Postfeminist News: Political Women in Media Culture. Mary Douglas Vavrus. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2002. 225 pp. $62.50 hbk. $20.95 pbk.
The central premise of Postfeminist News is that media representations of women in politics reinforce traditional sex roles even as they appear to promote women's presence and power in the public arena. Such news coverage, Mary Douglas Vavrus says, constitutes a type of postfeminism: "a revision of feminism that encourages women's private consumer lifestyles rather than cultivating a desire for public life and political activism."
Vavrus explains that postfeminism assumes that feminist politics has accomplished its goals and is no longer necessary. But, she contends, it "offers little or nothing to women who are not well situated materially and socially. It fails to address the needs and concerns of a majority of women, yet it significantly informs news discourse of women in politics."
Vavrus, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and coeditor of American Cultural Studies, examines news accounts of women in politics during four recent time periods: the 1991 coverage of Anita Hill, the 1992 and 1996 national election contests, and the 2000 Senate race of Hillary Clinton.
She categorizes Hill as a "political woman" because she was part of the formal political process: the 1991 nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas by elected officials. News accounts perpetuated a dismissive attitude toward Hill and "women's issues," as well as a belief in a system well-run "by elite white men ... an unraced, ungendered, and unclassed norm," the author says. Although Vavrus is far from the first to examine this coverage, it is interesting to see it used in this context-as a lead into a discussion of news coverage of the 1992 national elections dubbed "The Year of the Woman."
Like the Hill-Thomas stories, the elections were cast as a battle between the sexes. The media attributed the election of females to overwhelming anger over the treatment both Hill and the issue of sexual harassment had received. But, Vavrus says, it "denies the long history of women's work in formal politics" to attribute even the election of experienced politicians solely to this factor. It also trivializes women's concerns and activism by ignoring the fact that, in other years, "women ran for office in large numbers for precisely the same reasons . . . to change public policy and legislation and to interject women's voices into male-dominated political conversations."
In her most innovative chapter, Vavrus chronicles the shift in media representation of women in politics from "strong women poised to gain electoral power by wresting control of it from the governing white patriarchs" in 1992 to "soccer moms" in 1996. …