Hi There. Plus, Postfeminism: Innocuous Descriptive Term or Crock of Antifeminist Poop?

Hi y’alls. Thanks to Jill for asking me to participate in the summer o’ guest blogging, especially since the only thing I write regularly these days is e-mail. I’m excited to be kicked in the pants to write more, and also to be part of the conversations here. A little bit about me: I used to work at Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, and now I procrastinate, mark time at my professional-hairsplitter day job, and “work” on “researching” a “book.”

This week I’m going to be writing about a random assortment of topics that have been rattling around in my brain lately.

The first is postfeminism. Or, rather, “postfeminism.”

Postfeminsm, both the term and the concept, has pissed me off since I became aware that there was such a thing. As I see it, the history of the term, most of its usages, and the communities that have sprung up around it suggest, its primary meaning is that feminism is an unattractive buzzkill and also so very over, so it’s past time to move on to more fun, carefree matters. Or, as a friend of mine recently put it, “Let’s forget liberation and go shopping; mmm, yay big cocks.”

To which the only appropriate response is a bumper sticker: I’ll be postfeminist in the postpatriarchy. Duh.

However, I am not unaware that postfeminism is, to put it mildly (and kinda academically), a contested term. But it’s actually not the ivory tower disquisitions that interest me so much. It’s more that I’m wondering how average Josephines understand the term. ‘Cause the person who made the astute “big cocks” comment did so to make a distinction between the “we want to be all pretty and nonthreatening and aggressively fun-loving” postfeminists from those who recognize feminism’s value but don’t feel so connected it, people who operate from feminist principles and have feminist goals but want to distinguish their worldview from something they don’t feel fits them quite right.

My response here wouldn’t make as good a bumper sticker, but it boils down to: Can you explain what the “post” is all about, exactly? ‘Cause it’s not like feminism ever meant one thing back in the day, and it certainly means a whole different mess of often-conflicting things now, encompassing internal debates and disagreements and near-constant re-examinations of goals, tactics, and ideologies. So if postfeminism in its not-antifeminist form is supposed to be about updating and modernizing feminism, then how is it, um, different from feminism?

On the other hand, I have to admit that I spend a fair amount of time talking about how contemporary feminism is often not recognized by people looking for it because so many people doing feminist work, motivated by feminist values, are working in social justice movements like prison abolition, environmentalism, food security, media justice, and many others not generally labeled as specifically feminist. (Which is why I was beyond thrilled when The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism came out.) Does this mean it’s time for a shift in terminology?

Plus, the point that my friend was making was that a lot of people who talk about postfeminism don’t know the term’s history and are pretty much making their own meanings. Then, “They can and will go out in the world and use it based on their (mis)conception of what it means. Everybody does this all the time. Very few people look words up in the dictionary, let alone research the history of a term. So if you already have a wad of people tooling along with what I consider a more favorable meaning for a word…why not insist on [that] meaning?”

My snarky prescriptivist self wants to know why I’m supposed to coddle other people’s ignorance. But this debate is way more than a standard-issue prescriptivist/descriptivist split. It’s about deeply held political convictions, not to mention strategy. If there’s a wad of people out there extolling postfeminism and meaning “I think feminism is flawed and I’d like to see some goal-shifting, fresh tactics, and revisiting of contentious topics,” this isn’t just an issue of what’s going on in a speech group that doesn’t overlap with mine. It’s about defending feminism’s ground. Feminism is already doing the work that these (as I have come to think of them) non-evil postfeminists think comes with their prefix. And it’s beyond obvious that feminism suffers from its terrible reputation and from the vast misunderstandings that stunning numbers of people still have about it (no matter how many times it happens, I will never, ever get used to being asked if I hate men). I can’t help but see even the non-evil usage of “postfeminism” as a rejection of and attack on feminism, and an implication that the movement is finished. And that means I need to challenge it at every turn.

But, like any feminist, I question myself. And I wonder if what my friend thinks is prescriptivist rigidity is bad for the cause.

So, what I want to ask you is: Does my friend’s argument hold any water? Should I learn to stop worrying and embrace “postfeminism” as a term used by potential allies? Or should I keep trying to convince those kinds of postfeminists that they’re actually just feminists?


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30 Responses to Hi There. Plus, Postfeminism: Innocuous Descriptive Term or Crock of Antifeminist Poop?

  1. SarahMC says:

    There is no postfeminism. In the postpatriarchy, maybe. But to me, “postfeminism” means we’ve given up, that we’ll settle for the level of inequality we’re stuck with now.

  2. OlderThanDirt says:

    Every time I hear ‘postfeminist’ I hear someone disparaging feminism. What really toasts me is the idea that feminists who complain about, well, anything, are just too boring and rigid and mean-spirited to be tolerated. This is all part of the big lie about women: if we talk about a problem, we ARE the problem.

    Conventional wisdom says we should worry about how we’ll sound. We should use a different tone. We should choose a different venue. We’re wrong to even be talking about whatever, because it will harm the family or men or our own cause.

    And nothing is worse than being associated with those bitches with the big mouths, the feminists.

    That’s what ‘postfeminism’ means to me.

  3. Laurel says:

    Amen to that, SarahMC. I hate the term. Doesn’t matter what it might “really mean,” everyone I know interprets it the way you do. I know I do.

  4. In my upcoming book, I address it in a joking way, but the larger point is that there’s two kinds:

    1) The kind where people determined that feminism “failed” because feminists failed to understand that men and women are “different” (in that women are inferior, which is only implied and rarely stated.) Believers in this post-feminism argue that women have wised up to the fact that they’ll never be men’s equals and are beating feet back to the kitchen. The NY Times loves articles that kinda sorta don’t really prove this theory.

    2) The kind where people think that feminism has done its job and isn’t needed anymore. People mean well but just don’t get that there’s continuing problems.

  5. Leigh says:

    Crock of anti-feminist poop, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never even encountered someone who uses it in the feminist-but-shifting-goals sense. When I hear and see “postfeminism” in action, all I can think is Backlash Backlash Backlash. And twenty-five years of backlash is a bit much to swallow. I call bullshit on the whole “postfeminist” agenda.

  6. ekf says:

    Agreed with the other commenters. Because people seem to use “postfeminist” without defining what they mean, I always look to the words around it for context and additional definition. Without fail, it’s based on not wanting to be like those, you know, “bra-burning feminist types,” demonstrating both an ignorance of and intent to disparage feminism.

  7. SarahMC says:

    Anyone who claims we’re living in a postfeminist world is obviously blissfully unaware of patriarchy and women’s continued struggle to be seen and treated as fully human.

  8. Imogen says:

    I just finished Sisterhood, Interrupted, by Deborah Siegel, last night. She spent the last, I dunno, third? of the book talking about the history of ‘postefminism’ vs. ‘third wave feminism.’ She does a really good job of situating the argument exactly where you said: feminism’s never been a monolithic set of mission-statemented dogma, and therefore it’s pretty flawed to think of ‘postfeminism’ as a set of things somehow outside of the set of things that make up feminism

    So ah- the idea of postfeminism is that it’s a weird thing whose etymology contradicts its actual locus (jesus fucking christ, look at me go) in feminism itself. Which is kind of dumb. I vote against it, because to me it feels like it sweeps under the rug all the hard work and confrontation that go along with all the empowerment and makeouts and other delights that come from feminsm. Y’know?

  9. Funny.

    Sometimes post-feminism is what is talked about by feminists who are really serious about respecting other people’s choices, as hard as that is, but the way “post-feminism” is co-opted by those who are at other times spouting off about “traditional values,” it’s usually about telling women that they can be avoid feeling bad/guilty/like they’re doing something stupid (and at the same time get warm fuzzies from) reciting some overtly misogynistic piece of patriarchal lore and enjoying the feel-good vibe that goes along with not fighting against the cultural stream.

    I believe it’s a reaction by those who have recognized the problems feminism points out, but can’t get over that moment of ooginess that comes when you realize you’re about to step outside the (questionable) warmth and light cast by your tribe.

    Just babblin’.

  10. >.>;

    That’s me saying I’M just babbling. Trying to quit smoking makes me strange.

  11. Psychobunny says:

    Hilariously, my Grandfather recently asked me (as a person taking a Feminist Theory paper at uni) what “postfeminist” meant. He’d just been to a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, and the programme described the production as “postfeminist”.

    Grandfather’s response? “It seemed pretty pre-feminist to me.”

  12. Gayle says:

    . . . where people think that feminism has done its job and isn’t needed anymore. People mean well but just don’t get that there’s continuing problems.

    That’s how I’ve seen the term “Post-feminism” used, especially by our vapid corporate media.

  13. Bitter Scribe says:

    Google “postfeminism” and “Camille Pagalia” together, and you get 726 hits.

    I rest my case.

  14. Bitter Scribe says:

    Whoops. Camille Paglia, of course.

  15. lurker says:

    I’ve heard the term and I don’t like it. I’ve come across it in academic circles where it was used to talk about the multiplicity of feminism(s) and all the social justice movements that came out of feminism but weren’t making their connection to feminism explicit (environmentalism and prison abolition movements that you mentioned, for instance). Personally, I would rather these movements acknowledged their debt to feminism and had a more pronounced feminist agenda. I get that we are all post-positivist and postmodern and poststructural and whathaveyou these days, but these terms are about progress, change, and flux. “Postfeminism” when used in this context is about backing off instead of pushing for a wider recognition of feminist history and importance of feminism to social justice movements.

    And the other meaning is even less credible. Whoever is using it in that sense can get back to me about feminism having achieved its goals when I can walk outside after dusk without looking over my shoulder.

  16. traitor2thesisterhood says:

    I don’t know. I could see if someone was introduced to feminism through something like the monster “Something I never really understood…” thread, they’d probably run away screaming. I can see why a lot of women would have entirely logical reasons to be “postfeminist” rather than “feminist”. Who needs that kind of shit and grief over your appearance and identity, especially from your so-called “sisters”?

  17. orlando says:

    All this consensus is freaking me out…
    I’ve come accross the term used in the way Lurker describes, similarly, in academic circles, and for academic reasons I don’t think anyone should use it. The problem lies in the ambiguity of the prefix “post”, because post can mean since something commenced OR since something concluded. So, while technically a “post-feminist society” could mean a society since feminism began to be an influence, there will always be people who think you mean since feminism ended.

  18. Pingback: FAQ: What is “Post-feminism”? « Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

  19. Spatterdash says:

    The very phrase “postfeminist” implies that feminism is over, its work is done. Feminism is portrayed as outdated and no longer an issue – we’re equal, sexism is dead, let’s go buy shoes! It allows people to enjoy the benefits of 20th century feminism whilst still buying into sexist ideas; all in all, just a fancy word for ‘sticking your head in the sand’.

  20. Lillet Langtry says:

    “Postfeminist” = “crock o’ shit”.

  21. foresmac says:

    Who doesn’t like shopping? And big cocks?

  22. I think that, if there is any merit to the idea of coming up with some new term(s) to better describe the feminism(s) of today, “postfeminism” is going to be so loaded down with (mostly created) ambiguity so as to be not very worthwhile. I think it’s still valuable, in some cases, to keep trying to show some self-described post-feminists that they are, in fact, feminists.

    Whenever somebody uses the term “postfeminist”, one might ask, “What do you mean by that?” If the answer is along the lines of “Feminism has done it’s work, and we should move on,” then I’m going to disagree…

  23. Post-feminism = crunchy stale wheat feminism with a sugar coating? @.x;

    -_-

    *goes back to work*

  24. orlando says:

    traitor, I don’t think “logical” would be the best word for someone who (hypothetically) discounts the vast amounts of valuable work being done by feminists beause of the occasional, inevitable spat. There’s no point in demanding that people be posthuman.

  25. Linda Carson says:

    Oh, I’m home at last. Hello, family, nice to meet you.

    And the important questions are really, “Who’s going to produce the bumper stickers?” and “Does Lisa want a percentage?” Because I will make that project happen just for the privilege of putting such a sticker on my portfolio, my laptop, and my glorious feminist butt. May I have your permission to create a cafe press something-or-other for bumper stickers, pins, mugs, baby tees (the pinker the better) or other suitable swag, and donate the profit-such-as-it-is to something suitable-and-international?

  26. Jennifer says:

    I’m with “pile of poop” myself.

    Maybe we need a new term for certain people: “in-denial feminists.”

  27. Lisa, love your post. Jill, love this blog. And I’m looking forward to Amanda’s book (and Lisa’s book too!)! Imogen, thanks for the shout out re Sisterhood, Interrupted.

    Another vote here for crock of poop. Not worth reclaiming. Not even a little bit. Because mostly, it’s confusing. How do younger women (ie, especially those who aren’t already comfortable with the word or idea “feminism”) jump on board and continue the fight for equality when they (we) are constantly told—by the media, by each other, and sometimes by our elders—how good we already have it, and that we’re already living in a postfeminist world?

    As a sidenote, funny how history repeats itself. We’re not the first generation to be called “postfeminist” prematurely. Nor, I’m sure, will we be the last. The word “postfeminist” was first uttered in 1919—just a few decades after the coining of the word “feminist”—by a group of female literary radicals in Greenwich Village who rejected the feminism of their mothers, one year before women won the right to vote! Go figure.

    Much more on all this in Chapter 4 …(which is called “Postfeminist Panache”!)

  28. Lisa says:

    While it’s certainly nice to be so thoroughly agreed with, I’m also with orlando on being skeptical about consensus.

    And though I’m not with traitor on those kinds of spats being good reasons for people to be put off by feminism, I think we have to recognize that it does happen.

    It’s part and parcel, and a lovely illustration to boot, of the whole problem: Feminism has a bad reputation that’s exacerbated by certain internal disagreements. Not because internal disagreement is bad (no! it’s great! we need it!), but because these disagreements are often perceived as evidence that feminism is rigid and seeks to stamp out disagreement, when in fact it depends on such discussions to move forward.

    In spite of that being one the worst sentences I ever wrote, I hope it makes some sense. And the question is, how can we keep people from embracing the “post”?

    Linda, I believe there are already bumper stickers that say “I’ll be postfeminist in the postpatriarchy” (I certainly can’t claim credit for the phrase), but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more, as well as t-shirts, etc. Go to! I’d vote for proceeds going to a feminist media organization like Bitch, Women in Media and News, or Center for New Words, ’cause that’s where my heart is. But, y’know, that’s just my vote.

  29. dejah says:

    I responded to the Salon Broadsheet commentary that was spawned by this blog on the team blog Mama Needs a Book Contract with my own definition of post-feminist and why I identify that way.

    Read it if you will.

    dej

  30. brightbluelizard says:

    No, I don’t think your friend’s argument holds water. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. However, I DO think that your friend’s argument highlights a problem in feminism: that it seems to academic & “out of touch”. I think in order to sum up our stance sometimes we need a coherent & thorough argument less than a pithy response like the one on (scroll down to the bottom to see a picture of a cute embryo).

    What can I say? People these days have no attention span :0

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