kristyn gorton

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Kristyn Gorton is a lecturer in Media and Popular Culture at Leeds Metropolitan University. Her publications and research include work on Ally McBeal, feminist theory and theories on desire in contemporary fiction.


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The material in this essay is expanded in 'Equality and the Media: The Example of Feminism' (2003) in Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth (ed) Rewriting Democracy: Cultural Politics in Postmodernity Duke University Press: Durham.


A New Time for Feminism: 'Then' and 'Now'


'Is feminism dead?' This question appears on the cover of the June 1998 edition of Time magazine. The cover features four faces against a black background. The first three faces in black and white are of Susan B Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. The final face, in full colour, is 'Ally McBeal'. Inside, the article poses the question: 'want to know what today's chic young feminist thinkers care about?' (Bellafante 1998:54) and answers: 'Their bodies! Themselves!' (Bellafante 1998:54) which parodies the distinct lack of bodies on the cover.
(For further discussion on the Time article, see

In this essay, I would like to focus on why the question on the cover is being asked as well as how this question is answered through the media. This paper will also address the nostalgia that is suggested in the 'looking back' nature of the article. Discussions on feminism today often adopt a survey like discourse, glossing over the last three decades of feminist theory in an attempt to 'arrive' at what feminism means today. The historicity this suggests creates friction amongst feminists and post-feminists alike and generates a sense of nostalgia for the way things were.

The representation of feminism in the media performs a kind of fashion-show approach to politics. What the media does, whether intentionally or not, is reduce the complexities of a movement such as feminism into a marketable success or disaster story, one that interferes directly with the practice of feminist politics. The need to herald every recent take on feminism as 'new' and 'improved' should remind its reader of the media's role in the marketplace: to sell. The media has to market its take on feminism as the one to read, the one to understand, and most importantly, as the one to buy. In this way, politics take a back seat to image making. In short, the practice of feminist politics becomes less important than the representations of 'today's' feminist.

Germaine Greer acknowledges the media's damaging role in feminist politics in The Whole Woman, the sequel to her feminist polemic, The Female Eunuch. In her discussion of sisterhood, she argues that 'The media identified "newsworthy" candidates for leadership and massaged their images briefly before setting up cat-fights between them. I was dubbed the "High Priestess of Women's Liberation", Gloria Steinem was "the New Woman", and Betty Frieden was "The Mother Superior"'(Greer 1999:228). The triad of virgin, mother and whore that the media establishes in their dubbing of Greer, Steinem and Friedan, is emblematic of the way the media reduces political agency into easy to read stereotypes. The dynamics of feminism are flattened into one dimensional characters each of which focus more on an individual womens' sexuality than on her political agenda.

Media tactics have not changed; they continue to identify new figures to represent feminism in order to generate what Greer appropriately calls 'cat-fights.' The media sets up these figures not only to encourage debate but to put a new face to a new brand of feminism, or as in the case of the Time magazine issue, the faces that line the cover are there to question whether feminism is still a viable political movement. A linear progression is suggested on the cover, as well as in other media campaigns, which implies that feminism has moved from a 'we' solidarity of the sixties and seventies to a 'me' based feminism in the twenty-first century. The positioning of the four faces attempts to categorise the history of feminism in America into distinct identities from the suffragettes, led by Susan B Anthony to today's post-feminist Ally McBeal. The choice of all white, middle-class and presumed heterosexual representatives not only exposes the conservative underpinnings of Time magazine but also is reminiscent of why feminist theory divides itself between equality and difference politics. One can hardly dispute that the black and white heads are meant to represent 'then' whereas the colourful McBeal represents 'now'.

The staring faces also appear as a reminder of the media's role in turning feminism into a kind of fashion-show politics. In the example of the Time cover, it is not hard to pick out the most fashionable one. On another level the floating heads can be read as a humorous jab at the fronting that has dominated feminist politics over the last century. The Time cover suggests a continuation of the media's ability to construct icons in a movement that often struggles against such representation. The mug shots parody a police line-up in which all the pictured women are somehow to blame or culpable for the crimes against and for feminism. And there can be no doubt that one of the intentions or underlying readings is that feminism has changed its style over the years. From the severe matron-like appearance of Susan B Anthony to the glossy, lip-sticked face of Ally McBeal, 'you've come a long way baby' springs to mind along with post-feminist arguments that women today can be feminist and attractive. Whether the cover's designer intends to comment on the lack of authority these women have by cutting off their bodies and leaving their heads, or if she intended the line-up to spark humour in a postmodern parody, the cover reveals the media's continuing role in reducing a complex movement like feminism into a simplistic array of names and faces.

So what does this all mean for feminism? The Time cover and its multiple readings provide an example of the way the media reduces the complexities of a movement, like feminism, with a few clever tricks. There is a sense of nostalgia in both the Time cover and the associated article, a loss of an imagined 'real' in representations of feminism. The article divides itself into bold headings of 'then' and 'now' in order to give its reader a sense, however false, of the way feminism has evolved over the last thirty years. 'In the 70's,' the article contends, 'feminism produced a pop culture that was intellectually provocative. Today it's a whole lot of stylish fluff' (Bellafante 1998:56). Although an oversimplified analysis, it calls attention to the 'stylish fluff' in recent contributions to post-feminist criticism.

One recent addition of 'fluff' in America comes from the writer of Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel. Her book entitled Bitch subtitled, 'In praise of difficult women,' features her naked on the cover, her middle finger the 'I' in the title. Wurtzel argues that feminism has not succeeded in allowing women to be what they want to be; she writes: 'Because, frankly, I have a tough time feeling that feminism has done a damn bit of good if I can't be the way I am and have the world accommodate it on some level' (Wurtzel 1999:33). Until these changes are realised, Wurtzel intends to do as she pleases:

In the meantime, I intend to scream, shout, race the engine, call when I feel like it, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale's if I feel like it and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers. I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself: that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy, and it seems particularly refreshing in the face of all the contortions women are taught to put themselves through.
(Wurtzel 1999:30)

The image Wurtzel evokes may remind her reader of a three-year-old throwing a temper tantrum after being told she could not have an ice cream before dinner. Her demands that the world 'accommodate' her desire to be whom she wants to be personalise feminist agendas to an absurd level. Is feminism supposed to make these temper tantrums acceptable? There is, of course, something appealing in the position Wurtzel adopts. The narrative style is self-confident and without apology, which echoes the 'bad girl' image, she is often marketed as having. Her knowledge of popular culture is mixed in with literary references producing a motley history of women that ranges from Sylvia Plath to Amy Fisher. In short, there is something or someone in there for anyone to identify with.

However, to locate society's inability to accept this 'Bitch' figure unconditionally as a failure of feminism is highly problematic. What Wurtzel seems to overlook is that the femme fatale is a male constructed fantasy. The femme fatale emasculates men, and at the same time, if destroyed, guarantees masculinity. She plays a central role in the construction and destruction of heterosexual male's desires, not female's. In psychoanalytic terms, the femme fatale moves ultimately towards her death, whether self-actualised or inflicted. The 'bitch' figure, as a male construct, can never allow Wurtzel to do as she wants. Hence, the limitations Wurtzel resists are not a result of feminism's failure, rather they are a result of the 'bitch' construct itself.

In Britain, Natasha Walter's The New Feminism encourages old myths of dungaree wearing lesbians as feminists to be buried into our collective imagination, she argues that:

The reluctance that many women feel in saying that they are feminists is understandable; they feel alienated from the label because they feel it puts them in some sort of a ghetto, that it defines them as an activist or a socialist or a lesbian or somebody who is humourless or dowdy or celibate. A woman should be able to say 'I am a feminist' without feeling that she is implying any of these other positions. (1998:50)

Again in Walter's take on feminism there is an underlying insistence that feminism be about me; in this case a white, heterosexual, feminine woman, and not these activists, socialists, lesbians and bad dressers. Feminism is addressed at the level of dress, of material or sexual representation. Walter suggests that women today are afraid to be perceived by their male counterparts as a badly dressed, man-hating, boring lesbian socialist, or any version of this person. Like Wurtzel, her argument defines feminism via men, not women. Both arguments also reveal a sense of frustration over an inability to define feminism on their terms as well as to conclusively define woman. These recent additions to feminist criticism may begin to explain the perception that feminism in the twenty-first century is about 'me' and not 'we.'

Implicit in the Time cover and the associated article's layout is the suggestion that the old guard of feminism has been replaced by a 'new' and 'improved' variety of feminism called post-feminism. Ironically the same claim that comes out of post-feminism, that a 'new' feminism is replacing the 'old,' can be heard from some 'old guard' feminists who feel they have been unjustly dubbed passé.

For example, Kate Millet claims she is 'out of fashion in the new academic cottage industry of feminism'. (1998:G4) Millet, now selling Christmas trees in Poughkeepsie, voices her bitter opinion of this 'new' feminism in The Guardian after having been offered $500 by The Feminist Press for the reprint of Sexual Politics, a seminal text in feminist theory. (1998:G4) Her article, 'The Feminist Time Forgot', begins with the headline: 'in 1970 Kate Millet wrote Sexual Politics, a groundbreaking, best-selling analysis of female oppression. And what is she doing now? Read her and weep.' (1998:G4) Lines like this highlight the way the media simplifies and reduces the shift from feminist politics practised by Millet to those practised today. The underlying implication is not only that feminism is dead, but also a suggestion that this life of frustration and boredom could be yours if you continue to identify yourself as a feminist. Although the title holds 'time' accountable for Millet's present state, Millet blames women who she feels are unable to acknowledge their own history. She asks: 'Why do women seem particularly unable to observe and revere their own history?' (Millet 1998:G4)

History is at the centre of Millet's complaint, for it is more a complaint than a question. In many ways, her objection comes close to aligning itself with Walter's and Wurtzel's charge against feminism for not allowing them to be who they want to be. In fact, it could be argued that Millet blames feminism for not providing her with a nicer lifestyle than selling Christmas trees. That aside, Millet's charge against feminism exposes her way of thinking about history. She wants women to observe, revere and ultimately to obligate themselves to 'their own history.' Whose history? What Millet fails to acknowledge is the impossibility of a single history that can be owned by all women. There is no one history of women for all to observe and revere, and therefore no way for them to obligate themselves to the nostalgia she feels.

In a follow-up interview, Millet argues that her article has been misunderstood as bitter. According to Maureen Freely, '[Millet's] main intention was to show how bad things are for so many of the women who were in the movement at the beginning and what little respect they get for devoting their lives to the cause' (1999:2). Freely's references to 'the cause' and 'at the beginning' construct a linear narrative that attempts to legitimise and validate the sense of history Millet misses. Locating the beginning of the women's movement or 'the cause' with Millet situates Millet as one of the founding mothers of feminism. In effect, we are offered a history to 'observe' and 'revere' in the way Millet wants women to do.

Millet's nostalgia for a history that honours and preserves its past can also be found in some recent critiques on postmodernism. In Frederic Jameson's analysis of culture and postmodernism in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998 he laments the 'disappearance of a sense of history' lost as a result of the 'perpetual present' and 'fragmented time' in a society which, he believes, does not feel an obligation to preserve traditions (1998:20). In a section he titles 'The nostalgia mode,' Jameson claims that we, as a society, have lost our access to real representations (1998:10). He argues that 'we are condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach' (Jameson 1998:10).

In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard offers his most simplistic definition of postmodernism as an 'incredulity toward metanarratives' (1986:xxiv). 'The narrative function,' he goes on to say, 'is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal' (Lyotard 1986:xxiv). Postmodernism takes away reality as 'truth' or 'fact.' It values difference as constitutive not as accidental or secondary. The loss of 'grand narratives' destabilises the notion of the subject as well as the subject's position within history; an epistemological shift that upsets many. These grand narratives validate and legitimise the sense of history that Millet and Jameson miss. The nostalgia that arises in the examples from feminism, post-feminism, and postmodernism, come from a frustration that the narratives of the 'past' are not continuous with narratives of 'today.' Implicit in the nostalgia is a frustration that there are no links between 'then' and 'now.'

However, insistence upon a connection between 'the past' and 'today' will not give rise to a following. As Lyotard argues: 'Obligation cannot engender a universal history, nor even a particular community' (1988:160). The charge made by Millet, for women to 'observe' and 'revere' history, will not raise a sense of indebtedness to struggles and sacrifices made decades ago, nor will the demand for real representations bring us closer to the past. The sense of history that Millet and Jameson mourn is dependent on grand narratives that no longer have currency today. On the other hand, challenging these underlying assumptions and narratives opens new possibilities for feminism and the representations of feminism.

The shift from 'we' to 'me,' or 'then' to 'now' often used by the media to describe feminist politics, is an insistence on both a past and of a present. In their interpretations of feminism, the media needs to contextualise the movement by situating it within an easy to read history. 'Then,' or 'in the sixties and seventies,' can sign for a whole collage of images, to the less knowledgeable it is generally of women burning bras. To say 'then' gives their reader a 'beginning;' it establishes a point of reference and a linear continuum. Most importantly, however, saying 'then' guarantees the validity of the 'now.' Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the media's role in feminist politics, are the suggestions that feminism has 'arrived.' The 'now' conditions this response, emphasising to their reader that feminism has seen its day and should now make room for other movements.

However, feminism is not dead, nor can or should it be. Equality for women, always at the forefront and background of feminist politics, has not been realised. Women still do not get paid the same as men for doing the same job. Women are still not represented equally: whether in the workforce, in museums or in the academy itself. Issues that affect women like reproductive rights and maternal leave have yet to be answered. Until then, feminism is not dead, nor has it arrived. The media's suggestions that feminism has reached its sell-by-date only emphasise their use of feminism as a marketable tool, not as a political movement.

As a way of conclusion, I want to briefly turn to recent work in feminist theory. Adriana Cavarero's Relating Narratives: storytelling and selfhood offers a new approach to debates that continue to wage within feminism. For Cavarero, every person has his or her own life story and is unique in his or her own existence. The politics that arise from this uniqueness is a politics of recognition and exposure. What separates Cavarero's philosophy from the idealism that sparked off the seventies consciousness raising groups is that Cavarero is not asking each of us to identify with the other - quite the opposite - Cavarero notes the danger in such over-identification and empathy. She suggests that:

No matter how much the larger traits of our life-stories are similar, I still do not recognise myself in you and even less in the collective we. I do not dissolve both into a common identity nor do I digest your tale in order to construct the meaning of mine. I recognise on the contrary that your uniqueness is exposed to my gaze and consists in an unrepeatable story whose tale you desire.
(Cavarero 2000:92)

Cavarero proposes a way of thinking that can be perceived as a compromise between the 'then' and 'now' that divides feminism, particularly as it is represented in the media. Instead of thinking through feminism in terms of 'me' or 'we,' feminism can be thought of as a collection of life-stories, each of which inform, inspire and guide us. Instead of trying to come up with one version of feminism or of a feminist, it is perhaps more productive to acknowledge the 'groundless solidarity' (Elam 1994:105) that unites us.

Moving beyond definitive definitions of 'woman,' Diane Elam's work offers new ways of thinking about the restrictive categories used by the media to sell their version of feminism or of feminists. In her examination of feminism and deconstruction, Diane Elam argues that any attempt to define 'woman' completely only succeeds in demonstrating the infinite possibilities of the category itself. She argues that 'women both are determined and are yet to be determined' (Elam 1994:27) and explains this contingency by recasting the term 'mise en abyme,' a form of endless deferral, to include a feminist understanding, which she terms the 'ms. en abyme'. Elam uses this phrase to suggest that attempts at determining or categorising women through representation do not end in an arrival of a distinct 'woman.' Instead, these attempts suggest both the infinite possibilities of women and the failure of such attempts at a final meaning of woman.

Elam alludes to these possibilities in her conclusion to Feminism and Deconstruction:

To put this another way, we don't need more lessons in how to be a woman; feminism is no longer only the search for an authoritative, subjective, speaking position. In a sense, then, we have to learn to negotiate outside the horizon of authority. No more authoritative deconstructions of literary texts, no more authoritative statements on the essence of woman... That work is not without its moments of achievement, but it is an endless work, an abyssal politics...
(Elam 1994:120)

The question of authority and the need to abandon its imposing horizon is an important and relevant one for feminist politics. Because feminism has often relied on friction from a dominant and authoritative other to structure its politics, it has been placed in the position of repeating and reinscribing itself within the very logic it seeks to revise. Not only do we, as feminists, need to 'negotiate outside the horizon of authority' but we also need to get away from linear trajectories such as the 'now' 'then' format used in the Time magazine cover. Instead of understanding what each feminist pictured on the cover has contributed to feminism, the cover and associated article reduce the names and faces into easy to read stereotypes thus reiterating feminism as a marketable tool rather than as a viable politics.