- Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle
Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle’s book Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism serves as a kind of feminist manifesto for the new millennium. In the last decade, many have declared that there has been a waning of feminism and feminist politics in the West. Particularly with the dominance of neo-liberal capitalism and its attendant focus on the individual, there has been a tendency to retire feminism and its activist roots to “post-feminism” (not to be confused with the radical backlash of third-wave feminism in the early 1990s). Feminist media scholars and cultural theorists, such as Rosalind Gill and Angela McRobbie, have notably and polemically described post-feminism as a reactionary sensibility that weaves through popular media. Complicating this ostensible ebb of a feminist politics, Awkward Politics offers a reparative reading for the reckonable presence of contemporary feminism(s). This book is thus a wonderfully radical, urgent, and fun romp through an extensive array of media and movements that have rocked Western (particularly German) popular culture with feminist vigour in the last decade.
Awkward Politics is a comprehensive survey of the current events, discussions, actions, and productions of feminist-driven work in Germany and beyond. With impressive latitude, the book’s chapters (divided mostly by genre) track a myriad of examples of feminist engagement spanning from 2007 to 2015. These [End Page 91] include: the offshoots of the rock protest group Pussy Riot; the sex-positive rapper and performer Lady Bitch Ray; the protest movement against slut shaming and sexual violence SlutWalk; the Twitter debate about the persisting problem of sexism (#aufschrei); the music and performance-art group Chicks on Speed; and the adolescent pulp literature of Helen Hegemann and Charlotte Roche (to name just the major examples). Smith-Prei and Stehle present an active repertoire of diversified feminist (or at least gender-aware) work that does not decry the neo-liberal and hyper-digitalized reality of the present but instead embraces it in “awkwardly” creative ways.
Awkwardness is the keystone of this study, and it draws from a wide range of contemporary feminist, affect, queer, and social theories. At once a performance, an affect, and a methodology, awkwardness disturbs and circulates. Itself not a politics, awkwardness is rather a mode by which politics can be read and produced. Smith-Prei and Stehle expound throughout their book that awkwardness is about inappropriateness, uneasiness, and even raunchiness. Further, it unabashedly radicalizes what Lauren Berlant has famously termed the “cruel optimism” of our neo-liberal present and its self-defeating promise of the good life (Cruel Optimism, 2011). As the authors aver, awkwardness in fact “discover[s] new avenues for connection and relatability, and search[es] for new spaces for feminist community and joy” (81). These spaces are in the eclectic arena and genre of pop. While popfeminism has received its share of criticism for its often less-than-serious, glossy commodification and commercialization of feminism (perhaps bell hooks’s 2016 contentious critique of Beyoncé’s latest album Lemonade, titled “Moving Beyond Pain,” can be taken as a recent and highly visible example), it should certainly not be dismissed altogether.
Awkward Politics engages popfeminism as both an object of study and a do-it-yourself approach. Through their examination of their objects (partly listed above), Smith-Prei and Stehle emphasize the fluidity of the local and the global as well as the live and the mediatized. They employ the prominent case of Pussy Riot (although not German) as a kind of prototype for popfeminist politics and its flows. Initially an explicitly local (or at least national) and directly targeted act of feminist activism and protest, Pussy Riot’s guerrilla performance against Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012 transformed into a worldwide and heavily mediatized event that subsequently incited feminist and human rights activism across the globe. For Smith-Prei and Stehle, popfeminism represents precisely...