- Teaching Popular Culture through Gender Studies: Feminist Pedagogy in a Postfeminist and Neoliberal Academy?
Feminist education—the feminist classroom—is and should be a place where there is a sense of struggle, where there is visible acknowledgement of the union of theory and practice, where we work together as teachers and students to overcome the estrangement and alienation that have become so much the norm in the contemporary university.—bell hooks, Talking Back
Emerging from feminist theory and women’s studies disciplines, gender studies bears a particular obligation to be both theoretically responsible and socially applicable. To that end, the title of this article is meant to be doubly coded: we can teach through the use of gender theory, but we must also push through theory to account for the various meanings of gender as expressed through popular culture and lived experience. Doing so can often be difficult, both theoretically and logistically, particularly when working with an undergraduate student population that frequently considers the founding mandates of feminism to be out-moded (what has been described as postfeminism), and when working within an institutional structure increasingly organized around market principles of supply and demand, privatization, de-centralization, consumer gratification, efficiency, and financial and personal self-sufficiency (what has been described as neoliberalism).
The ways in which both postfeminism and neoliberalism contest the legitimacy of traditional feminist dogma, which is to say second-wave principles and practices, becomes particularly acute in the classroom. Feminist pedagogies have largely been predicated on two socio-political givens that postfeminist and neoliberal logics disallow: 1) that feminism is a necessary and ongoing intervention in entrenched patriarchal systems of power, authority, and knowledge structures, and 2) that feminist practices are frequently, though not always, messy and contentious, aimed at giving equal voice to differences and, often as a consequence, the antithesis of linear efficiencies and market-based practices.
Given these tensions, my analysis in this article finds expression through the following questions: If popular culture is an arena where both consumer-based postfeminism and market-driven neoliberalism thrive, what does it mean to adhere to a feminist pedagogy in a political and social climate that is, if not fully postfeminist and neoliberal, then increasingly friendly to these sensibilities? What does it mean to teach popular culture in a gender studies department? How, in turn, does a popular culture pedagogy that functions in direct awareness of and conversation with gender, sex, and sexuality studies necessarily [End Page 124] differ from popular culture courses taught in media studies, English, or mass communications departments? Put another way, what particular strategies—both conceptually and in the concrete management of the classroom—must the feminist teacher of popular culture deploy? Further, what theoretical and epistemological constructs are called into play—or questioned—when the discussion of gendered meaning and feminist teaching are inherent in the analysis of popular culture? What do we do when feminist pedagogy strategies, generally designed for intimate groups, must be applied to large lectures? And more broadly, how do we enact a politicized pedagogy in accord with feminist principles that seek to give space to all voices and social identity locations within the confines of university dictates that are increasingly structured around market principles and in the context of a larger social attitude toward feminism that often perceives its purpose as antiquated?
By way of addressing these questions, in the first half of this essay I will lay out the general concepts behind postfeminism and neoliberalism. I will also look at feminist pedagogy itself, its relation to popular culture, and the ways in which feminist pedagogies must learn to contest and accommodate hazy cultural understandings of postfeminism and neoliberalism by using the strategies offered by serious play and an embodied epistemology. In the second half of the essay, I will consider more practical strategies about what a retooled feminist pedagogy might look like in the classroom by turning to a specific course innovation I brought to a lecture class at Indiana University called Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.
What Is Postfeminism and Neoliberalism? How Do They Relate to the University?
I begin first with that twin-headed hydra, postfeminism and neoliberalism. The terms...