Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Growing Up Single: The Postfeminist Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Growing Up Single: The Postfeminist Novel

Article excerpt

The problematic dynamics of intergenerational relationships are an integral part of the phenomenon known as postfeminism. The very implication inherent in the use of the prefix "post" is that this is a new-style feminism, which has outgrown its figurative "mother": the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s. Whereas the latter was the women's liberation movement, postfeminism aims to liberate daughters; a view of itself which is reinforced through its consistent appeal to youth. That it is conventional practice for postfeminist publications to include the birth dates of their authors on their dust jackets is no accident. It is important for us to know that, for example, Naomi Wolf was born in 1962, Natasha Walter in 1967, Katie Roiphe in 1968, precisely because their postfeminist credentials rest on their identity not just as women but as young women who have grown up under feminism and thus accept it as an incontrovertible part of their cultural landscape.

The opening passage of Rene Denfeld's controversial book The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order is typical in the way in which it establishes age as crucial from the beginning:

   I was born a year after the National Organization for Women was
   created in 1966, and I was a small child while many of the battles
   for women's rights were being fought. Like most women of my
   generation, I cannot remember the time when abortion was illegal. I
   cannot remember a time--though my mother tells me it is true--when
   women were expected to go to college to snag a husband, not to earn
   a degree, when working women were confined to "pink-collar" jobs
   such as waitressing, when reliable birth control was unavailable,
   and when women were kept ignorant about their bodies and their
   sexuality. (Denfeld 1)

Here, Denfeld both acknowledges the feminism--which she describes elsewhere in the book as her "birthright" (2)--and distinguishes between her and her mother's perspectives of it, a distinction which is carried through into her argument as a whole. While her mother had to acquire feminism, Denfeld was born to it, and that assumption leads to a reversal of the mother/daughter relationship, the result of which is to deprive the mother of authority. For Denfeld, age does not bring wisdom. Instead, throughout this book, she portrays second-wave feminist ideology as stale, outmoded, and dogmatic and juxtaposes it against a postfeminism that is at once vital and pragmatic, possessing a dynamism that its precursor has long since lost.

Publications such as The New Victorians, therefore, plot a trajectory for postfeminism that takes it forever onwards and upwards away from its origins into a brave new modern world. This is not the view of postfeminism's detractors, however. In 1992, Susan Faludi published Backlash, in which she argues that postfeminism is a slick con trick, luring women away from the subversive potential of feminism by the simple tactic of declaring it out of fashion. "Feminism is 'so seventies,' the pop culture's ironists say, stifling a yawn. We're 'post-feminist' now, they assert, meaning not that women have arrived at equal justice and moved beyond it, but simply that they themselves are beyond even pretending to care (95).

The notion of the backlash replaces postfeminism's notion of itself as representing a straight track to a better future with the image of postfeminism as a curved line, a U-turn back to the very inequitable status quo which feminism had attempted to overthrow. To prove her point that postfeminism, by its very definition, represents a relapse back to a pre-feminist era, Faludi quotes Brenda Polen's claim that "Any movement or philosophy that defines itself as post whatever came before is bound to be reactive. In most cases it is also reactionary" (qtd. in Faludi 15). Viewed through such cynical eyes, postfeminism is not a striking out for independence so much as a teenage tantrum, a fruitless rebellion engaged in merely for its own sake. …

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