Manufacturing Postfeminism

BY Susan J. Douglas

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I’m sitting here, in one hand Vogue’s April edition called “The Shape Issue,” featuring Angelina Jolie (“Rebel with a Cause,” we’re told) on the cover, and in the other Time’s April 15 issue devoted to the question of “Babies vs. Career.” (Time promises to offer women “The harsh facts about fertility.”) Thirty years after the height of the women’s movement, here we are: Vogue tells us “How to Change Your Shape from Head to Toe” and Time warns us that if we get settled in a career first and then try to have kids, we are doomed to childlessness. And I’m sitting here thinking: This is it. This is postfeminism in action.

In October 1982, when the New York Times Magazine featured an article titled “Voices From the Post-Feminist Generation,” a term was coined, and ever since the women of America have heard, ceaselessly, that we are, and forevermore will be, in a postfeminist age.

What the hell is postfeminism, anyway? I would think it would refer to a time when complete gender equality has been achieved. That hasn’t happened, of course, but we (especially young women) are supposed to think it has. Postfeminism, as a term, suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it has made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, lonely, and bitter, prompting them to fill their closets with combat boots and really bad India print skirts.

But to perpetuate this “common sense” about feminism and postfeminism requires the weekly and monthly manufacturing of consent. Postfeminism is, in fact, an ongoing engineering process promoted most vigorously by the right, but aided and abetted all along the way by the corporate media. Postfeminism is crucial to the corporate media because they rely on advertising.

If millions of women stopped and said, “Hey, I don’t think I need lipstick, Lestoil, Oil of Olay, Victoria’s Secret boulder holders, Diet Coke, L’Oreal or Ultra Slim-Fast anymore,” that would lead to a serious advertising revenue shortfall. So the media must continue to manufacture postfeminism as the common sense way to understand women’s current place in American society. This April we got an excellent snapshot of how this process works.

Vogue’s first-ever “Shape Issue celebrates the female form in all its glorious variety.” These varieties include tall, short, curvy, pregnant and thin. Except that they are all size two (the “curvy” model, a socialite, is a size eight to 10). Even the pregnant model, who is nineteen, and would rather “flaunt my belly than hide it,” is a size two.

The letter from the editor acknowledges that “we receive countless letters attacking the models for the way they look. ‘Too skinny’ is the usual complaint.” But then she huffs about a “simple truth”: “To be slim and fit is healthier than to be seriously overweight and out of shape.” Well, that settles that. Our choices as women are anorexic versus blimp.

It is Vogue’s job (and the job of countless other women’s magazines) to remind women that their most important task is to police the boundaries of their bodies. This regulation, we are reminded, requires considerable time, mental energy and attention. Crucial to Vogue’s strategy is to acknowledge women’s quite legitimate charges that the magazine promotes an unattainable and, in fact, unhealthy body image. Vogue then asserts that such charges are false and wrong, and that the true progressive position for women (because it’s healthy—don’t you love it?) is to embrace hyper-thinness as a body ideal. Postfeminism in action: reconfigure anti-feminism as feminism.

In “Making Time for a Baby,” Time’s point is clear: women who pursue a career first and postpone having children too long will end up barren and miserable. In the past 20 years, the print screams, there has been a “100% rise in childless women ages 40-44.” (No detailed interviews here with women who are happily kid-free.)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, on which the article is based, argues for structural changes in the workplace to make family life and work more compatible. But the emphasis in Time—and this is also absolutely central to postfeminism—is the notion that whatever challenges women face in juggling work and family are their individual struggles, to be conquered through good planning, smart choices, and an upbeat outlook.

We hear about the deep, “private sorrow” of childlessness for some professional women. But there is no comparative data here about how countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, just to pick two, through admittedly high taxes, provide all kinds of support services to mothers and, in fact, make it not just possible but customary for women to work and have kids. (How does one year’s paid maternity leave sound, girls?)

But postfeminism also rests on the notion that neither the government nor corporate America can or should offer any support to parents for the common good of raising the next generation. So the next time you see yet another media text telling women to shut up, look pretty, go on a diet, abandon your career and other aspirations, have more babies and have them young, remember that you are witnessing just the latest assembly-line products of that huge and highly successful industry, Postfeminism Inc.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..

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