I’ve written about postfeminist dystopia before — specifically, as it applies to Revenge, which now seems to be withering on the vine in its second season on ABC. But just because Revenge isn’t succeeding doesn’t mean that the dystopia it manifests isn’t alive, thriving, and doing some very complicated ideological negotiation.
Here’s what I said about postfeminist back when I wrote about Revenge:
Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary. Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means. (Suggestions that we live in a “post-race” society often hinge on the idea that a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in our society, let alone a defining issue). We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism). Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is postfeminism manifest — a self-sustaining (sex worker) who meets her prince, who will allow her to consume (and become her “true” self). Sex & the City is postfeminist. Bridget Jones is postfeminist. 27 Dresses is postfeminist.
In short, the idea that consumption and self-objectification (which usually leads to romantic monogamy) = equal rights and equal treatment is postfeminist.
In text after text of the last twenty years, postfeminist philosophy, for lack of a better word, is portrayed as the path towards happiness and fulfillment. Until, in a text like Revenge, it doesn’t.
Since I wrote that post last year, I’ve come to seem postfeminist dystopia all over the place, perhaps most poignantly in Girls (see also: The Mindy Project). Here’s what it’s like to live in the world that postfeminism brought us, Girls suggests, and shit if it’s not a mix of impossibile contradiction, the impossibility of being both a sex object and a self-respecting woman attempting a career, ostensibly independent yet wholly dependent upon the validation of societal structures that privilege very specific types of bodies, attitudes, skin colors, and attitudes towards consumption.
Here’s the implicit, if never explicit, message of these dystopian texts: if this is what first and second wave feminism was for, if this is what our REJECTION of feminist was for — this SUCKS.
Crucially, however, these texts are never explicitly feminist. They’re not didactic. They might not even mean to project the message they’re projecting. But it’s like a great New Yorker profile that never tells you what to think about the subject; rather, they just let the subject live his life, say his piece, transcribe it, shape it, and let you make the devastating judgment yourself.
Your eyes, however, need to be open. Otherwise, it just seems like “real life,” and we all tell ourselves all sorts of stories to justify and perpetuate the way “real life” operates. In other words, our media projects ideological norms — and sometimes they do it in a way that suggests that everything’s working well (see: postfeminist fantasies, enumerated above), but at some point, the seams of these productions began to stretch and fail. Postfeminist is an ideology of how women should be in the world, and all ideologies are contradictory, impossible, unlivable, and impossible to replicate in real life. But we still like to consume things that suggest that they are achievable — hell, that’s how aspirational, capitalist-based media culture works.
At some point, however, they stop working. The veneer begins to crack, with the unseemly underbelly emerging. You see this in occur in the form of noir in the ’40s and ’50s, a clear counterpoint to the glossy depictions of post-World War II consumerist culture. You could even say that postfeminist media itself was a response to the ways in which feminist media, at least in its fractured 1980s manifestation, failed to adequately address the lived realities (and fantasies, and desires, and struggles) of women’s lives at the time.
People throw a tremendous amount of criticism at Girls (some of it very earned, re: privilege/race). But some is rooted with general disgust at the depiction of sex, relationships, living conditions, struggles with career decisions, etc. Girls’ picture of life is not pretty: it is uncomfortable and fucking rough. And that’s part of the reason I love the show: it’s honest, if not always holistic, about what it’s like to be a 20-something (straight, white, privileged, educated) woman in the world today. Because I am a straight, white, privileged educated, woman, I feel a tremendous amount of identification with the characters; the shame, the humor, the competition, the difficulty of maintaining female friendships, all of it. But that shit is ugly. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its primary artistic force is a smart woman with an “untraditional” body shape, simply because she has investment in portraying the destructive disconnect between how we wish postfeminism manifested and how it actually does.
Bachelorette, too, is ugly. It is also the product of a woman – Leslye Headland — who apparently has not yet produced enough (save, oh, a cycle of seven plays) to merit her own Wikipedia page. The plot is straightforward: four girls were bestfriends (or frenemies, depending) in high school. They called themselves the B-Faces which, by all accounts, seems appropriate.
There’s The Off-Beat One (Lizzy Caplan), The Ditz (Isla Fischer), the Ice Queen (Kirsten Dunst), and the Fat One (Rebel Wilson). (I’m not trying to be offensive here — that’s how they’re defined for us). Each has grown up into the adult version of that stereotype: Caplan is a bit of a fuck-up who hooks up with random dudes that she loathes; Fischer works at Club Monaco and inadvertently insults the customers; Dunst is ostensibly living the perfect life, complete with med school boyfriend, but is a pile of passive aggressiveness, flat out aggressiveness, and discontent; Wilson, the bride (and the unfunniest of the lot, here) is concerned that everyone thinks she’s too fat for her hot husband-to-be.
They come together for the wedding, which includes an impromptu bachelorette party the night before. But even before the bachelorette party, it’s clear that life is complicated and shitty for all of our postfeminist bridesmaids:
Gena (Lizzie Caplan): She fell in love in high school (with Adam Scott — dude, I can get behind that); they had sex; she got pregnant; she needed an abortion. Scott’s character didn’t show up to the abortion, so she had to have her best friend take her — a moment that traumatized her, led to the demise of her relationship, and has stuck with her since, with the implication that she can’t invest in a serious relationship because of the trauma. Instead: she does a lot of drugs, wears short dresses, and eats very little. Postfeminism encourages women to think of their bodies, and the objectification and sexualization thereof, of a means to power — and, of course, romantic coupling. Feminism sought to give women control over their bodies and reproduction — which is why Gena could a.) have sex before marriage without ‘ruining’ her life and b.) have an abortion — but living with the realities of abortion in postfeminist culture, that’s fraught: you’re expected to move past that moment and resubmit yourself to the male gaze in order to gain power. And so Gena does — she regiments her body, she wears short dresses, she does all the things you’re supposed to do to get guys. And she gets them, but she hates them, and hates herself. She’s figured out how the contemporary romance economy works, but it’s utterly unfulfilling to her. But she’s also internalized it: when grown-up Adam Scott tells her that he loves her, he’s so sorry, he was a coward and was too sad to come to the abortion, she’s still reticent to believe him….in part because she’s become so accustomed to a certain type of behavior from men, a type of behavior instigated by her own self-objectification. Also: no apparently job, because her sense of self-worth has, understandably — given the ideology in which she resides — become secondary to how she looks and her ability to attract men.
Katie (Isla Fischer): WHERE DO I START. As becomes clear over the course of the film, she has creative skills — she can sew, she understands tailoring, she has an eye for design. Where she’s accumulated that skill is unclear, but now she’s using it half-assedly working retail at Club Monaco and maxing out her credit cards. Actual skill — and a vocation that might give her pleasure — has been traded for a service job, helping other women max out their credit cards in an attempt to keep up with the dictates of fashion. Women’s fashion sells a version of what femininity should be: in the case of Club Monaco, that version is svelte, put together, feminine, intended for a closely regimented body, and expensive. The irony, of course, is that Katie can only afford its fashions — and its version of femininity — because she receives an employee discount; what’s more, she’s so in debt that she’ll never be able to quit her job and actually investigate her talents. It’s the double-bind of postfeminism: empowerment through consumerism turns into stifling debt that ensures docility and dis-empowerment in the work place.
Katie’s guy issues are laughable, if they weren’t so plainly reflective of the realities of postfeminist dating. She’s self-objectified, and expects to be treated accordingly. When the “nice guy” former-nerd who’s had a crush on her since high school takes her back to the hotel and declines to have sex with her — because he likes her TOO MUCH and doesn’t want to have sex when they’re both drunk — she feels rejected. Postfeminist sex culture in a nutshell: self-objectification leads to objectification, e.g. hook-up culture. On every campus where I’ve taught over the last seven years, I’ve heard (mostly female, also male) students bemoan “hook-up culture” and the sort of behaviors it requires, but REAL TALK: hook-up culture is, at least in part, the legacy of postfeminism. Sexual freedom + sexual self-objectification = hook-up culture. That sort of sexual freedom can certainly be empowering, but it can also, especially after several years immersed in that culture, be profoundly empty. I’m not a prude; I’m not suggesting that everyone my age should be married (I’m certainly not) — but I am suggesting that the lack of intimacy “liberated” by postfeminist culture is unsatisfying, as clearly evidenced by Katie’s tears. Hooking up, and the implicit validation from male’s, is the measure of validation — not actual pleasure (see: Girls).
Regan (Kirsten Dunst): Regan’s postfeminist dystopia is the most stereotypical, and the most stereotypically horrible. She has a “perfect” boyfriend, she has a “perfect” volunteer diversion, she has “perfect” party-planning abilities. But she’s also soul-less, mean, hates her boyfriend, doesn’t really like her friends, and resents her best friend for getting married before she does. She has power, but its a power built on divisiveness. She’s willing to sacrifice friendship (and the potential for feminist coalition) for her own reputation. She helps her good friend plan her wedding, but only because she’s so bitter that she’s not the one getting married first. Her postfeminist fantasy is in stark contrast to those of Katie and Gena: she’s fulfilled the domestic, the passively feminine, the body-regiming qualities required of her, and she’s so unfulfilled that she’s PISSED. Regan’s anger is just on the surface throughout, and periodically bursts forth — in moments that we, as an audience, are supposed to consider humorous or, alternately, just bitchy. But she’s a bitch because ideology is fucked: she’s done what her culture, her media, her resultant ideals told her to do — and it SUCKS. She’s so unsatisfied, so angry. We don’t even know what her job is — because it DOESN’T MATTER, because postfeminism could give two shits about your job.
Like Marnie in Girls, she wants a guy who’ll just have sex with her and “show her her place” — but that sex proves ultimately unsatisfying, in part because both Regan’s and Marnie’s potential and sense of self make that type of sex feel good in the moment but sour in the aftermath. Postfeminism suggests that passivity and the endurance of patriarchy is AWESOME; in the moment, that may be true, but over time, it makes you feel approximately the same way I feel after eating a quarter pound of candy corn. In other words: barfy, hollow, horrible.
Ultimately, I’m fascinating by what I’m labeling as a new genre of postfeminist dystopia — a genre to which the makers of these films may or may not ascribe. It matters little whether these filmmakers or actresses know what they’re doing, though. Instead, what matters is how clearly they’re articulating the various dystopian valences of postfeminism. Whether they realize it or not, they’re poking holes in the ideology — and that, and the conversations it engenders, including this one, are what matters. Bachelorette isn’t a perfect film. It’s very funny, but it’s also terrifying. My hope, then, is that you’ll be able to watch it — and other texts that speak to the postfeminist dystopia — and experience both.