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Postfeminism

I’m not sure if we’re still saying that we’re in a postfeminist age. That term came up a lot from maybe 2008-2013, a marker of how the next generation didn’t feel the need to identify as feminist, didn’t want to be classified that way, imagined that it was something of the past, that feminists were man-haters or bitches and sought to distinguish themselves as individuals who could make choices about themselves and their actions in a much more equal world than the one the previous generation had lived. But feminism all of a sudden seems to be back. 2014 has been its year, according to such writers as Rebecca Solnit, who proclaimed in her “Listen up, women are telling their story now” article in December: “Women are coming out of a silence that lasted so long no one can name a beginning for it. This noisy year is not the end – but perhaps it is the beginning of the end.” (My favourite part of this article is the way that The Guardian embedded a contradictory video “Was 2014 the best year ever for women?”  in the middle of the article).

A lot has happened this year, and I’ve been rushing to keep up with the news of sexual assaults, women coming forward, women winning prizes, protesting victimization, demanding rights. I have followed with interest all of the women and topics that Rebecca Solnit mentions, but I do not draw the same conclusions that she does. In fact, I am wary of the language that young women, self-proclaimed feminists like Marie Callaway, Patricia Lockwood, Lena Dunham, or Sheila Heti, are using to claim their sexuality, their rights, and their choices. They speak in sophisticated, self-aware, and confessional ways, seeking to speak about their confusion, their past traumas, and their sense of identity. But they still get/got raped, or were in situations in which they self-admittedly acted against themselves. They still struggle to situate themselves within our society even though they are empowered, enlightened, educated, and privileged. As Nadine Adelaar so convincingly argues in the excellent GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine, the adoption of the identity of “feminism” is one that young women take up and leave off in ways that do not get at the root of the systemic problems: “More accurately, this means that young people do not reject labels outright, but adopt them like coats, to conveniently shed when the moment serves. The ability to choose one defining label among many has come to represent individual agency in contemporary politics.”

Has the personal become non-political? Despite neoliberal ideas of progress and development; despite the great strides that feminism, in its different waves, has made; despite the mainstreaming of what used to be academic discussions of gender, sexuality, and subjectivity (think, for instance, of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In or of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A Biography)—we continue to have a lack of capacity to answer fundamental questions about power, sex, and gender and the ways they manifest across different sites of culture. While I believe that women can and do make choices about their actions and behaviours that come from a self-possessed and empowered knowledge of their identities, desires, and capacities, I wonder if sex-positive feminism, while having made tremendous gains in destabilizing notions of shame and reactionary judgment, occludes the need for an examination of the ways in which sex continues to be a site of contested relationality where the pressures and pains of gender are overwhelmingly immediate. In the social imaginary, as evidenced by cultural artefacts such as media coverage, self-help, non-fiction writing, film and media, sexual relations function as integral to notions of the self and agency. But what happens when self is defined through such an ideologically laden and vexed mode of interacting in the world? Sex is, after all, the locus of contradictory messages in our society, the place where “no” gets interpreted as “yes”, where sexualized behaviour or fashion is often completely dissociated from the desire for sexual activity, but not always, etc. Because it is so complex, we try to flatten it, designating certain sexual practices legitimate, assuming that people should be held to their words or their actions even if they change their minds, judging when someone has had sexual attention forced upon her and when she has elicited it. So here I am, a 46-year old, who is thinking about feminism again. Only I don’t know if it’s post-feminism for the next generation. I’m thinking of Marianne Hirsch’s definition of what she terms “post-memory”:

Post-memory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood not recreated (Hirsch, Family Frames 22).

Are the young feminists of today telling their own belated stories about what it’s like to be women encountering sexism? Are these stories of date rape and non-consensual sex and exclusion from sites of power and objectification and degradation shaped by the traumatic events that we lived as young women? Can our events be understood or recreated? Or are they consigned to the rubbish bin of history, irrelevant to the realities and pressures that young women face today?

I know what I used to think of 46-year old women when I was 20. They were conservative, critical, fearful, and constrained. When they warned me away from a certain situation or encounter, I would jump fearlessly into it, in the belief that I knew something that they did not. And I did. I knew (kinda!) what it was like to live in my present, even though my understanding of my own stories was shaped by their traumatic events around sex and sexism in ways that I could “neither understand nor recreate.” So my question now is, can we speak inter-generationally? Not in a “post-” way, because then something is always belated, out of step, reiterating positions and arguments and traumas that mark our differences and intransigent beliefs. But as feminists who can talk to each other about our pasts in the present. How else can we begin to think a politics of collectivity, outside the constraints of neoliberal subjectivity and its fictions of individuality and choice?

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