Popular Culture: From Being an Enemy of the "Feminist Movement" to a Tool for Women's "Liberation"?

By Kirca, Suheyla | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Popular Culture: From Being an Enemy of the "Feminist Movement" to a Tool for Women's "Liberation"?


Kirca, Suheyla, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The media has played a significant role in disseminating feminist ideas and politics over the last two decades. Early studies in the field often suggested that all media coverage was anti-feminist and criticized popular cultural texts for degrading women by constructing conventional and subordinate subjectivities that reinforced patriarchal values. This view conceives popular culture as an enemy and stems from a belief that all media is corrupt and unable to construct anything but the most dominant stereotypical images. Since the last decade, as work in cultural studies and post-structuralist theory demonstrates, however, the whole notion of corruption masks the ways in which culture industries and political struggles work in the late twentieth century. All texts, knowledge, and political practices are constructed within competing social, political, and economic contexts of culture industries. As some feminist researchers acknowledged in the 1970s, it is not enough to dismiss popular culture as merely serving the complementary systems of capitalism and patriarchy, they argued that "popular culture can also be seen as site where meanings are contested and where dominant ideologies can be disturbed" (Gamman and Marshment 1).

Following this argument, I would further argue that popular culture allows ways of disseminating feminist ideas and theories without placing them in total opposition to contemporary culture. To demonstrate the possible ways in which feminist discourses can engage with the "popular," I will proceed in two stages: first, an overview of the development of feminist critique within cultural studies, which challenged the early work done by the pioneers of cultural studies; second, an examination of some popular cultural texts, aiming to show that feminist discourses have been incorporated into popular and commercial discourses to the extent that they help discard the myth of female passivity. This interaction with the popular has opened up a space for women to represent a female point of view in a male-dominated sphere. I would argue that some popular cultural forms allow ways and provide an outlet for women's voices which might then serve as a basis from which to develop feminist politics among shifting definitions of feminism. Among a range of popular cultural forms, I have chosen to examine a particular one, the women's magazine, to illustrate my argument. Two Turkish women's magazines are the focus of the examination.

Emergence of Feminist Critique of Popular Culture within Cultural Studies

Feminism and popular culture have had an ambiguous relation, and as Morag Shiach puts it, the terms are not parallel: "one designates a political space, the other an object of study" (331). Yet Shiach points out that "popular culture" is a broad term which carries within it a series of debates about political legitimacy, class identity, and cultural value, which inform the theoretical framework and the methodological procedures of cultural studies. She finds these associations problematic for feminism and states that "'popular culture' as an institutional space, and as a political concept, embodies definitions of class identity, historical change and political struggle which are often blind to the questions of feminism" (331). This view was also dominant in the early works of cultural studies scholars. In order to understand the terms in which feminist critics have intervened in these studies, it is important to start with the history of cultural studies. In relation to popular culture, the pioneering work of cultural studies, such as Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy), Raymond Williams (Culture and Society), or E. P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) emphasizes distinctive ways of theorizing cultural hierarchies, which select cultural forms that exclude or marginalize women, and describe them as "representative of the typical working-class condition" (Shiach 335). Their work played a significant role in shaping the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose analyses of popular culture as a site of resistance appeared to form the institutional and academic understandings of popular culture in the 1970s.

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