Power Feminism, Mediated: Girl Power and the Commercial Politics of Change

Article excerpt

In 1993, Naomi Wolf presented a divisive polemic on feminism. In Fire with Fire, (1) a New York Times notable book and national bestseller, Wolf called for a new approach to address shortcomings she perceived in the feminist movement. She cited a chief concern: that feminism was out of touch with the average woman's needs and mindset. Wolf claimed that most women did not identify with feminism, stating that the feminist movement relied too heavily upon scare tactics in seeking support. As a result, she argued, feminism failed to inspire women. Where did women find inspiration, then? In some cases, Wolf said, they relied on the media. She claimed that women more often found role models they identified with in the mainstream media than in feminist discourse, for women are "fed up with the reminders of their own oppression. We are moved far more effectively by appeals to our strength, resourcefulness, and sense of responsibility" (2)--appeals that she noted were increasingly common in the mass media of the 1990s.

As evidence for her claim, Wolf wrote that during the Gulf War, women were inspired by imagery of female soldiers. She argued, "If the woman behind you at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart can crush a foreign enemy, and probably disable an unarmed domestic assailant, what can you not do?'' (3) Wolf listed Roseanne Arnold, Queen Latifah, and Janet Reno (4) as iconic role models for mainstream women, praising media texts such as Thelma and Louise, Gone With the Wind, 9 to 5, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Cheers (5) for offering appealing new representations. Wolf claimed that the strong women in these media texts were derivative of archetypal strong women--the Greek goddess Diana, the Queen of Sheba, and Nike, Winged Victory--that were "reawakening in the female psyche.'' (6) Wolf made a case that in the popular imagination, the idea of women's strength and power was successfully supplanting a popular conception of women as victims.

Wolf praised modern iconic strong women and ancient archetypes as exemplars of "power feminism." She conceived of power feminism as a positive form of feminist thought and engagement that begins with the assumption that women have "enormous power," (7) both financially and politically. Wolf argued that women can use this power to effect sweeping change in society--working within the system, using the master's tools, rather than outside of it as radicals. (8) Thus, Wolf revealed her opposition to Marxist and neo-Marxist feminist perspectives.

In the wake of Fire with Fire's commercial success, the strong woman ascended in U.S. popular culture, reflecting changing cultural ideas about women, strength, and power. Representations of heroic women in such television shows as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Charmed (1998-2006), and Alias (2001-2006) (9) helped rectify the media's symbolic annihilation of women, (10) in discourse with Wolf's contributions to power feminism. These characters took ownership of the "enormous power" that Wolf ascribed to all women, wielding it compellingly and garnering loyal audiences. Whether Wolf's assessment of the feminist movement was right or wrong (and I gravitate towards the latter, in part because her stance on victimhood is reductionistic and problematic), she had correctly assessed the powerful woman's appeal and resonance. For several years, archetypically strong women like Xena were the pulse of the television landscape, and their narratives implicitly reinforced power feminist ideals, cycling them repeatedly through the media environment. However, the fantasy/science-fiction orientation of these shows meant that these television programs usually depicted power feminist ideals through their characters' behaviors, generally eschewing clear engagement with feminist issues. This individualistic emphasis reflected a key characteristic of the "prime-time feminism" that Bonnie Dow has analyzed: specifically, prime-time television's longstanding tendency to focus on feminist identity, rather than feminist politics. …

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