This is a feminist perspective that covers a wide range of different viewpoints, but at its core it refers to two broad ideas:
Firstly, a belief that gender equality – in contemporary Western societies such as Britain and America at least – has been broadly achieved.
Secondly, the claim that the 2nd wave feminism that brought both radical and Marxist feminist to the fore of the women’s movement from the 1960’s onwards has not only outlived its usefulness to women but is actually now responsible for making women frustrated, guilty and unhappy about their family and gender relationships.
As you might expect both of the above are contested claims, both politically and sociologically (McRobbie (2007), for example, suggests the concept of post-feminism refers to “an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined”) – but it’s nevertheless worth outlining three of the key ideas of this general approach, something we can do with the help of a simple mnemonic:
We can flesh-out this simple idea in the following way:
The concept of essentialism reflects the belief there are fundamental (“essential”) differences between males and females. These relate not simply to biological differences but, most importantly, to psychological differences in the way men and women think, act and feel. Butler (1990) argues this essentialism is mistaken, for two reasons:
Firstly, she rejects the claim women are a sex class.
Secondly, and more-controversially perhaps, she questions the usefulness of categories such as “man” and “woman” since, in our society today, they probably involve more differences than similarities. For example, think about the different forms of male and female identities that exist in our society – from homophobic men to transsexual women.
Gender, for Butler, is considered as a “performance” – things we do at different times rather than something we “always are” and her solution to gender essentialism is the subversion of separate “male” and “female” identities. She argues we should no-longer see men and women as two distinctive sexes; rather, we should see gender as a range of social processes, some of which are similar (such as some gay men who display traditional female traits and women who display traditional masculine traits) and some of which are different.
This idea – central to postmodern perspectives (see below) – reflects the idea that in contemporary societies men and women have a range of choices open to them that were denied to all but the (rich) few in the past. One choice, for example, is expressed in terms of how we define ourselves (our personal identity) – men and women have greater freedom to construct gender identities in almost any way they choose. For post-feminists in particular, the “personal construction of femininity” often involves “reclaiming femininity” in the sense women can be both “feminine” (whatever that means in practice) and able to pursue what in the past were almost exclusively masculine preserves – things like a full-time education, a career and so forth.
This means “cutting across categories or boundaries” and can be used in two ways here.
Firstly, it relates to (traditional) ideas about masculinity and femininity – the idea, in short, you are either “a man” or “a woman”. In this respect, post-feminism argues identity transgression occurs when women, for example, choose to adopt ways of thinking and behaving traditionally seen as “masculine”. Examples here range from Ladettes (young women who mirror the (often outrageous) behaviour of young males – “Booze, Bonking and the Beautiful game”) to transgendered individuals who define themselves as “neither male nor female”.
Secondly, it relates to the argument that the traditional concerns of feminism (patriarchy, gender equality and so forth) are now redundant – they are concerns related to a type of society that has disappeared. As society has changed, so too have notions about gender and it’s becoming increasingly meaningless to talk about “men” and “women” as if they were two separate and unrelated ideas.
For critics of post-feminism, the idea of women in general being equally positioned to exercise choice in their lives is open to doubt. For the rich (whether male or female) a massive range of behavioural choices exist. For the poor, behavioural choices are far more restricted.
Leading on from the above, it’s clear concepts such as social class, age and ethnicity impact on the range of choices open to both men and women. Individualism: Post-feminism has been accused of downplaying the problems faced by the majority of women, in the sense most women’s lives are not characterised by unlimited choice, freedom and individual self-expression (just as the same is probably true for most male lives). As Coppock (1995) argues: “The irony is…that the proclamation of ‘post-feminism’ has occurred at precisely the same moment as acclaimed feminist studies demonstrate that not only have women’s real advancements been limited, but also there has been a backlash against feminism of international significance”.
Part of this “backlash” (particularly but not exclusively from the so-called “alt-right” – the New Right by any other name) relates to the concept of equality – an idea that, it tends to be assumed, is relatively undifferentiated; that is, “equality” is seen as a simple condition that either exists or it doesn’t. Men and women are either equal in a society or they do not.
However, for sociologists the situation is not quite as simple as the proposition may appear; equality, in this respect, can be a highly-differentiated concept in the sense that while it’s possible for legal equalities to exist (such as it being illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace) it doesn’t necessarily follow that status equality exists. In other words, it’s perfectly possible for legal equality to be in place in a society while all kinds of status inequalities between males and females also exist (not the least being, for example, hugely-unequal status differences between males and females in areas like the family and workplace).