In the 1990s, as a feminist media studies scholar, I was reflecting on gender and popular culture and found myself intrigued by the various ways in which the rhetoric of “girl power” had found currency in so much of North America and Europe, from the Spice Girls to the Women's Soccer World Cup to television programs about self-confident, assertive, intelligent girls, for instance Nickelodeon's 1991 hit Clarissa Explains It All and the Cartoon Network's 1995 The Powerpuff Girls.1 “Girl power” practices and commodities were quickly becoming normative, and feminist and media scholars realized that these were not simply trends or fads, but part of an emerging culture: postfeminist culture. But postfeminism did not simply materialize within popular and commercial media. Like all political movements and practices, postfeminism has a history—not a linear one, to be sure—and its emergence as a normative frame for understanding gender relations is contingent on the struggles and contradictions of a broader feminist context.
Feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, ranging from radical feminism and Black feminism to a more mainstream liberal feminism (often labeled as “second-wave feminism”) made important strides in terms of moving gender issues forward.2 Issues related to reproductive rights, equal pay, the family and legal realms, and the workplace became more visible on the US national agenda. There were, of course, backlashes to the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s; aside from conservative backlash that manifested in media representations, politics, and economics, liberal feminism also often excluded the voices and practices of feminists of color, who rightly challenged its whiteness. A younger generation of women took issue with the second wave feminist rejection of consumer and media culture as a potential site of liberation.3 During the 1980s and 1990s, North American and European media representations of girls and women shifted: rather than the stereotypes of shrill man-haters that characterized media representations of feminists of the 1970s, women were represented as intrepid, choice-making agents.4 This new “feminism,” represented in media culture, consumer behavior, workplace attitudes, and as general ideology, was named “postfeminism” by such scholars as Susan Douglas, Rosalind Gill, Angela McRobbie, Diane Negra, and Yvonne Tasker.5
Postfeminism is a set of ideologies, strategies, and practices that marshal liberal feminist discourses such as freedom, choice, and independence, and incorporate them into a wide array of media, merchandising, and consumer participation. The “post” in “postfeminism” represents not only a temporality (as in “after” feminism), or a backlash against feminism, but also a sensibility; core features of postfeminism included an emphasis on individualism, choice, and agency, a resistance to interrogating structural gendered inequalities, and a renewed focus on a woman's body as a site of liberation.6 The media context of postfeminism, combined with the increasing cultural recognition of women and girls as both powerful citizens and consumers, offered what at times looked like a radical gesture in terms of disrupting dominant gender relations.
Yet perhaps the most prominent feature of this postfeminist culture and sensibility is the active disavowal of feminism as a necessary politics. The engagement and incorporation of feminist values into popular media and consumer culture resulted in what McRobbie described as “feminism taken into account,” a process in which feminist values and ideologies are initially considered, only to then be found dated and passé and thus repudiated.7 This dynamic is a paradoxical “double-movement” where the dissemination of discourses about freedom and equality functions as a hegemonic strategy to dilute those very politics, providing the context for the retrenchment of gender and gendered relations.8 Feminism, as a concept, is used as a calculated strategy of postfeminism; postfeminism uses feminism as a framework of disavowal, where we no longer have to be concerned with feminist politics and the sociohistorical and political contexts that enabled its emergence. Young women are apparently able to come forward in society (in the realms of education, work, sexuality, et cetera) on the condition that feminism “fades away.” Here, postfeminism has a temporal quality, as a set of practices and ideas that necessarily emerge after feminism's work is “done.”9
But the “post” of postfeminism does not only indicate a temporality. Postfeminism responds to a history of feminisms that have directly challenged media representations of women and the commodification of gender, and have focused on social realms including legal discourse, politics, and education.10 This postfeminist sensibility authorizes the individualism of women more than anything else, celebrating a kind of gendered “freedom” from both patriarchy and feminism, whereby women are apparently free to become all they want to be. Indeed, postfeminism is enabled by a neoliberal capitalist context, where values such as entrepreneurialism, individualism, and the expansion of capitalist markets are embraced and adopted by girls and women as a way to craft their selves. Postfeminism is thus not only a shift from collective mobilization to an individual subjectivity, but the abandonment of feminist politics and the embrace of neoliberal capitalism. Postfeminism's emphasis on choice and individualism, authorized by consumer media culture, is a radically different logic.
Scholarship on postfeminism has also tended to center the white, middle-class Western girl or woman as its primary subject; the neoliberal capitalist context that enables postfeminism is one that privileges whiteness and the middle class as ideal subjectivities.11 Postfeminism has been theorized as a specifically American or European sensibility, but postfeminism is not the exclusive purview of the West. Rather, as Simidele Dosekun has argued, postfeminist practices, ideologies, and media representations travel transnationally on circuits of transnational media visibility.12
Now, in 2018, I'm still a feminist media scholar, and still reflecting on current manifestations of gender politics within popular and commercial media. And while postfeminism continues to provide a context for gendered practices, relations, and sensibilities in the contemporary moment, we are also witnessing yet another iteration of feminism, what I call popular feminism. Within postfeminism, feminism itself is rendered invisible, but within popular feminism, a version of feminism is spectacularly visible. Unlike postfeminism, popular feminism recognizes gender inequalities—though it finds mainly neoliberal solutions to address these inequalities. Popular feminism recognizes the vulnerability of women in a sexist context, shifting away from the vague “girl power” slogan of postfeminism.
The popular feminist recognition that vast gender inequities still organize our cultural, economic, and political worlds is important, and a necessary correction to the false optimism of postfeminism. However, as Rosalind Gill states, popular feminism in the current moment also shares great structural similarities with postfeminism.13 While postfeminism and popular feminism are oppositional on the surface, they are actually mutually sustaining and focus on white, middle-class Western women. The feminist visions that come into dominant view in the current moment are shaped by the same affective politics that shape postfeminism: entrepreneurial spirit, resilience, gumption. And, these discourses of post- and pop-feminist empowerment are intimately connected to cultural economies, where to be “empowered” is to be a better economic subject, not necessarily a better feminist subject.14 Both post- and popular feminism utilize different subjectivities to become visible, but for both, visibility is paramount. The success of postfeminism and popular feminism seems to begin and end with ease: you merely need to identify as female, but don't need to identify with the murky realms of gender's social construction, or with an identity that is unequal from the ground up.