The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change

December 18, 2008

The main argument of this well-written and readable book advocates that the battles against both patriarchy and social structures that were detrimental to the advancement and equal participation of women in Western societies have been won. As a consequence of these victories, women can now have it all - but, McRobbie asks, do they actually want it all? What is left to fight for? Who will do the fighting, and would future battles unite or fragment the collective identity of women? Do women really want the increasing choices now available, or are they like the fictional character Bridget Jones - really wanting a good-looking man to carry her off to a church wedding in white? What is suggested is that traditional feminism has robbed women of the chance to indulge in romance, gossip and obsessive concerns about how to "catch a husband". Put simply, McRobbie argues that feminism has intervened to constrain these kinds of conventional desires.

Early parts of the book trace the move towards post-feminism, defined as a new anti-feminist sentiment that McRobbie contends is a complexification of the backlash against the gains made by earlier feminist activities and campaigns. Rather than women being categorised as a heterogenic category of "women", post-feminist society and the changed political structure of Western governments has posited them as freed individuals. As this female individualisation has been won at the expense of traditional feminist politics, thus any further fighting needs to take place from this increasingly lonely position.

This is the start of McRobbie's argument and she contends that individualism operates as a social process to constrain women's advancement. This is explored further in early chapters that draw heavily on the influential work of Judith Butler and Stuart Hall. Comments made by Butler suggest to McRobbie that post-feminism can be thus explored as a "double entanglement" - the co-existence of neoconservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life with the process of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.

McRobbie suggests that it may be more appropriate to use Deleuze's concept of "luminosity", in substitution of Foucault's panopticon as a mode of surveillance. Instead of being regulated by societal structures, post-feminist gender anxieties rest on the re-regulation of women by means of the language of personal choice. Thus, the sexual contract rests on economic and cultural activity and consumer citizenship at the expense of newly defined feminist cultural politics.

Adherence to these new politics is illuminated by evidence of women consuming the "correct" media choices in terms of personal styling. McRobbie discusses the content of various "makeover" television programmes such as What Not to Wear and Ten Years Younger to illustrate this line of argument. These are programmes essentially about bodily failings. Through guidance from "experts", "failures" learn how to make "correct" choices to fit into a post-feminist world where status is awarded through conformity. McRobbie sees this as "a highly disguised womanliness which is now adopted as a matter of personal choice". Even these choices are designed to signal the abandonment of feminist principles. Here, McRobbie quotes Riviere, who suggests that in the now-legitimised sphere of work, women cannot be too aggressive. To counter any unfeminine behaviour, women adopt the air of "slightly flustered girls" - weighed down by bags, jewellery and other decorative items that need to be attended to. Thus the dual activities of working and spending fuse to mould new modes of female citizenship.

The final chapter discusses the philosophical underpinnings of gender mainstreaming and third-wave feminism. Through articulations of these arguments McRobbie is able to suggest that feminism is not dead, disconnected or undone. Instead, it needs to be understood on a wider basis and through current political ideologies that embrace human rights discourse. It is no longer rowdy or activist (like the protesters at Greenham Common) but has matured. Here, McRobbie draws on the work of Sylvia Walby to sustain this debate. Walby argues that what feminism may have lost in terms of public visibility as a protest movement, it is compensated for by activities taking place behind the scenes of mainstream society.

McRobbie goes on to suggest that in the academy, this argument can be seen in student classroom demography. Not only is academia charged with the training of a new, international workforce, it needs to confirm to young women that marriage is no longer the key driver of feminine wants. The emergence of a new kind of politics from everyday life and the nature of contemporary social cultures suggest that individual selves are made from social life itself.

The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change

Angela McRobbie
Sage
192pp
£60.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780761970613 and 0620
Published 20 November 2008

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