gender Trouble, Butler pushes these ideas further. If gender is distinct from sex, then it needn’t follow a sex-based binary: “man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.” Gender could be constructed in a multitude of ways.

How, then, is gender constructed? Who or what is constructing it? For Butler, there is no original constructor of gender, no innate or “real” gender that seeks expression. Instead, gender is created entirely through performance. As Butler argues, 

 

“If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.”

 

Butler cites drag as an example of gender performativity. In drag shows, men perform an exaggerated form of femininity. As an imitation and parody of gender, drag calls attention to the performativity of gender in all contexts: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.” Drag parodies the idea of an “original” or “normal” gender. The “original” itself is a failed copy of an “ideal” gender that no one can embody.

Although the repetition of gender constrains us, it also contains the key to resisting gender norms. Because gender is repeated and performed, not stable or innate, there is the possibility of variation, the ability to perform differently. As Butler writes, “The task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, throughout a radical proliferation of gender, displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself.” 

This begs the question: what would it look like to perform gender outside of binary categories?

 

How do Bodies That Matter and Undoing Gender develop on Gender Trouble?

Though Gender Trouble focuses on gender, Butler also questions the validity of sex as a “natural” category, noting that even biological sex is already gendered. She returns to sex in Bodies That Matter and aims to reconcile the theory of performativity with the material body. Butler argues that sex is “not a simple fact or static condition of the body” but instead, like gender, “part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs” through performative acts. The body appears through and is altered by norms regarding sex, gender, and sexuality.

In gendered and heterosexist cultures, the body must be sexed in order to be culturally intelligible. Take, for example, the practice of performing surgery on infants and children born “intersex” or with indeterminate or combined sexual anatomy. These surgeries seek to force bodies into binary and gendered categories. 

Binary sex, like gender, is reinforced through performative acts. In Bodies That Matter, Butler clarifies that performativity is both bodily and linguistic; she draws upon J.L. Austin’s concept of “performative utterances” or “speech acts,” instances in which speech does not merely say something but also does something—for example, saying “I do” in a wedding or pronouncing two people “man and wife.” 

As Austin writes in How to Do Things With Words, “In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it. [...] When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c, ‘I do’, I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it.”

When a priest pronounces a couple married, the words change the status of the couple; when a doctor declares “it’s a girl,” the speech act inscribes gender onto the infant. This “girl” will never be able to perfectly perform an idealized normative gender. However, she is, as Butler writes,

Bodies That Matter by Judith Butler [PDF]

 


“compelled to ‘cite’ the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment. Indeed, there is no ‘one’ who takes on a gender norm. On the contrary, this citation of the gender norm is necessary in order to qualify as a ‘one,’ to become viable as a ‘one,’ where subject formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.”

 

 

 

The speech act, like other performative actions, both gains its power through and can be undermined by repetition. Butler discusses how the term “queer” has changed over time, shifting from a derogatory slur to a reclaimed identity. The word retains its history, but each time it is repeated differently, it acquires new meaning.

In Undoing Gender, Butler further explores how the linked processes of sexing and gendering are required to be a viable “subject.” She discusses the double bind of losing one’s self when performing a compelled gender but losing one’s legibility when performing gender outside of cultural norms:

Undoing Gender by Judith Butler [PDF]

 

 

“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the ‘human’ expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?” 

 

 

 

 

Responding to the “New Gender Politics” of the early 2000s, Undoing Gender addresses the tensions between feminist, queer, and trans theories and theorists and aims to account for transsexual, transgender, and intersex experiences. Butler argues that feminism must ally itself with other movements “since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins antihomophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” She embraces questions which disturb the feminist movement, asserting that continual questioning is itself a feminist act. 

Through her various works, Butler theorizes and deconstructs “the heterosexual matrix,” which links cultural norms of sex, gender, and sexuality. In Media, Gender and Identity, David Gauntlett neatly presents and analyzes Butler’s argument via helpful tables. Culture compels us to take sex as a biological given, which then dictates a given gender and sexual desires:

As Gauntlett writes, “Butler’s overall argument is that we should not accept that any of these follow from each other—we should shatter the imagined connections.” Sex, gender, and desire need not conform to binary structures; the matrix would need to be replaced with something like this:

 

Gender Performativity in Mulan: A Case Study

Gender norms affect all aspects of our lives, sometimes in ways we do not fully realize; we are surrounded by examples of gender performativity. One piece of popular media that engages with these ideas is Disney’s Mulan (1998), an animated movie about a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the army and ultimately saves China. There are several instances of “cross dressing” in Mulan which, like the example of drag in Butler’s works, highlight the performativity of gender. 

Even before Mulan dresses as a man, we see her performing gender. The opening number, “Honor to Us All,” introduces us to the expectations of gender performance Mulan faces. The women sing of how girls should be “calm” and “obedient,” thin and dainty, while they dress Mulan and paint her face with makeup in preparation for a meeting with the Matchmaker. The “heterosexual matrix” is on full display: young women must perform an idealized form of femininity in order to attract men and secure good marriages. 

Mulan shows how gender norms are regulated and enforced by various societal institutions, including the family and the state. Gender performativity is presented as an obligation to one’s nation. As the women sing, “We all must serve our Emperor / Who guards us from the Huns / A man by bearing arms / A girl by bearing sons.” Failing to perform one’s gender “correctly” means dishonoring one’s country and one’s family; in the face of this punishment, women are compelled to perform a certain kind of femininity.

However, attaining this gendered ideal—becoming, as the lyrics say, a “perfect, perfect porcelain doll”—is impossible. Mulan cannot meet these exacting standards. Wiping off the mask of performed femininity represented by her makeup, she sings, “I will never pass for the perfect bride or the perfect daughter. / Can it be I’m not meant to play this part?” In singing about playing a part, Mulan explicitly identifies gender as performative.

Mulan must perform gender differently in order to “pass” as a man in the army. She dresses in “men’s” clothes, speaks in a lower register, and walks differently. Her comedic attempts to appear “manly” show the absurdity in our expectations of gendered behavior. 

Eventually, Mulan’s body “reveals” her “true” gender. When the general Li Shang sees that Mulan has breasts, he assumes, as a result of societally ingrained beliefs, that she must be a woman. Mulan is punished for her gender nonconformity; she must leave the army, as the role of soldier has been designated for men. Her “failure” to perform her gender “correctly” calls the whole gendered system into question. Mulan has become a model soldier, proving that she can perform the masculine ideal described in the song “Make a Man Out of You” as well as—and in some cases better than—the “real” men she fights alongside.

Mulan and her fellow soldiers later use expectations of gender performativity to their advantage. In order to fool the villain’s guards, the soldiers dress as women and act in an exaggeratedly feminine way. The guards buy into the performance and assume these “women” are not a threat. Though this instance of drag relies on the performativity of gender, it is not necessarily subversive; as Butler clarifies in Bodies That Matter, not all parodies challenge gender or heterosexist norms. Without the context of the result of the film, this scene would not subvert gendered assumptions; it could suggest that the disguised soldiers are a threat only because they are, in “reality,” men.

The film conforms to the heterosexual matrix in its treatment of the romance between Shang and Mulan. Though Shang interacts with Mulan as a man for most of the movie, their relationship cannot occur until Mulan has returned to her “proper” gender role; Shang can only be attracted to Mulan once she is “revealed” as a woman, the “proper” object of his desire. 

 

Critiques and Analysis of Butler’s Theories

When Mulan laments her inability to perform gender as her family and culture want her to, she asks, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” This sentiment speaks to some questions which critics of Butler (and Butler herself) have grappled with when addressing gender performativity. If gender is constructed, what produces one’s “internal” or psychological experience of gender, particularly when it is at odds with the gender one is expected to perform? If gender is a performance and a construct, does that mean it is not “real”?

Transphobic thinkers, including trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERFs) or so-called “gender critical feminists,” have misinterpreted Butler’s theories of performativity in order to claim that the experience of gender for trans individuals is not “real” or that they could choose to perform their gender in alignment with their assigned sex. Butler has continuously and publicly argued against these ideas and the transphobic belief that only those born in certain bodies can be certain genders. As she writes in Undoing Gender, regarding trans women, “The very attribution of femininity to female bodies as if it were a natural or necessary property takes place within a normative framework in which the assignment of femininity to femaleness is one mechanism for the production of gender itself.”

Gender performativity has also been criticized for not properly accounting for bodily experience. While some of these arguments are used for transphobic ends or rely on a sexed binary, some trans theorists like Jay Prosser (author of Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality) have argued that gender performativity does not explain the bodily experiences of gender for many in the trans community, such as the feeling of gender dysphoria and the importance of gender affirming surgeries. Butler has acknowledged that her earlier writings do not adequately address trans experiences; in her later works, she discusses how transgender and transsexual experiences are pathologized and regulated through the same systems of power that demand certain gender performances.

Other thinkers, like Rosi Braidotti, have reconsidered sexual difference beyond a fixed sex binary. Finding that Butler’s theories down-play the embodied nature of the subject, Braidotti instead takes the body as her starting point. In Metamorphoses: Toward a Materialist Theory of Becoming (2002) and Posthuman Feminism (2022), Braidotti embraces the material differences of bodies; cautions against a universalizing, “gender-free,” or neutral notion of the body; and argues that bodies take shape through interactions with other bodies. Her redefinition of bodies combines materialism with an awareness of the impact of social forces: 

Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming by Rosi Braidotti [PDF]
“The embodiedness of the subject is a form of body materiality, not of the natural, biological kind. I take the body as the complex interplay of highly constructed social and symbolic forces: it is not an essence, let alone a biological substance, but a play of forces, a surface of intensities, pure simulacra without originals. This ‘intensive’ redefinition of the body resituates it within a complex interplay of social and affective forces. This is also a clear move away from the psychoanalytic idea of the body as a map of semiotic inscriptions and culturally enforced codes. I see it instead as a transformer and a relay point for the flow of energies: a surface of intensities.”   

 

 

In Undoing Gender, Butler responds to Braidotti’s theories and finds that they raise useful questions about the material experiences of gender and desire. She writes, “Sexual difference is not a given, not a premise, not a basis on which to build a feminism; it is not that which we have already encountered and come to know; rather, as a question that prompts a feminist inquiry, it is something that cannot quite be stated, that troubles the grammar of the statement, and that remains, more or less permanently, to interrogate.” For Butler, interrogation is necessary for feminist thinking to thrive.

While challenging any claim to “innate” gender, Butler has clarified that she believes “every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives” (per this interview) regardless of how they internally experience gender.

 

Judith Butler Quotes on Gender Performativity

“Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions — and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness.” (Gender Trouble)

“As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.” (Gender Trouble)

“Gender ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” (Gender Trouble)

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity that they are said to express or reveal.” (Gender Trouble)

“Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.” (Gender Trouble)

“The practice by which gendering occurs, the embodying of norms, is a compulsory practice, a forcible production, but not for that reason fully determining. To the extent that gender is an assignment, it is an assignment which is never quite carried out according to expectation, whose addressee never quite inhabits the ideal s/he is compelled to approximate.” (Bodies That Matter)

“If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not ‘do’ one’s gender alone. One is always “doing” with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary.” (Undoing Gender) 

 

External Resources

 

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013.

Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Feminism. 1st ed. Polity Press, 2021.

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender and Identity. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2008.

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Harvard Uni Press, 1975.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 2nd ed. Penguin, 2015.

 

Written by: Paige Allen

Paige Allen (MA)Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master's degree in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor's degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.


What is Ecofeminism?

Defining ecofeminism

Ecofeminism, like most feminisms, is concerned with deconstructing, critiquing and eliminating systems of male-biased patriarchal oppression. More specifically, ecofeminism argues that these structures of oppression subordinate the natural world through the same mechanisms and logic as their subordination of women. Ecofeminism sees the erosion of wild places, declines in biodiversity, and rise in ecological disasters as inherently feminist concerns.

Indeed, as Greta Gaard demonstrates in her article Ecofeminism and Climate Change, ‘Gender inequalities mean that women and children are 14 times more likely to die in ecological disasters than men’ (23). Faced with such startling statistics, the need for a radical change in this dynamic is clear. It is precisely this shift which ecofeminism seeks to bring forth by interrogating these cascading layers of eco-gender inequality that pervade the industrial-capitalist world system.

The term ‘ecofeminism’ itself dates back to 1974, from Françoise d'Eaubonne, who coined the phrase “ecological feminisme” as a means of calling attention to women's potential to bring about an eco-revolution. d’Eaubonne asserted that the marginalisation of women, people of colour and the poor were all tangled up in the systematic degradation of the natural environment & non-human world. It was not until the late 80s/early 90s however that ecofeminism truly began to gather steam and association as a discrete branch of feminism. Amongst the most oft-cited academic work on ecofeminism is Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva’s 1993 book Ecofeminism.

 

Ecofeminism by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva

 

Mies and Shiva’s book is concerned with clearly demarcating and structuring ecofeminist frameworks of thought. ‘The impetus for writing came from analysing the causes which have led to the destructive tendencies that threaten life on earth. We became aware – quite independently – of what we call the capitalist patriarchal world system’ (2). They contend that ‘this system emerged, is built upon and maintains itself through the colonization of women, of ‘foreign’ peoples and their lands; and of nature, which it is gradually destroying’ (2).

 

 

Under this capitalist patriarchal world system, Mies & Shiva argue, ‘nature is subordinated to man; woman to man; consumption to production; and the local to the global, and so on. Feminists have long criticized this dichotomy, particularly the structural division of man and nature, which is seen as analogous to that of man and woman’ (5). The subordination of nature by man is seen as concomitant, or at least similar, to the subordination of woman by man. In their critique of this binary system, and the layers of oppression inherent to it, Mies and Shiva announce ecofeminism as ‘a woman identified movement…’ and they ‘...see the devastation of the earth and her beings by the corporate warriors, and the threat of nuclear annihilation by the military warriors, as feminist concerns’ (14).

 

What makes ecofeminism feminist?

This is one of the core questions that pervades ecofeminist writing and criticism. For ecofeminism to be ecofeminist, it must adhere to the intrinsic principles of feminism itself. Karen J. Warren, in her edited collection Ecological Feminism, suggests that;

 

 

‘what makes ecological feminism feminist is its twofold commitment to the recognition and elimination of male-gender bias wherever and whenever it occurs, and to the development of practices, policies and theories which are not male-gender biased’ (1).

 

 

 

 

It is crucial here to note that this is about eliminating gender-bias, any ecofeminism which seems to lean on, or reinforce, binaries between masculine/feminine is in very real ways not feminist, and thus not ecofeminist. Please see the section below ‘Criticisms of ecofeminism’ for more detail on this.

Another aspect of ecofeminism which chimes neatly with the broader principles of feminist thought, particularly in the 21st century, is that it is intersectional almost by definition. Intersectional feminism acknowledges and addresses the tangled web of injustices that pervades society - paying attention to the ways in which concerns and injustices of gender are woven into concerns and injustices of class, race and geography. For more information on the notion of Intersectionality, we can recommend Mary Romero’s Introducing Intersectionality. With regards to ecofeminism, in its inherent disposition towards interpreting the world from more than one angle (i.e. ecologically and feministically), it champions an intersectional framework for interpreting, critiquing and solving feminist concerns.

 

What makes ecofeminism ecological?

Just as ecofeminism needs to adhere to core feminist principles and praxis, it’s important to also delineate what makes ecofeminism ecological. Warren is again of use here, asserting that ‘what makes ecological feminism ecological is its understanding of and commitment to the importance of valuing and preserving ecosystems (whether understood as organisms, individuals, populations, communities and their interactions, or as nutrient flows among entities “in a biospherical net of relationships”). This includes the recognition of human beings as ecological beings (as “relational and ecological selves”), and of the necessity of an environmental dimension to any adequate feminism or feminist philosophy’ (2).

Ecological thought, in essence, proposes that human beings are but one form of life among many others. We are all interdependently enmeshed with one another, and as such humans should act according to the needs of other critters that call this planet home. Just as feminism seeks to flatten power hierarchies of gender, ecocriticism similarly proposes that all lifeforms, from lichen to llamas, are of equal importance. In this mirrored commitment to dethroning systems of subjugation, be they the patriarchy or petrocultural-capitalist society, ecology and feminism are in a sense natural bed fellows. Indeed, ecofeminism helps highlight that the patriarchy is an endemic component of petrocultural-capitalist society. For ecofeminism to be genuinely ecological and feminist it must attend to this twin commitment of ecological and feminist thought; highlighting and eliminating male-gender bias, whilst highlighting and eliminating human species bias in turn.

 

Criticisms of ecofeminism

It is fair to say that ecofeminism has a somewhat chequered history, and, like many types of feminism, is hotly contested territory. Victoria Davion, in Is Ecofeminism Feminist?, pointedly argues that ‘at least some of the ideas coming from thinkers identifying themselves as ecofeminist are, in very important ways, not feminist. … These ideas glorify the feminine uncritically and thereby suggest that embracing a feminine perspective will help humans solve the ecological crisis. I argue that a truly feminist perspective cannot embrace either the feminine or the masculine uncritically, as a truly feminist perspective requires a critique of gender roles, and this critique must include masculinity and femininity’ (9).

Val Plumwood makes very similar arguments in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature;

Feminism and the Mastery of Nature by Val Plumwood

 

‘some ecofeminists have endorsed the association between women and nature without critically examining how the association is produced by exclusion. On the other hand, some equality feminists, equally uncritically, have endorsed women’s ascent from the sphere of nature into that of culture or reason without remarking the problematic, oppositional nature of a concept of reason defined by such exclusions’ (1).

 

 

 

Both Plumwood and Davion highlight the issues with certain forms of ecofeminism uncritically linking a sense of spiritual connection between women and nature, as well as uncritically endorsing an ascension or fissure of women from nature. Both of these dynamics fall back on gender binaries and stereotypes, and as such aren’t aligned with broader feminist principles of breaking down gender roles and stereotypes of this nature. As Davion neatly summarises, ‘for an analysis to be feminist, it is crucial…’ to ‘…acknowledge how “the feminine” is shaped by patriarchy and that it is not necessarily an independent category but may be a cluster of various traits emerging out of oppression’ (22). In short, for ecofeminism to be ecofeminist, it is crucial for it to not rest upon the binaries and systems of oppression it seeks to denounce.

In your own writing and research on ecofeminism, be attentive to these idiosyncracies - establishing binaries of masculine/feminine is rife with its own issues from a feminist perspective, and in that sense cannot truly be ecofeminist. Karen J. Warren’s aforementioned edited collection, Ecological Feminism, has plenty of articles which unpick and interrogate some of these intricacies, whilst forging ahead with productive new definitions and utilities for ecofeminist thought.

 

Ecofeminism in the 21st century

In a report from the UN, called Women, Gender Equality & Climate Change, it becomes bluntly apparent that on a dispersed global scale ‘women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men’ (1). As per Gaard’s previously cited quote, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in ecological disasters than men. Such facts and analysis work as a caustic reminder of the widespread injustices which percolate through climatic change. The sense of agency tethered to climate change in the public consciousness is often inattentive to the various types of inequality and culpability wrought through the industrial-capitalist world system. Indeed, Gaard suggests that ‘to date, climate change discourse has not accurately presented the gendered character of first-world planetary overconsumption’ (20). Ecofeminism is utilised by Gaard as a means of reviewing and drawing attention to these inequalities that are reinforced through the systems responsible for disastrous climatic change, in this era being referred to as The Anthropocene.

Gaard goes further to suggest that, ‘climate change may be described as white industrial-capitalist heteromale supremacy on steroids, boosted by widespread injustices of gender and race, sexuality and species’ (27). Such viewpoints neatly summarise the uses of ecofeminist praxis for progressing responsibly in the troubling times of The Anthropocene. Ecofeminism is a framework which helps untangle the roots and systems which have produced, and continue to perpetuate, climate change. Any route out of our current predicament must be one that addresses the spectrum of inequalities that underpin it - be that the gap between the rich and the poor, the white colonial histories/realities of “conquest”, or the dissonance between human and animal rights.

If you are researching or writing your own essay on ecofeminism, or considering ecology and feminism separately of one another, be sure to think on the enriching interdependencies that underpin this intersectional ethos. Ecofeminism is critical of industrial-capitalist-patriarchal systems, and seeks to unpick the binaries of gender, race, sexuality and species oppression that hold such systems in place. As we forge forwards in the 21st century, such ecological feminist thinking is paramount to addressing many of our most pressing concerns and enduring injustices. With this in mind, think carefully on the ways that an ecofeminist lens could enrich, illuminate, or even complicate the arguments you are making in your own work.

We’ve suggested some further reading and external resources below should you wish to explore some more books and information on this topic.

 

Further Reading & Resources on Perlego

Please see below for a suggested series of useful books for studying Ecofeminism, all available to Perlego subscribers.

 

Contemporary Perspectives on Ecofeminism edited by Mary Phillips and Nick Rumens

Book Details:

This book provides a much-needed comprehensive overview of the relevance and value of using eco-feminist theories. It gives a broad coverage of traditional and emerging eco-feminist theories and explores, across a range of chapters, their various contributions and uniquely spans various strands of ecofeminist thinking. The origins of influential eco-feminist theories are discussed including key themes and some of its leading figures.

Access here.

 

 

Ecofeminism, Second Edition

Book Details:

This new edition of Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth begins with an historical, grounding overview that situates ecofeminist theory and activism within the larger field of ecocriticism and provides a timeline for important publications and events. Throughout the book, authors engage with intersections of gender, sexuality, gender expression, race, disability, and species to address the various ways that sexism, heteronormativity, racism, colonialism, and ableism are informed by and support animal oppression.

Access here.

 

Developing Ecofeminist Theory by Erika Cudworth

Book Details:

An original exploration of how the relationship between society and 'nature' is conceptualized, focusing on theories of social exclusion and difference. A comprehensive overview of feminist and environmental theories of society-environment relations, considering the range of theoretical and political influences on such theorizing such as socialist and Marxist theory amongst others and the turn to post structuralism and postmodernism within the social sciences.

Access here.

 

 

Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature by Greta Gaard

Book Details:

Drawing on the insights of ecology, feminism, and socialism, ecofeminism's basic premise is that the ideology that authorizes oppression based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical abilities, and species is the same ideology that sanctions the oppression of nature. In this collection of essays, feminist scholars and activists discuss the relationships among human begins, the natural environment, and nonhuman animals. They reject the nature/culture dualism of patriarchal thought and locate animals and humans within nature.

Access here.

 

Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway

Book Details:

In the midst of spiraling ecological devastation, multispecies feminist theorist Donna J. Haraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants. She eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices.

Access here.

 

 

 

External resources

 

Bibliography

Gaard, Greta. ‘Ecofeminism and climate change’ in Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 49, 2015, pp. 20-33.

Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277539515000321

 

Shiva, Vandana, and Maria Mies. Ecofeminism. 2nd ed. Zed Books, 2014.

Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2014326/ecofeminism-pdf

 

Warren, Karren J. ‘Introduction’ in Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren.
Routledge, 1994, pp. 1-8.

Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Ecological-Feminism/Warren/p/book/9780415072984

 

Davion, Victoria. ‘Is Ecofeminism Feminist?’ in Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren. Routledge, 1994, pp. 8-28.

Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Ecological-Feminism/Warren/p/book/9780415072984

 

Romero, Mary. Introducing Intersectionality. 1st ed. Wiley, 2017.

Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1536454/introducing-intersectionality-pdf

 

Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2002.

Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1621769/feminism-and-the-mastery-of-nature-pdf

 

UN. WomenWatch: Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change. N.D.

Available at: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/downloads/Women_and_Climate_Change_Factsheet.pdf

 

Written by: Toby Neilson

toby neilsonToby Neilson has a PhD in the Environmental Humanities from The University of Glasgow. His research concerns The Anthropocene, and contemporary cinema's relationship to it. Neilson's research particularly focuses on science fiction films from an environmental perspective. He has lectured and published articles on ecocinema, film history, posthumanism and film philosophy.


What is The Anthropocene?

Defining The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene, literally translated, means “the age of the human”. It is a geological term coined by Paul Crutzen & Eugene Stormer in the year 2000, used to both describe and propose a new geological era - one which marks the end of the Holocene and the start of an altogether new age. This new geological era, the so-called Anthropocene, is one marked by human influence on Planet Earth. We might think of The Anthropocene as a geological means of describing climate change - not just is the Earth’s average temperature rapidly changing, but so too are the rocks beneath our feet.

If aliens landed on Planet Earth thousands of years from now to find a planet devoid of humans, a quick look into the rock fossil record would quickly assert to the damaging presence of the human - be that in the form of a baseline level of radioactivity in the Earth, an amorphous merging of plastics into the rock fossil record, or the unprecedented amount of cattle and livestock bones enmeshed in the ground. 

While originally a term used purely geologically, the Anthropocene concept has spread through the academic and public consciousness rapidly, and as such is often used to more generally describe the environmental crises of the contemporary moment. As Timothy Clark helpfully points out in Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as Threshold Concept,

Ecocriticism on the Edge by Timothy Clark [PDF]

 

'the term has rapidly become adopted in the humanities in a sense beyond the strictly geological. Its force is mainly as a loose, shorthand term for all the new contexts and demands – cultural, ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and political – of environmental issues that are truly planetary in scale, notably climate change, ocean acidification, effects of overpopulation, deforestation, soil erosion, overfishing and the general and accelerating degradation of ecosystems’ (2010, 2).

 

 

 

When did The Anthropocene start?

There is much debate over when The Anthropocene started, as well as what started it. When dealing with geological time periods, assigning a precise date is rather tricky. Asking when this era started, is a bit like asking when climate change started. Was it at the birth of the steam engine? Or perhaps the colonisation of America? Does the birth of humans creating fire announce the path to our current predicament? Or, could it be at the birth of agriculture; the beginning of the pervasively accepted ideology that land is there to be neatly allotted and plundered to our own ends? 

What is interesting here is not necessarily answering these questions, but in registering the rich ambiguities that lie between them. Jason W. Moore, in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, asks, ‘Are we really living in the Anthropocene…or are we living in the Capitalocene, the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital?’ (2015, 173). Moore here suggests that not only is The Anthropocene not definable by “one” static or immutable moment, but moreover that we’re perhaps not in The Anthropocene at all - instead, we are in the Capitalocene. Critics of the term, like Moore, feel that it over emphasises the power of the human whilst erasing a sense of human responsibility. What’s more the term perhaps doesn’t reflect on the roles of capitalism, colonialism, and racism along the path that led to The Anthropocene. For instance, are all humans equally culpable for climate change? A glance at the history books would tell us that men, particularly white European men, are significantly more to blame for the effects of climate change whilst socio-geo-economically being less likely to be impacted by it. As such, other means of describing and historicising this era have arisen as a means of righting these shortcomings.

 

Anthropocene, Cthulucene, or Anthropocenes?

There is not a widely accepted agreement on the concept or naming of The Anthropocene within the wider academic field; indeed, Moore is not alone in his suggestion of a new name for this era. Donna Haraway is another such writer who is sceptical of the term. Haraway, within Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, suggests the term ‘Cthulucene’ as a means of opposing the ‘exterminating forces’ of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene alike. She elaborates;

Staying with the Trouble by Donna J. Haraway [PDF]

 

 

‘the scandals of times called the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene are the latest and most dangerous of these exterminating forces. Living-with and dying-with each other potently in the Chthulucene can be a fierce reply to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital’ (2016, 2).

 

 

 

 

The Cthulu of the Cthulucene is used to describe ‘cthonic ones…beings of the earth, both ancient and up-to-the minute. I imagine chthonic ones as replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair’ (2016, 2). For Haraway, the climatic conditions of the 21st century announce a moment where it is imperative to think beyond the human. Describing this era as that “of the human”, to Haraway, is perhaps not the most useful way of forging forwards in response-ability with the non-human creatures we share the planet with. As such, Cthulucene is suggested over both Anthropocene and Capitalocene as a means of ratifying this oversight.

Through this constellation of opinions and opposing terminologies, Anthropocene, Capitalocene and Cthulucene, what emerges is not one fixed notion of The Anthropocene, but perhaps a variety of Anthropocenes. While it is important to be critical of the underpinnings and connotations of the term ‘Anthropocene’, it is also undeniable that the term itself has a heft, weight and a ubiquitous adoption beyond the world of academic study, which Haraway and Moore’s perhaps do not. 

In your own reading and writing on the subject, try to be critical and mindful of which type of Anthropocene you are describing. Please see our ‘Further Reading’ list at the end of this article for more suggestions aligned to the question of what the Anthropocene is, whose Anthropocene it is, and what that particular Anthropocene might imply ethically, historically and philosophically for your research and writing.

 

What is “Deep Time”?

The Anthropocene concept proposes that we, humans, now occupy and influence “deep time”. Deep time is a term used to describe the timescales one would usually associate with geological periods. Where human history deals with days, weeks, months and years, geological history deals with much deeper and challenging scales. Millions of years exist as a blink of an eye in geological terms. In The Anthropocene, the distinction between human measures of history and geological measures of history start to collapse. Thus, in the Anthropocene, we begin to occupy deep time registers.

Historically human history and geological history have remained two distinctly separate fields of study. Indeed, what makes the concept of The Anthropocene so interesting as an academic field is that it breaks down such scholastic barriers. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues in The Climate of History: Four Theses,  the clashing of these two types of historical scale causes a mixing of the seemingly ‘immiscible chronologies of capital and species history. This combination, however, stretches, in quite fundamental ways, the very idea of historical understanding’ (2009, 220).

What, then, are we to do with such timescales? How can we “think” deep time and act within deep scales of time? The very way in which we understand and navigate the world is shot through with this rather alarming conflation of human scales and deep scales of time. Mobile phones are an interesting example of this type of short/deep time slippage. Not only do they require ten times more precious Earth metals than a laptop or desktop computer, but the data centres fuelling them emit large doses of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. As such, a mobile phone has roots in the deep geological past whilst finding itself projected into a speculative atmospheric future. All the while they are utilised for short-term, humdrum activities in the fleetingly brief present moment. 

Timothy Morton’s work on Hyperobjects is interesting in relation to this deep time/human time imbrication. Morton coins the idea of ‘Hyperobjects’, suggesting they are objects that are,

 

 

‘massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. A hyperobject could be a black hole. A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the Solar System’ (2013, 1). Global warming, and thus The Anthropocene, are great examples of hyperobjects, since they ‘involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to’ (2013, 1).

 

 

Noticing an unusually hot day is suffused with the knowledge that this is a discrete by-product of a global phenomenon; our changing climate. Our experience of this strange weather blends this fleeting quotidian moment with the hugely dispersed time-scales of the climate crisis. As such, again, we see this melding of different scales of time as one of the key characteristics of living in The Anthropocene.

Through the work of writers such as Morton we can see that time is not just “deep” in the Anthropocene, but a seeming kaleidoscope of converging scales of time; wherein multiple types of time co-exist and compete in the ever-receding present. As such, when writing on The Anthropocene, it’s important to be attentive to the complexity of timescales which underpin it. 

 

What is an Example of The Anthropocene?

We are surrounded by examples of The Anthropocene day-to-day. Be that in the deep-human-speculative temporal convergence of our mobile phones, or the baseline levels of radioactivity in the soil beneath our feet. Outside of these examples it is interesting to think how popular media might be both reflecting and reinforcing the unique characteristics of this era.

Science fiction films are particularly interesting in this regard. As a genre science fiction often mirrors the concerns and anxieties of the contemporary moment, per Susan Sontag’s arguments in The Imagination of Disaster. Following Sontag’s logic, as climate change has emerged as one of the biggest anxieties of the 21st century, contemporaneous science fiction films often contain Anthropocene-inflected imagery, thought and meaning.

One such example is Interstellar (Nolan, 2014). The film is set in a climate-impacted future wherein crop production has ground to a halt in a dust-bowl laden atmosphere. Humanity’s chances of survival are pinned on colonising other planets, and a band of scientists travel through a wormhole in efforts to find a suitable new home. The first planet they arrive on is particularly interesting in relation to the time-shapes of The Anthropocene. Before landing, the team discusses the temporal peculiarities of this planet - wherein every hour spent there equates to 7 years on Earth. This temporal lag poses all sorts of problems for the crew, and it leads them to note that they “need to think about time as a resource. Just like oxygen and food.” In the context of a dying planet, we do indeed need to think about time as a resource, like oxygen and food. If we do not act ecologically attentively with the little time we have left, it spells a doomsday narrative for humanity. 

In their active acknowledgement of divergent temporal pressures, we see Interstellar opening a dialogue into what happens when different senses of time converge, a central preoccupation of the narrative as it unfolds and a central preoccupation of the Anthropocene as we currently understand it. In doing so, Interstellar presents the ecological time-pressure of this Anthropocene-ic situation eloquently. ​​What’s more, when they do land on the planet, the temporal peculiarities of this uncharted territory are lent an environmental context. Mountainous waves lash down on the crew as they attempt to reach a beacon sent by their former colleagues, rendering the danger of this planet’s timeshape with a tangible environmental correlory. What’s more, to enhance the thematic preoccupation with time in the film and The Anthropocene at large, Hans Zimmer’s score enters the scene as a metronomic ticking. This ticking, initially, sounds like the dripping of water - potentially a clepsydra, or water clock. By reinforcing the visual and auditory connection between time and environmental motifs, Interstellar continually articulates its time-pressures around the environment itself. You can see this scene in the clip below:

In doing so we can see how the film is both influenced by the various collapsing time-pressures of The Anthropocene, at the same time as providing us with a platform for viewing, hearing and experiencing them; something that is perhaps harder to do in our day-to-day lives. By imbuing the collapsing time-shapes of this scene with environmental imagery and sound, Interstellar invites us to think about time from fresh environmental perspectives. As such, we might think about Interstellar as an example of ecocinema through the dialogue it opens between time, the environment and the speculative future. Through films like Interstellar we can see that cinema is a particularly useful medium for representing the various scalar discombobulations wrought through a rapidly warming climate. For more writing on cinema in relation to the environment and The Anthropocene, Robin L, Murray & Joseph K. Heumann’s Ecology and Popular Film, as well as Stephen Rust, Salma Monani & Sean Cubitt’s edited collection Ecocinema Theory & Practice are good places to start, as is the website Anthropocene Cinema.

 

Further Reading & Resources on Perlego

Please see below for a suggested series of useful books for studying The Anthropocene, all available to Perlego subscribers.

The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis [PDF]

Book Details:

The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis captures some of the radical new thinking prompted by the arrival of the Anthropocene and opens up the social sciences and humanities to the profound meaning of the new geological epoch, the 'Age of Humans'. Drawing on the expertise of world-recognised scholars and thought-provoking intellectuals, the book explores the challenges and difficult questions posed by the convergence of geological and human history to the foundational ideas of modern social science.

Access here.

 

 

Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Coexistence by Timothy Morton [PDF]

Book Details:

Timothy Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or Möbius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

Access here.

 

 

 

The Shock of the Anthropocene [PDF]

Book Details:

Refuting the convenient view of a "human species" that upset the Earth system, unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes the first critical history of the Anthropocene, shaking up many accepted ideas: about our supposedly recent "environmental awareness," about previous challenges to industrialism, about the manufacture of ignorance and consumerism, about so-called energy transitions, as well as about the role of the military in environmental destruction.

Access here.

 

 

Down to Earth by Bruno Latour [PDF]

Book Details:

It is urgent to shift sideways and to define politics as what leads toward the Earth and not toward the global or the national. Belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of rethinking and careful redescription; learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge. Bringing us down to earth is the task of politics today.

Access here.

 

 

 

The Climate of History in a Planetary Age by Dipesh Chakrabarty [PDF]

Book Details:

The burden of The Climate of History in a Planetary Age is to grapple with what this means and to confront humanities scholars with ideas they have been reluctant to reconsider—from the changed nature of human agency to a new acceptance of universals. Chakrabarty argues that we must see ourselves from two perspectives at once: the planetary and the global. This distinction is central to Chakrabarty's work—the globe is a human-centric construction, while a planetary perspective intentionally decenters the human.

Access here.

 

 

 

External Resources

 

Bibliography

Crutzen, P. & Stoermer, E., ‘The Anthropocene’ in IGBP [International Geossphere Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41, 2000

Clark, T. (2015). Ecocriticism on the Edge (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing.

Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life. Verso.

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Chakrabarty, D. (2009). The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 197–222. 

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Posthumanities) (1st ed.). University Of Minnesota Press.

Sontag, S. The Imagination of Disaster in Commentary, vol. 40, 1965, pp. 42-48.

Murray, R., & Heumann, J. (2009). Ecology and Popular Film. State University of New York Press.

Cubitt, S., Monani, S., & Rust, S. (2012). Ecocinema Theory and Practice (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis.

Neilson, T. (2022). Anthropocene Cinema. https://www.anthropocene-cinema.com/

 

Written by: Toby Neilson

toby neilsonToby Neilson has a PhD in the Environmental Humanities from The University of Glasgow. His research concerns The Anthropocene, and contemporary cinema's relationship to it. Neilson's research particularly focuses on science fiction films from an environmental perspective. He has lectured and published articles on ecocinema, film history, posthumanism and film philosophy.