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Blurring the binary: positioning postfeminist texts and contexts

The thesis was published by Genz, Stephanie, in September 2022, University of Stirling.


This dissertation has grown out of the contested theoretical and popular debates
surrounding postfeminism. The postfeminist phenomenon has confounded and split
contemporary critics with its contradictory significations, its definitional ambiguity and
its pluralistic outlook. Commentators have applied a number of preconceived frameworks
and classifications in order to define and categorize postfeminism. They have claimed the
term for various and even oppositional understandings and appropriations that range from
a backlash rhetoric, Girl Power to poststructuralist feminism. As I intend to show, these
interpretative schemes have often been upheld at the expense of postfeminism’s
paradoxical multiplicity. In the following, I contend that postfeminism cannot be
discussed as an easily identifiable, singular and totalizing movement and, instead, it
illustrates a methodological crisis that exceeds the logic of non-contradiction. In fact, I
argue that postfeminism blurs the binary as it depicts the struggle between previously
antagonistic stances and establishes a non-dualistic and ambiguous in-betweenness. My
analysis seeks to counter the critical need for categorization and question the continued
insistence upon an either/or structure. I will explore the gap between binary formulations
as a locus of difficulty and a potentially productive space for a new understanding of
postfeminist theory and practice.
The dissertation is divided in three parts that position, contextualize and textualize
postfeminist discourses. The first part aims to provide an overview of the postfeminist
landscape, introduce a new postfeminist strategy of theorization and depict the various
manifestations of postfeminism. I suggest that postfeminism cannot be conceptualized
with recourse to simplistic definitions and epistemological foundations as it represents a
‘shaky ground’, a site of contest and revision that eschews monological thinking. I put
forward the idea of a contextual definition of postfeminism that takes into account its
thoroughly situated nature and its relation to other discourses and theories. Postfeminism
exists both as a theoretical and popular movement, combining a range of viewpoints from
conflicting sources. It is steeped in the language and principles of feminism, patriarchy,
postmodemism and the media, creating a multi-dimensional postfeminist context that
depolarizes and incorporates seemingly incompatible opposites. In this way,
postfeminism exploits and expands the discursive junctures to posit its own pluralistic
propositions. It effects a double movement whereby it manages to reinforce as much as
subvert the presuppositions that inform its emergence. I assert that postfeminism is
characterized by a paradoxical stance that intermingles complicity and critique by
undercutting their mutual exclusivity. Postfeminism’s complicitous critique always works
within conventions in order to undermine them and, thus, it cannot be appropriated to a
single and non-contradictory theoretical position. On the contrary, postfeminist theorizing
walks a tightrope between subversion and conformity, whereby it relies on a process of
resignification to re-contextualize and re-employ the norms of power/discourse.
Part two of the dissertation takes up the idea of postfeminist contexts to situate
postfeminism in the intersections of feminism, postmodemism and popular culture. I
examine the interactions between these discourses as wen as their internal complexities in
order to highlight the flexible and dynamic relationships that give rise to postfeminism. I
argue that postfeminist meanings are context-specific and have to be reassessed
continuously with regard to their discursive surroundings. At the same time, I insist that
postfeminism cannot be subsumed and arrogated into easily distinguishable categories of
feminism, popular mainstream and postmodem theory. Postfeminism is located in the
ongoing struggle between and within discourses and it cannot be reduced to a distinct
unanimous position. Thus, I resist a static contextualization that seeks to immobilize and
finalize postfeminist locations and I declare that the postfeminist landscape is a complex
and paradoxical field of convergence where feminism, postmodemism and the media are
brought into contact and conflict. Moreover, I maintain that these postfeminist ‘origins’
are themselves areas of contention and dispute rather than unified and coherent
monoliths. Postfeminism emerges from the heterogeneous links and contradictions within
and between discursive fields, emphasizing the diverse and multiple ways in which
discourse is reproduced.
The dissertation’s third section considers textual representations of postfeminism
and in particular, it focuses on the figure of the ‘postfeminist woman’ who has variously
been described as a backlash anti-feminist, a sexy ‘do-me feminist’, a Girlie feminist etc.
I contend that the ‘new woman’ of postfeminism rearticulates the tensions between
feminism, femininity and femaleness as she adopts a non-dichotomous and contradictory
subject position that transcends dualities. She is characterized by a desire to ‘have it all’
as she refuses to compromise on her joint aspirations for public and private success,
feminine and feminist values. I discuss diverse manifestations of the postfeminist woman,
exemplified by the Singleton, the Cinderella and the Supergirl who blur binary
distinctions in their quest for a pluralistic and utopian wholeness. I suggest that these
postfeminist women seek to negotiate the conflicting demands of heterosexual romance
and professional achievement, feminine embodiment and feminist agency, female
passivity and masculine activity. They inhabit an ambiguous space that holds together
these varied and even antagonistic stances and they endeavor to reconcile their
incongruous multiplicity. In fact, the postfeminist Singleton, Cinderella and SupergirI
lack a harmonious inner balance and they are marked by struggle rather than resolution.
Their attempts to cross the dualism and occupy an in-between space are presented as
hazardous and perplexing, potentially alienating them from their social and emotional
contexts. These postfeminist heroines epitomize postfeminism’s frontier discourse that
understands heterogeneity as an explosive and strenuous combination of contradictory
beliefs, theories and practices.

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