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  • Writer's pictureSandy Burgham

Post-feminism for dummies

Oh sorry, you’re not a dummy. No, you’re a strong, empowered woman. So remind yourself of that, girlfriend. Look in the mirror and say: “I'm a sassy, bad-ass bitch”. You look great by the way. So, while in front of the mirror don’t forget to take a selfie and post it on Instagram with #InternationalWomensDay. You’re nailing life at the moment. Particularly with that side-hustle you have going on alongside your day job. 30,000 likes on that last post! You’re an influencer! You are a personal brand! So no doubt you’ll be busy today, International Women’s Day… I guess you’ll be speaking at your networking group “MILFs in Business”. It’s so important that women get together to support each other because it’s so hard for women to get a business off the ground. We've all seen the stats. And because it’s harder for us to get ahead, we need to take matters into our own hands and help each other out. No-one else is going to do it. As they say, when the going gets tough… That’s what’s great about “MILFs in Business” - it’s a really simple way to share business tips with other women on ‘how to be successful’. And also how to survive those ‘bad hair business days’. People think that you’ve never had a down day because you have such a positive attitude. Attitude - that’s what really sorts out who has what it takes. And keeping yourself in shape. You are still size 8 thanks to those bootcamp classes you started when you were breastfeeding. I mean that just shows your work ethic. You have worked hard and you deserve it, every single dollar you’ve made. That’s why you got the pat on the head for being the Business Girl of the Year and all that media coverage. (It’s a pity they couldn’t put you alongside Business Boy of the Year for a cute photo opp, but apparently he was only 5 years old). Anyway, you looked great on that magazine cover. I loved how the pounamu you wore matched the green of your eyes. BTW “MILFs'' is a HILARIOUS name for a networking group. At least these days we can have a laugh. Like, we get it. We are being ironic. Not like those hairy-armpitted feminists from yesteryear. God, so tiresome and serious. I mean we grow our armpit hair like French women because it's actually kinda sexy, not because we are trying to make any sort of political statement. I mean it’s my body and I can do what I like with it. I have a choice. I am pro-choice - if you want a Brazilian Butt Lift, then you go for it. If I want botox, no one should stop me. I’ve earned it, it's my money, my body. The second-wave feminists used to say “the personal is political”. But wtf? I don’t want those feminists telling me what to do and think. It’s all different now anyway. Basically if we work really really hard we can ‘have it all’ these days. Ok, ok, maybe not at the same time… but we can make it work for us. That’s why I have gone down to three days a week - to spend time with the kids while I transition into being a ‘mumtrepreneur’. I found it so hard to work full time and parent to the standard of other parents on social media. My employer totally understood. So it made sense for Jared to take the bigger role, as his wife only wants to do three days a week. I mean someone has to take the back seat. And of course it also allows for some ‘me time’ - god I need it - I just need some space to think about “what I want, what I really really want”...

... PHEW… welcome to post-feminism, where women might believe they are empowered but gendered inequities still exist in a more subtle form. Think of post-feminism as the lovechild of a) feminists who were disillusioned with predominantly white, middle class and singular narratives in ‘the movement’ and b) neoliberal capitalism which champions individuality and competitiveness. It soon took on a whole life of its own which resulted in a key characteristic of post-feminism as rejecting the label of ‘feminist’. In fact, it is best to consider post-feminism as more of a sensibility than an identity.

By putting the prefix ‘post’ on feminism, feminist collectivist activism is relegated to being a regressive symbol of bygone eras - the days of militance, anger and even man-hating which contributes to the social stigma of the ‘angry feminist’. The latter sits in contrast to post-feminism which is sometimes referred to as ‘glossy feminism’ or ‘happy feminism’. So it would figure that my attempt above at unsettling the feel-good expressions aligned with post-feminism might have been an uncomfortable read.

This post-feminist sensibility presents a rather confusing and conflicting state of affairs as several processes related to neoliberalism, digitalisation and globalisation run concurrently with sex-positivity and the cult of celebrity mixed with reality media. By its very nature, post-feminism is both paradoxical and ironic as these intersecting forces have colluded to create an illusion of progress and opportunity while subverting labour inequities and double standards. It’s no wonder post-feminism has been considered “a slippery beast”.

A key difference from the feminisms that came before it, relates to the way post-feminism has been forged in the fire of the neoliberalist context. The result is the workplace replacing the domestic sphere as the key site of women’s empowerment. You go girl! However, while ‘being successful’ at work is critical, perversely, it must NOT put at risk being successful and fulfilled in the domestic or non-work spheres - commonly referred to as ‘living my best life’.. So the Insta maven who is getting those 30,000 likes may not be as happy as she thinks she is. Because, for example, it will be important to ensure personal care is up to scratch - from mental wellbeing to external physical desirability - often with standards derived from the old ‘male gaze’. See the red flags? Simplistically, if you can be a successful careerist and be sexy then all good. Think Nigella and her Domestic Goddess franchise. Think the Kardashians at home creating an empire. Think Spice Girls with their Girl Power mantra that was seeded in the minds of today’s 30 somethings when they were impressionable tweens.

Second-wave feminism was about collective identity and collective action for systems change. But somehow, deep systems change has been sidelined in the rush for ‘empowerment’. This is because empowerment has become all about the self i.e. Post-feminism normalises the idea that systems change comes through an army of individualists en masse. Trouble is, the inference that women are individualist mistresses of their own destiny, disguises a new type of competitiveness that may actually work against the wellbeing of women. That is, for the post-feminist subject, competitiveness is not overtly against others, but actually against herself as she seeks to fulfill her potential, an unreachable goal. (It is hardly surprising that women still suffer high rates of anxiety, exhaustion and eating disorders. Regardless, ‘you go girl’).

This sets women on a new type of never-ending treadmill but in a context that suggests liberation has more or less been achieved. So sometimes women themselves are reconstituting processes that work against them. When women choose to alter or tame their bodies they might feel empowered and better about themselves without the consciousness of social conditionings regarding beauty standards for women. Likewise, when women make empowered decisions such as to work for themselves amidst a rhetoric of individual choice, attention is taken away from the lack of state provision for childcare and other gendered issues. Post-feminism certainly recognises gender inequalities in the system but perceived solutions are seen as individual actions - work hard, dress for success while doing a power woman pose in the loos, invest in women’s businesses, join a women’s networking group and so forth. In this way it lightens the load of responsibility from the government and employers, leaving women with more to do. (It’s no wonder post-feminism emerged, maybe women just got too busy to do feminism).

Ok so by now you are thinking - god, spare me the lecture… But I wanted to open this up for reflection precisely because there’s no better time to reflect on the complexities of gender, women’s empowerment and specifically feminism, than International Women’s Day. Inequity is a shapeshifter and creeps into our psyche in invisible ways. So if we want a better world for women, then the first step is to wake up to the contradictions and complexities of gender, narratives about empowerment and the feminist identity.

Today, International Women’s Day, we are being encouraged to #BreakTheBias by calling out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping each time we see it, through a symbolic crossing of our arms to show solidarity. Awwwkwarrd. You might have thought it was just about having a networking lunch on zoom. No, they want us to actually do something that might take us out of our comfort zones and put our bodies on the line for the collective. “That sounds all a bit ‘sisterhood-y”, said a friend. Yeah, I too thought it was a bit lame, but I guess if we want a better world for women then it’s time to see and do things a little differently.

People might push back and ask why we should just care about a better world for women, what about everybody else? Of course we cannot talk about gender without considering other intersecting systems of oppression in particular class and race/ethnicity. Feminism has never been just about women’s rights. It has always been about a fairer system for all. Women have done the heavy lifting because they have been particularly disadvantaged in a patriarchal society fuelled as it is by capitalist processes. And for many white women, their natural privilege in being so and being educated, allows them the opportunity to have a voice. It follows that I’m always a bit shocked when these types do not consider themselves feminists.

So, I end with one of my favourite quotes about feminism from Australian feminist scholar Dale Spender:

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women's refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, 'Oh, I'm not a feminist', I ask, 'Why? What's your problem?”

Sandy Burgham

Founder - Play Contemporary Leadership CoLab

PS Personal, organisational and societal transformation rarely occur without a shake-up. If you sense it’s time to consider yourself, others and the world a little differently, do get in touch.

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