The use of the concept of postfeminism is problematic for two reasons, which need to be clarified: first, the widespread ‘popular’ conception of postfeminism as a result of the appropriation of the term by the media; and second, the uneven development of postfeminism as a movement expressing change, and the resulting chronological and geographical distinctions that can be made. Alice (1995) claims that

Postfeminism, (usually written as ‘post-feminism’) was coined in the period between the achievement of women’s suffrage in the U. S. and the rise of ‘second-wave’ feminism during the 1960s. It denoted the successful outcome of struggles by women for the right to vote, hold public office and the choice to occupy many more personal spheres.

(Alice 1995:7)

There appears to be little in this definition of postfeminism to anticipate the way ‘postfeminism’ has become understood in the popular consciousness in the late 1980s and early 1990s where, as Alice contends, ‘“postfeminism” has new currency, which is often hostile and directed towards feminists in particular’ (ibid.).

One of the key proponents of this popular conception of ‘postfeminism’ is Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash (1992). Faludi draws on Brenda Polan writing in the Guardian to establish the credentials of her claim. Polan maintains that ‘Post­feminism is the backlash. Any movement or philosophy which defines itself as post whatever came before is bound to be reactive. In most cases it is also reactionary’ (Faludi 1992:15).

Faludi claims that, whereas the media introduced ‘the backlash to a national audience’ in the 1980s through the use of terms such as ‘the man shortage’, ‘the biological clock’, ‘the mommy track’ and ‘post-feminism’ (ibid.: 101), in fact the press were expressing anti-feminist views much earlier. Faludi contends that:

Post-feminist sentiments first surfaced, not in the 1980s media, but in the 1920s press. Under this barrage, membership of feminist organizations soon plummented, and the remaining women’s group hastened to denounce the Equal Rights Amendment or simply converted themselves to social clubs. ‘Ex-feminists’ began issuing their confessions.

(Faludi 1992:70)

The agenda of the feminist movement was for Faludi clearly being set by the media and was designed to undermine feminist goals and achievements. She (1992:14) claims that ‘the media declared that feminism was the flavour of the seventies and that “post-feminism” was the new story-complete with a younger generation who supposedly reviled the women’s movement’. The role of the media is clearly a powerful one in framing the generally negative and ‘popular’ understanding of ‘postfeminism’. This view is shared by some feminists who elide the critically evaluative potential of postfeminism with the popular ‘backlash model’. Book-marketing strategies, aimed to establish a generational antagonism to second wave feminism (see Faludi 1992), have reinforced the equation of postfeminism with ‘the backlash’ (see Walters 1995). As Alice claims:

Perhaps the most persuasive message for popular postfeminism is that feminism has pushed women into wanting too much. Postfeminism is offered as an escape from the imposition of being ‘superwoman’ in order to fulfill a feminist image of success.

(Alice 1995:17, my italics)

The emphasis of much of the popular conception of postfeminism is focused on the attack on some of the most powerful cornerstones of the Women’s Movement and second wave feminism more generally. More specifically it is about the issue of equality. This is apparent throughout much of Faludi’s analysis:

In the eighties, publications from the New York Times to Vanity Fair to The Nation have issued a steady stream of indictments against the Women’s movement, with such headlines as ‘WHEN FEMINISM FAILED’ or ‘THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN’S LIB’. They hold the campaign for women’s equality responsible for nearly every woe besetting women, from depression to meagre savings accounts, from teenage suicides to eating disorders to bad complexions… But what has made women unhappy in the last decade is not their ‘equality’ – which they don’t yet have – but the rising pressure to halt, and even reverse, women’s quest for equality.

(cited in Alice 1995:18)

The conceptual reference points of this popular postfeminism are clearly focused on the issue of ‘women’s rights’ and equal opportunities and thus on a white, Western, middle-class, mainly northern hemispherical, conception of feminism. This emphasis is not without value. Stacey (1990) has maintained, as Alice (1995:22­23) notes, that such a ‘framing’ of postfeminism ‘is useful to signify how feminism becomes rewritten, depoliticised and incorporated into media accounts of contemporary culture and that postfeminism is not necessarily antifeminist’.

Popular ‘post-feminism’s’ conceptual repertoire provides a useful point of distinction from the way postfeminism is framed within the feminist academic community, particularly those drawing on postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism to inform their understanding of feminism in the 1990s.

Postfeminism as understood from this perspective is about the conceptual shift within feminism from debates around equality to a focus on debates around difference. It is fundamentally about, not a depoliticisation of feminism, but a political shift in feminism’s conceptual and theoretical agenda. Postfeminism is about a critical engagement with earlier feminist political and theoretical concepts and strategies as a result of its engagement with other social movements for change. Postfeminism expresses the intersection of feminism with postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism, and as such represents a dynamic movement capable of challenging modernist, partriarchal and imperialist frameworks. In the process postfeminism facilitates a broad-based, pluralistic conception of the application of feminism, and addresses the demands of marginalised, diasporic and colonised cultures for a non-hegemonic feminism capable of giving voice to local, indigenous and postcolonial feminisms.

Postfeminism, as it is discussed in the chapters of this book, is about the challenges posed to what has been identified as ‘hegemonic’ feminism (Sandoval 1991) with its roots clearly located in the Anglo-American influences so powerful in the conceptualisation of second wave feminism. It has become, as Alice (1995:11, n. 6) notes, ‘the dominant and colonising voice of feminist theory through publishing and academic influences’.

As will be shown in the unfolding of the debates around postfeminism, the ‘mapping’ of the major moments within postfeminism is both complex and multifaceted, with significant chronological and geographical distinctions. Many of the writers, theoreticians and practitioners discussed in the chapters of Postfeminisms are writing at the point of intersection of a number of theoretical, conceptual and disciplinary influences (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; Trinh T. Minh-ha; Meaghan Morris; Chandra Talpade Mohanty; Sneja Gunew). Others are writing out of an experience of the unacceptable face of ‘hegemonic’ feminism in different cultural and geographical contexts (bell hooks; Roberta Sykes; Caroline Ramazanoglu; Chela Sandoval). Many more have drawn on a range of debates in the area of cultural theory to frame their more critical feminisms (Teresa de Lauretis; Judith Butler; Rosi Braidotti; Linda Nicholson; Nancy Fraser; Michele Barrett; Sophie Watson; Ien Ang; Anna Yeatman; AnnemarieJagose).

What all postfeminist writers, theoreticians and practitioners have in common is an understanding of feminist theory which as de Lauretis (1988:130) claims ‘became possible as such…in a post-colonial mode’, that is by a commitment to ‘feminist theory which can be distinguished by process rather than simply its origins or manifestos’ (Alice 1995:11). De Lauretis reflects the changing emphasis within feminism which she claims has moved feminist theory into a position which she sees as ‘resisting closure of definition’ (ibid,.). It is this shift in direction and emphasis within feminism, with the emergence of postfeminism, which frames the debates outlined in this book.

The ten years between 1980 and 1990 proved to be much more than a decade in terms of the historical development of feminism as a body of theoretical and critical practice. The gulf between second wave feminism1 and what is described here as postfeminism became more clearly defined and focused around the issues of feminist theory and theorising.

Postfeminism has been seen by some theorists to be the culmination of a number of debates and fiercely fought arguments from both within and outside feminism. As Michele Barrett (1992) argues in her important text with Anne Phillips,

Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates,

To say this is not to pose a clear distinction between the collapse ‘from the inside’ of the 1970s feminist consensus and theoretical developments ‘outside’ feminism for the interaction and dialogue have been more profound than that would suggest…[I]t is to point to important parallel lines as well as links between feminist and non feminist strands of contemporary social, political and cultural theory.

(Barrett and Phillips 1992:5)

The collapse of consensus from within feminism formed around issues of theorising. Concepts such as ‘oppression’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘sexuality, identity and difference’ as used by white middle-class feminists were increasingly challenged. These issues were thrown into relief and highlighted by feminism’s intersection with cultural theory, specifically with postmodernist and poststructuralist dimensions of cultural theory. As Barrett argues,

the key thinkers of ‘post-structuralism’—Derrida, Foucault and Lacan have in combination as well as individually mounted a devastating critique of the main assumptions on which much social and feminist theory was previously based and it has proved to be a critique from which neither has emerged unscathed.

(Barrett 1992:201)

Posfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and CulturalForms seeks to situate and investigate the relationship between second wave feminism and postfeminism. In the process it will become evident that a clear gap is emerging between the two. Feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism and postmodernism had led to a shift of emphasis, both theoretically and conceptually, within feminist theory. Sylvia Walby maintains that

Postmodernist arguments for the fragmentation of concepts used in ‘modernist’ social theory have produced a tendency to shift the central theoretical concept away from structure to ‘discourse’. This is represented in the increasing significance of Foucault rather than Marx in social theorizing. The consequences of this are to conceptualize power as highly dispersed rather than concentrated in identifiable places or groups.

(Walby 1992:48)

Walby’s position represents a view within feminism which is reluctant to see a shift away from structural analysis and metatheorising typical of the ‘earlier feminist waves’. Other feminist theorists such as Barrett (1990, 1992) recognise that the relationship between feminism, poststructuralism and postmodernism has been both dynamic and productive for feminism and social theory more generally. She maintains that

Feminist theory has been able to take up a number of issues outside the classically ‘materialist’ perspective…Poststructuralist theories notably Derridian deconstructive readings, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Foucault’s emphasis on the material body and the discourses of power have proved very important in this. Feminists have appropriated these theories rather than others for good reasons: these theories address the issue of sexuality, subjectivity and textuality that feminists have put at the top of the agenda.

In considering the debates that now ramify around feminism and poststructuralism it is clear that the classic materialist presuppositions are increasingly harder to apply usefully.

(Barrett 1992:215)

To what extent feminism’s intersection with postmodernism and poststructuralism has produced a definable postfeminism will be considered below. McLennan (1994:113) argues that the need for feminism to become postmodern, as is proposed in the work of Linda Nicholson (1992) and Fraser and Nicholson (1990), implies there is a conceptual equivalence in postmodern feminism and postfeminism. McLennan makes the point that it is difficult to see how postmodern feminism can be labelled feminist in any meaningful sense. As he maintains, ‘if gender is only one strand amongst many, and within the matrix of the uniform features of gender identity are definitely subsidiary to other differences, then that stance is, as the authors imply postfeminist’ (ibid.).

Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms sets out to achieve a number of objectives. First, it seeks to contextualise the debates which are currently redefining feminism in the context of the historical and critical development of feminism as a body of theoretical and political practice. It sets out to establish the basis of the distinction between second wave feminism and postfeminism around issues of feminist theory and theorising. ‘Postfeminism’, as it is used here, refers to the current state of feminist thinking—the culmination of a number of debates within and outside feminism. Specifically it refers to feminism’s intersection with elements of cultural theory, particularly postmodernism, poststructuralism and psychoanalytic theory, as well as with the theoretical and political debates around post-colonialism.

The second objective is to investigate the nature and form of postfeminism and postfeminist debates. This is contextualised within an analytic framework which considers debates surrounding feminism’s ‘turn to culture’ (Barrett 1990) and whether the culmination of such debates has produced a ‘paradigm shift’ (Barrett 1992) within feminist theorising.

The third objective builds on and takes forward many of the issues raised above. It considers postfeminism’s intersection with a number of ‘cultural waves’, including postmodernism, poststructuralism, psychoanalytic theory, discourse theory and semiotics, contextualised around specific cultural and media forms and substantive fields. These debates are investigated within the areas of cultural politics, popular culture, representations and cultural space.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, Challengingandfmgmrntmg the consensus of the ‘second wave, investigates the apparent consensus which characterised second wave feminism. This consensus was focused around a number of areas: the need to establish theories of social causation; the question of the establishment of a feminist epistemology; the relationship between theory and practice; and the relationship between experience, subjectivity and theory. As Barrett and Phillips (1992:2) note, ‘behind all the sharp disagreements over what was primary or secondary, feminists united in the importance they attached to establishing the fundamentals of social causation’. Despite the identification of a number of causes, feminists united around the need to establish theories of social causation and to specify ‘sites of oppression’ for ‘women’ as an oppressed group. However concepts such as ‘sites of oppression’ as well as ‘women’ and ‘patriarchy’ remained unchallenged in terms of their validity and general application within feminist theorising. As Barrett and Phillips note:

1970s feminism assumed one could specify a cause of women’s oppression. Feminists differed substantially as to what this cause might be—male control of women’s fertility, a patriarchal system of inheritance, capitalism’s need for a docile labour force—but did not really question the notion of cause itself. Nor was there any difficulty with the idea of oppression which seemed to have self evident application. Important too was the assumption shared by most feminists that the cause being sought lay at the level of social structure.


Part I considers the issue of theorising within second wave feminism, in particular the issue of theorising concepts such as ‘oppression’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’, and the intersection of feminism with class, race and ethnicity as reflected in a number of feminist perspectives. It also considers some of the challenges raised within feminism itself to this consensus and looks at the fragmentation of this consensus. The debates are framed within feminism’s location within the modernism-postmodernism, modernity-postmodernity dichotomy.

Chapter 1 considers how the consensus of second wave feminism was increasingly challenged from both within and outside feminism. As indicated, a clear distinction between pressures from ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ feminism cannot be made because of the overlap in areas of critique in conceptual and theoretical terms. The breakdown in consensus came from three directions:

• From within feminism itself – the political impact of women of colour’s critique of the racist and ethnocentric assumptions of a largely white, middle-class feminism.

• The issue of sexual difference was highlighted as an area that had not been sufficiently articulated within feminist theories of the first and second wave, and the work of the French feminist deconstructivists was an aspect of a growing interest in the area of psychoanalytic theory around issues of sexual difference and identity.

• The intersection of feminism with postmodernism, poststructuralism and post­colonialism.

Part II, Feminism’s ‘turn to culture’-a paradigm shift in feminist theorising?, explores the challenges to feminism as a result of its intersection with cultural theory.

The phrase ‘feminism’s turn to culture’ was used by Michele Barrett (1990) in an article of that name. In a later work, Barrett outlines what she means:

In the past ten years we have seen an extensive ‘turn to culture’in feminism.. .Within this general shift we can see a marked interest in analysing processes of symbolisation and representation—the field of ‘culture’ and attempts to develop a better understanding of subjectivity, the psyche and the self.

(Barrett 1992:204)

Feminism’s intersection with different dimensions of cultural theory, including postmodernism, poststructualism and psychoanalytic theory, has led some theorists to pose the question of whether there has been a ‘paradigm shift’ within feminism.

Barrett (1992:206) argues that ‘many feminists might regard the shift from “equality” to “difference” models of feminism which has characterised the past decade of Western feminism, as a shift of that order’. This section of the text will consider to what extent such a shift has taken place and whether we should talk about ‘postfeminism’ or a ‘postmodern feminism’. The intersection of feminism with issues emerging from debates in the area of post-colonialism has further shaped the political focus of these debates.

Part II considers ‘feminism’s turn to culture’ (Barrett 1990) in two ways: in terms of the increasingly vigorous debate around the significance, nature and validity of a feminist epistemology in the face of an increasingly ‘fragmenting feminism’; and in terms of feminism’s intersection with postmodernism, poststructuralism, discourse theory and psychoanalytic theory as ultimately leading to the emergence of postfeminism, as an example of what Barred: (1992) calls a ‘paradigm shift’ in feminist theorising. As she argues,

contemporary Western feminism, confident for several years about its ‘sex/ gender distinctions’, analysis of ‘patriarchy’ or postulation of the ‘male gaze’ has found all these various categories radically undermined by the new ‘deconstructive’ emphasis on fluidity and contingency.

(Barrett 1992:202)

Chapter 2 considers the challenges facing the feminist epistemological project in the light of critiques emerging from within feminism, alongside a parallel range of critiques from the area of cultural theory.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 further develop these debates, and consider a number of issues surrounding the emergence of postfeminist debates. They include:

• the intersection of feminism, postmodernism and post-colonialism

• feminist theory and poststructuralism

• postfeminism, discourse, power and resistance

• psychoanalytic theory, subjectivity and identity.

Part III, Postfeminism and culturalforms, investigates these debates in a number of areas, including cultural politics, popular culture, and representational and cultural space. This third section considers postfeminism’s intersection with a number of ‘cultural waves’ contextualised or focused around specific cultural and media forms and substantive fields. These include: cultural difference and cultural politics, popular culture, media and film theory (including semiology, ‘pleasures’ and spectatorship), and pornography and cultural space.

Chapter б considers issues emerging from debates in the area of cultural ‘politics of difference’ and the cultural politics of the academy. This chapter highlights the impact of feminism’s intersection with modernist and postmodernist discourses, and considers the implications for the articulation of postfeminist discourses within the academy. The chapter looks at issues surrounding dominant male figures in the emergence of postmodernism in the academy and the concept of ‘cultural space’, or the issue of ‘the place’ from which women may ‘speak’ or represent themselves. The work of a number of feminist/ postfeminist theorists and writers, and the positioning of Women’s Studies as a forum for feminist intellectual debate, are used to highlight and articulate the potential for postfeminist discourses within the academy. Chapter 7 considers the intersection of postfeminism and popular culture, and considers popular culture’s potential as a ‘site of contestation and struggle’ for issues of representation and identity. Feminism in its intersection with dimensions of cultural theory has reevaluated popular cultural forms, including music, dance, style and film from a postfeminist position. This chapter focuses on the redefinition of popular cultural forms as ‘sites of struggle’ for postfeminist theorists and writers.

Feminist theorists and practitioners have long been involved in media and film theory. Current postfeminist interventions into filmic and media discourses can be seen as an outgrowth and development from feminism’s involvement in this direction. Chapter 8 considers feminism’s traditional involvement in both film production and scholarship. It further considers postfeminism’s critique of these traditional feminist models, particularly those drawn from psychoanalytic theory. This chapter examines postfeminism’s intersection with models emerging from post-colonialist and anti-racist debates, and considers their significance for the establishment of ‘multiple voices’ in feminist film and media theory.

The final chapter draws together many of the issues developed in earlier chapters, particularly those surrounding popular cultural forms, representations, cultural space and identity. In this context popular cultural forms can be seen as ‘sites of resistance’ for a number of groups who wish to ‘open up’ the possibility for the creation of new sites of meaning and new identities. This point is particularly significant in relation to issues around sexuality, subjectivity and identity which have been highlighted by postfeminist debates. In Chapter 9 the issues of pornography and cultural space are contextualised within the broader debates surrounding representations, sexuality and identity.

Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms examines a range of theoretical debates which describe the current state of feminist theorising, conceptualised within this text as postfeminism. The text examines postfeminist writers, theorists and practitioners in the area of cultural theory and cultural forms. Postfeminist theorists and practitioners do not set out simply to demystify the whole concept of the representation of women in different cultural forms. They seek to ‘rupture the coherence of address’ to ‘dislocate meaning’ to destabilise theory and ‘to open up a space of contradiction in which to demonstrate the non coincidence of woman and women’ (de Lauretis 1984:7). Postfeminist theorists of cultural forms identify ‘sites of oppression’, but they also actively articulate ‘sites of resistance’ within both cultural theory and cultural forms.