Postfemininities in Popular Culture

September 10, 2009

We discover how old we are when the people we read in our youth are rediscovered by a subsequent generation. The renewed interest in figures such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett is a theme of Stephanie Genz's book and part of her exploration of the shift from the furious radicalism of Millett to the commercialised neo-feminism of "Girl Power". At that point it became tempting for many feminists to adopt the grumpy old woman stance and decide that things were better in the past.

But returning to the past has uses other than those of providing a means for berating the present. One aspect of the discussion of the feminist past that Genz considers is that it makes us aware of the limitations, as much as the power, of women such as Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. In particular, in the case of Friedan, it becomes clear why a certain kind of (moderately) liberal feminism could be so easily co-opted for the consumer revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In returning to Friedan, we return to a world in which the "liberation" of women was organised around the assumption that all paid work was freely chosen professional work, in which money earned provided autonomy and enhanced selfhood. Nowhere in this agenda was there a place for badly paid service-sector work that provided only the most basic of livings.

Nor, in the hopes and expectations of the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s of whom Genz writes, was there a recognition that just as a culture could be resisted, so that culture could itself change. In assuming that patriarchy was "the enemy", few allowances were made for its wickedly transformative ways, one of which was its ability to recognise, very quickly, the potential spending power of women - as Genz puts it, "going pink". It is this "pink" revolution - offering consumer goods for all ages and conditions of womanhood - that has led Ros Gill, quoted by Genz, to remark that "most feminism in the West now happens in the media".

Throughout the book, Genz illustrates various facets of this argument, suggesting that the place of both femininity and feminism in popular culture is more complex than simply that of providing a new version of feminine subordination. That there is a complexity is demonstrably the case, even if a reading of the media for and about women from the 1980s onwards suggests a form of complexity in which women are portrayed as confused and disappointed by the achievements of feminism. Pride and Prejudice is rewritten as Bridget Jones's Diary and "chick lit" fiction catalogues the tensions for women between the home and the workplace. In this, Genz asks us to consider that the femininity both of these contexts articulate is part of a "more fluid" postfemininity, in which the feminine is not read as a form of victimhood.

The argument and the material are fascinating, but for all this, a considerable degree of scepticism remains: it is difficult to see much of popular culture (by and about women) as anything except a part of a sexualised social world which encourages consumer-friendly fantasies. In this women, as always, subvert and resist, and Genz's book is an impressive example of both. But there comes a time, perhaps, when we need to put aside childish things, including the colour pink, and consider whether or not the products that come "designed for women" are anything other than infantilising defences against harsh realities.

Postfemininities in Popular Culture

By Stephanie Genz. Palgrave Macmillan. 224pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230551503. Published 31 March 2009

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