Projansky: “The Postfeminist Context”

“The Postfeminist Context: Popular Redefinitions of Feminism, 1980-Present” from Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Sarah Projansky

This chapter from Watching Rape gives a really concise and cogent explanation of contemporary discourses about feminism and postfeminism that intersects really well with major critiques of feminism, mainly those that focus on the exclusion of women of color.

Postfeminism is in some ways a slippery term, but Projansky’s explanation makes it clearer to understand what is usually meant by postfeminism and what the political stakes of the term are. She opens her chapter explaining that usually texts that use postfeminism in order to imply that we are past feminism, but: “These texts promise that postfeminism has moved us beyond feminism; yet, in the process they also produce the particular versions of feminism that are supposedly defunct. Thus the concept of postfeminism perpetuates feminism in the very process of insisting that it is now over” (66). The version of feminism that is perpetuated, however, is a revision that depoliticizes many of the goals of second wave feminism,  dissociating them from activism.

Additionally, in declaring feminism over, postfeminism posits that either feminism was successful and thus no longer needed (have these people read the news?) or that it was failed and therefore unneeded (have these people read the news?).

Projansky sets up five categories of post feminist discourses (67):

  1. Linear postfeminism: “the representation of a historical trajectory from prefeminism through to feminism and then on to the end point of post-feminism. The construction of linear historical relationships between feminism and postfeminism ensure the impossibility of feminism and postfeminism coexisting.” So, if we’re postfeminist, then feminism is over.
  2. Backlash postfeminism. (Like Veronica Mars season 3*) lashes back at feminism for its perceived failures, such as a victim mentality or the hatred of men and sex. It’s important to note that these are perceived failures as backlash postfeminism works like a straw man, constructing a monolithic feminism against which it is lashing back.  New Tranditionalist Postfeminism: “appeals to a nostalgia for a prefeminist past as an ideal that feminism has supposedly destroyed. Think Ann Coulter.
  3. Equality and Choice Postfeminism “consists of narratives about feminism’s ‘success’ in achieving gender ‘equity’ and having given women ‘choice,’ particularly with regard to labor and family.” Although postitive, this type of postfeminism “suggests that women now have greater access to choice and hence can avoid having to fight further for equality; therefore women presumably no longer need feminism.” This type of postfeminism obviously overlooks women who aren’t rich and white. It also doesn’t seem to account for continued sexism in the media, workplace, etc.
  4. (Hetero)sex-positive Postfeminism: offers itself as a more positive alternative to the feminism of the past, which is perceived as being anti-sex.
  5. Men can be feminists too. The problem becomes manspalinging. Like that whole Hugo Schwyzer debacle, which spawned #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen

After outlining these types of postfeminism, Projansky moves toward a critique of how they focus on a feminism that is interested almost exclusively on the interests of white, heterosexual, middle-class women. She does so through examining media representations of (post)feminism, including the TIME cover above.

Some key points:

  • In her critique of the TIME cover, Projansky highlights the way the cover constructs a linear history for feminism, ending in death, represented by the figure of a fictional (i.e. not living) Ally McBeal. Further, she points out how, although each historical figure strongly represents different eras of feminist thought and activism, the choices exclude women of color who were also essential to those moments. Also, she notes that the very question “Is feminism dead?” represents a type of backlash against feminism (70).
  • “…in general, postfeminist representations depend on an assimilationist mode of representation to erase race as a legitimate social category for analysis. As a result, ‘woman’ is meant to stand for all women but does so through the lens of whiteness” (74). A similar trend happens with class in which the neo-femme fatales of postfeminism depend on their middle-class status for their identities.
  • On postfeminist arguments that if women are entering politics, feminism has succeeded: “This version of postfeminism depends on essentialist definitions of women and of feminism, suggesting that as long as women are succeeding in typically male arenas, regardless of their political affiliations, feminism has worked, feminists are happy, and thus there is no longer a need for feminist activism” (74-75).
  • “After interviewing a number of professional women who had recently graduated from college, [NYT reporter, Susan] Bolotin calls their attitudes toward feminism ‘post-feminist’ because they accept what she defines as the basic principles of feminism, but reject the label of ‘feminist’ and criticize those who do label themselves feminist for being ‘bitter’ and ‘unhappy’ and for lacking ‘warmth'” (77). Projansky calls women like that a “no, but…” woman.
  • Projansky also criticizes the shift in the role of choice in feminism both for the way that it moved from reproductive rights to more general home/work choices and for the way these choices construct a faulty either/or dichotomy. “Thus a woman can ‘choose’ to work (New Woman), or she can ‘choose’ to have a family (new traditionalist), or she can ‘choose’ to try to do both (failed feminist). The topics of choiceoisie and the tension between work and family…reveal the class biases of postfeminism: only middle-class mothers who have some nonwork means of support…could, theoretically, make such a ‘choice’ between work and family” (79).
  • Projansky goes through the ways that sex-positive postfeminism is not only heteronormative, but also has the potential for self-fetishization and constructs feminism as “a style, easily acquired and unproblematically worn” (80).
  • She includes a gloss of Mary Ann Doane’s theory of the masquerade*, in which women perform excessive femininity in order to draw attention to and subvert gender norms. Projansky observes, “This theoretical model explains both the excessiveness of do-me postfeminisms feminitity (e.g. the impossibly short television skirts of Melrose Place‘s Amanda and Ally McBeal’s Ally) and the ironic combination of this bodily display with aggressive and successful professionalism” (82).
  • And Boom: “in the 1990s, consumerism, bodily display, and active sexuality are the rouges provided by postfeminist discourses out of the (alleged) feminist-produced impasse of having to choose between family and work, routes that lead women right back to the individualism of ‘equality’ or the compulsory heterosexuality of ‘new traditionalism.'” (83)

*As Megan and I write about here: Veronica Mars and Philosophy: Investigating the Mysteries of Life (Which is a Bitch Until You Die) (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series)

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