I find the concept of “postfeminism” to be extremely troubling and confusing. There are many discussions of postfeminism on the web. I highlight a few at the bottom of this post, but I want to look at one particular treatment that sees postfeminism as aligned with postcolonialism or postmodernism. I think this particular way of understanding postfeminism is extremely problematic because of the way that it sets up a false-parallel among these three concepts. The discussion I want to look at is from Sarah Gamble’s chapter “Postfeminism” in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (New York: Routledge, 2001)
Sarah Gamble ultimately rejects the term ‘postfeminist’ as a useful concept for understanding feminism in our times. Gamble prefers the concept of ‘third-wave feminism’ instead, because it is able to talk about past feminist movements in both critical and celebratory ways that are not open to postfeminist analyses (pg. 54). Before coming to this conclusion, however, Gamble gives a very generous treatment of postfeminism, looking at both the possible benefits and disadvantages of the concept. In discussing the term Gamble notes that the prefix ‘post’ does not necessarily entail rejection:
Turning again to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, ‘post’ is defined as ‘after in time or order,’ but not as denoting rejection. Yet many feminists argue strongly that postfeminism constitutes precisely that—a betrayal of a history of feminist struggle, and rejection of all it has gained…
…but it is possible to argue that the prefix ‘post’ does not necessarily always direct us back the way we’ve come. Instead its trajectory is bewilderingly uncertain, since while it can certainly be interpreted as suggestive of a relapse back to a former set of ideological beliefs, it can also be read as indicating the continuation of the originating term’s aims and ideologies, albeit on a different level (pg. 44-45).
Gamble suggests that perhaps postfeminism could be useful if it were understood to denote an inherently theoretical project:
In fact, to accept the inherently theoretical nature of the postfeminist project perhaps offers the most convincing way in which the term can be used. In this context, postfeminism becomes a pluralistic epistemology dedicated to disrupting universalising patterns of thought, and thus capable of being aligned with postmodernism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism (pg. 50).
When postfeminism is used in ways that are not intended to be negative or to reject feminism and feminist goals, I think it is precisely these sets of associations that we are meant to draw. But I think this use is highly misleading. It is misleading because in the case of postmodernism and postcolonialism, the part that comes after the “post” is identified as the problem, and it does entail a rejection of that thought, logic, or practice. Postmodernism, for example, identifies modernism and modernist thought as the kind of thought that will be rejected by postmodern theorists. Postcolonialism identifies colonialism as the problem that postcolonial theorists will work though and reject. For example, from Wikipedia we have this definition of postcolonial goals:
The ultimate goal of post-colonialism is combating the residual effects of colonialism on cultures. It is not simply concerned with salvaging past worlds, but learning how the world can move beyond this period together, towards a place of mutual respect. This section surveys the thoughts of a number of post-colonialism’s most prominent thinkers as to how to go about this.
Post-colonialist thinkers recognize that many of the assumptions which underlay the “logic” of colonialism are still active forces today. Exposing and deconstructing the racist, imperialist nature of these assumptions, they will lose their power of persuasion and coercion. Recognizing that they are not simply airy substance but have widespread material consequences for the nature and scale of global inequality makes this project all the more urgent.
But given this definition, postfeminism is decidedly not a parallel construct to postcolonialism. If we take it to be a parallel construct then it, too, would be identifying feminism as that-which-needs-rejection. I think it is important not to use the term ‘postfeminist’ if one intends to draw similarities to postcolonialism or postmodernism because the three terms are not parallel at all.
Some other takes on postfeminism:
Susan Faludi takes a decidedly negative view and identifies postfeminism with the backlash against feminism. For Faludi the concept of postfeminism is the backlash. She writes on page 11 of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (15th Anniversary Edition, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006):
Just when record numbers of younger women were supporting feminist goals in the mid-’80s (more of them, in fact, than older women) and a majority of all women were calling themselves feminists, the media declared the advent of a younger “postfeminist generation” that supposedly reviled the women’s movement.
But other descriptions are more open to positive interpretations and admit there is ambiguity in the term. For example, this one written by tekanji at Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog begins with a neutral interpretation, but ends with a more decidedly negative spin on the concept of postfeminism:
The basic idea behind the movement is that feminism has achieved its goals and now it is time to distance ourselves from the movement.
No matter what form it may take, however, it is clear that the movement arose out of a backlash against feminism. This backlash is often ascribed to the specialization and splintering of feminism, which is seen by many post-feminists as one of the root causes for feminism’s decline. Regardless of which frame is put on it, though, this backlash carries one primary notion: post-feminism’s rise signals a world “in which feminism has been transcended, occluded, overcome” (Hawkensworth).