Emory Report

 July 14, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 35

First Person:
Feminist backlash finds
roots in 1980s popular culture

Contemporary debates concerning feminism-the idea of "post-feminism," recent attention to the backlash phenomenon and the battle over "political correctness"-are not confined to the towers of academe: rather, they are carried out in the pages of Newsweek, Harper's and The New York Times among others.

In many ways, it was my discomfort with the terms of these debates that led to my interest in the representation of feminism in popular culture. These debates talked about a kind of feminism that I didn't recognize, and I wanted to find out where this version of feminism was coming from. Although these debates are taking place today, I see their roots in the politics and popular culture of the 1980s.

Perhaps one of the most acerbic accusations leveled at feminism lately is that it is too "politically correct." Feminist and other leftist academics are called "thought police" and accused of using fascist tactics to promote their agenda. Curiously, many of those who accuse feminists of being too politically correct themselves use feminist rhetoric to make their accusations and to take advantage of the changes in women's roles, brought about in part by feminism.

According to media pundits, we live in a "post-feminist" age; feminism is passé. The term "post-feminism," at least as it's defined in the popular press, implies that feminism is over, that women have won.

The first media use of the term was in an article by Susan Bolotin titled "Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation" that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in October 1982. In this article, Bolotin interviewed a number of young women who believed that feminism's work was over, that it was time for each woman to make it on her own without the support of a women's movement.

Bolotin's subjects agreed with a number of liberal feminist values-equality, choice, job opportunity-but didn't find it necessary or desirable to identify themselves as feminists. Most of us are probably familiar with this phenomenon-where women make statements that go something like this: "I'm not a feminist, but I think men and women should be treated equally."

Young women in the 1980s seemed particularly prone to this phenomenon; for example, Paula Kamen in her book, Feminist Fatale, reported that while about 90 percent of the mostly white undergraduates she interviewed supported feminist political goals, only 16 percent were willing to call themselves feminists.

Clearly, something about the term feminist was making these women, who generally espoused feminist principles, very uncomfortable.

What's happening here seems less connected to any real understanding of feminism than to some mythologized idea of feminism. In other words, those women who deny feminism at the same time they embrace its ideas and those scholars who call feminism a kind of contemporary fascism seem to be basing their criticism on the stereotypes of feminism that are current in American mass culture.

These stereotypes include, according to Kamen's interviewees, "bra-burning, hairy-legged, amazon, castrating, militant-almost-antifeminine, communist, Marxist, separatist, female skinheads, female supremacists, he-woman types, bunch-a-lesbian, you-know-dykes, man-haters, man-bashers, wanting-men's-jobs, want-to-dominate-men, want-to-be-men, wear-short-hair-to-look-unattractive, bizarre-chicks-running-around-doing-kooky-things, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar, uptight, angry, white-middle-class radicals."

Bolotin's sources described feminists similarly. As I read this collection of descriptions, I found myself asking the same question Bolotin asks: "Who had done this amazing public relations job?"

Both Susan Faludi and Tania Modleska suggest that this "public relations job" comes from popular culture. Faludi points the finger at the news media, giving example after example of backlash in the popular press. Modleski, in her more academic study, concentrates on the film industry, exploring the largely negative representation of feminism in movies produced during the 1980s. I argue that popular fiction plays a part in this public relations job as well.

Fiction is particularly important in any discussion of the representation of feminism in culture because fiction has played a leading role in the dissemination of second-wave feminism.

I call representations in popular culture "fictional feminism." I call them fictional because they are in fact made up, or fiction. But also they are fictional in the sense that they grow out of the fictional narratives of popular culture-films, television shows, magazine fiction and, of course, best-selling novels.

I've studied Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart by Marilyn French, The World According to Garp by John Irving and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike. Each of these novels discusses feminism in an explicit way: either the novel contains characters who call themselves feminists, or it discusses feminism as a political movement.

It is important to remember, however, that not all novels that address women's issues or that have feminist characters take feminist political positions or are written and published by movement insiders. In fact, as the women's movement grew and feminist ideas began to influence the culture at large, mainstream publishers began publishing fiction by writers who had little contact with the women's movement. It was this literature, rather than that published by much smaller feminist presses, that by the 1980s began to affect public ideas about feminism and feminists.

Each of the novels I discuss was a best-seller; in fact, each was among the top 25 best-sellers of its publication year. These novels, together with other popular culture, worked to create a popular narrative about feminism, a narrative that "taught readers what kinds of behavior to emulate or shun," said Scholar Jane Tomkins.

The books I've studied do cultural work-sometimes providing liberating experiences for individual readers, but always recuperating radical ideas and, ultimately, upholding dominant cultural norms.

Kim Loudermilk is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Liberal Arts. This essay is excerpted from the paper she presented at a colloquium on April 8.

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