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Power in Sexuality? Post-feminism and Consumer Culture

February 14, 2011

“I like women who look like women. I hated grunge. No one’s more feminist than me, but you don’t have to look as if you don’t give a – you know. You can be smart, bright, and attractive aesthetically to others — and to yourself.” ~ Catherine Zeta Jones

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the first known use of the word “post-feminist” was in 1983. The site defines the term as:  relating to, occurring in, or being the period following widespread advocacy and acceptance of feminism. We could spend endless blog pages debating if and to what extent feminism as been embraced in modern Western society — from the home and workplace to the halls of academia to MTV. However, the authors below consider specifically how this notion of post-feminism has been adopted in popular culture, in particular advertising, to sell the concept of the newly empowered woman.

Post-feminism: Female Power through Individual Choice

The year is 1990-ish. Women are making great strides in the workforce, are free to choose motherhood or not, and have far greater economic opportunities than women just 50 years earlier. No longer just the ornaments of men, women of the 1990s can have it all. In fact, it seems that feminism for the most part has reached its main goal: equality of opportunity with men.

So, it’s a wonder that, at about the same time, Wonderbra creates a full-size billboard ad in which Eva Herzigova is pictured staring lovingly down at her bountiful cleavage in a manner that seems to entice viewers to do the same. In fact, the print next to the picture reads “Hello Boys.” Is this a throwback to the pre-feminist years?

1990s Wonderbra advertisement

Well, not really.

Rather, this ad, according to Angela McRobbie, identifies with the new notion of post-feminism (sometimes referred to as third-wave feminism), one that separates and contrasts itself with the images of bra-burning, man-hating feminists of earlier years. McRobbie writes:

Indeed it seemed in the very nature of feminism that it gave rise to dis-identification as a kind of requirement for its existence. But it seems now, over a decade later, that this space of ‘distance from feminism’ and those utterances of non-identity with feminism have consolidated into something closer to repudiation rather than ambivalence, and it is this vehemently denunciatory stance which is manifest across the field of popular gender debate. This is the cultural space of post-feminism. (257)

McRobbie suggests that the Wonderbra advertisement actively recognizes feminism by acknowledging, exaggerating, and playing on the sexism inherent in the image. At the same time, the ad calls into question Laura Mulvey’s theory as women as the passive objects of the male gaze. In this example, Herzigova is the object of her own adoring gaze — thus, her power is in seeing and being seen as her individual sexualized self. In this way, McRobbie notes, the ad highlights a larger sentiment: that feminism is to be “taken into account, but only to be shown as no longer necessary” (259).

McRobbie notes that the post-feminist argument is predicated on the notion that the feminist arguments of the 1960s and 70s are too essentialist and restrictive — and therefore not relevant today. Women are individuals, empowered to make their own lifestyle choices that are “dis-embedded” from formal societal and cultural structures (260). In this way, women mold and morph their identities into larger, interwoven narratives and can freely choice to define for themselves what it means to be female, be it wife, mother and/or CEO. However, inclusion in a larger sisterhood is no longer needed — or wanted.

This individualism plays right into modern consumer culture, which feeds on a common belief that we are all unique human beings venturing down lone paths in search of our ultimate destinies. And, of course, there are plenty of products and services to help us on our journey.

Female Power as a Global Commodity

Michelle Lazar builds on McRobbie’s argument noting that “like consumer feminism, popular post-feminism is a commercially strategic appropriation of certain post-feminist currents” (505). In her critical discourse analysis of makeup ads in Singapore, Lazar highlights how advertisers sell aesthetic beauty and sexual power as forms of agency. Even though the study is quite limited by region and sample size, the selected ads suggest that by strategically employing their sexual prowess women can wield significant power and control in their lives — and ultimately over men. Moreover, being beautiful can be a fun, self-empowering practice that demonstrates a woman’s love of self.

Lazar notes that the ads suggest that women must make the individual decision to take on this power. In this way, she adds that popular advertising practices are (a) critical of any definition of women as victims (or as part of a larger solidarity with other women), (b) embrace the notion that personal identities, needs, and desires are fluid, and (c) that these terms are defined by a heterosexual, patriarchal power structure. In essence, the ads both embrace and reject feminism. Lazar writes:

As a site of contestation, ads that deal with aestheticization of women’s physical appearance become a productive space for the imbrication of (post)feminist signifiers with patriarchal codes of femininity to produce a “power femininity,” without apparent contradiction. (506)

Angelina Jolie in Shiseido Advert

Moreover, notes Lazar, the ads represent marketers’ visions of beauty, which are often based on a global, homogenized (mostly Western) standard that is impossible for most women to meet. “Popular (post)feminism is a hybrid media discourse that blends feminist and post-feminist elements with consumer capitalism to produce a de-politicized power femininity as one of its subject effects.” (Lazar, 513)

In this way, Lazar’s notion of a global power femininity turns the tables on McRobbie’s argument that post-feminists reject the need for a common sisterhood. In fact, through consumption, the newly empowered post-feminist joins hands with other women across the world in the quest for commodified beauty.

The Limitations of Power in Beauty

As both McRobbie and Lazar note, the post-feminist approach to individual choice and power has its limitations. More specifically, when “agency” is restricted to physical appearance and superficial consumer choices, women are constrained to boundaries that are defined by outside power structures. Thus, women are powerful insofar as cultural (patriarchal) expectations will allow. For example, a women may be a powerful CEO or activist, but her “femaleness” is defined by her physical appearance and often her meeting the cultural expectations of wife and mother. As Tracey Emin’s piece (below) demonstrates, the choice is of course hers, but the power is found in her “femaleness.”

Tracey Emin - "The Choice is Hers"

In fact, as Lazar highlights, the images of women as powerful, sexualized, dominant individuals is still greatly in contrast to most women’s lived realities (513). Women are still more likely than men to be victims of sexual violence — in fact, according to some U.S. statistics, 1 in 4 American women will experience rape or attempted rape — and women still earn less than men (by some counts 70-80 cents to one US dollar for the same job) in the workforce.

As Jessica Valenti, of Feministing, once said, “It’s self-deceptive to think we’re in a postfeminist world when we never tried a feminist world.”

For further consideration:

“Where Having It All Doesn’t Mean Having Equality,” The New York Times, October 11, 2010.

For further reading:

Lazar, Michelle M. “Discover the Power of Femininity.” Feminist Media Studies 6.4 (2006): 505-17. Print.

McRobbie, Angela. “Post Feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 255-64. Print.

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