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Post feminism in popular culture: A potential for critical resistance?

1. Introduction

‘Post feminism’ has become one of the most fundamental, yet contested notions in the lexicon of feminist media studies and cultural studies because of its different interpretations among scholars (for an overview see Genz, 2006; Lotz, 2001; Tasker & Negra, 2005). In literature, three dominant but diverging visions on the concept are visible: Firstly, post feminism is seen as a ‘political position’ in the light of the feminist confrontation with difference, or secondly, as a historical shift within feminism or finally, as a backlash against feminism where a celebration of neoconservative, traditional values becomes prominent. Post feminism has no fixed meaning; it is a contradictory, pluralistic discourse that is mainly located in the academic context of television and cultural studies, in the media context of popular culture and within consumer culture. Since “post feminism is not against feminism, it’s about feminism today” (Brooks, 1997), it needs to be situated in the contemporary context of contemporary neo-liberal, late-capitalist society characterized by consumer culture, individualism, postmodernism and a decreased interest in institutional politics and activism. In this context, the gender struggle remains an actual issue in public and private lives (e.g. the demand for equal pay or the glass ceiling). Post feminism is a new form of empowerment and independence, individual choice, (sexual) pleasure, consumer culture, fashion, hybridism, humour, and the renewed focus on the female body can be considered fundamental for this contemporary feminism. It is a new, critical way of understanding the changed relations between feminism, popular culture and femininity. Media discourses play a crucial role in the representation, evolution and development of this new feminism. In recent academic literature, ‘post feminist media texts’ are often studied and referred to (e.g. ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Bridget Jones’, …).

Situating post feminism within the world of academic paradigms, it can be located on the crossroads between post modernism, post structuralism and post colonialism. The link is obvious since all paradigms are concerned with breaking through binary thinking. They question authoritarian paradigms and fixed, universal categories such as ‘gender’ or ‘heteronormativity’. They also reconceptualise identity as a concept by rejecting essentialist notions of it, or by deconstructing them. In addition, ‘difference’ becomes a central notion (Lotz, 2001).

As already briefly mentioned, post feminism is rooted within neo-liberal society and consumer culture. In recent years, a number of writers have explored neo-liberalism and have shown that it has shifted from being a political or economic rationality to a mode of governmentality that operates across a range of social spheres (see for example Brown, 2003; Genz, 2006; Van Bauwel, 2004). ‘Flexibility’ has been stressed as the keystone of the current neo-liberal agenda, embodied in the fluid movements and restructuring of labour, capital, and information and, at the individual level, in a flexible competence for creative self-invention and self-mastery (Van Bauwel, 2004). Post feminism can be situated within, and is closely related to, neo-liberal ideologies and shares the same late-capitalist values. It is not simply a response to feminism but also a sensibility partly constituted through the pervasiveness of neo-liberal thoughts. Gill (2007: 163-164) positions the powerful resonance or ‘synergy’ between post feminism and neo-liberalism at three levels. First, both appear to be structured by the current increase of individualism that has invaded major parts of the social or the political, and that has pushed any idea of the individual as subject to pressures, constraints or influence outside themselves, to the margins. Second, the entrepreneurial, independent, calculating, self-governing subjects of neo-liberalism bear a strong resemblance to the dynamic, freely choosing, self-reinventing subjects of post feminism. Third, the synergy is even more significant in popular cultural discourses where women are called upon to exercise to self-management and self-discipline, to a much greater extent than men (Gill, 2007: 163-164). This call for self-management is articulated in post feminist popular cultural texts such as reality make-over television shows (e.g. ‘What not to wear’, ‘10 years younger’, ‘House doctor’), television fiction series and films (e.g. ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Desperate Housewives’), but also in magazines (e.g. articles on dieting, ‘Brazilian waxing’) and ‘chicklits’ (e.g. ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’).

Post feminism is thus embedded within a neo-liberal context and located in post modern popular culture. Moreover, it is mainly discussed in the light of its ‘political’ potential in terms of agency, resistance and counter hegemony within feminist theory and praxis. In this context Genz (2006: 338) concludes that post feminism is a politically impure practice, which is at odds with other, particularly feminist, strategies of resistance because of its paradoxical engagements in consumer society as well as in theorist debates on anti-essentialism and difference. This questions the idea that post feminism is, besides a political practice, also a possible site of ‘critical’ resistance. Can post feminism offer a critique? And more specifically, as the question of ‘the critical potential’ is originally situated within Marxist research traditions and cultural studies, is this question also of value within late-capitalist, neo-liberal twenty-first century discourses? And if so, what is the object of critique and how is this articulated within popular culture and in particular popular television discourses? Before trying to answer previous questions, I want to raise the question whether ‘the political’ and ‘the critical’ should not be interpreted as interrelated concepts? I think that the so-called ‘political potential’ of a discourse or paradigm (within or outside popular culture) cannot be observed separately from its ‘critical potential’ and vice versa. When something is considered having political potential, for example the ‘political’ demand for media-friendly representations of minority groups, does this not always imply a critique, for instance on the fact that minorities are excluded from the screen? In the light of this short essay, I will only touch upon certain critical aspects of post feminist discourses acknowledging that more (and different kinds of) critical potential can be discovered. First, I will take a closer look at post feminism as a critique on second wave feminism. Second, I will elaborate on its paradoxical critique on neo-liberal society, keeping in mind the interrelatedness between political and critical potentials.

2. Critique on second wave ‘old-fashioned’ feminism

Post feminism can be considered as a critique on what is called ‘second wave feminism’. The second wave of feminist thought is a ‘hyphenated feminism’ containing different theoretical frameworks (for example liberal, radical, Marxist, psychoanalytical, …), united by a commitment to sameness, equality, universal action, sisterhood and scientific understanding (Arneil, 1999: 153; Gamble, 2001: 360). Post feminism critiques especially second wave’s binary thinking and essentialism, its vision on sexuality and its perception of the relationship between femininity and feminism.

2.1 Post feminism: Opposing essentialism and binary thinking

By focusing on equality, the basic similarity between sexes, universalism and sisterhood, second wave thought uses binary categorizations, such as man/woman or straight/gay, postulates a fixed unitary identity (‘the female identity’) and employs a monolithic conception of ‘woman’ (Genz, 2006: 337). Post feminism, like post modernism, offers a critique on these modernist, enlightened models. This critique is mainly articulated by post feminists’ focus on ‘difference’, anti-essentialism and hybridism, where fixed binary categories are pierced and multiple identities are promoted. This multiplex of identities operates through the generation of contradictions in someone’s concept of self-feeling (Featherstone, 1996). Post feminism pleads that every woman must recognise her own personal mix of identities. This claim contradicts the universal identity that was often promoted by feminists and that fits within a neo-liberal individualistic society with its emphasis on flexibility. In popular culture, this stance against binary thinking is articulated by for instance the increased attention for themes as androgyny, queerness, …

Second wave feminism is often critiqued for being too ‘white’, too ‘straight’, too ‘liberal’ and consequently ignoring the needs of women from marginalized, diasporic and colonized groups and cultures. Post feminism, also linked with post structuralism and post colonialism, often referred to as ‘women of colour feminism’ (e.g. Hooks, 1996; Spivak, 1999), not only critiques the modernist aspect of second wave feminism, but also challenges imperialist and patriarchal frameworks: “In the process post feminism facilitates a broad-based, pluralistic conception of the application of feminism, and addresses the demands of marginalized, diasporic and colonized cultures for a non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and post-colonial feminisms” (Murray, 1997: 39). This illustrates the interrelatedness between ‘the political’ and ‘the critical’.

2.2 Post feminism: Celebration of sexual pleasure and subjectification

Second wave feminists stand for a pessimistic vision on sexuality and mainly emphasize the ‘dangers’ and ‘disadvantages’ of sexual encounters for women. They focus on themes as sexual transmittable diseases, sexual abuse and sexual objectification of women in media discourse. For example Andrea Dworkin (1988), a radical feminist, pointed to the effects of pornography on the increased number of rapes. Here, it is important to note that within second wave thought, less radical ideas on sexuality occur as well, but the main tone is ‘negative’. Post feminism rejects these rigid and pessimistic standpoints and instead promotes the fundamental female right on ‘sexual pleasure and fun’ as a form of critical resistance. In the light of neo-liberal society with its emphasis on ‘personal choice’, post feminists point to the importance of sexual pleasure, freedom and choice. This becomes very salient in popular discourse as a marked sexualisation of culture arises. ‘Sexualisation’ here refers to both the extraordinary proliferation of discourses about sex and sexuality across all media forms as well as to the increasingly frequent erotic representation of girls’, women’s and (in a lesser extent) men’s bodies in the public spheres (Gill, 2007: 149-150). For example in magazines aimed at young women, sex is discussed through a vocabulary of youthful pleasure-seeking (indicating a blurring of boundaries between pornography and other genres), and sex is constructed as something requiring constant attention, discipline, self-surveillance and emotional labour (Gill, 2007: 151). This again fits within neo-liberal discourse where women, as ‘entrepreneurs’, are required to work on and transform the self and regulate every aspect of their sexual conduct. Linked to this changed representation is the shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification, from a focus on a powerful male gaze to a self-regulating narcissistic individualistic gaze. In post feminist discourse, emphasis is placed on sexual subjectification, as women are portrayed as active, desiring sexual ‘neo-liberal subjectivities’. The female protagonists in the television series ‘Sex and the City’ can be seen as good examples. Here again, the political and the critical cannot be separated as the demand for more female sexual freedom is linked with the critique on the early and rigid conceptualisations of female sexuality.

2.3 Post feminism: Re-evaluation of the relationship between femininity and feminism

Central to second wave thought is the idea that femininity and feminism are oppositional, mutually exclusive and that the adoption of one of these identities (feminine or feminist) can only be achieved at the expense of the other. Also, second wave endorses ‘body politics’ which implicates a rejection of practices that draw attention to differences between male and female bodies, refusing to shave the legs and underarms and rejecting cosmetics and revealing, form-fitting clothing as they are a creation of patriarchy. Post feminism critiques these body politics and re-evaluates the tension that existed between feminism and femininity, establishing a link between previously opposed alternatives, carving out a new subjective space for women, allowing them to be feminine and feminist at the same time without losing their integrity or being relegated to the position of passive dupes (Genz, 2006: 334). The conventional manners of articulating femininity – such as lipstick, high heels or glamour – do not conflict with female power anymore. We can even say that one of the most striking aspects of post feminist media culture is its preoccupation with the body which implies a huge contradiction with earlier representational practices. It appears that femininity is defined as a bodily property rather than a social, structural of psychological one. Possession of a ‘sexy body’ is represented as women’s key source of identity (Gill, 2007: 149). This newly defined femininity is taken up in feminist popular discourse and can (again) be exemplified by TV-series as ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’. The observation of women’s bodies constitutes perhaps the largest type of media content across all genres and media forms, for example the numerous ‘makeover programmes’ like ‘Trinny & Susannah’.

3. Critique on neo-liberal society through irony: resisting or neutralizing?

Although embedded in neo-liberal society, proclaiming individualistic, late-capitalist consumerist values, post feminist discourse can (paradoxically enough) be considered as a form of non-hegemonic resistance against neo-liberalism and its values. In post modern visual culture, this critique on society, its values and its media representations is mainly expressed by means of humour, irony and through the practice of ‘overemphasising’. Consumer culture for instance, is an essential element within the post feminist tradition. Consumption within a neo-liberal context is a tool to achieve power and pleasure, an alternative route for self-esteem; women construct their identity and receive societal appreciation through consumption (Featherstone, 1996). The emphasis on consumption has often been criticized by second-wave feminists, defining consumers as victims of commodification. Although consumption seems to be an important topic, it is often mocked at and represented with irony, indicating an ambivalence and contradiction typical for post feminism/postmodernism. In ‘Sex and the City’ for instance, what was initially a celebration of plastic surgery consumption is actually being laughed at. Post feminist media texts always imply a hint of irony, a wink of the eye to the audience. Though, the credibility and critical potential of these texts need to be questioned since humour and irony, exactly because of its ‘humour aspect’, may be taken less seriously. That is why reception analysis is necessary to establish whether readings against the grain of the media text are actually made in practice (and how they are made).

4. Conclusion

Because of the overall academic attention for the political aspect of post feminism, this essay questions whether post feminism also comprises a critical potential. Conclusively, post feminism can be considered a possible site for critical resistance as it offers a critique on earlier ‘old-fashioned’ feminism(s), also called ‘the second wave’. Objects of critique are second wave’s binary thinking, essentialism, ideas on sexuality, vision on the relationship between femininity and feminism and body politics. Here, post feminism not only expresses a critique, it also provides and articulates alternatives by focussing on difference, anti-essentialism and hybridism, pleading for female sexual pleasure and choice, re-evaluating the tension that existed between femininity and feminism and rejecting body politics by defining the body as key signifier for women’s identities. But not only second wave feminism is critically assessed. Although fully rooted within the consumer culture of neo-liberal societies, post feminism also critiques its hegemonic values. This paradox fits within post modern/post feminist paradigms where ambivalence and contradiction are typical and central characteristics. In popular culture, the post feminist critique on neo-liberalism is predominantly articulated through humour, irony and overemphasising. Although critical resistance can be found within post feminist discourse, care in interpreting them remains necessary, as the critical aspect in post feminism is weakened by the fact that many divergent and contradictory meanings are attached to the concept.

In the end, post feminism is not an exclusive signifying practice. Post feminism and post feminist popular cultural texts are a potential breeding ground for emancipatory discourses (‘the political’) and at the same time extend and stabilise, but also critique and question (‘the critical’), a hegemonic neo-liberal consumer culture. Therefore, the political and the critical potential of post feminist discourses have to be seen as interrelated.


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