03. A03.

Media & Society

“What about Men?” Claims of Equality in the Post-Feminist Era

“But the Woman that God gave him,
every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue,
armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue,
lest the generations fail,
The female of the species
must be deadlier than the male.”

“The Female of the Species” by Rudyard Kipling

Be your gender what it may, you will most certainly have heard the following from a female friend or acquaintance whenever some poor masculine fool dares to enumerate even the most slight of injustices or instance of difference involving the fairer sex: “well, what about men? Men do that all the time.”

Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy so defensive and confrontational when it comes to the subject of equality?

So why is this? Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy so defensive and confrontational when it comes to the subject of equality? After all, are we not all equal now, in this, the post-feminist era?

Now I understand that for many, to assert that we are living in a post-feminist era is to suggest that gender equality has been completely achieved. Others suggest that gender equality is an unattainable myth and that feminism is fundamentally fallacy. However, since the mid-1980’s there has been an incremental but noticeable change in the number of scholarly and media reports insisting that as a society we have entered the ‘post-feminist era.’ As a result of this, the term ‘post-feminism’ is now frequently employed in popular discourse and yet there seems to be very little consensus as to what it actually means. It would appear that one of the earliest modern uses of the terms was in Susan Bolotin’s 1982 article ‘Voices of the Post-Feminist Generation’ published in New York Times Magazine. The article was based on a number of interviews with women who were intuitive to, and supportive of, the goals of feminism, but did not explicitly identify themselves as feminists as such.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters somewhat, it would appear that the most prevalent and identifiable uses of the term are as such; the first describes an alleged ‘backlash’ against the second wave of feminist activity that throughout the early 1960’s right through to the advent of the 1980’s who as Colleen Mack-Canty asserts: “adopted as their motto “the personal is political”” and thus viewed social, cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked.

It was in the early part of the 1980s when teenage women and women in their twenties were labelled by the media as the “postfeminist generation. After twenty years, the term post-feminist is still used to refer to young women.”

The second refers to a generation of young women who claim to be largely in agreement with and are thought to benefit from the women’s liberation movement (namely through expanding access to education, employment, reproductive rights, familial arrangements amongst many other important issues) yet at the same time these women do not directly identify themselves as feminists. The former elicits a rejection of the outdated and fundamentally contradictory viewpoints held by the second wave of feminist movement which achieved widespread attention during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. In turn, it argues a transition beyond that hard line into much more amenable and photogenic ideological constructs that are chiefly characterised by ambition, a competitive attitude, meritocracy, and the rise of the ‘alpha girl.’ It was in the early part of the 1980s when teenage women and women in their twenties were labelled by the media as the “postfeminist generation.” After twenty years, the term post-feminist is still used to refer to young women.

The “new lad” image supposedly offers a space of sexual consumption and freedom alongside a refuge from the constraints and demands of the traditions of marriage and the nuclear family.

And “well, what about men” indeed? Well, coinciding with the so called ‘backlash’ against feminism by both men and women, and in particular against the figure of the new man as an insipid and passive individual who subjugates his masculinity in order to fulfil the needs of women is the rise of the “new lad.” The “new lad” image supposedly offers a space of sexual consumption and freedom alongside a refuge from the constraints and demands of the traditions of marriage and the nuclear family.  Lad culture has attracted criticism from feminist circles for its misandry. For example, famous feminist Germaine Greer critiques it in her 2000 book The Whole Woman; while Kira Cochrane asserts that “it is certainly a dark world that Loaded and the lad culture has bequeathed us”. One writer summed up the subculture by arguing that, albeit in an ironic, self-conscious fashion, “lads took up an anti-intellectual position, scorning sensitivity and caring in favour of drinking, violence, and a pre-feminist attitude to women as both sex objects and creatures from another species.”

Interestingly enough, feminist views on pornography have been wide ranging, from condemnation as a form of violence against women, to an embracing of it as a medium for feminist expression. Feminists of the former persuasion argue that pornography is dangerous for women and that sexually explicit content needs to be controlled. They argue that the pornographic industry contributes to violence against women, both in the production of pornography (which they charge entails the physical, psychological, or economic coercion of the women who perform in it, and where they argue that the abuse and exploitation of women is rampant) and in its consumption (where they charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment). The latter, however, argue that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom. As such, they frequently oppose efforts to control sexual activities between consenting adults.

Gill, however, have cautioned that…

this kind of sexual subjectification, while seemingly liberating, has turned out to be objectification in new and even more pernicious guise.More often than not, the question whether women have the agency necessary to make these choices is conveniently overlooked in neoliberal feminist discourse.

Spieler, 2012

As a closer look at such a neo-liberal contemporary ‘pop’- cultural landscape demonstrates, supposedly post-feminist narratives—Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, T.V’s Ally McBeal, and Sex and the City, to name just a few—reveal that surprisingly little has changed. The eponymous Bridget and Ally alongside Sex and the City’s Carrie may be financially independent, ultimately however, their main, all-encompassing objective in life is equivalent to that of Disney princesses and 1950s housewives-to-be: to seek out, secure, and keep the ‘perfect’ man. One of the most recent and wide reaching examples of this occurs throughout Stephenie Meyer’s series of vampire themed fantasy-horror novels The Twilight Saga. Meyer has come under a great deal of criticism from feminists who consider her to be an anti-feminist writer, saying that the series romanticizes a physically and emotionally patriarchal abusive relationship. Meyer has dismissed such criticisms, saying both that the books focuses are upon Bella’s choice, and that her damsel in distress persona is due only to her humanity.

How can we conceptualize domesticity in a way that is not as decidedly un-feminist as it is depicted in popular and academic discourse without falling into the trap of constructing the housewife as the feminist’s other?

So, with this in mind, could it be that the conceptualisation of a post-feminist western world is characterised merely by wishful thinking, not just for feminist critics, thinkers and activists but for society in its entirety, man, woman and child. Or is a more pertinent question – how can we conceptualize domesticity in a way that is not as decidedly un-feminist as it is depicted in popular and academic discourse without falling into the trap of constructing the housewife as the feminist’s other? What does ‘equality’ mean for women in the twenty-first century?

Angela McRobbie points out:

In the climate of post-feminism, women in the west have indeed won their freedom. They can dress as they please, enjoy pornography if that is their ‘choice’ and fall drunkenly out of taxis without repercussions.

McRobbie, 2011

Observation alone would suggest that this is true, but surely the real question is, what kind of a freedom is that? Perhaps it is this which elicits such a tone of defensiveness when asking the question “what about men?”