|Forum: Post-Feminism, the Market and the Media|
Since the mid-1980s, a steady chorus of media reports and a rising number of scholars have insisted that we live in a ‘post-feminist’ era. The term ‘post-feminism’ is now frequently employed in both academic and popular discourse and yet there is little consensus as to what the term means.
At the risk of oversimplification, it is possible to identify two strands of post-feminism: a popular mainstream one; and an academic one. At the core of the popular discursive construction of post-feminism is a rejection of the ‘outdated’ feminism that dominated the 1970s and 80s, and a move beyond the ‘hard-line’ to the more amenable and photogenic ‘girl power’. This trend is often explained in terms of the coming of age of a generation of women who enjoy the benefits of feminism yet do not identify in any way with the movement and see no further need for feminist struggle. The goals of feminism have been met – feminism is dead.
Academic post-feminism is associated with a theoretical engagement with post-structuralism, post-colonialism and post-modernism, which challenges any unitary category ‘woman’ and attempts to generate more flexible discourses of power and subordination. In this view, post-feminism is feminism that has been dispersed into other areas of debate, as well as a set of debates that continue to engage with patriarchal discourses. In this way, post-feminism challenges the hegemonic assumptions of earlier feminist epistemologies while remaining an important site of political mobilisation and debate. Critiques of this academic post-feminism have centred upon the eternal slippage and plurality of such ‘post’ discourses and the fact that they are generally restricted to the realm of theory instead of praxis.
Many have identified the media as a key player in constructing a popular ‘post-feminist’ environment or ‘backlash’ as the American feminist Susan Faludi famously called it. According to Faludi, the media was the first to set forth and solve for a mainstream audience the paradox that would become so central to popular ‘post-feminism’: women have achieved so much yet feel so dissatisfied; it must be feminism’s achievements, not society’s resistance to these partial achievements, that is causing women pain. In short, the media has worked to warp feminist rhetoric and ideology to show that feminism doesn’t work or that it is ultimately destructive to women.
Despite the debates on post-feminism; whether feminism has failed, succeeded or simply become obsolete, there is no escaping the fact that feminism has lastingly transformed our notions of history and reality as well as our (theory and practise) gender relations; that feminism has itself been transformed in the course of time, become highly diversified; and that there remains a lot more transforming to be worked for.
In this issue of the Monitor, three women and one man from both the global North and South address these issues, sharing their thoughts on post-feminism, the market and the media.
Jennifer L. Pozner is founder and director of Women In Media & News (WIMN), a women's media monitoring, training and advocacy organization based in the USA. Formerly, she directed the Women's Desk for the US national media watch group FAIR. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications from Ms. to Newsday, online on sites like Womensenews.org and in anthologies including Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century, She lectures and conducts media training across America. Additionally, she is involved in a variety of community organizing and media projects, perhaps most famously as Mya Cash, her ‘billionaire persona’ for the progressive political satire group Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) and the Billionaires for More Media Mergers, who appear at press conferences wearing an evening gown, tiara and opera gloves, reminding reporters that "The nightly news is brought to you by Mya cash... not yours."
Gotson Pierre is a journalist, communication consultant and coordinator of the group Medialternatif, a Haitian organization, founded in 2001, which works to promote and defend the right to communicate. Over the last 22 years Gotson has worked for various media and Haitian and international NGOs and has conducted communication activities and projects in several regions of Haiti. Throughout this time, he has also contributed to the development of the community radio movement in his country. During the 1990s, he directed the Haitian group Reflexion et d’Action por la Liberte de la Presse (GRALIP). Currently, Gotson is pursuing his career in radio and is Editor of the alternative press agency AlterPresse (www.medialternatif.org/alterpresse). Since 2002, Gotson has been President of the Caribbean Regional Association of WACC.
Dr Cynthia Carter is a Lecturer in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, Wales where she teaches both on the BA in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting and the MA in Journalism Studies. She is co-author of Violence and the Media (Open University Press, 2003) and co-editor of News, Gender and Power (Routledge, 1998), Environmental Risks and the Media (Routledge, 2000) and Critical Readings: Media and Gender (Open University Press, 2004). She also co-edits the academic journal Feminist Media Studies (Routledge).
Would you agree that we are now living in a ‘post-feminist’ era? Why?
Jennifer: I definitely do not agree with or use the term “post-feminist” to describe our times, our culture or our politics. This term is a semantic weapon manufactured by conservatives and media outlets against feminism and women’s rights activism. While many media outlets would have us believe we are in ‘the golden age of post-feminism – Wonderbras, not burning bras – an age in which the right to sexual equality in all fields is taken for granted,’ as the London Independent claimed in 1995, in fact this is a cloak of feminist invisibility that dates back more than twenty years to a 1982 New York Times magazine piece headlined, ‘Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation.’ Yes, even back in the early 80s media were already trying to portray feminism as passe [not that this itself was new; in 1972 the New York Times ran a wish-it-were-so story titled ‘Is Women’s Lib a Passing Fad?’ and Harper’s ran ‘A Requiem for the Women’s Movement’ in 1976]. In their 1982 ‘post-feminist generation’ story, the New York Times marshaled many antagonistic quotes from young women who were threatened by or dismissive of feminism, calling it ‘an exclusively radical, separatist, bitter movement,’ while the author of the article wondered where such awful stereotypes had come from without once exploring the role media played in promulgating such stereotypes.
The reality is that we probably are living in a post-feminist era. The discourse of feminism itself has widened and faces several irreconcilable challenges from within. Consequently it is nearly impossible to contain within one unifying theory all the different schisms, facets and nuances. In addition, the rapid dismantling of the 'public' and the growth of the 'private' has seriously impacted feminist space and possible action. Even a cursory examination of institutions mandated to advance women's issues and causes demonstrate this.
However, this reality does not reflect the relevance of feminism. Positions have polarised and spaces have shrunk but the relevance of feminism itself has not diminished. On the contrary it has probably increased. The other side of this reality is that feminist voices continue to grow. Today these voices are heard form many corners, hitherto ignored, and far flung.
Post-feminism, a theory which appeared in the 1980s, has been partially founded upon a critique of those past trends, valuing individualism and the differences between women, as opposed to the group experience. This has led to a questioning of the concept of gender.
Does this mean the end of feminism? What is evident is that this post-feminist approach is rooted in today’s socio-political experiences and a techno-economic environment which has been completely turned on its head. Within this context, social movements are affirming their diversity and coming together to form a stonger whole which manifests itself in a vast range of activities.
It is clear today that post-feminism is winning ground. Paradoxically, post-feminism’s rejection of feminism goes hand in hand with an internalisation of some of the key values of feminism such as equality between men and women, freedom and the integrity of women.
Some within the women’s movement have argued that in recent years we have witnessed a process whereby consumerism has repackaged feminism, turning it into a tool of the market place. Would you agree with this? Why?
Cindy: This isn’t really a recent phenomenon – you could see this happening as early as the late 1960s and particularly so in the 1970s when, to note a famous example, a US cigarette company used black and white images of suffering women (cooking and cleaning without modern conveniences, not being allowed to smoke whilst men could, for instance) whilst a larger, colour photo of a mini skirted modern woman, smoking a cigarette, was accompanied by the phrase “you’ve come a long way, baby.” There are numerous examples of the media commodification of feminism today, and we see it not only in advertising copy, but also in other media forms, such as Hollywood films, television comedy and drama, and video games, to name only a few. The process of commodification attempts to rob feminism of its political significance, inviting the reader/viewer to identify positively with a product which seemingly promises its user greater individual social, economic or political power, when in fact it does none of these things. Individualising and commodifying feminism undermines the collective politics of feminism, which has sought equality between the sexes, an aim that has long been central to the movement.
More concretely, in many cases the market has tried to exploit stereotypes of the ‘liberated women’ in order to sell mass consumption products. It is well known that these products (jeans, perfumes etc.) have nothing to do with the liberation of the woman, either as an individual or as a social subject, but are rather aim at filling up the tills of big business.
It is therefore understandable that media aimed at women is full of advertising: 250,000 pages are worth $4.6 billion according to a recent study by www.acrimed.samizda.net. Everywhere in the world between 1999 and 2000 the money invested in advertising aimed at women has seen a large increase: more than 7% in Europe, more than 20% in USA and more than 59% in Asia!
This reveals the strategy of mass media corporations, fighting to control a share of the ‘female’ market, and illustrates how much this struggle between corporations can affect the struggle to change the portrayal of women.
Each and every agenda raised by feminism is framed in a manner that takes away the philosophical underpinnings - of choice, equality and diversity - and vests it with meaning consonant with the world-view that insists that man (or woman) is primarily a consuming animal.
The media plays a huge role in creating confusion about the difference between feminism-the-movement and feminism-as-marketplace-tool. Advertisers have long co-opted progressive ideas in order to sell products via a false sense of empowerment, that is nothing new. Feminism has been one of the biggest tools used by advertisers, whether in the 1970s when the movement was considered new, shocking and therefore compelling, to the present where everything from clothing to candy bars is hawked with taglines promising freedom, respect, self-awareness and safety.
However, just because media claim something is feminist that does not make it so. It is ridiculous to declare feminism empty and consumerist simply because that is the version of feminism beamed out from male-created pop culture jaunts fashioned to bring in high ratings and ad dollars for major media conglomerates. To find the real pulse of feminism, media would fare better checking in with the grassroots, from campus activists to community-based organizers to international human rights defenders.
It is true that with the continuous struggles of feminist movements, we have seen a change in how the media approaches gender issues. These struggles however, have had a bigger impact on local than national or transnational mass media. Unfortunately, it we are still very far from the light at the end of the tunnel.
In short, the media creates the 'normal' and 'desirable' and makes it universally acceptable thus denying diversity and plurality and looking with suspicion at any aberration or deviation. – a norm that is a product of the consumerist myth, that does not exist outside the virtual.
Jennifer: Corporate media are vampires in relation to feminism, feeding on the vibrancy and life-affirming messages of the movement. Empowerment themes are not only exploited to sell products via advertising (‘Freedom is Tampon X!’; ‘Consumerism equals contentment!’) – they are co-opted to sell ideas via entertainment content. By the time real feminist messages get reflected back to us we are left with diluted, easily digestible fluff devoid of subversive content. To media, superficial, soul-sucking un-reality TV dating shows like ‘The Bachelorette’ should be considered ‘a big win for feminists’, as TV Guide Online said, because in this program the harem of potential spouses was male instead of female. Never mind that the entire series reinforced traditional, limited and even misogynist gender roles as much or more than all the rest of the dating programs littering the prime-time landscape of late. Never mind that the main theme of this so-called ‘feminist’ series is that deep down all women -- regardless of any professional or personal success or fulfillment they may have in their lives – are simply simpering princesses waiting for their big, strong (and, let’s not forget, rich) Prince Charming to whisk them away in horse-drawn carriages to a life of romance and leisure.
It is typical that media were so quick to slap the ‘feminist’ label on a series that reinforced so many retrograde gender and class roles. And it’s not only reality TV – or even just entertainment media – in which we find such bait-and-switch: in numerous news programs over the years anti-feminist advocates and authors such as Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers have been referred to as feminists themselves, even though they spend the bulk of their careers attacking women’s rights leaders, positions and goals. This media tendency to replace ideological substance with sexist stereotypes -- and even to supplant real feminist activists and thinkers with antagonistic opponents of women’s rights causes -- is a key contributor to cultural confusion about what exactly feminism is and what the movement has achieved and is still fighting for.
Cindy: The mainstream media play a very important role in conditioning all of us into particular gender roles and expectations about “appropriate” gender behaviours. That doesn’t mean that we all passively accept the representations and try to live up to them. Most of us are only too aware of how constructed and “unreal” most of these images are in relation to our everyday lives and sense of our own identity. However, that doesn’t mean to say that media representations have no influence over our sense of self – of course they do – otherwise, why would advertisers continue to spend millions on trying to convince us that their particularly commodity will not only make us feel or look better, but that it will enable us to live within a particular, desirable lifestyle? It isn’t a question of whether media images are “realistic” or “unrealistic” or “false” though. What makes media representations of gender most insidious and powerful is the underlying ideologies upon which they draw, which often are not obvious or seemingly excessive. Without knowing it, we are often making judgements about gender which connect with deeply held assumptions about “appropriate” and “inappropriate” gender attitudes, presentation and behaviour.
What has been the effect of these new media representations of men and women’s lives on feminist politics and the struggle for women’s rights?
This has two serious consequences. First, it is no longer fashionable to be a feminist. This means that the politics or the movement no longer attracts organic intellectuals. Even those organic intellectuals working specifically with feminist agendas refuse to be associated with the identity. Secondly, the theoretical work suffers because there seems to be a schism between theory and practice.
This defensiveness is a consequence of lack of coherence and schisms in the politics itself. Many feminists of the developing world take issue with the agenda of the feminists of the developed countries. In its inability to address these serious questions from the developing world, feminism as a whole suffers.
Gotson: During the last 15 years some progress has been made in Haiti with regard to gender issues and this is also the case for many countries of the developing world. The official political discourse now recognises both men and women. This is a big step forward for a country where in the mid-1980s no gender specificity (and therefore women) was ever taken into account. Beyond the discourse it is evident that even today women are still marginalised from the political sphere and decision-making in general, but they are less invisible than in the past. The results achieved (whether big or small depending on the country) have been the consequence of dedicated struggle.
However slim or fragile, the capacity of women to win more and more space in media circles has strengthened their struggles and allowed them to project a different image of themselves. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that the 2000 World Women March would have had much impact without women’s ability to invest in the local, national and international media.
Jennifer: Feminists and our allies have been trivialized, demonized, pathologized and eulogized by media for decades. This resistance to feminism can be felt in coverage of topics Editors narrowly define as ‘women’s issues’ e.g.rape, abortion, childcare, where stereotypes are invoked and perpetuated. In stories about violence, for example, women are still most often depicted as victims, and victim-blaming is still prevalent, while reproductive health and rights issues are still often framed from the perspective of beltway politicians (ie how will Bush’s stance on late-term abortions affect his approval rating in the South?) rather than from the perspective of the women and families affected by these issues (ie,what are the effects of changes in abortion legislation on women’s medical, financial, political and social health and well-being?). When issues fall outside journalists’ pink ghetto yet implicitly affect women’s survival (e.g.economics, global trade, war), gender is rarely used as a lens for analysis. This obscures the fact that injustice for any disenfranchised population is, by its nature, a feminist concern. Along with an over-reliance on Wall Street and White House reps, the misrepresentation and marginalization of feminist voices from broad public debate leads to a skewed vision of politics and public life—with serious consequences for social policy.
In this context, what should be the substance of a contemporary gender and media activism?
Cindy: Media education is extremely important for everyone, at every level of education and at every age. The more we know about how the media operate and why, the more we can understand why gender is portrayed in particular ways (which have been extremely narrow and restrictive) and agitate to change these portrayals. But we should also think about how issues around the concentration of media ownership, deregulation of the media, the socialisation of media workers and so forth also influence how the media engage with questions around gender. Often these aspects of media production are overlooked when attention is focused on representation and consumption of media.
The more we all know about whose interests are being served by portraying women and men in certain ways, the more powerful political tools we’ll have to challenge gender inequalities. The Internet is growing in importance as a way of organising collectively to address social, economic and political inequalities, and has been used extremely effectively by those interested in challenging corporate globalisation. Feminists, too, are increasingly turning to the Internet to connect with others around the world. WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project has been an important attempt to provide a global picture of women’s portrayal in the news and to disseminate the findings. We also see feminists engaged in interactive media activism on the Internet around women in places like Afghanistan and Palestine, for example, which brings a global audience to awareness and activism around their desperate situations. I am encouraged by the increased political activism of people around the world, particularly young people, and feel very positively about the future of feminist politics.
Gargi: There is a need to work with the issue of representation. Today the representation of women and feminist issues is controlled by trans-national media conglomerates. There is a need to question and challenge these.
The issue of representation lies at the heart of the politics of marginalisation and trivialisation. The global media - and the local media that is increasingly controlled by global forces - has excluded, appropriated and re/presentated the issues and aspirations of the majority of women who continue to struggle against difficult odds. The need of the day is to attend to these voices and work for equitable and fair representation.
In this world of global communications, it is imperative that women (equal to other social actors) become subjects of communication; that they themselves undertake communication initiatives. This in turn entails a knowledge of the codes and techniques of communication and thus a need to improve training opportunities for women.
We need to empower women and people of color to challenge media bias where they see it in journalism, in entertainment content and in advertising. Feminist and civil rights activists and organizations should be willing to – and given the skills and resources to effectively – incorporate media activism into their ongoing work, and the media democracy community should be willing to go beyond rhetoric to incorporate feminist and anti-racist practices into all media organizing efforts.
Finally, structural change is necessary: media should be produced to benefit and serve the public interest. Independence, intellectual curiosity and creativity should be the underlying motivators of media production. Women’s needs should matter at least as much if not more than corporate profit when deciding which television shows and movies are ‘quality,’ which events and stories are truly newsworthy.
The Federal CommunicationsCommission (FCC) should be made to actively regulate media companies toward this goal, as opposed to wrapping up the public airwaves in a nice little bow and handing over control to mega-merged media companies who prioritize profit over the public interest. News should be told from the perspective of the people it affects, not from the perspective of politicians or corporations. Entertainment should truly engage and entertain, not exist to hawk products within the content of programs.