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  • Postfeminism in the British Frame
  • Justine Ashby (bio)

In the penultimate episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) stumbles upon a Parisian bookstore where her book is being promoted. She is greeted excitedly by a young sales assistant who exclaims in broken English, "I love Sex and the City. I am the single girl!" while a young male colleague (who is clearly encoded as gay) exclaims, "I have the Sex, she has the Sex, we all have the Sex!" This is obviously a highly self-conscious moment, one intended to celebrate the fan culture surrounding the series as it draws to a close. But, whether intentionally or otherwise, the moment also acutely evidences the assumption that the themes, pleasures, values, and lifestyles commonly associated with postfeminism are somehow universally shared and, perhaps more significantly, universally accessible.

Of course, since postfeminist culture is primarily produced by and experienced through the contemporary media's heightened address to women, our sense of what constitutes postfeminism is inevitably drawn from an eclectic array of textual encounters that cut across and often blur national specificities. But such a (false) impression of a "globalized postfeminism" poses a number of problems and questions for those of us who experience and attempt to make sense of postfeminist culture beyond the realms of an American social context.

Within Britain, a burgeoning American canon (the raft of consistently successful television series, the proliferation of new Hollywood romantic comedies, and the [End Page 127] "chick lit" and self-help publications that cram the shelves of British bookstores) has certainly become a staple of any notion of a "postfeminist culture" in recent years. What is far less clear is that its resonance, and the ways in which these texts are consumed, remains the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, films such as Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2000), High Heels and Low Lifes (Mel Smith, 2001), and Bend It like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002) and television series such as Linda Green (BBC, 2002), Single (ITV, 2003),and Footballers' Wives (ITV, 2002), to name but a few, demonstrate the regularity with which British popular culture engages with postfeminist themes, although their antecedents and emphases may be different from those of their American counterparts.

It is possible to trace the development of a postfeminist idiom that is distinctive to, and indeed only really makes sense within, the specific climate of contemporary Britain. This is not to suggest that British gender politics and the media have not been profoundly influenced by American postfeminist popular culture. Nor do I wish to undervalue the ability of key critical work produced by American feminists to pose constructive, wide-ranging questions about gender politics in a postfeminist era.1 Nonetheless, these debates are forged within the context of, and respond to, what are principally American concerns and we should not assume that they can simply be grafted onto the rather different contours of British political and popular culture; the diversity of postfeminism in all its ephemeral forms means that there can be no "one-size-fits-all" framework for thinking through its cultural and political currency.

In what follows, I want to consider how we might move toward a more detailed discussion of postfeminism in a British context. Space does not permit me to provide an extensive account of the numerous manifestations and intricacies of postfeminism in British culture; to do so would require an exploration of a broad variety of recent homegrown cinematic, televisual, literary, advertising, and musical texts, as well the profoundly complex and changeable political landscape in Britain during the past decade or so. I will restrict my discussion to some of the ways in which a postfeminist idiom, and specifically its most potent and pervasive slogan of the late 1990s and early 2000s, "girl power," has often dovetailed with, and been reinflected by, the rhetoric of Prime Minister Tony Blair's "New Britain."

With the benefit of hindsight, the sense that a different, or at least a differently refracted, version of postfeminism was emerging in Britain was significantly heightened in the wake of the landslide election victory for New Labour in 1997. The fit between postfeminism and New...


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pp. 127-132
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