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:

Postfeminism FAQs

  • What is Postfeminism in simple terms?

    Ann Brooks provides a helpful definition of postfeminism in Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, writing, ‘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.’ (2002)

  • What is an example of Postfeminism in popular culture?

    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. This conflation of feminist and anti-feminist sentiment is a good example of postfeminism’s seemingly contradictory operations.

  • What is the difference between feminism and postfeminism?

    Postfeminism does not announce itself as being “after” feminism. Instead postfeminism is situated in an era where the initial goals of the feminist project, such as the right to vote, have been to a large degree “accomplished”. What happens to feminism in this context? What new struggles and inequalities pervade the patriarchal world system in a world of increased equality? It is around such questions that postfeminism situates itself.

  • Who are the key authors and theorists of postfeminism?

    Some of the most prominent writers on Postfeminism are Angela McRobbie (author of The Aftermath of Feminism), Ann Brooks (author of Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms), Rosalind Gill (author of Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility) as well as Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (editors of Interrogating Postfeminism).

  • 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 AllenPaige 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.