Negra, D. 2009. What a Girl Wants: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism.

Negra, Diane. 2009. What a Girl Wants: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. New York: Routledge.


Popular culture has nearly forgotten feminism, despite consistent, negative reference to (usually anonymous) feminists. Feminists cast as narcissistic, dangerous, threatening to family, community values/consensus – casts feminists as anti-sex, anti-romance, inflexible, extremists; postfeminism, alternately, promotes (re)clamation of identity uncomplicated by gender, critique, or postmodern understandings. “The widely-applied and highly contradictory term performs as if it is commonsensical and presents itself as pleasingly moderated in contrast to a “shrill” feminism” (2). Operates on registering/resolving the dilemmas of women, based upon personal choice – extends “backlash” rhetoric of work/life balance, sexual values – usually by stressing roles of marriage and motherhood, based in capitalist success built on gendered divisions of labor, fundamentalist Christianity, commercialization of family values. Additionally, built to reinforce the centrality of middle-class Whiteness, presuming a solidarity and similar bond between all women – characteristics, desires, demands. Penalizing single women (pushing goals of wedlock, family) as indicators of “real” feminine success – as cast within a ticking clock pressing toward adulthood (female adulthood as “vacillating state of pleasure and panic” (13)).

“Postfeminism attaches considerable importance to the formulation of an expressive personal lifestyle and the ability to select the right commodities to attain it […] postfeminism fetishizes female power and desire while consistently placing these within firm limits” (4).

“[…]why, at a moment of widespread and intense hype about the spectrum of female options, choices, and pleasures available, so few women actually seem to find cause for celebration. Why does this period feel so punishing and anxious for so many?” (5)

Postfeminism, Family Values, and the Social Fantasy of the Hometown

Trope of professionalized women returning to hometown to “find oneself” – finding understanding with parents, locality, and most frequently with love – which plants their permanency in domesticity and said hometown. Items, issues external to hometown are demonized as Others, insulating the experiences of familiars as safe, preferred, wholesome. Women who diverge from these locales are cast as threatening, deviant, or even dead (subject to extreme violence) – boundary maintenance – geographical monogamy vs. geographical promiscuity (38). kx^ Even so, “missing” women are mostly middle-class, white, attractive women who receive media attention – revering the protectionism felt about these women, reinforcing tropes of vulnerability.

“Postfeminism manifests a habit of ‘solving’ broach economic and cultural problems with gender solutions; such solutions are attractive less because women want to lead limited lives and more because the promise of resolving these dilemmas (which seem to defy political redress) is immensely attractive” (25).

The “New Momism” – “a set of ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented in the media, that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection” (Douglas and Michaels 2004: 4-5)

Time Crisis and the New Postfeminist Life Cycle

“Postfeminism evidences a distinct preoccupation with the temporal – women’s lives are regularly conceived of as timestarved, women themselves are overworked, rushed, harassed, subject to their ‘biological clocks,’ etc. to such a degree that female adulthood is defined as a state of chronic temporal crisis” (48). – youthful appearance connected with life well-lived, wealth, access.

  • Preoccupation with the “deadline” – an imaginary end-date where women become inhospitable (for reproduction), unable to gain a mate, unable to do the things they want to, etc. – all facilitated by media tropes – promotion of hypermaternity in elite white women (kx^ yet, simultaneously demonization of maternity in WOC, impoverished women, etc.) – where motherhood “makes” the woman ultimately feminine, in return, the child becomes a status symbol and an arena to demonstrate wealth (engage in capitalistic displays through ‘decoration’) — where reproduction (past the normative two for many middle-class white women) is now being viewed as a status symbol – being able to afford and care for large families is being promoted as feminine achievement, (kx^ but also hinging upon the presumption that there is another provider in tow).
  • Promotion of wealth, access, and excess through “Princess fantasies” advertised and socialized at early ages, through weddings, baby showers – all points to demonstrate life milestones and achievement (kx^ but all times that befit the demonstration of class, wealth, and excess) – a “narcissistic spectacle” (51) — where “most girls construct their [Sweet Sixteen] party to stage simultaneously as both adult sexual figures (examples include Cleopatra, belly dancers, rap stars, Victoria’s Secret models, and Paris Hilton) and as childish icons, typically princesses” (Luckett CITE 3.17).

“Popular culture formulations of age-beset femininity also fortify male heterosexual desire as the cynosure for women’s concepts of self and their consuming behavior” (48). Increased rhetoric for the sexualization of motherhood, grandmotherhood – extending the demands of attractiveness past “prime” and enforces sexualization throughout the lifespan, promoting heterosexist fantasies of intergenerational sexuality (Freudian roots).

Postfeminist Working Girls: New Archetypes of the Female Labor Market

Many media tropes work to negate the impacts of working femininity with the promotion (and predominance) of romantic allure, reeling working women back into idealized relationships that infer domesticity.   Even so, romantic comedies function off of women’s involvement in the workforce that seem to be hypergendered, or marginal at best (waitress, art teachers, sales clerks, temps), though cast as happy or serene. Male protagonists frequently are cast as secure yet overworked and serious, middle-class men that “rescue” women from their low-income, low-prestige jobs, while learning the feminine wiles that allow them to be more “free.” This seeks to minimize accomplishment, but also to reinforce heteronormative partnership as essential for performing idealized femininity.

“In a series of articles for The New York Times analyzing the contemporary classed landscape of American life, contributors found that despite widespread belief that class differences are no longer decisive, class position was becoming more influential upon health, lifespan, admissibility to a four-year-college, choice of wear to live, and of marriage partner” (NYT ). – increased demand to demonstrate class (through pursuit of extracurriculars and leisure time) leaves childcare in the hands of domestic workers and caretakers – a raced and classed undertaking – increasingly reliant, but also increasingly suspect within media depictions of sinister nannies (with which the postfeminist success would not be possible) – reinforcing demands of personal motherhood.

“Because we have determined that all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual, and because the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment, we have laced the sleazy energy and aesthetic of a topless club or a Penthouse house throughout our entire culture … We skipped over the part where we just accept and respect that some women like to seem exhibitionistic and lickerish, and decided instead that everyone who is sexually liberated out to be imitating strippers and porn stars”  ( 99 here, Levy 2005: 26-27) – sexualization of the working girl, especially those who cater to “men’s professions” (business).

Hyperdomesticity, Self-Care, and the Well-Lived Life in Postfeminism

“The consumerist spectacles associated with postfeminism work to neutralize and camoglague looming crises of natural resources and the persistence of poverty while cooperating with the re-emergence of unapologetic class stratification in America. Such hyper-consumerism is postfeminist in the sense that among the other evasions of institutional, social, and political power it facilitates is specifically an evasion of the critiques of power and passivity associated with feminism. At a basic level, postfeminist culture manages the decline of social health by emphasizing the importance of personal (physical and emotional) health in an individualized, isolated context. This meshes rhetorically and ideologically with a financialized culture in which ‘personal responsibility’ operates as a kind of voodoo incantation” (118).

Emotional performativity in service positions – “Body labor not only demands that the service worker present and comport her body in an appropriate fashion but also that she induces customers’ positive feelings about their own bodies. This is a highly complicated enterprise in a culture that sets unattainable standards for female beauty and pathologizes intimate, nurturing physical contact between women, while it normalizes unequal relations in the exchange of body services” (120 here, Kang 2003: 836 ).

Interest: “the body is forever being creatively reimagined in ways that ratify existing social premises about gender” (here 123, Kipnis 2006: 67).

“Postfeminism increasingly operates as a rationale for the brutalities of the emergent ‘New Economies’ of both the United States and the United Kingdom (here 125 Tasker and Negra 2007: 13). Crucial to the logical of such ‘New Economies” is the primacy of status commodities with a general consumerist emphasis on ‘luxury, expensiveness, exclusivity, rarity, uniqueness and distinction’ (here 125 Schor 2003: 194).” – the adoption of luxury items within middle (or even lower-class) lives is promoted as “transformative, renewing, and life-affirming” (125). Environmental or ethical beliefs now demonstrated through “green” consumption – “’the emergence of an ethicopolitics of self-fulfillment and community action through volunteerism and philanthropy’ appears in which individualist/famialist lifestyles selectively engage with a broader communal sphere but only on self-aggrandizing terms” (King 2006: 45 ). – demanding homemaking as a site of communicating and fashioning identity (but as it interacts inherently and classedly with the surrounding world).

  • Simplicity and the pursuit of serenity is cast in tension with the temporal demands of femininity, and that the use of simplicity (or other types of homemaking practices) can ameliorate other sites of tension outside of the home – kx^ happy house thinking — this reflects upon the construction of the self – working on the “self” makes for a more productive and “do-it-all” capacity for contemporary women.

“Postfeminism is marked by an idealization of traditionalist femininities, a habit of criminalizing the female professional, and powerful entrancing visions of perfected female bodies and sumptuous domestic scenes […] indeed, postfeminism looks disapproving upon those forms of female agency unrelated to couple and family formation, preferring a self-surveilling subject whose concepts of body and behavior are driven by status anxiety” (152-153).



Douglas, Susan and Meredith W. Michaels. 2004. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. New York: Free Press. (4-5)

Kang, Milliann. 2003. “The Managed Hand: The Commercialization of Bodies and Emotions in Korean Immigrant-Owned Nail Salons.” Gender & Society 17(6): 820-839. (836)

King, Samantha. 2006. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (45)

Kipnis, Laura. 2006. The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. New York: Pantheon Book. (67)

Levy, Ariel. 2005. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press. (26-27)

Luckett, Moya. May 2006. “Life’s So Good When You Have a Credit Card.” Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media 4(6).

NYT, Class Matters – CITE MISSING

Schor, Juliet. 2003. “The New Politics of Consumption: Why Americans What So Much More Than They Need.” Pp. 183-195 in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd ed, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (194)

Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. 2007. “Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture.” Pp. 1-25 in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (13)


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