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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