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Postfeminism from A to G

From: Cinema Journal
44, Number 2, Winter 2005
pp. 116-121 | 10.1353/cj.2005.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Cinema Journal 44.2 (2005) 116-121

Chris Holmlund

Does postfeminism indicate (a) an attitude, (b) an optic, or (c) an object? In search of answers, I perused databases, surfed Web sites, pursued bibliographic leads, and queried friends, young and old. It seems the answer is (d) all of the above. I was surprised to see that while several books use the word (with Tania Modleski's 1991 Feminism without Women seminal), databases focused on media journals yield little on the topic. In hopes that my peregrinations will be of use to Cinema Journal readers, I shall provide an overview of how "postfeminism" and "postfeminist" have been used and by whom. I will then offer my "take" on which recent films may be labeled postfeminist. Finally, I will sketch where earlier postfeminist analyses will require updating and why, if they are to "fit" postmillennial media artifacts.

As a noun, "postfeminism" has had at least three distinctly feminine faces. For me, these range from A to G: "academic," "chick," and "grrrl." Since 1982, when the term first popped up in a New York Times magazinearticle featuring "Voices from the Postfeminist Generation," the most prevalent variant has been "C," or "chick," postfeminism.

Periodically promoted in magazines, debated on talk shows, and paraded in newspapers, "chick" postfeminism entails a backlash against or a dismissal of the desirability for equality between women and men, in the workforce and in the family. "Chick" postfeminists are generally young; a few are middle-aged; none seem old (Botox helps). Many are hostile to the goals and gains of second-wave feminism; others simply take these gains and goals for granted. Some like to party, dress up, and step out, taking breaks from work to date or shop; others stay home, tending hearth, hubby, and kids.

A second, "wilder," bunch of postfeminists knows both popular and academic haunts. Primarily American, these riot grrrls ("G" postfeminists, aka third-wave feminists) are politically engaged yet playful. They are happy to acknowledge the diversity among women that "chick" postfeminism ignores, and they are eager to carry on first- and second-wave feminist struggles. A third, smaller group of "A" (for "academic") postfeminists is steeped in French, British, and American postmodern, postcolonial, poststructural, queer, (etc.), theory.

All three variants would seem tied to contemporary times, yet many commentators note that postfeminism is not new and that feminism is not "done" (e.g., postfeminism also emerged in the 1920s, after women won the vote). But if postfeminism can be said to have a long(ish) history, the adjective "postfeminist" has been applied to texts—from books and songs to TV programs and films to paintings, cartoons, and photographs—only since the 1980s. Madonna long reigned as postfeminist queen, thanks to her sexually charged performances and mutating persona, rehearsed through songs, stage shows, screen appearances, books, interviews, photographs, and more.

To date, postfeminist discourse in film studies has concentrated on big-budget late-1980s to early-1990s titles like Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1987), Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987), Baby Boom (Charles Shyer, 1987), Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall, 1990), Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1991), and Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992). Most commentators envision postfeminism as a white "chick" backlash that denies class, avoids race, ignores (older) age, and "straight"-jackets sexuality. A few celebrate the poise, panache, and performance of the "girly woman" or relish the coolly cutthroat competence of the "glam" exec. A very few believe that boy characters or male critics can also be postfeminists.

But can late-1990s and early-2000 films also be termed postfeminist? If so, which ones? And what is at stake? Simply the refashioning of previously "feminist" topics (rape, battery, abortion rights, birth control, equal pay, child care, healthcare) or the redesigning of previously "feminist" figures (outspoken teens, working girls, embattled moms, poised professionals, gentle men) along (post)millennial lines?

To explore whether and how postfeminist discourse may be applied to contemporary films, let us examine two recent movies featuring Latinas: Out of Sight (1998) and Real Women Have Curves (2002). Admittedly, each reached a different audience. Out of Sight is a star-studded (Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney) $48 million studio (Universal...



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