Monday, March 13, 2017

"Feminism is about choice”, or How Family Guy Lost Me: Core Response (to the Readings of Week 10)

It was quite new to me to read about third-wave feminism framed as having boundary troubles with its supposed conceptual neighbour, postfeminism—as it is done by Jess Butler in her very recent article on the racial dynamics of postfeminism in US popular culture, and on the lack of complexity in analyzing race in relevant feminist academic literature (p41). In Butler’s view, while third-wave feminism is clearly differentiable from postfeminism, for instance, because it  "actively engages with feminist history”, she not only sees the two as sharing "important similarities” but also argues for the "fundamentally neoliberal” nature of what she identifies as the third-wave feminist project (p42). 

Interestingly, in McRobbie’s seminal article on postfeminism written in 2004, i.e. a decade earlier, while post-colonialism, de-naturalization, and "feminist reflexivity" are mentioned as characteristic of the early 1990s (McRobbie, p256), the term third-wave feminism pointing out a trend in feminist activism is never used, and postfeminism seems to have taken over not only in popular discourses but to a great extent, in intellectual/academic circles as well. (The lay feminist perception of the contemporary stance of the feminist movement and theory I have had is that the core of the third-wave would be its post-structuralist orientation, and its struggling towards intersectionality;  also, I would see it as clearly opposing postfeminism. This definition is based on my initial introduction to organized feminism in Budapest, Hungary, in the late 2000s, when I joined, as a graduate student, a gender studies department at an American university with a racially and ethnically diverse student body. An example for the generational differences, and the contestation of feminist identification (or, the "’ownership’ of the politics of feminism”, as Banet-Weiser puts it in her article, p207) I still remember the case of an "older”, widely acknowledged feminist figure, who had a lecture at our department, in which she lamented that there are no real feminists anymore—a seemingly genuinely felt complaint expressed in front of some forty, relatively "young”, self-identified feminists. Her claim could be seen as having performed a sort of repudiating disidentification, and a withholding of recognition, and/or a critique and call for self-examination on the part of those "young people" who would like to see themselves/ each other as feminists.)

In any case, it is indisputable that border issues are indeed complicated and even tricky (politically and ethically challenging, that is), especially if we agree with and take seriously Butler’s comment that feminism as such has never been a monolithic movement contested only from the outside but, naturally, has always been busy with "internal” conflicts and divisions, and with the very issue of what (and who) is feminist and what (who) is not, whatever they themselves claim to be. To Butler’s example of Nicki Minaj, we could add a long list of contemporary stars (lead by Beyoncé) who have claimed a feminist identity, and engaged in public discussions on the borders and essence of feminism, and on racism, and the whiteness of (popular or other) feminism. Sometimes, "older” and "younger” feminists (self-identified feminists? empowered women?) clash in their views, like it was the case with Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor (which is all the more "saucy” due to Cyrus’s paying reverence to O’Connor’s work in her music video for "Wrecking Ball"), joined by feminist veteran Gloria Steinem. The debate between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift was also intriguing in many ways, including how racism was approached as a matter of feminine bodily ideals and how particular stars relate to it. (A journalistic account of their debate is available at:

One of the main foci in such public debates is indeed the self/-representation of the female body (including, crucially, its investment in beauty and "sexiness”), and the "self-expression” or public performance of "women's sexuality”. To put it simply, things that used to be framed, for the most, as women’s oppression, have been reclaimed (explicitly or implicitly) by many female popstars to be consistent with or even embodying the very gains of feminism or women’s empowerment. Relatedly, I was a bit surprised to read what I see as Butler’s somewhat one-sided perception of Nicki Minaj’s image with regards to gender and sexuality at least, confidently celebrating Minaj for her supposed "unwillingness to conform to [relevant] mainstream definitions”—an assertion I see way too easy to dispute. 

Such issues are surely puzzling—which is showcased by the kind of flat conclusion with which Banet-Weiser ends her piece: "Like consumer culture, postfeminist and postracial culture is profoundly, indeed necessarily ambivalent.” Let me offer an instance, though, which left me with thoughts and emotions far from ambivalent: an early episode of Family Guy, "I am Peter, Hear me Roar” (S02E08), in which sexist Peter is referred to a "sensitivity” training at his workplace. Here’s a scene in which her wife, Louis (who is generally characterized, I would say, as a down-to-earth and creditable figure to be taken seriously, in contrast to Peter) meets Gloria Ironbox, the leader of the feminist group Peter got involved with:

In my view, in this episode, FG offers a hostile and very limited parody of an authoritarian feminism, in contrast to which it clearly embraces Louis’ decidedly postfeminist rhetorics. Equally bad, it offers a rather limited view of "femininity", and it reinforces the heteronormative idea that sexual desire (the value and priority of which is also reinstated) emerges from a contrast between (male) masculinity and (female) femininity; male "femininity” and male heterosexual desire cannot co-exist; what (straight, white, middle-class) women really want is a "man” who may be a bit of a pig, but that is just part of the package; and so on. Bleh. Altogether, this episode comes across an uncannily embodying some of the main arguments of our readings, mainly how postfeminism appropriates some fragments of feminism while claiming the backwardness/redundancy and tyranny of feminism, and its actual harmfulness to women, especially women’s pleasure.

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