The rise of prominent female leaders in the business world is often celebrated as a sign that feminism has won. Celebrity executives like Sheryl Sandberg, whose business manual Lean In calls on women to “forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential”, suggests that gender equality is a choice for women to seize for themselves.
This increasingly widespread and popular belief that most, if not all, the goals of feminism have been achieved is known as postfeminism.
Postfeminism is a sensibility emphasizing individualism, choice, and empowerment in ways that ultimately undermine feminism. The outward celebration of individual female success obscures the persistence of structural inequality and oppression.
So What Exactly Is Postfeminism?
Three Different Definitions of Postfeminism
One reason why postfeminism can be quite difficult to understand is that it has been understood in at least three different and contradictory ways. These definitions include:
- A theoretical perspective;
- An evolutionary shift of third-wave feminism; and
- A backlash against feminism.
As a theoretical perspective, postfeminism was seen to join philosophical movements such as poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. This approach challenged an essentialist and universal assumption of femalehood that was popular in second-wave feminism.
The ‘post’ prefix here is not a rejection of feminism, but rather, an acknowledgment of feminism’s ongoing transformation in the wake of its encounter with intersectional difference.
However, few scholars have adopted this definition of postfeminism in the last two decades. The next two definitions of postfeminism below have dominated popular understanding and use.
The evolutionary view sees postfeminism as a historical trend within feminism, marking a new period of third-wave feminism illustrated by examples of “typically heterosexual, white, middle-class female achievement in male-dominated workplaces, women’s ability to treat men as sexual objects, and the seemingly unfettered freedoms women enjoy in respect to career choice, parenting, and domesticity”.
Sex and the City vividly illustrates this second notion of postfeminism, where four empowered modern women live their best lives in New York City.
The lack of intersectionality in this version of postfeminism is why some people derogatorily refer to it as ‘popular feminism’ — superficial, empty, and not really feminism at all.
This idea of postfeminism is also reflected in best-selling business handbooks such as Lean In, #GIRLBOSS, and The Confidence Code, which promotes women as neoliberal feminists who may be aware of the social, cultural, and economic forces that reinforce gender inequality, but focuses almost exclusively on self-regulation and self-care.
Collective struggles towards social justice are ignored by this capitalistic mode of feminism that encourages all people to see themselves as autonomous, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial agents.
Finally, as a backlash, postfeminism is used as a reaction against feminism through a varied range of beliefs about its problems. These backlashes to feminism include anger at the so-called ‘tyranny’ of political correctness, the belief that feminism has made all women unhappy (because it suppresses women’s ‘natural’ desires to be feminine), the claim that men are the ‘real’ victims, or the notion that sexism has already been defeated and thus feminism is no longer needed in our new meritocratic world order.
A Postfeminist Sensibility
In light of these conflicting uses of postfeminism, it’s helpful to think of postfeminism as a sensibility that reflects dominant ideas of gender relations, rather than any organized, coherent movement.
The rise of postfeminism in our culture is in lockstep with neoliberalism. Postfeminism recasts gender equality in neoliberal terms “as an individualistic, entrepreneurial project that can be inculcated by the self”.
Like neoliberalism, postfeminism turns a blind eye towards systems of power and histories of oppression, reducing collective responsibilities to the individual.
Postfeminism has become a powerful influence in our culture and has contributed to the reshaping of contemporary femininity in ways that undermine feminist aims for equality, liberation, and justice.
6 Themes of Postfeminism
Feminist scholars Patricia Lewis, Yvonne Benschop, and Ruth Simpson identify a set of recurring themes in postfeminism:
- An emphasis on individualism, choice, and empowerment. The empowered woman is usually highly privileged — cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle to upper class, and white. By focussing on individual elite women, structural and collective disadvantages are usually hidden and denied.
- The revival of an essentialist view of ‘natural’ sexual difference as opposed to seeing identity as socially constructed.
- The shift from challenging women’s objectification to the idea that women ‘voluntarily’ choose to present themselves as desirable objects.
- The emphasis upon self-surveillance with constant monitoring and disciplining of women’s bodies. For example, handbooks seem obsessed with how women ought to maintain their physical bodies and appearance, their wardrobes, their posture, their behavior, their voice/tone, etc. in order to get ahead at work.
- A make-over paradigm that not only acts on the body but also constitutes a remaking of subjectivity, conforming to idealized models of cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle to upper class, white femininity.
- The resexualization of women’s bodies and the retreat to home as a personal choice, not an obligation. For example, the glamorous image of the woman who ‘has it all’: a high-paying career and heteronormative family.
The instructions promoted by postfeminist ideals not only perpetuate consumerism but implies that gender equality can be achieved if women simply fix their weaknesses — be more assertive, more attractive, more confident, more likable.
What is the Problem with Postfeminism?
The danger with postfeminism is that it takes outwardly pro-female images and stories like women leaders, entrepreneurs, and celebrities, hollows out anything to do with structural gender equality and collective social justice, and then stuffs it back full of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, cisnormative, heteropatriarchal nonsense.
Given this bait-and-switch tactic, intersectionality is a really powerful tool to analyze the limitations of postfeminism.
Specifically, intersectionality allows us to critically examine race and class in the rise of postfeminism, interrogating how the dominance of whiteness and the elite classes is reinforced through the postfeminist sensibility.
Harm on Women
As patriarchy has done for centuries, the postfeminist sensibility persuades women to chase impossible standards of femalehood. Not only are all of us expected to be cisgender, straight, white, and able-bodied, we also need to be perfect mothers and wives, rich executives of multibillion-dollar companies, and insanely beautiful.
In the rush towards this ideal, women are expected to exercise relentless self-discipline and personal responsibility to make ourselves valuable feminine subjects within the contemporary capitalist economy.
Some studies have demonstrated the tolls neoliberalism takes on the psychoemotional wellbeing of professional women who are compelled to construct ourselves as self-sufficient, entrepreneurial subjects.
Exhorted to see the self as business, women often describe senses of heightened anxiety and insecurity, overwork, and competition both with ourselves and others.
Under postfeminism, our culture seems to have developed ’gender fatigue’. Even though structural gender inequality is proven through extensive research and statistical evidence, many people vehemently deny the existence of sexism. When people refuse to believe sexism exists and shut down honest discussions about sexism, gender inequality becomes harder to overcome.
The Allure of Postfeminism
I saw postfeminism in full force a few years back in my first role out of my PhD.
I secured a position of what I thought at the time was my dream job as a research fellow at a leadership research center. At first, it seemed my knowledge of feminism was warmly welcomed. My white male boss was a proud self-proclaimed feminist and thrust me into the limelight as the center’s women and leadership expert.
The university began to propel me into stardom. I was featured in numerous media showcases and paraded in front of any philanthropist, corporate executive, and politician who had ever shown a modicum of interest in gender. My aura of success grew along with my own vanity.
Postfeminism is so pernicious because it’s not just about forcing punishing standards for women. Part of postfeminism’s allure is that many of us want to believe that we live in a fair, meritocratic world where sexism is an outdated artifact of the past. We want to believe that with the right experience, the right attitude, the right wardrobe, the right hair, the right makeup, the right tone, we can all become professionally successful and materially prosperous.
Over time, I had contorted myself to fit into the mold of the perfect postfeminist woman — ambitious, industrious, individualistic, yet soft, sweet, nurturing. I diluted my intersectional feminist values and principles into tame, meaningless platitudes as the center feared it would scare off funders. All my comprising was intended to help the research center be more marketable and raise funds.
Postfeminism’s power lies in its seductive promise that success is something for all women to willfully attain.
It teaches us that we will secure personal and professional fulfillment as long as we stay silently complicit with systems of gender, racial, and class domination. If we speak out on social injustice, it becomes our choice to reject that fulfillment.
Intersectional feminism is a vitalizing antidote to postfeminism.
It’s now more urgent than ever that we reengage with intersectional feminist thought and activism to resist its domestication into something less threatening to the existing patriarchal order.
As intersectional feminism recognizes the ways patriarchy intersects with other systems of oppression such as imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, it helps us to call into question shallow, neoliberal notions of equality, such as celebrity She-E-Os.
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This post was based on my article, ‘An embarrassment of riches: The seduction of postfeminism in the academy’, originally published in Organization.
Other useful and informative academic examinations of postfeminism include:
Stéphanie Genz (2009) Postfemininities in Popular Culture
Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad (2015). The confidence cult(ure). Australian Feminist Studies, 30(86), 324–344.
Angela McRobbie (2008) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change
Catherine Rottenberg (2014). The rise of neoliberal feminism. Cultural Studies, 28(3), 418–437.
Christina M. Scharff (2016). The psychic life of neoliberalism: Mapping the contours of neoliberal subjectivity. Gender, Work and Organization, 33(6), 107–122.
Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (2007) Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture
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Featured image by Amanda Vick