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is the corpse of feminism revived and stirring?


When Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard admonished opposition leader Tony Abbott in Parliament question time to ‘reflect’ upon his own misogyny and sexism, she was holding out a mirror to a society still plagued by the patriarchal customs it was predicated on. A sigh of relief and exaltation was breathed by feminists across the nation, and indeed, the world, as the unrelenting crimes of sexist conduct and misogynistic tirades committed by the leader of the coalition were, finally, condemned.

Abbott’s string of gendered chides to ‘make an honest politician of this Prime Minister’; past descriptions of abortion as ‘the easy way out’, and portraits of Australian women as housewives doing the ironing, at last seemed to have waned too thin for Gillard. This compounded by years of ‘deliberately barren’ references by conservative MPs and Abbott’s appearance in front of placards denigrating the Prime Minister as a ‘witch’ and another a man’s ‘bitch’, saw the ultimate culmination of protest for the abhorrent conduct and gendered slams tolerated too long.

If misogyny and sexism are still so ingrained within our political and social culture, why was this the first we’ve really seen of Gillard, our first ever female Prime Minister, publicly condemning these prevailing attitudes and heralding a feminist flag?

Gillard’s seeming neutrality on the matter of gender mirrors a post-feminist culture of female quiescence, and is tied to what leading feminist thinker and author, Angela McRobbie, describes as ‘sophisticated anti-feminism’.

According to McRobbie, this post-modern characterisation of a new feminism has emerged over the last two decades and permeates both popular and political (western) culture. This post-feminist doctrine nourishes a generational divide between the younger female and her older, embittered feminist counterpart, characterising old feminism as extreme, man-hating and redundant, contrasted to the newer, sophisticated version embraced by the younger, liberated woman. It preserves the principles of gender equality, while simultaneously denigrating the figure of the feminist.

The post-feminist eclipses her antiquated grandmother. Her youthful skin radiates beauty and power, while the shriveled, wrinkling corpse withers obsolete, preserved only within flippant ridicule, mockery and lighthearted jibes toward the bra burning, men hating, ultra radical old harridans of the pre-feminist era. They were angry, bitter, hideously unglamorous, and deformed by their misandry.

The modern woman is cool and oh-so-above all that old feminist fulmination. She appreciates the post-modern irony in the normalisation of pornography and sexualised caricatures of women in the media — she’s liberated enough to embrace it; she’s in on the joke.

This sentiment can be patently observed in a plethora of formats: in the glossy, glamourised pages of Cosmo, fresh with the latest on fashion, dieting and 25 ways to seduce your man’; the proliferation of ‘lads’ mags’ (which tend to champion similar airbrushed, breast enhanced, minutely clothed young models on their covers); the sexist jokes celebrated on The Footy Show and the gentle jibes for women to ‘get back in the kitchen’; the increasing sexualisation of young girls, and repugnantly sexist caricatures of the Prime Minister portrayed as a dildo-wielding rapist.

Amidst the purported freedom induced by post-feminist culture, we’ve been immobilised by an unrelenting paradox. Therein lies the unspoken expectation to be empowered, individual, and liberated enough to transcend the feminist paradigm; to dispose of ‘the gender card’. But how is a young woman now able to publicly protest against experiences of sexism and misogyny without seeming anti-men and more aligned to her antediluvian grandmothers than her modern counterparts?

This implicit requirement of post-feminism is even more subtle in its ability to silence and dismiss legitimate claims. It produces denigrating caricatures of old feminists, but it is redeemed by its post-modern irony and humour that the new age feminist appreciates.

This rhetoric encourages an implicit notion that old feminism aimed to ‘limit the pleasures’ of ‘the rest of us’; that a state of self-gratification has been attained, not through the shedding of a millennia of misogynistic customs, patriarchal values and enforced masculine supremacy, but through the gradual effacement of feminist pioneering.

What this fosters is a dis-identification with feminism on the part of young women – a total detachment from the movement, the alienation from our feminist mothers, and the negation of all that they fought for, albeit reaping some of the benefits.

Why are we so paralysed by the F Word? When did we begin to recoil at the very mention of feminism, as if it is marred by some kind of repugnant connotation? We distance ourselves from the notion, viewing it as prehistoric and redundant like our foremothers for whom the legacy is hardly celebrated, much less respected, and more likely mocked. It is a subject for gentle humour and comedic profit in a post-feminist society — but is it okay now, because women share the joke?

This estrangement from feminism has been seen over the course of Gillard’s leadership, and has manifested in the hollow echo of an acknowledgement of gender inequality that was never made, or at least never really focused upon. Politics aside, the induction of a woman as Prime Minister of Australia was an incredible moment in the history of our nation and a symbolic victory for the women’s movement. Yet this colossal achievement for women – at the very least at a symbolic level – went largely unacknowledged, understated, and is still largely condemned for it’s ‘illegitimacy’.

It was the pernicious paradox again that poisoned this triumph for women. The reluctance to play the ‘gender card’ negated the opportunity to herald women’s empowerment and progression within the political arena. To embrace the notion of equality the acknowledgment of inequality went unproclaimed, and an attempt to prove neutrality, coolness and ward off the preemptive polemics ripe with accusations of espousing anti-men sentiments became a readily consistent tactic.

But it is the silence of the gender issue that rings loudest in the ears of feminism — it is a shrill and penetrating sound that aims to deafen and to wound, echoing its malignant corollary throughout future generations.

What Gillard’s impassioned speech revived is a sense of dissatisfaction and injustice that never simply evaporated alongside the need for feminist protest. She validated that anger, that discontent and the sense of injustice that so many young women have been silencing out of fear of ridicule, fear of irrelevance, fear that these claims are insupportable in a post-feminist society.

It is sad that any of us felt the need for validation at all; that the seeds of anti-feminism have nourished a repression of anger and passion, harnessing discontent through superficial channels that feed off the insecurity they create. Because beneath the claims of self-liberation and empowerment as part of a post-feminist paradigm, are the captives of faux feminist mantra, manifested in the form of the idealised woman — the modernist, the sexualised, the consumer, the sophisticated and the beautiful, un-embittered and quiescent.

This elusive concept of ‘post-feminism’ by its very nature signals the redundancy of the women’s movement, perpetuating the delusion that all’s good and well in the world of gender equality.

What we’re seeing isn’t a revival of sexism, but the resurfacing of a hyper masculinist culture that was never extinguished, and has become all the more conspicuous with our first ever female Prime Minister and the polemics of an Opposition leader who embodies this very mentality.

Gillard’s leadership is undeniably a challenge to ingrained cultural prescriptions of gender roles and the sexist assumptions about what is accepted as appropriate femininity within society. The gendered attacks toward her are symptomatic of a deep-seated misogyny that lives on in a post-modern era, and proof that the fight for women’s rights is not an irrelevant cause.

By Tatum Street

(Image Credit)

3 thoughts on “is the corpse of feminism revived and stirring?

  1. Thanks for a very interesting article Tatum. I think it’s hard to maintain the momentum of a movement when some of the biggest goals are achieved and when it’s smaller, less noticeable, but pernicious stuff that slips through. I suspect that’s why feminism lost some cred with women since the 1990s, particularly. Equal pay legislation and the absence of overt legal discrimination means it’s harder to rally people to the cause. It means that when there is a more contained instance of misogyny or sexism, it can be shrugged off as no big deal because there’s been positive systematic change.

    I feel that some work needs to be done – although I have no idea how you do this and also that I sound like a condescending man – to point out how rare a thing the feminist movement of the 1970s was and how historically precarious are the gains that were made. The post-feminist attitude you describe seems ironic even sophisticated to some, but to me it seems really ignorant of historical perspective and utterly complacent.

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