Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Politics Of/and Backlash

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Politics Of/and Backlash

Article excerpt

Abstract

Since the publication of Susan Faludi's book in 1991, the terms "backlash" and postfeminism" have come to be widely used in many feminist analyses to critique-and then usually dismiss--representations of both women and feminism throughout media and popular culture. This paper revisits both of these concepts, exploring some of the debates about the definition, meaning, and scope of feminism that both of these terms often unwittingly) raise and then shut down. It argues that while seemingly useful ways talk about popular representations, these concepts also replay many of the central (and often contentious) debates in feminist thinking, especially around what gets defined as feminism,' under what contexts, and for what purposes. Ultimately, it argues that these terms, as they are now most commonly used, deny the possibility of multiple meanings and layers of feminist theorizing and politics, refute the saturation of feminist ideas throughout the broader culture in ways and places in places not originally thought possible, and refuse the changes in feminism that are the locus of so much contemporary dispute. If women's studies and feminism is to successfully make the transition to other generations, other times, and indeed this other millennium, then the ubiquity of concepts such as these, and the exclusive thinking they ultimately point to, must be re-examined and challenged.

Key Words: Backlash, Postfeminism, Popular culture

Introduction

Since the publication of Susan Faludi's book of the same title in 1991, the term backlash" has become a popular and oft-used term in many feminist analyses to critique the perceived political implications of almost any issue having to do with women, and especially to denounce a range of current representations of women throughout popular culture. Indeed, references to a 'backlash' against feminism increasingly dominate feminist and/or women's groups' commentaries on how women are presented in a variety media forms. In its most typical appearances, this term emphasizes the idea that those representations simply replicate long standing patterns and images, with women again being presented in an unrealistic and negative light that these critics read as signaling a reaction to--and rejection of--the many changes in women's lives brought about by feminist social movement. Examples of this kind of use of the term can be found in both feminist scholarly critiques of popular media, as well as in a number of feminist social and political groups' commentaries on media, such as in those of NOW and Mediawatch. (2) In one particularly paradigmatic example of the popularity of this word, for instance, in 2000 ex National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland derided the "sorry status" of women described in NOW's "prime time report" of TV images of women. Commenting on the report's findings, which classified network television Journal of International Women's Studies Vol 5 #5 June 2004 18 according to four criteria--violence, gender composition, sexual exploitation, and social responsibility, and which found all four major networks overall inadequate in meeting these criteria--she concluded that she was struck by the "mean-spiritedness towards women and people of color" displayed in the "backlash shows" that currently dominate network television. (3) And in another, albeit more scholarly example that is nonetheless in much the same vein, in Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory, Suzanna Danuta Walters entitles her chapter exploring representations of women in contemporary popular film, "Postfeminism and Popular Culture: A Case Study of the Backlash," and focuses on "those media representations that were and still are so much a part of this backlash ..." (116). (4)

Increasingly (and as the example of Walters's chapter title indicates), the term "backlash" has come to be used almost interchangeably with that other ubiquitous late 90s/early twenty-first century word, "postfeminism. …

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