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'Post-Feminist': Why Ubiquitous Use of the Term Is an Insult to Feminism

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I didn't count how many times Kate Betts used the word "post-feminist" in her interesting new book, "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," but it was certainly enough to make me queasy the first time and full-on nauseated by the end -- and overall I liked the book! As a 35-year-old feminist, the seemingly ubiquitous use of the term "post-feminist" seems to signal an ache on the part of those who use it to declare feminism dead and gone, despite very active momentum on various fronts and more than enough self-proclaimed feminists to render the use of the term curious.

Betts's premise is that Michelle Obama has become a style icon for her ability to marry smarts and fashion sense, and that this has been a split women in previous generations have felt that had torn between. I'm not sure I buy that dichotomy, but again, using "post-feminist" to describe the modern era puts the fault of this supposed split directly on feminism; we are meant to cue up in our minds Hillary Rodham's giant glasses, to pit brainy against beauty in order to agree that a post-feminist First Lady has managed to conquer both at the same time. She writes of Obama:

Both of us were born in 1964 -- the last year of the baby boom -- and benefited from the pioneers of feminism who came 10 and 20 years before us, women who shattered glass ceilings, occupied corner offices, and delivered on the seemingly impossible promise of having it all.

Yet what's commonly referred to as second-wave feminism (the 1960s and '70s version) is not, in fact, the entirety of a movement that is still going on, albeit in different ways, and it's now commonly understood that there are "feminisms" -- strands of feminism -- rather than one monolithic version. The problem with using the singular brand name "feminism" is akin to using the word "women": It's too big, too vast to cover all the people who either consider themselves some kind of feminist or who are engaging in "feminist" acts.

Yet Betts isn't the only one using it. A brief survey of recent news stories via Google News shows "post-feminist" showing up everywhere from The New York Times to The Guardian (once in a review of Claire Dederer's yoga memoir, "Poser," and once, seemingly ironically, in an article detailing how "casual sexism is rife" in "post-feminist Britain"), and the title of a book from the University of Virginia Press: "Chick Lit and Postfeminism," by Stephanie Harzewski. Novelist Allison Pearson ("I Think I Love You") used it on NPR: "I think that post-feminism we have to ask ourselves why so little representations on screen actually equal those great comedies when Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were exchanging wonderful truths about men and women."

Slate's XX Factor site hosted an extended discussion about whether Barack and Michelle Obama have a "post-feminist" marriage, with Liza Mundy arguing, "It may be a post-feminist marriage in the sense that it's what a lot of women in her generation have struggled with -- albeit an extreme version -- but it's not post-feminist in the sense that it's the kind of set-up one would aspire to." It's not just about the fact that if we clearly cannot agree on what feminism is, how can we even go about agreeing on what post-feminism is, but that the very term negates both the activism and identity of those who regard feminism as a work in progress, not just something to be studied in the history books (with the requisite buzzphrase "bra burning," sans explanation about its origins in a single protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant Freedom Trash Can bonfire). Witness the upcoming National Feminist Coming Out Day. Witness sites like Autostraddle, Bitch magazine, Clutch magazine ("only online magazine for Black women"), and Feministing (and so many other feminist blogs), to name a few. I think you have to go out of your way to ignore all the people who identify with, grapple with, and engage with the idea of feminism to state, definitively, that we're living in a "post-feminist" era.

My biggest problem with the term is that it almost always carries a judgment against feminism, or what the author perceives feminism to be. Often this is a sly (or not so sly) dig at the perceived ills of third-wave feminism, a dig at its permissiveness and wide embrace of feminist styles. I'm not arguing that the actions of feminists (or anyone else) are above reproach, but attack them on their merits, rather than with a fake term that doesn't actually mean anything. Witness this Eye Weekly article by Sarah Nicole Prickett defending January Jones's Golden Globes Versace dress:

Opining for the UK's Daily Mail, journo Tamara Abraham took it a step further, saying the dress "erred too far on the slutty side," which a) implies that you can err an acceptable amount (that, or Abraham just doesn't know her English) and b) that to slut is to err (Abraham doesn't know her post-feminism either).

It's often used as a code word for women reacting against the perceived strictness of feminist doctrine of an earlier age, such as artist Laurel Nakadate in a Times interview about her work: "It was this moment in the girls' sort of post-feminist movement where their way of empowering themselves was having these enormous parties where they didn't apologize for anything."

I'd call upon writers throwing around the term "postfeminst" to be a little more specific. Do you meant "anti-feminist?" "Over feminism?" Or maybe, as I suspect, something more akin to "grateful-for-feminism-and-in-favor-of-feminist-principles-but-squeamish-about-actually-using-the-word?" Even feminists don't know quite what to make of the word, or perhaps, what they see as the demise of feminism. Witness "Sex and the City" actress Kim Cattrall talking about her iconic turn as Samantha Jones: "She's a product of my experience, which is I consider myself a feminist and I live in a post-feminist world so I fight many different issues that affect women, so I feel very much at home in this skin."

Betts said in a recent interview:

I call Mrs. Obama a sort of post-feminist icon. She can do it because the feminists paved the way before her, even as she tells audiences that women can't do it all, that you can only have about 60 percent. 15 years ago she couldn't have gotten away with that statement.

Betts thus reinforces the idea that "feminism" meant having to try to do it all. That women and men are still negotiating work/life balance doesn't mean that we are over feminism, but that its relevance is even stronger, and perhaps more nuanced. Again, I agree with Betts that Michelle Obama is a role model, but whether or not either of them considers herself a feminist, we are still living in a time when feminism is alive and well. Its adherents might not look like they did in the '60s, but as a culture we are also hopefully ready to welcome feminists of varying viewpoints.

I've never been one to believe that a major social movement should hang on semantics, and therefore am not up in arms about who does or doesn't call themselves a feminist. Obviously the term can be appropriated in all kinds of ways, and I don't think there should be some ruling body determining who "gets" to call themselves a feminist. Perhaps it's indeed the false idea that there is a single feminism, or one monolithic wave a time, that has ushered in this flurry of "post-feminist" citings. I'd be fine with saying "post-'60's-feminism," or something that actually locates our modern "post" in time. Otherwise, the term is not only meaningless, but detracts from the ultimate point those who use it are trying to make.

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