Postfeminism is not rooted in feminism, rather, it is a response to it. Postfeminism is highly debated between scholars; it is described as a historical shift, an epistemological perspective, or a backlash. None of these definitions fit because it cannot be fully pinned down to one analytic category (Gill 148). Postfeminism is a “sensibility” (Gill 148). Postfeminism describes the “entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes” found in mass media (Gill 149).
Beyonce is undoubtedly a strong, successful, independent woman (throw your hands up at me). This video really illustrates the conflicting ideas circulating our current postfeminist culture. The song seems to be an empowering anthem to women, reaffirming their ability to gain power. However, at the same time, it suggests that women have already made it, that they already run the world and no one can stop them. But what kind of power do the women in this song and video actually have? The female power suggested by the song and video is sexual power. It is her “persuasion” that can build a nation. What persuasion? In the video the women are dressed provocatively and confront the men by dancing. They threaten the men with their sexuality. On some levels, the song and video are what Susan J. Douglas describes as “fantasies of power” (Douglas 5). It assures women that equality is accomplished and that any woman can accomplish anything a man can. This image is a fantasy because there are still limitations on what a woman can accomplish. The truth is that while women have made significant progress they do not run the world. Just look at the underrepresentation of women CEO’s and politicians. Although the numbers are rising, they still only make up a small percentage. In terms of real power, men still run the world. Although this video can be viewed as a fantasy of power, there are still plenty of parts that are empowering. She “raises (her) glass to the college grads,” praises women who can support themselves, and asserts that women are strong enough to make millions and balance a family life at the same time. She also puts down men who are disrespectful to women (“disrespect us no they won’t”). She strives to make girls feel confident in their ability but it almost seems too easy. The message of the song contradicts itself a few times in just a few lines. After asserting women’s independence and power, she says, “come here baby/hope you still like me.” Male approval is still needed in order for her to feel comfortable with her power. She contradicts herself again by following that line with “F- you pay me” or “F- you hate me.” So does she want male approval or not? The contradictory ideas within this song and video alone reflect the conflicting messages across the media.
General response to these images in the media emphasize the conflicting messages in media. Beyonce received both positive and negative responses to her outfit at the 2013 Superbowl. The main issue was the extent to which she was being objectified/objectifying herself. The rise in women’s expression of sexuality has left some feminist troubled. Instead of seeing it as a personal choice, it is considered similar to Berger’s theory of the gaze, in which a woman internalizes the male gaze and turns herself into an object in order to achieve approval and the treatment she desires (Berger 49). Hyper sexualized women in the media redefine femininity as “a bodily property rather than a social, structural, or psychological one” (Gill 149). It is hard to judge Beyonce because of her specific role as a performer, which requires some degree of image concern. Regardless, she and other young artists are judged harshly for using their physical image to gain power. The alternative is not much better. Fantasies of power are divided by age. In the media, young girls achieve power through their bodies but older women, or as Douglas calls them, “Vintage Females,” achieve power professionally. “Vintage Females” in the media are lawyers, doctors, and the first female president; their characters and strong and in control. Although these women hold legitimate power that they earned, they are still criticized, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. A recent example of this is the controversy surrounding Anna Gunn’s character, Skyler White, on the extremely popular AMC show, Breaking Bad. Her character really revolves around her husband, Walter White, a bland chemistry teacher who becomes a powerful drug lord in order to financially support his family while he is treated for cancer. At first, Skyler is hated because she is an obstacle for her husband. Since she is oblivious of her husbands illicit drug activity for the first few seasons, her actions are all made in what she believes to be the best interest of her family. Although she is conforming to society’s view on morality by putting her family first, she is in conflict with the show’s anti-hero, Walt. Even when Skyler rejoins Walt and decides to help him with his meth business, she is criticized more harshly than he is. Although she may be hated for getting in Walt’s way, a lot of hate stems from people’s feelings about strong, non-submissive women. Walter White does some horrible things but fans love him. Anna Gunn addresses this double standard in a New York Times Op-Ed piece as well as in an interview with CBS anchor Gayle King.
Powerful women are no longer outside of the media. The media has “embedded feminism”, where “women’s achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply part of the cultural landscape” (Douglas 9). While it is good that feminist ideologies are part of our society’s normal life, embedded feminism can make feminism seem obsolete. Feminism is treated as commonsense and taken for granted. The result of embedded feminism is a backlash against contemporary feminism. Feminists are constructed as “harsh, punitive and inauthentic, not articulating women’s desires” (Gill 162). Traditional femininity is gaining popularity and feminists are seen as a judgmental and punitive force. This negative connotation of feminism combined with the medias projection of already achieved gender equality keeps women from engaging in conversations about women’s rights.
Sitting across from embedded feminism in the world of postfeminism is enlightened sexism” where sexist stereotypes of girls and women are resurrected and feminism is viewed as unnecessary (Douglas 9). Kelly Martin Broderick originally posted the picture above (without the caption) for a campaign by her university feminist group did called “This is what a feminist looks like.” It was soon turned in to a meme with the words “That’s pretty much what I expected” written on it. It was shared multiple times and gained thousands of comments that were mostly fat-shaming. Kelly’s feminism is viewed as a response to living outside our society’s beauty norm so her opinion is not taken seriously. Kelly has since responded and created a tumblr where women can submit photos to show that feminism is alive and well and comes in many shapes and sizes.
Postfeminism is a complicated issue because media can be so contradictory in its message. Even a single music video cannot be interpreted as feminist or anti-feminist. One of the best examples of how postfeminist media affects our culture’s perceptions on gender can be seen by the comments people leave on videos, articles, and on blogs. The highly contradictory media culture pull girls and women in opposite directions, “between wanting serious success and respect, and wanting acceptance, approval, and love; between wanting power and dreading power” (Douglas 16). Postfeminism is a conflict zone in which no one really wins. Postfeminism creates complacency when there is still so much work to be done. As long as we stay critical of the images we are force fed about gender equality being a reality, we can continue to challenge these assertions until they become truths.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Amelia Jones. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010. 49-52.
Douglas, Susan J. “Fantasies of Power.” Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done. New York: Times, 2010. 1-22. Print.
Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. 10 no. 2. London: Sage Publications, 2007. 147-165).