Since the mid-1980s, a steady chorus of media reports and a rising number of openly anti-feminist "feminist" scholars has begun to insist that we live in a "post-feminist" era. According to Alice Echols (1991), this idea is further manifest in the coming of age of a generation of women who have enjoyed "the benefits of feminism and [are] often oblivious both to feminism's role in achieving change and to the need for continued struggle." "Post-feminist" rhetoric has left its imprint not only on the larger public sphere, but in the classroom as well. Teaching women's studies in the 1990s means that the vast majority of students have been saturated with this "post-feminist" rhetoric. While we avidly disavow the notion that feminism has gained the dubious distinction of "post," we do recognize that the discursive construction of feminism as a reform movement whose goals have supposedly been met has permeated the spheres in which students' senses of both feminism and identity have been formed. This dynamic has been identified by Susan Faludi as a "backlash" against real and perceived gains of Second Wave American feminism.
We see the fallout of this backlash in the classroom where many students readily believe that women's equality has been achieved, and need no longer be struggled for. We believe that the most effective pedagogical intervention in this contemporary "post-feminist" rhetoric is grounded in a cultural studies approach to women's studies which stresses critical analysis of social structure, history, and ideology. We combine these analyses with feminist consciousness-raising exercises which personalize the effects of social structure, history, and ideology on the female subject. It is particularly when we draw upon texts from popular culture to illustrate the complex social processes involved in the cultural construction of gender and gender identity that students become involved and question some of the anti- and post- feminist rhetoric that has become commonplace today. Similar to feminist inquiry, popular culture texts break down the existing hierarchy of valid sources of knowledge and acceptable objects of study, prioritizing texts which are part of students' everyday lives and with which they are familiar.
Scholarship in cultural studies has amply outlined the significance of media images in the construction of reality (and gender) in contemporary culture. As a case in point, the successful manipulation and reception of mass media images about girlhood, womanhood and feminism contribute to the construction of identity for students. In this process, gender becomes a "relatively autonomous, hegemonic, ideological structure" to use the words of feminist theorist Judith Grant (1993). One of the results of this construction of gender in a capitalist society is that individuality is foregrounded at the expense of a critical understanding of the self as a social being.
In our title, we refer to our students as "material girls." The metaphor of a "material girl" references a number of processes at work in the construction of identity. While the implicit reference to the Madonna song and video of the same title signifies our concern with popular culture, the term "material girls" has manifold meaning to us. A material girl is one who is driven by consumer culture: a culture which demands the consumption not only of the goods available in it, but also the mass-produced images which are its currency. In other words, women are encouraged not only to desire consumer products and the images used to sell them, but, finally, to become these very images. Some scholars would argue that mass media produce the "postmodern subject," one who has lost a sense of history and agency as a result of her saturation in constantly shifting and dehistoricized images. While we recognize the insights gained from an awareness of this dynamic, we prefer to ground our analysis in the materially based nature of women's everyday lives - a world whose private and everyday values are shaped by larger social and economic forces. Thus in classroom activities, we situate our students in a world both unreal and real: one dominated at the surface by chimerical imagery and in its depth by the material constraints on everyday life.
Two theoretical paradigms govern the process we use to expose the ideological construction of gender in the popular culture texts we study: Audre Lorde's concept of the "mythical norm," and Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony. These two thinkers, while influential in feminism and Marxist theory respectively, provide complementary frameworks of analysis which together illuminate the complex workings of gender and power. We choose to introduce such theory to our students because it becomes a crucial tool for them to use as they dismantle the complex operations of power in culture and its effects on women.
Lorde's seminal article "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference" clarifies the interlocking nature of oppression and the inextricability of such dimensions of identity as gender, race, class, age, sexuality, able-bodiedness, and religion. Gramsci's concept of hegemony, in turn, enables students to see how the values they take to be "common sense" are actually the product of an enforced consent, conveyed through institutions of civil society and through culture, particularly popular culture. We use Gramsci to illuminate how the media makes natural and common-sensical dominant relations of power and normative values about identity and social relations. Lorde works at the level of embodiment; she shows how multiple markers of identity come together at the level of the subject's body, allowing dominant markers of power, such as white skin privilege and heterosexuality, for instance, to uphold and reinforce one another in such a way as to appear natural. We use Lorde's and Gramsci's concepts in tandem to denaturalize the universalized subject at the center of most popular culture texts. In our readings of popular culture we provide students with a new and fundamentally critical way of defamiliarizing the familiar objects and dynamics that surround them in their everyday lives. We hope to enable them to place cultural texts in a historicized and politicized context, one which recognizes the constructedness of gender identity and the covert means by which these constructions uphold such dominant relations of power as patriarchy, white supremacy, and heterosexism. This, simply put, makes the personal engagement and consumption of popular culture political, and serves the venerated feminist practice of consciousness-raising.
Drawing on the cultural studies framework developed by the [British] Birmingham school of cultural studies, we argue that popular culture is a contested terrain where dominant, subordinant, and oppositional ideologies meet and vye with one another in their attempts to organize experience and consciousness. This definition of popular culture works particularly well in the age of "post-feminist" critique in that it allows analytical space to illustrate both the containment and agency of women in cultural expressions. For case studies, we use Hollywood movies to examine representations of women and their containment, and female rap to illustrate women's agency.
After making a strong case for women's containment in Hollywood film through an analysis of the movies Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, we explore the extent to which female artists demonstrate agency, using popular culture as their terrain for transgression and critique of dominant constructions of womanhood. In class we examine numerous female artists, whom we call change agents: cultural workers who establish a connection to history, show a critical engagement with contemporary culture and social life, and who speak the diverse languages of feminism.
Our analysis of rap has a multiple function for our students. At one level, they learn to read more closely texts which they might otherwise dismiss as entertainment. Unlike their readings of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, in which students unearth the subtle imposition of patriarchal ideologies regarding women's sexuality, here they are able to discover strong messages of empowerment and unity - demonstrated through history and through strong affinity with other women rappers. At another level, students empower themselves, find role models in contemporary women artists, and learn of the diversity of femininisms in the popular culture surrounding them.
That we are able to successfully mobilize two such opposing dynamics in the popular culture texts we study - both oppressive containment in the films, and liberatory self-expression in the music - testifies to the complexity of this terrain, and to its effectiveness in reaching "post feminist" students. The students, using the texts so familiar to them, "listen to learn and learn to listen," to paraphrase popular culture critic George Lipsitz. Thus some texts are defamiliarized, taking on more complex meanings; others are familiarized, as we highlight their liberatory politics. The students' empowerment is manifested not only in their searching out and embracing emancipatory voices, but also in their gaining the ability to detect and critique hidden ideologies in the everyday.
Over the three years that we've taught Introduction to Women's Studies at the University of Minnesota, students have responded enthusiastically to our unit on popular culture. The students' new, more critical engagement with popular culture can be seen at the end of the course, when many offer their own readings and productions of popular culture in final presentations to the class. One year, two students refabricated Barbie dolls they would have rather seen as girls - punk Barbies, lesbian Barbies, Barbie as President, Ken as cross-dresser or homemaker, teen mother Barbies, realistically proportioned Barbies. Through the sheer unexpectedness of these more familiar-looking women transformed, this literal defamiliarization demonstrated the hegemonic power of Barbie's embodiment and promotion of the mythical norm. Another group of students recreated Seventeen magazine using photographs of male friends in the positions and roles of women depicted in the magazine. This project conveyed a trenchant analysis of the disempowerment of women evident in the physical postures featured in such magazines, as well as the constructedness of gender roles. In these presentations students showed that they can enact their feminism not only by becoming more critical readers of mass media, but also by acting as the producers of their own images, using the very tools of this media.
Birmingham theorist Stuart Hall once famously remarked that "hegemonizing is hard work." We agree, and add that so too is counter- hegemonizing. While hegemony is constantly at work, always conceding and reforming to meet the new demands of the culture it is seeking to control, so too must we concede and reform to meet the demands of new student populations and shifting national discourses about feminism and women. Gramsci describes a "war of position," in which "aggrieved populations seek to undermine the legitimacy of dominant ideology." To the extent that the discourse of "post- feminism" represents a dominant ideology shaping the construction of students' identities, the war of position must be fought at the intersection of image and identity, where post-feminism meets and shapes the individual through images in the media. A critical analysis of popular culture in the women's studies classroom is an intervention in the process whereby the images at the surface manifest themselves at the depth of students' identities. Material girls they may ever be, but by the end of the course the material world never looks the same again.
Alice, Echols, "Justifying Our Love? The Evolution of Lesbianism Through Feminism and Gay Male
Politics" Advocate, March 1991, p. 50.
Judith Grant, Fundamental Feminism; Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory. (New York: Routledge, 1993).
A version of this article appeared in Feminist Teacher vol. 9, n.1 (Summer 1996), and this article appears with kind permission of the editors. Visit Feminist Teacher online at http://www.wheatonma.edu/academic/academicdept/English/text/FeministTeacher/intro.html. Paper subscriptions are available for $18 from Ablex Publishing, 355 Chestnut St., Norwood, NJ 07648
Susanne Dietzel and Polly Pagenhart taught Introduction to Women's Studies together for three years at the
University of Minnesota, where Susanne recently completed her PhD, and Polly her MA, in American Studies. A
former visiting scholar at the Center, this semester Susanne is teaching part-time at both Tulane and Loyola. Polly recently moved to Santa Cruz.
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