- In Focus:Postfeminism and Contemporary Media Studies
This set of essays was inspired by a desire to see how scholars from both sides of the Atlantic would address a concept that is currently fostering rich debates. They articulate and analyze how for media studies "postfeminism" seemed until very recently to be hiding in plain sight. In this In Focus, we address the emergence and character of what we broadly term postfeminist media studies. The parameters of this area are as yet unclear, in spite of or perhaps because of the pervasive nature of the term "postfeminism" within contemporary media culture.
In the tradition of analyzing the popular that has long marked out our discipline, we are prompted to come to grips with postfeminism in part because its language and conceptualization are now so pronounced a feature of popular discourse. Existing scholarship on postfeminist media culture tilts heavily toward analysis of the romantic comedies and female-centered sitcoms and dramas that have been so strongly associated with female audiences since the 1990s.1 This In Focus section is designed in part to highlight the influence of a postfeminist mindset in examining a wider spectrum of films. Our hope is to dismantle any tendency we might have to assume that postfeminist effects are felt only in recognizably, reliably "female-centered" genres. The essays here help to establish the wider currency of postfeminism and postfeminist themes and archetypes in such genres as crime and noir and in independent as well as mainstream films.2
Writing elsewhere on the emergence in the 1990s of the erotic thriller in its direct-to-video and mainstream versions, Linda Ruth Williams underlined the importance of feminism to the genre's female audience.3 The starting point for these postfeminist debates is a recognition that by the late 1990s representational verisimilitude required an acknowledgment of feminism as a feature of the cultural milieu. Yet, crucially, such acknowledgment has frequently taken the form of a prepackaged and highly commodifiable entity, so that discourses having to do with women's economic, geographic, professional, and perhaps most particularly sexual freedom are effectively harnessed to individualism and consumerism. Crudely, freedom is construed as the freedom to shop (and to cook), albeit, as Charlotte Brunsdon notes here, with the option of an ironic mode. Although a variety of films and genres of the late 1990s and early 2000s hype empowerment, these texts do not sustain any easy or straightforward relationship to women's experiences and social health. Indeed, scholars, popular critics, and mass audiences often report a "hollow quality" at the heart of many postfeminist media texts.
Within contemporary popular culture, it is clear that certain kinds of female agency are recognizably and profitably packaged as commodities. Typically, texts of this form are directed at a female audience even while covertly acknowledging [End Page 107] male viewers/voyeurs. This packaging involves both inclusions and exclusions, as Linda Mizejewski demonstrates here in her analysis of the now seemingly ubiquitous "female dick." And, as Chris Holmlund notes, it was through the 1990s and into the 2000s that genres such as crime and action opened up the possibility of roles for African American women and Latinas, as well as for white female stars, in big-budget, high-profile films.4 These (limited) inclusions are not coincidental; postfeminism already incorporates a negotiation with hegemonic forces in simultaneously assuming the achievement and desirability of gender equality on the one hand while repeatedly associating such equality with loss on the other. That such fictions tend to exclude even as they include, propagating an environment for ethnically and racially diverse protagonists that is devoid of social or political context—at least explicitly—is also no surprise. Even so, our instinct is to resist any temptation to dismiss the development of popular, consumer-led versions of feminism as simply more of the (patriarchal) same.
To some extent, the problem postfeminism poses for scholars interested in engaging with contemporary gender culture resides precisely in its characteristic double address. The achievement of certain important legal rights and enhanced visibility for women (in areas including law, politics, and education) are positioned alongside a persistently articulated dissatisfaction with...