We live in a cultural moment that rejoices at the activism of the past and obsessively boasts about its post-gender, post-racial, post-feminist underpinning ethos. Yet, at the same time, it is baffling how movies or books that stray from the normative (often male) hero – which acts in accordance to gender norms as dictated by a patriarchal society – are still frowned upon and excessively debated. After the feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s, some people felt that equality has been achieved and there was no longer any need for activism (McRobbie 12). As such, a new moment is born, unanimously described as “postfeminism” (Gill 2007; Tasker and Negra 2007; McRobbie 2008; Scharff 2009; Gill 2016). For the sake of periodisation, scholars agree that the year of 1990 marks a turning point in feminist history, and it is viewed as “the moment of definitive self-critique in feminist theory” (McRobbie 13). In their book titled Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra define postfeminism as:
[working] in part to incorporate, assume, or naturalize aspects of feminism; crucially, it also works to commodify feminism via the figure of the woman as empowered consumer. Thus, postfeminist culture emphasizes education and professional opportunities for women and girls; freedom of choice with respect to work, domesticity, and parenting; and physical and particularly sexual empowerment. (2)
However, despite these characteristics, many scholars still oppose the insinuation that the work of feminism is complete (Gill 2007; McRobbie 2008; Tasker and Negra 2007; Scharff 2009; Gill 2016), which led to many arguments as to the meaning of the word “post.” As Dick Hebdige (1988) claimed in relation to postmodernism, this is an indication that there is something worth arguing about (qtd. in Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 147). As Gill puts it, arguments regarding the nature of postfeminism primarily center around perceived transformations in feminism over the last centuries. However, even a couple of decades later, there is still no agreement as to what exactly the term “postfeminism” signifies (147). The term is used in various and contradictory ways to signal either a theoretical position – a type of feminism after the Second Wave – or a regressive political stance (148).
Authors such as McRobbie, Gill, Tasker, Negra and Susan Faludi understand postfeminism as contributing to backlash against feminism (qtd in. Robinson 33). Shelley Budgeon argues that writers who view postfeminism as anti-feminism understand the term to mean that “equality has been achieved” and that “goals are constructed as individual problems and not political ones” (qtd. in Robinson 33). McRobbie, in particular, claims that postfeminism invokes feminism as “that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole new repertoire of new meanings which emphasise that it is no longer needed, it is a spent force” (12).
In discussing the postfeminist movement, McRobbie dismisses Third Wave feminism for being too “optimistic” about the progress that has been made (10). Similarly, Gill dismisses Fourth Wave feminism by claiming that this new resurgence of interest in feminism in the media and amongst young women rises alongside and in tandem with intensified misogyny (“Post-postfeminism” 610). As Muriel Fox argues, “[m]ost of us who were in the Second Wave still say we are still in the Second Wave (…) because the major issues haven’t been resolved” (qtd. in Mendes 132). Moreover, I would argue that, in some ways, the current wave of feminism could even be considered as a continuation to the Second Wave’s legacy. For nearly a century, supporters have tried to add a provision to the Constitution which guarantees equal rights for men and women; yet only this year (2020) the Equal Rights Amendment (penned during the Second Wave) was finally ratified by enough states, although there is still controversy about whether that means it is officially ratified on a federal level (Lyons, Astor and Salam).
Nonetheless, I maintain that the critical notions behind the term “postfeminism” as an analytical category best underlines contemporary popular culture’s relationship with feminism. In our modern society, as McRobbie agrees, the impact of class inequalities, racism and the myriad obstacles for girls growing up in poverty are eclipsed by the emphasis on individualism, improvement, success and the significant increase in the number of young women going to university (73):
The increase in educational qualifications (…) as well as the growing numbers of girls staying on at school after 16, and going to university, means that it is in effect primarily young women who are providing the New Labour government with reasons to claim that their policies are successful. This could also be seen as an example of women coming forward and feminism fading away on the basis of its work being done, substantial degrees of equality having been won, and enduring inequities are now attended to by mainstream governmental processes. (74)
On the other hand, other writers who oppose McRobbie’s idea of postfeminism simply understand the term to mean shifts within feminism and critique hegemonic styles of feminism (Robinson 33). My understanding of the term aligns with the first mentioned one. More specifically, my interpretation of postfeminism draws primarily from McRobbie and Gill. Just as McRobbie claims that postfeminism takes feminists elements into account in order to dismiss and repudiate it, I argue that My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag take postfeminists elements into account (embodied in the character of Reva, the narrator’s best friend in My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Claire, Fleabag’s sister) so as to show what McRobbie calls “the postfeminist masquerade” (59). The term coined by McRobbie is understood as what in Foucauldian language might be referred to as “technologies” (qtd. in McRobbie 7) that aim to re-instate excessive femininity (on the basis of the independently earned wage), while also restoring hegemonic masculinity by “endorsing this public femininity which appears to undermine, or at least unsettle the new power accruing to women on the basis of this economic capacity” (66). One highly cited and equally popular example which reinforces the idea of a “postfeminist masquerade” is Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, as I will describe in detail later in the chapter.
Thus, as might be evident by now, this thesis draws heavily from Gill’s account of postfeminism, which she portrays as a sensibility rather than a movement, combining both feminist and anti-feminist themes, and is closely tied with neoliberal politics of the self. In her essay titled “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” Gill offers the following “features” of postfeminism:
These include the notion that femininity is a bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; the emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline; a focus upon individualism, choice and empowerment; the dominance of a makeover paradigm; a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference; a marked sexualization of culture; and an emphasis upon consumerism and the commodification of difference. (149)
The above characteristics are becoming increasingly noticeable in contemporary representations of women, both in movies and in literature. Although they seemingly include feminist elements through their showcasing of empowered female characters (along with their freedom of choice and the celebration of their purchasing power), what is continuously ignored are forms of systemic sexism that is still affecting women’s lives today. This is best exemplified by McRobbie’s idea of “double entanglement,” where feminism has achieved Gramscian common sense, and, consequently, is now fiercely ignored (12).
To better explain how the notion of the double entanglement plays out in our society, McRobbie gives the example of George Bush supporting the campaign to encourage chastity among young people, while later declaring that civilisation itself depends on traditional marriage (12). Or, to offer a more recent example, U.S. President Donald Trump continuously assures the public that he respects women (as the title of one article from The Washington Post puts it), claiming things such as, “I have tremendous respect for women and the many roles they serve that are vital to the fabric of our society and our economy,” and, “I respect women, I love women, I cherish women” (Blake). However, countless articles and videos on the internet point to his blatant sexism. In 2018, The Week magazine released an article containing “61 Things Donald Trump Has Said About Women,” where Trump mentions things like “While @BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct,” and “If I were running The View, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say, ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’” (Lange).
Understanding the definitions provided by Tasker, Negra, McRobbie and Gill is of paramount importance in order to grasp the seriousness of supporting cultural products (texts, movies, television series, advertisements, etc.) that portray women who do more than simply recycling the image of females as empowered and aspirational subjects. Stephanie Gwin, in her thesis exploring female rage in a number of contemporary books and movies, critiques the two most notable genres that emerged during this time period – chick flick films and chick lit novels – for their dismissal of feminist politics. As Gwin puts it,
[Click flicks and chick lit] feature female protagonists who are too preoccupied with buying shoes to pay attention to the wage gap; who are too engrossed in finding the man of their dreams to critique rape culture; and who are too focused on becoming wives and mothers to notice the attack on women’s reproductive rights. (1)
These genres are mostly targeted towards a largely female audience, and their influence is significant. They do not only seem to argue that the work of feminism is over by promising newly found freedom and independence (most apparent through participation in consumer culture), but they also vilify women who do not participate in this manifestation – as happened, for example, with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl after it was turned into a movie. After having received serious backlash against her vengeful protagonist (Saner; Dobbins), Flynn responded that “to [her], that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is.” In an interview with The Guardian, Flynn claims:
Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it's also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish. (qtd. in Burkeman)
According to McRobbie, the kind of feminism that is taken into account in this context is “liberal, equal opportunities feminism, where elsewhere what is invoked more negatively is the radical feminism concerned with social criticism rather than with progress or improvement in the position of women in an otherwise more or less unaltered social order” (14). It would be hard to argue that Moshfegh’s unnamed character and Fleabag are meant to appear to their reader and viewer as radical feminists. As a matter of fact, they might not appear as feminists at all. As I have shown previously, Moshfegh herself claimed that “[she] didn’t feel like [she] was corresponding to [feminism] in any deliberate way” (Juzwiak), while Fleabag’s protagonist mentioned in the first episode of the first season that “[she] has a horrible feeling that [she] is a (…) morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist” (20:27 – 20:38). However, their passivity nonetheless marks a symbol of resistance against the aspirational and lean-in form of feminism imbedded in our contemporary culture. While they do not openly discuss women’s rights in either works, nor do they approach feminism in any radical manner, I argue that they still challenge the widespread idea, delineated by McRobbie and Gill, that the work of feminism is over, by continuously subverting readers’ expectations and distancing themselves from conventional postfeminist texts. Nonetheless, in order to understand how they differ from quintessential postfeminist works, attention must first be paid to the specific characteristics of postfeminism and applying them to analyse various postfeminist popular products.
The Obsession with Femininity
One of the most striking aspects of the postfeminist culture is its obsession with femininity as a bodily property (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 149), now presented as a matter of choice rather than obligation. According to Gill, in today’s media, possession of a “sexy body” is presented as a women’s main source of identity. Moreover, women’s bodies are presented as requiring constant monitoring, surveillance and discipline “in order to conform to ever-narrower judgements of female attractiveness” (149). This idea goes hand in hand with what McRobbie denounces as “the postfeminist masquerade,” which reinstates traditional feminine practices of self-maintenance as the norms of feminine grooming (59).
McRobbie offers Bridget Jones’s Diary as the prime exemplification of what she calls “the postfeminist masquerade.” Bridget is a product of late-twentieth century modernity – she is a free agent in her early thirties, single, childless and able to enjoy employment as much as her male friends. Yet, despite her feminist freedom, Bridget is reassuringly feminine. Her girliness is almost infections, and the audience can’t help but sympathize with her. As McRobbie notes:
With the burden of self-management so apparent, Bridget fantasises about very traditional forms of happiness and fulfilment. Flirting with her boss during office hours, Bridget imagines herself in a white wedding dress surrounded by bridesmaids, and the audience laughs loudly because they, like Bridget, know that this is not how young women these days are meant to think. (20)
Yet, the movie seems to say, it is surely a relief to be able to escape this freedom and go back to simpler times, when women did not have to carry the burden of equality (20). Once again, the danger of this discourse lies on the fact that irony is used as a tool to vindicate such behaviour; or, similarly, the movie is conceived as a “guilty pleasure,” in which the audiences indulge occasionally as an escape from the over-complicated gender politics of today’s world. Nonetheless, the question that must be asked in this situation is: at what point does this behaviour stop being a mere convenience of what seems like a progressive society in which feminism is portrayed as having already achieved its purposes, and when does it start being a blatant return to patriarchal values?
More noticeable today than ever before, women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized and dissected by women as well as men, and they are always at the risk of “failing” (Gill, “Postfeminist Media 149). McRobbie lists the following comments from the popular reality TV program What Not To Wear:
‘what a dreary voice’, ‘look at how she walks’, ‘she shouldn’t put ketchup on her chips’, ‘she looks like a mousy librarian’, ‘her trousers are far too long’, ‘that jumper looks like something her granny crocheted, it would be better on a table’, ‘she hasn’t washed her clothes’, ‘your hair looks like an overgrown poodle’ ‘your teeth are yellow, have you been eating grass?’ and ‘Oh My God … she looks like a German lesbian’. (144)
These comments are indicative of the pressure that postfeminist discourse still places on women, yet despite the conspicuous coarseness, the pretence of irony is used to suggest that the injurious comments are not to be taken literally (McRobbie 144). The effect, however, is profound and crucial to the (un)learning of what is nowadays considered acceptable and attractive when it comes to women’s physical appearance. The comments listed above demonstrate how women are deemed unacceptable or, as the subject of this thesis puts it, “unlikeable,” on account of the state of their appearance – something which does not usually happen in the case of men. In “The Male Glance,” Loofbourow describes what happens when we look at a woman’s face, as opposed to looking at a man’s face, and comments on how we are tempted to grade aesthetics based on a gender curve:
When you look at a face you’ve been told is female, you critique it at a much higher resolution than you do that same face if it’s labelled male. Women’s skin should be smoother. We detect wrinkles, discolorations, and pores and subtract them from a woman’s beauty in ways we don’t if that same face is presented to us as masculine.
A similar gendered dynamic as the one depicted by Loofbourow is at play when it comes to appreciating male versus female protagonists, as I will further exemplify through two cases from both television and literature. Hannah Horvath, the main character of the television series Girls (2012 – 2017) is written as a deeply flawed character and pushes past the notion that female protagonists need to be role-models or even sympathetic. Consequently, the majority of popular press discourse villainizes Hannah for being a narcissist and blames her for being so blatantly self-centred (Nguyen; Davis; Lord). That is because, as Margaret Rodgers puts it in her thesis “Voices of A Generation: HBO’s Postfeminist Anti-Heroes” (2018), for a long time, female characters only existed as one-dimensional complements to a male lead, hence there was little space left for female narcissism (27). Comparing Carrie Bradshaw, the protagonist of Sex and the City (1998 – 2004), to anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano, Rodgers quotes Dickson’s argument which exposes a double standard that exists within popular discourse:
To recap: Walter White sold meth. Tony Soprano strangled a man in cold blood. Carrie Bradshaw slept around, bought lots of shoes, and maybe used the first-person a little too much for people’s liking. (…) But I have yet to see anyone argue that Bryan Cranston or James Gandolfini ‘set men back.’ Anyone still want to argue that culturally entrenched sexism is no longer a thing? (qtd. in Rodgers 17)
Consequently, when it comes to male protagonists, a different set of values and assumptions are at stake. Don Draper, the protagonist of the television series Mad Men (2007 – 2015), is rarely characterized as narcissistic or self-centered, but rather as a “leader” or “boss,” because viewers respect his authority as a patriarch (Rodgers 28). Similarly, as Annie Lord observes in an article for Independent UK published in 2020, the character of Hannah from Girls is so hated that viewers once voted her as more unlikeable than Hannibal Lecter, “a serial killer who, in one episode of the Hannibal TV series, saws a man’s leg off and serves it to him for dinner.”
In literature, a similar popular discourse distinctly encoded in gendered expectations follows the characters of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl versus Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Although both novels are thrillers centering around two psychopaths, with arguably the same level of self-involvement, the major difference lies in the fact that one is a woman and the other a man, which led to two entirely different receptions of these characters. Ellis’ novel has been described as “a modern classic” and “one of the two zeitgeist pieces of fiction that defined America at the end of the last century and the start of this one, the other being Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club” (Welsh). As for Gone Girl, it is hard to find any articles defining the book as a “modern classic.” Rather, articles are more interested in finding “What “Gone Girl” Is Really About” (Rothman) or “Debating The Complicated Gender Roles in “Gone Girl”” (Vary), with the main point of focus being Amy’s peculiarly unfeminine behaviour. As such, postfeminist media culture does not only glorify a kind of endearing femininity (such as the one portrayed by Bridget Jones), but also villainizes (is perplexed by, or else, completely ignores) works that dare to flaunt this convention.
Individualism, Choice and Empowerment
Another key feature of postfeminism is its emphasis on individual choice and empowerment (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 153) as expressions of gender equality. The notion that our actions are freely chosen and not dependent upon external factors is central to postfeminist discourse, which presents women as now meritocratically-judged and autonomous beings that are no longer affected by any type of power imbalances (153). As such, women are often depicted in media as following their own desires for the sole purpose of “feeling good,” and it is a moral imperative that they convince themselves they do it for themselves and not for a man. In her account of postfeminism’s focus on individualism, Gill gives the example of young women who choose to have Brazilian waxes or breast augmentation surgery simply to feel good about themselves. However, what is not conveyed in this scenario are the underlying pressures that might push a young woman to do these things thinking that they might solve her problems, nor is the commercial interests of the other party (153). Moreover, despite postfeminism’s strive to present women as fully autonomous agents who are no longer constraint by the “male gaze” (Mulvey 1999), it is interesting to observe how the resulting “new” look of women is still peculiarly conforming to patriarchal standards – hairless body, symmetrical body proportions or a highly feminine behaviour. In Gill’s words, this discourse “simply avoids all the interesting and important questions about the relationship between representations and subjectivity, the difficult but crucial questions about how socially constructed, mass-mediated ideals of beauty are internalized and made our own” (“Postfeminist Media” 154).
Furthermore, the very fact that profit is gained from the exploitation of women’s bodies points to the high success of contemporary capitalism, which, as Kat Banyard (2010) observes, has managed to “package feminism and [sell] it back to us as empowerment via capitalistic means” (qtd. in Savigny and Warner 17-8). As Savigny and Warner further explain:
[W]e consume in order to be feminists. In capitalist postfeminism we don’t march to be feminist, or protest, or express our intellect, or autonomy; contemporary capitalist postfeminism means we buy fake boobs, and head on to reality TV programmes. We buy into the ‘enlightened sexism’ purveyed by our media cultures. (18)
The notion of “enlightened sexism” becomes immediately apparent in Bridget Jones’s Diary. As McRobbie observes, the movie celebrates the idea of personal freedom and empowerment, but it is worth asking what exactly translates as personal freedom in this case. Although Bridget works in a reputable publishing house, she is not particularly career-minded. Her most ardent desire, she hints in her diary, is to find the right man. The movie itself confirms this motif when the opening scene finds Bridget worrying about remaining alone, while the soundtrack of “All By Myself” by Jamie McNeal distinctly plays in the background.
Despite the many choices and freedoms she rejoices in, Bridget is constantly reminded of a number of risks she is undertaking – the risk of not ending up with the right man, the risk of missing the chance to get pregnant, and the risk of remaining a spinster, forever isolated from the world of happy couples. Therefore, with the burden of personal freedom so apparent, Bridget seems to be willing to give it all up in exchange for a simpler and happier destiny (McRobbie 20). In this case, again, feminist values are taken into account, but only to be repudiated and repackaged as burdensome politics in a postfeminist context. In this modernized version of womanhood, it is of utmost importance that one’s actions are presented as freely chosen – yet how inegalitarian, traditional and old-fashioned they are should be completely and unapologetically overlooked (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 154).
Another example where the concept of female individualisation (as a dismantling of the feminist movement) is offered by Christina Scharff in her thesis exploring women’s relation with feminism (2009). A participant named Miranda told Christina about a job she had been offered in a high-profile industry, admitting that she got the job because she was a "girl" and because she was "pretty" (156). She continues by mentioning that “that's what they want, they want to be able to take a pretty girl with, to a client lunch, and keep the client interested. I know that, it doesn't bother me, but, I know it is not right maybe, but I don't really care, I could use it to my advantage too” (156). As Scharff observes, although Miranda demonstrates feminist awareness by acknowledging that “it is not right,” she rationalizes her gendered objectification by claiming that it could benefit her. In this case, various ideas pertaining to postfeminist discourse that I previously discussed become immediately noticeable. Firstly, the “double entanglement” notion proposed by McRobbie is made apparent by the incorporation of both feminist and anti-feminist claims (McRobbie 12). Secondly, there is the emphasis on femininity as a bodily property (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 149) since the participant mentions that she managed to get the job because she was a girl and she was pretty. Thirdly, as Scharff observes, feminist standpoints are made irrelevant (156). Finally, and perhaps above all, the participant’s statement reflects the postfeminist emphasis on choice, empowerment and individualism (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 153).
Irony and Knowingness
I have previously described irony as being an important factor when indulging in the so-called “guilty pleasures,” or, more specifically, in finding solace in patriarchal values by resorting to describing them as “harmless fun” (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 160). Indeed, irony and “knowingness,” as Gill describes them, are two essential vehicles of postfeminism. As both Gill and McRobbie agree, the idea of “knowingness” is mostly used in contemporary advertising, with the intention of hailing audiences as sophisticated consumers, by “flattering them with their awareness of intertextual references and the notion that they can ‘see through’ attempts to manipulate them” (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 159). Similarly, irony can be used in postfeminist discourses as a way of maintaining a safe distance between oneself and certain beliefs, without having to take responsibility for them. According to Gill, in postfeminist media culture, “irony has become a way of ‘having it both ways’, of expressing sexist, homophobic or otherwise unpalatable sentiments in an ironized form, while claiming this was not actually ‘meant’” (159).
More specifically, McRobbie critiques a television advertisement from 1998/9, in which supermodel Claudia Schiffer takes off her clothes while descending a flight of stairs on the way to her new Citroen car all the while maintaining that it is a self-consciously sexist advertisement, therefore it is justifiable. She goes on to explain how the advertisement seems to claim that there is no exploitation involved – the woman is doing it knowingly and for her own enjoyment. Moreover, the audience is aware that Claudia Schiffer is one of the world’s most famous and highly paid supermodels, hence any impulse to call the advertisement sexist is instantly dismissed and even runs the risk to be ridiculed (McRobbie 17). As such, this advertisement is distinctly postfeminist in nature, as it comprises all the characteristics analysed so far: its obsession with femininity (with enormous emphasis on the model’s flawless body), freedom of choice and empowerment (she does not only deliberately invite “the male gaze,” but she rejoices in it), as well as being highly conscious of her position, to the point where any kind of objection will be prevented by the advertisement’s ironical nature. Once again, the ironical nature of this advertisement supports McRobbie’s claim that postfeminism takes feminist elements into account for the sole purpose of showing its current uselessness.
A similar dynamic is at play in the Wonderbra advertisement portraying model Eva Herzigova looking down admirably and invitingly at her cleavage, which, as McRobbie mentions, was positioned in major high street locations throughout UK on full size billboards (16). Here, as well, the male gaze is invited without any sense of guilt, hinting that is once again permissible to take pleasure in women’s bodies. In doing that, the advertisement seems to count on the audience as sophisticated and irony-aware consumers. As McRobbie puts it, “the younger female viewer, along with her male counterparts, educated in irony and visually literate, is not made angry by such a repertoire. She appreciates its layers of meaning, she gets the joke” (17).
As Heike Missler notes, the postfeminist sense of humour that McRobbie describes in this advertisement is a generational phenomenon, as only those who had grown up in the aftermath of the 1960s and 1970s feminism can smile at a self-consciously sexist advertisement. Viewers are therefore put in a conflicted situation. On the one hand, they intuitively know that they should find the advertisement offensive due to its conspicuous sexism; on the other hand, the self-consciousness of the image implies that there is no sexism involved and that the model is admiring her own cleavage out of her own choice (120). Once again, the notion of “personal choice” is invoked as a way to dismiss accusations of sexism. Elspeth Probyn coined the term “choiceoisie” to represent those who choose to “[make] it look as if choices do not have any political/ social meaning and effects” (qtd. in Missler 120). Her statement is, moreover, closely linked to Gill’s notion of neoliberalism as being an important factor in postfeminist discourse (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 163). According to Gill, in postfeminist media culture, neoliberalism has shifted from being a political and economic rationality to a mode of governmentality that operates across a range of social spheres. She defines the term as the following:
Neoliberalism is understood increasingly as constructing individuals as entrepreneurial actors who are rational, calculating and self-regulating. The individual must bear full responsibility for their life biography, no matter how severe the constraints upon their actions. (163)
Gill’s definition of neoliberalism underlines how, in postfeminist discourse, women, to a much greater extent than men, are required to work to transform the self and present every action as freely chosen (163). Because of that, making use of irony fosters ambiguity, as the meaning encoded by the ironist (the producer) can differ from the meaning decoded by the interpreter (Missler 119). An example of how irony can work both ways is provided by Hutcheon who cites Madonna’s entire career being based on her ironic performances (qtd. in Missler 122). The pop star’s procedure of creating a spectacle of her sexuality can either be interpreted as deconstructing patriarchal values or as bowing to them. As Missler asks, “is she successful because of her irony or because of her complicity?” (122). Any attempts to offer a critique against such practices will, nowadays, be dismissed as subscribing to the “feminist thought police” (Gill, “Postfeminist Media” 161) or to the “feminist killjoy” described by Sara Ahmed (2010), which tells us something important about the power of irony in contemporary media.
Different Types of (Post)feminisms
I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter that many scholars indicate the year 1990 as a turning point in feminist history, as a demarcation of when we entered the postfeminist moment. Yet, it is important to note that postfeminism itself has taken many different shapes over the years, highlighting a multiplicity of different “feminisms” that, as I will show, exist in tension with each other.
An interesting topic to consider is the relation between feminism and femininity since the 1990s until the current moment. If the 1990s and early 2000s portrayed a kind of feminism that was simultaneously taken for granted and repudiated (McRobbie 32), making many women refusing to claim the label of being a feminist out of fear of being considered unfeminine (Scharff, “On (Not) Wearing Pink” 111), the feminism displayed today is increasingly desirable, stylish, and decidedly marketable (Gill, “Post-postfeminism” 611), all the while being highly embedded in our celebrity culture. Both these seemingly antithetic positions exemplify a postfeminist logic, in which feminism is either considered “valuable” yet outdated, hence irrelevant to the present, or fiercely repudiated as extreme and dogmatic (Scharff, Young Women 5). Nonetheless, in either case, the feminism presented falls in line with its broader cultural moment and, I would argue, does little to challenge patriarchal values.
In an article titled “On (not) wearing pink” (2019), Christina Scharff analyses Charlotte Curtis’ book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies and quotes the following passage which specifically highlights the type of feminism that was prevailing the early 2000s:
Feminists didn’t use make-up (my favorite hobby). They didn’t shave their legs (my favorite form of exercise). Feminists didn’t like boys (my favorite type of human) and, most importantly, feminists definitely didn’t wear pink. And pink was my favorite colour. (113)
As Scharff notes, what Curtis references in this passage is the image of a feminist that exists concomitantly with the image of an unfeminine woman. That is, a woman who is purposefully unconventional because she refuses to participate in activities that are associated with conventional femininity (113). In this light, the highly cited statement “I am not a feminist, but…” (Buschman and Lenart 1996; Moi 2006; Dotollo 2011; Seron, Silbey, Cech, Rubineau 2018) could be interpreted as a confirmation of a woman’s femininity, suggesting that although she is not an “unfeminine” woman, she still holds feminist views (Scharff, Young Women 39). Yet, this rejection of feminism as unfeminine could also be interpreted as a performative act that reiterates the normative femininity and heterosexuality of pre-feminist days (39). As Scharff puts it, “young women's repudiation of feminism could be regarded as performative citations of femininity which re-affirm heteronormativity through repeated performances of culturally sanctioned acts that emerge from and reinforce the heterosexual matrix” (40).
In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed offers the example of “the happy housewife,” which she describes as “a fantasy figure that erases the signs of labour under the sign of happiness (50), but which, nonetheless, retains its force as a place holder for women’s desires. To illustrate her point, Ahmed quotes the following passage from Darla Shine’s Happy Housewives: “Being home in a warm, comfy house floating around in your pajamas and furry slippers whiles sipping coffee as your babies play on the floor and your hubby works hard to pay for it all is not desperation. Grow up! Shut Up! Count your blessings!” (qtd. in Ahmed 52). In associating the image of the “happy housewife” with an image of leisure, comfort and ease, Shine calls for a return to pre-feminist times, when women had not given up their feminine values in order to become invested in “being desperate,” while being betrayed by the feminist movement which has “dropped the ball for women at home” (qtd. in Ahmed 52).
Nonetheless, the idea that feminism and femininity are mutually exclusive was not only apparent in the realm of cultural representations during the 2000s but was also based on everyday, societal observations. Sue Sharpe’s findings from 2001 show how the stereotype of all feminists being “man-hating lesbians” was very common even amongst British heterosexual women in her study (qtd. in Scharff, Young Women 41). Similarly, Rúdólfsdóttir and Jolliffe’s study from 2008 stressed how the word “feminist” had negative connotations amongst women and was often seen as antithetical with femininity (qtd. in Scharff, Young Women 41).
Over the years, however, women’s relationship with feminism has changed, albeit not necessarily for the better. In an article published in 2016, Gill positions the current moment as “one of the most bewildering in the history of sexual politics,” claiming that “for every uplifting account of feminist activism, there is another of misogyny; for every feminist “’win’,” an outpouring of hate, ranging from sexual harassment to death threats against those involved; for every instance of feminist solidarity, another of vicious trolling” (613). Indeed, we are living in a social, cultural and political moment which is perhaps best described as incorporating both feminist and anti-feminist ideas that are deeply entangled with ideas of individualism. This type of feminism is, as Gill describes it, “stylish, successful, and youthfully hip” (Gill, “Post-postfeminism” 610), and provides a newly found reassurance of and return to femininity.
The portrayal of the current feminism as both positive and outdated is best described by Whelehan’s statement that “in today's cultural climate feminism is at one and the same time credited with furthering women's independence and dismissed as irrelevant to a new generation of women who no longer need to be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy because they have already 'arrived'” (qtd. in Scharff, Young Women 146). Nonetheless, there remains a complicated ambivalence about it. The following statement of one woman, called Julia, interviewed by Scharff best underlines the perplexing postfeminist sensibility of today’s world:
We are not free. I would like to say that. (…) we haven't reached a state where we can lean back and say: 'no matter what, I still want that my bum doesn't have any wrinkles'. (…) [T]here is often this kind of 'it's all good and now we can look after ourselves again and be beautiful and take care of our bodies' and so on. That's bullshit. I don't think it has stopped. Somehow, something else has happened, I think, something else took place, I really can't describe it any better, it has somehow fizzled out. (142)
The “something else” that Julia refers to is a cultural shift that no longer depicts feminism in an entirely negative light, but rather positions it as a positive movement that has brought important changes, which, in turn, renders it anachronistic and therefore no longer needed (McRobbie 2008; Scharff 2009). Unlike the feminism of the 2000s, the “hip and youthful” feminism of today’s culture is unapologetically associated with beauty and femininity. This idea is exemplified by a comment made by Grazia columnist Polly Vernon when talking about her book Hot Feminist (2015), in which she invites her reader to look at feminism as “rebranded”: “What kind of feminist does that make me? The shavey-leggy, fashion-fixated, wrinkle averse, weight-conscious kind of feminist. The kind who likes hot pink and boys; oh, I like boys! I like boys so much…” (qtd. in Gill, “Post-postfeminism” 618).
As such, this “rebranded” type of feminism does not only champion femininity, fashion-love and consumerism, but it is also unencumbered by the need to have a position on anything (618) and is resolutely not angry. The following statement written by Vernon describes it best:
Of course, I should probably say at this juncture that I have absolutely no idea how you should be a feminist. None. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t begin to try to tell you. I wouldn’t dare tell you, indeed, and nor should anyone else, for the basic reason that you are YOU, which makes you a very different kettle of feminist fish from ME, or indeed THEM. (618)
The figure of the woman as decisively not angry or, as the subtitle of Hot Feminist puts it, “modern feminism with style, without judgement,” is distinctly positioned against the “feminist killjoy” discussed by Ahmed in her book titled The Promise of Happiness (2010). According to Ahmed, the feminist killjoy ruins the happiness of others and refuses to convene by continuously exposing feelings that are negated under public signs of joy (65). Moreover, continues Ahmed, feminists kill joy by disturbing the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places (66) – such as moments of sexism or patriarchal acceptance.
Ahmed’s exploration of the figure of a feminist killjoy is useful to the understanding of the rather radical perceptions of feminists of the early 2000s (described in terms such as “man-hating lesbians,” as I previously argued).
The figure of the radical feminist or troublemaker thus shares the same horizon with Ahmed’s feminist killjoy – they are both highly repudiated for their refusal to conform to certain standards – an idea that is crucial for my subsequent analysis of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag and their deliberate disturbance of normative femininity. As such, this chapter on postfeminism as a theoretical background that defines contemporary feminist practices is needed to better understand what McRobbie calls the re-instatement of gender hierarchies through new subtle forms of resurgent patriarchal power (47); making sense of the values and ideas signalled by “postfeminism” is key when discussing texts that challenge them. Ultimately, I want to establish that the extra-textual conversation labelling the female characters from My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag “unlikeable” is precisely encoded in postfeminist ideals of womanhood.
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