At wave feminism and postfeminism as cultural phenomena, concluding

At its most essential level, postfeminism
emerged as a reaction to the perceived failures of second and third wave
feminism. It is often conflated with third wave feminism, in that some critics
argue that postfeminism is relevant because feminism is no longer so. Third
wave feminism is seen to lack a central unifying cause, unlike first and second
wave feminism emerged around specific issues like the right to vote and
discrimination in the workplace. Postfeminism, like third wave feminism,
suffers somewhat from a lack of a clearly defined purposes or beliefs, thus
enabling the combination of the two terms in general discourse, yet, while
there is much crossover between third wave feminism and postfeminism, and their
emergence as concepts is temporally consistent, they are not precisely the same
thing – an issue which will be addressed in the final section of this essay. In
short, however, we can think of postfeminism in terms of the definition that is
proposed by Brooks, which is that it is about “the challenges posed to
what has been identified as ‘hegemonic’ feminism” (2002, p. 4). This essay will use a variety of
feminist perspectives to evaluate third wave feminism and postfeminism as
cultural phenomena, concluding with an analysis using liberal and radical feminism
as critical lenses.


First wave feminism was arguably focused on one
specific goal: gaining the right to vote for women. Some scholars point to the
Enlightenment and the French Revolution as contexts in which first-wave
feminism originally emerged (Clinton, 1975; Beckstrand, 2009), asserting that
it was a natural repercussion of an era in which there was major social and
cultural upheaval centred around the idea of disrupting the established order
and sharing previously restrained ideas and perspectives. Others go back
further still, such as with de Beauvoir’s contention that feminism be traced
back to the fifteenth century writings of medieval author, Christine de Pizan (Schneir,
2014, p. 23), though one might argue that this was more an act of individual
and creative defiance rather than the beginnings of the wider socio-political movement
and public attitude towards gender discrimination. Regardless of the precise
origins, there are considerable parallels to be drawn between Enlightenment
thinking, the social transformation brought about by modernising disorder typified
by the French revolution, and the writings of early instigators like de Pizan:

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While the French Revolution was the immediate precipitator of this feminist and
antifeminist outburst, the controversy had been building for over a century.

From the 1690s onward, philosophers had risen to challenge traditional views regarding the inferiority of the female sex
along with the laws and social customs which marked that inferior” (Clinton, 1975, p. 283). However, while shifts in public attitudes can be traced to this era, it
was not until women across Europe and America rallied around a central cause
that feminism emerged as a movement with a specific set of objectives framed by
an overarching belief in gender equality. In this respect the first wave of feminism is
largely aligned with the international suffragette movement which emerged in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Marilley, 1996, p. 4). The
objective of first wave feminism was securing the vote for women, a foundation
on which later generations built when the movement’s focus switched to broader
issues, particularly inequality in the workplace, sexual discrimination and
sexual rights:


feminism refers to the early feminists, including the Suffrage Movement that
fought to secure the vote for women. Then in the 1960s came second-wave
feminism, including the Women’s Liberation Movement that campaigned for equal
rights on issues such as employment, marital relationships and sexual
orientation. (Laughey, 2007, p. 100) The terms
themselves—first wave and second wave—were coined in 1968 by Martha Weinmann
Lear in an article for The New Times Magazine (1968). In many respects the difference between first and second wave
feminism can be seen in the focus of the latter on less tangible
inequalities—women were not officially paid less or discriminated against in
the workplace: such prejudices were realities which everyone could see, but
were not as explicit as the lack of a woman’s right to vote.


By the same
token, it can be difficult to assess the achievements of second wave feminism, in
that its predecessor’s accomplishment are clear in the realisation of its central
objective, securing women’s right to vote; second wave feminism, for all the
major strides that it accomplished in relation to gender equality, failed to
complete eradicate a great deal of gender discrimination. This is evidenced by
recent movements like #metoo: a recent poll found that the majority of women
believe “that there
continue to be major obstacles for women to get ahead”, suggesting that double standards
are “embedded in our culture” (Warrell, 2016, n.p.). In such a light, one might
wonder precisely what is what the second wave feminism actually achieved, and
furthermore, many critics (Evans, 2015, p. 35) have argued that the second wave
of feminism, like its predecessors, was largely constructed as being too white
and middle class, with many of the issues emphasised throughout the second
phase of feminism being those most relevant to privileged women, ignoring the
struggles of their black, working class, LGBT and disabled peers. In addition,
most historical treatments of the feminist movement have effaced the role of
working class women and women of colour, giving rise to what is known as
“hegemonic feminism”, which “deemphasizes or ignores a class and race analysis,
generally sees equality with men as the goal of feminism, and has an individual
rights-based, rather than justice-based vision for social change” (Thompson,
2002, p. 337). It was in such a context – the reaction against a feminist
movement largely seen as hegemonic – that we saw the rise of third wave
feminism, and indeed, postfeminism.


The rejection of second wave feminism as largely
hegemonic gave rise to third wave feminism—this reaction was largely fuelled by
an acknowledgement that second wave feminism had neglected the struggles of
marginalised women, but it was also driven by the rise of countercultures in
the 1980s and 90s, and a general desire to embrace one’s individuality (Evans,
2015, p. 23). In this era, feminists started to reject second wave feminism as
something which, however liberating, sought to normalise femininity so that it
aligned with the ideals of gender equality movements, turning instead to the
more loosely defined, almost sub-cultural third wave. Evans argues that the
appeal of third wave feminism was that it seemed “confused” (2015, p.

49), and thus suited the younger, more individualistic Generation X.


Postfeminism emerges out of the belief that, for
feminism to reach its ideal of true equality, then it needs to move beyond its
oppositional origins, and that in such a respect, feminism is something of a unnecessary
concept in contemporary society, or what McRobbie calls “a spent force” (2007,
p. 59).

Some interpretations of postfeminism construct it as anti-feminist, suggesting
that “postfeminists
assume that equality has been more or less achieved and women are no longer
victimised by a patriarchal order” (Laughey,
2007, p. 115). Many postfeminists would disagree with his assessment of the
position, and argue that postfeminism is less a rejection of feminism, a more a
search for “a whole
new repertoire of meanings” (2007, p. 59) more suited to the
contemporary situation. Early postfeminists, responding to the failures of the second wave
movement, sought to align themselves with the views of Grosz, who warns: “Dichotomous thinking necessarily hierarchizes and ranks the two
polarized terms so that one becomes the privileged term and the other its
suppressed, subordinated, negative counterpart” (1994, p. 3). Postfeminists
also see third wave feminism as being too white and middle class (Butler, 2013,
p. 36), and so see it as a failed attempt at evolving second wave feminism into
something genuinely more inclusive than its predecessors.


As previously mentioned, postfeminism and third
wave feminism are not quite the same thing. While they both emerged as a
reaction to the failures of second wave feminism, and both embrace ideals of
individuality and diversity, postfeminism is more anti-essentialist in that it
explicitly seeks to construct itself as a movement seeking to rejuvenate the
goals of second wave feminism. Third wave feminism is specifically more anti-patriarchy,
and in many ways, a continuation of its predecessors, though with more diversity
in mind, to an extent. The best-known articulation of third wave feminism was
offered in 1992 by Rebecca Walker, who wrote about Anita Hill’s alleged harassment
by Clarence Thomas, a man who would later go on to be appointed to the United
States Supreme Court. Walker’s response in Ms.

Magazine was an explicit call to arms reflective of those put forward by
the first wave feminists and suffragettes: “Let this
dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into
political power… Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do
not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and
our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave” (Walker,
2002, p. 88). Many feminists have criticised the postfeminist perspective as
being overly optimistic (Laughey, 2007, p. 116), and we can see such a
rejection borne out in Walker’s discourse: the reality for Walker and many
other women is that the struggle for gender equality continues, and that
postfeminism, despite its similarities to the third wave, is too overtly a
conclusion rather than an evolution and continuation of the first and second
wave movements.


One of the major critiques of postfeminism is that,
despite its argument that we need to move beyond “traditional” feminisms if we
are to achieve gender equality across a truly diverse spectrum, it is as much
about the
“white, middle-class, heterosexual woman” as its predecessors (Negra et al.,
2007, p. 16) it remains as hegemonic as what came before. In many respects,
postfeminism is largely about difference and the celebration of such
difference, Phoca et al. argue that this is the major mark of postfeminism,
that the shift
from feminism to postfeminism represents a shift from women celebrating
equality to women celebrating difference (1999, p. 179). Here we see what Negra
et al. mean when they say that postfeminism is too white, being able to shift
focus from equality to difference is an act of privilege, in that white
middle-class women have the comfort of doing so. Women of colour and lower-class
women, along with other marginalised groups, do not have the luxury of focusing
on difference, because they are still engaged in the struggle for equality
which postfeminism suggests is no longer relevant, the reality is that it is
still relevant, just not for all women.


The shift towards difference over equality is not
entirely negative, in that it has facilitated feminism’s evolution alongside
the “generational rebellion” (Levy, 2014, p. 47) that accompanied Generation X.

It has also attempted to act as a liberating ideology, in that postfeminism
encourages women to explore their sexual subjectivity more explicitly than
previous incarnations of the feminist movement (Phoca et al., 1999, p. 171). The
appeal of postfeminism is that it is seen as being a reaction to strongly
opinionated constructions of femininity associated with first and second wave
feminism. One of the reasons postfeminists are attracted to this school of
thought is because it embraces women engaging with aspects of society and
culture which other feminisms might view as patriarchal or reductive, such as
fashion, beauty and “chick lit”. In this regard, Harzewski argues that chick
lit is one of the “major incarnations” of the postfeminist moment (2011, p. 58).

This ties in with notions of “the good feminist”, and the reality that many women
are attracted to postfeminism because it does not advocate for a particular
type of behaviour or appearance in-keeping with a specific movement’s view of
how femininity should be performed. For example, in films like ‘Legally Blonde’,
showing your stereotypical blonde haired female with a strong education and intellect,
and ‘Sex In The City’, where women’s sexual curiosities are expressed, these
films were brought to the mainstream and are excellent examples of postfeminism
in mainstream media.


In relation to other contemporary feminisms,
liberal feminism is perhaps most aligned with postfeminism, in that it
advocates for an individualistic view of femininity. Liberal feminism is often
critiqued as being too “loose” – that it places too much emphasis on the individualistic approaches to morality and society, though this is
an assertion which some scholars reject (Wendell, 1987, p. 65). Liberal
feminism views individuality as a product of sociological conditions, and thus
argues that for women to truly be individuals, they need to achieve the same
educational, legal and sexual rights as men: “This insight underpins liberal feminism’s attitude
to the status of women: to form as rational agents, humans have to be provided
with social safeguards such as education and the vote. Far from being starkly
individualistic, this agenda is based on liberal feminism’s perception of
individual rationality as a social product” (Gal Gerson, 2002, p. 794). It is in this sense that liberal
feminism departs from postfeminism, in that its construction of individuality
is based around and serves a central goal of equality.


Radical feminism emerged out of second wave
feminism, and takes a much stronger view of social order than postfeminism,
arguing that women should unite to completely remove patriarchal influences
from all societal and cultural structures. The general views amongst critics is
that radical feminism has given way to cultural feminism, and that the view of
the former is no longer upheld by ideologies like postfeminism and third wave
feminism: “…radical
feminism began as a political movement to end male supremacy in all areas of social and economic life, and
rejected the whole idea of opposing male
and female natures and values as a sexist idea, a basic
part of what we were fighting” (Willis, 1984, p. 91). The major criticism of
postfeminism that is offered by the radical feminist perspective is that the
former seeks to empower women as individuals without necessarily subverting
patriarchal forces. Radical feminism argues that women’s movements need to
actively seek to combat male dominance of important political, cultural and
economic sectors, whereas more contemporary perspectives like postfeminism, by
emphasising the role of the individual, are less concerned with the general social
order, and more concerned with the lives of individual women. Radical feminists
are highly critical of the way postfeminism is seen as an ideology that suits
privileged women—they are in a position to focus on their individuality because
they are benefiting from the social structures which radical feminism argues
need to be deconstructed if true equality is to be achieved. In some senses,
radical feminism can be seen as a return to the roots of the equal rights
movement, in that it does not accept the view of postfeminism that such action
is no longer required in contemporary society—if postfeminism is the
perspective which argues that first and second wave feminism are no longer
relevant, then radical feminism might be seen as the perspective which asserts
that such have never been more relevant.