SI Top 10 #9 – Review of ‘The Aftermath of Feminism’ by Angela McRobbie

Is feminism as a movement no longer indispensable? Is it redundant or too aggressive for contemporary society? In The Aftermath of Feminism Angela McRobbie argues that the contemporary social and cultural landscape (especially in the global North) could be called post-feminist, an era  marked by “anti-feminist sentiment”.

Through the book, McRobbie explores contemporary society of the United Kingdom and argues that we are currently witnessing a post-feminist condition; a condition that sees feminism taken for granted in the belief that gender equality has been achieved. McRobbie states that feminist values have indeed been incorporated into governmental policies and popular culture, but those values that have been incorporated stem from liberal feminism, which has eroded feminism(s) related to social criticism. McRobbie successfully highlights her argument through exploration of glossy magazines, popular television shows, films like “Bridget Jones’ diary” or the “Ten Years Younger” Channel 4 series, and offers an analysis of how obsession with femininity and middle-class whiteness in popular programmes undermines feminism as a whole.

Slogans such as “woman have made it” or “freedom of choice” are contested by McRobbie, who instead argues that contemporary society has created a ‘successful and individualistic female’ who is able to compete in education and work as a privileged subject of the gender mainstreaming policies adopted by the UK’s New Labour Government. Based on the work of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, the author draws on the concept of “female individualization”, which suggests that the contemporary young woman is now in possession of greater agency allowing her to have an impact on society. McRobbie names this greater female opportunity and choice the ‘post-feminism masquerade’. The post-feminist masquerade, she argues, is a new form of gender power which re-establishes the heterosexual matrix in order to secure masculine hegemony. This new form of gender power is particularly insidious, as it takes place under the pretence of “women’s own choice”. Furthermore, McRobbie states that the post-feminism masquerade also works as a mechanism of exclusion and helps  re-establish colonisation by restoring whiteness as the cultural dominant discourse (69).

To make her point, McRobbie focuses  on four key areas: the fashion beauty industry, education-employment opportunities, sexuality-reproduction and globalization. These areas highlight the so-called successes of feminism, whereby women today are able to validate and demonstrate their “own lifestyles choices”. However, while women have progressed in education and employment, the global fashion and communication complex make sure that white, masculine hegemony is reassured. In this case, these industries work to re-establish racial hierarchies by undoing multiculturalism – in the case of Black and Asian woman – and, instead, advocate integration and assimilation into white dominant society.

Drawing on Butler’s concept of “illegible rage”, McRobbie argues that feminine melancholia is incorporated into current definitions of what it is to be a normal female. In other words, the struggle faced by women in order to represent and emulate the modern woman, well depicted in glossy-fashion magazines has produced a “pathological” young woman (e.g. anorexia, drug and alcohol abuse, mutilation). Such pathology is normalised and glamorised by the fashion industry through extra-skinny and sad-faced models (110).

McRobbie perceives a “movement of women” which she recognizes as a requirement of the contemporary socio-economic system. To contextualize her argument, McRobbie takes the genre of ‘make-over’ television programmes where women are transformed in order to be full participants in contemporary labour market and consumer culture, especially the fashion industry. Through examining Bourdieu and Butler, McRobbie questions the assumption that social divisions are nowadays increasingly feminised. In a detailed analysis of ‘make-over’ programmes she finds that female solidarity is broken along other divisions, such as the global North and South. Such divisions among women are characterised by “intra-female aggression” in a post-feminist climate filled with competitiveness, bitchiness and violence.

In The Aftermath of Feminism McRobbie gives a wake-up call to those who celebrate gender equality and argue that women have achieved the same level of education and work-labour participation (or in some cases better, according to statistics) as their male counterparts. To those who assume that feminism is an obsolete movement, McRobbie presents a well-written work which demands that we pay attention to the inequalities women continue to face. In this case, McRobbie attempts to ‘de-mask’ the masquerade of equality supported by a “gender mainstreaming” discourse.

Regrettably, McRobbie’s argument seems to ignore and in some cases demonize the pleasure that women might actually find in choosing a ‘kind of fashion style’. McRobbie tends to generalize women that enjoy opportunities hard fought for by feminist movements as ‘cultural dopes’ unwittingly subjected by the fashion industry. The Aftermath of Feminism is presented in a highly-sophisticated and theoretically complex form  leaving room for scholars to further analyze post-feminism and its several representations not only in Britain but also in social arenas around the world.

Categories: Reviews

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