Real girl power? It begins with an 'f'

December 7, 2007

When female students are happy to moonlight as sex-object 'shot girls', some serious academic critiquing is due, says Diane Negra. One of the most taken-for-granted and yet decisive cultural shifts of the past 20 years is the positioning of feminism as both unnecessary and yet perniciously politically influential. In Interrogating Postfeminism , my colleague Yvonne Tasker and I assemble a set of commentaries from British and North American academics. While the focus is on the representational dimensions of this shift (how post-feminism operates as an overarching logic in such forms as the chick flick, makeover television, magazine covers and popular music), our sense of inspiration for the book (and the conference that preceded it) had much to do with our perceptions of the day-to-day world of the contemporary university.

Current students have lived their whole lives in an era when feminism is routinely caricatured and marginalised, presented most often as an imperative for "political correctness". Of course, this means that a number of them are reflexively anti-feminist, but it also means that there is a rich pedagogical opportunity to inform students about the history and goals of feminism, since it now functions as a taken-for-granted and strangely empty category. I believe it is especially important to help students achieve critical literacy in regard to the popular media forms that help to shape their beliefs and often to naturalise dominant conceptualisations of gendered identity.

This year, for instance, marks the 20th anniversary of the notorious Fatal Attraction , a film whose release now falls outside the lifespan of some of my students but whose cultural influence remains distinct. Of course, teaching interventions probably can't fully counteract the uninterest, apathy and complacency that tend to surround efforts to pinpoint gender inequality; in this regard, students have been taking cues from the broader social field all their lives.

But I don't think it is over-idealistic or that it constitutes a call for institutional "nannying" to suggest that universities might reflect a bit on those aspects of student life that secure and foster sexist conceptualisations of gender.

At the start of the term at my university, for example, a prominent city nightclub distributes promotional bags on the campus plaza. The nightclub in question is one of those whose brand identity rests heavily on a gender dichotomy of male patrons and female servers (who sometimes take the form of "shot girls", skimpily dressed young women whose job is to circulate through a club with trays, bringing the bar directly to the customer).

There is more than one reason to take note of the ways that post-feminism has imprinted the social culture of contemporary university students. As British higher education moves to an era in which more and more of our students seek part-time jobs to defray the costs of their studies, it is worth considering the kinds of jobs they are likely to find. In the US, where the "working student" is now the norm, particularly in the lower tuition state university system, there is growing anecdotal evidence that female students are increasingly turning to the "light" sex industries for income to pay for their tuition - lap dancing, waitressing in sexually themed chain restaurants and phone sex jobs can be lucrative and can offer schedules that make it possible to get to class. Contemporary gender norms hold that such jobs can offer a means for female students to find and display their "empowerment".

Attention to the ways that post-feminism facilitates such economic and ideological arrangements could help universities get to grips with persistent and significant gender inequality. Of course, teaching and student life are not the only areas in which post-feminism extends influence. It is common, for instance, for a range of colleagues to assert their feminism as a rote rhetorical gesture, but feminist scholarship remains in many ways a niche concern, disintegrated from other analyses of cultural power and a specialist interest of (inevitably, it seems) female scholars.

By caricaturing, distorting and (often wilfully) misunderstanding the political and social goals of feminism, post-feminism trades on a notion of feminism as rigid, serious, anti-sex and romance, difficult and extremist. In contrast, post-feminism offers the pleasure and comfort of (re)claiming an identity uncomplicated by gender politics, postmodernism or institutional critiques. This widely applied and highly contradictory term performs as if it is commonsensical and presents itself as pleasingly moderated in contrast to a "shrill" feminism.

Any fully fledged engagement with gender in contemporary culture requires that we think through the political and cultural questions posed by post- feminism. It also means retaining the political urgency and commitment to diversity that characterises the best feminist scholarship. In the kinds of university environments in which so many of us now work, environments that in general promote the overwork of faculty and staff, and the drive towards intensified specialisation in research/scholarship, such work feels vitally necessary.

Diane Negra is professor of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia. Her book, co-edited with Yvonne Tasker, Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture is published this week by Duke University Press, £13.99.

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