Film 299 Post

F299: Research Update #8

Below are my notes for Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a sensibility by Rosalind Gill.


  • …femininity is a bodily property
  • The shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and self-discipline; a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment; the dominance of a makeover paradigm; and a resurgence of ideas about natural sexual difference

Unpacking postfeminist media culture

  • Postfeminism should be conceived of as a sensibility

Femininity as a bodily property

  • In a shift from earlier representational practices, it appears that femininity is defined as a bodily property rather than a social, structural or psychological one.
    • Instead of regarding caring, nurturing or motherhood as central to femininity, in today’s media, possession of a ‘sexy body’ is is presented as women’s key source of identity
    • The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodelling in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness.
  • Women’s bodies are evaluated, scrutinized and dissected by women as well as men, and are always at risk of ‘failing’.
  • This is most clear in the cultural obsession with celebrity, which plays out almost exclusively over women’s bodies.
    • Ordinary (non-celebrity) women are not exempt.
    • Ex. programmes such as What Not to Wear and 10 Years Younger
  • Importantly, the female body in postfeminist media culture is constructed as a window to the individual’s interior life.
    • Ex. Woman smoking 40 cigarettes a day = emotional breakdown
  • Yet there is also, contradictorily, an acknowledgment that the body is a canvas affording an image which may have little to do with how one feels inside.
    • Ex. Nicole Kidman and Jen Aniston post breakup are glamorous and dazzling with self confidence
    • There was no comparable focus on the men.

The sexualization of culture

  • Sexualization here refers both to the extraordinary proliferation of discourses about sex and sexuality across all media platforms,…., as part of the ‘striptease culture’, as well as to the increasingly frequent erotic presentation of girls’, women’s and (to a lesser extent) men’s bodies in public spaces.
    • Ex. Rape stories are highy documented; female bodies are available to be coded sexually, whether they are politicians or news anchors
  • [in magazines] Girls and women are interpellated as the monitors of all sexual and emotional relationships, responsible for producing themselves as desirable heterosexual objects as well as pleasing men sexually, protecting against pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections, defending their own sexual reputations and taking care of men’s self-esteem.
    • Men, by contrast, are hailed as hedonists just wanting ‘a shag’

From sex object to desiring sex object

  • Where once sexualized representations of women in the media presented them as passive, mute objects of an assumed male gaze, today sexualization works somewhat differently in many domains.
    • Women are not straight-forwardly objectified but are portrayed as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so (Goldman, 1992).
    • It represents a shift in the way that power operates: from an external, male judging gaze to a self-policing, narcissistic gaze.
    • Deeper form of exploitation than objectification — one in which the objectifying male gaze is internalized to form a new disciplinary regime.
      • Girls and women are invited to become a particular kind of self, and are endowed with agency on condition that it is used to construct oneself as a subject closely resembling the heterosexual male fantasy found in pornography.
  • Rather it is to point the dangers of such representations of women in a culture in which sexual violence is endemic, and to highlight the exclusions of this representational practice — only some women are constructed as active, desiring sexual subjects:
    • Women who desire sex with men (except when lesbian women ‘perform’ for men)
    • And only young, slim and beautiful women
    • Indeed, the figure of the unattractive woman who wants a sexual partner remains one of the most vilified in a range of popular cultural forms

Individualism, choice and empowerment

  • Notions of choice, of ‘being oneself’, and ‘pleasing oneself’, are central to the postfeminist sensibility that suffuses contemporary western media culture.
  • They resonate powerfully with the emphasis upon empowerment and taking control that can be seen in talk shows, advertising and makeover shows.
  • The notion that all our practices are freely chosen is central to postfeminist discourses, which present women as autonomous agents no longer constrained by any inequalities or power imbalances whatsoever.
  • In this account, two versions of the empowered female subject are presented.
    • In one, women deliberately use their sexual power to distract men so as to take over the business while guys are salivating.
    • In the other, women are depicted as simply following their own desires to ‘feel good’.
  • It presents women as entirely free agents and cannot explain why — if women are just pleasing themselves and following their own autonomously generated desires — the resulting valued ‘look’ is so similar — hairless body, slim waist, firm buttocks, etc.

Self-surveillance and discipline

  • Intimately related to the stress upon personal choice is the new emphasis on self-surveillance, self-monitoring and self discipline in post feminist media culture.
  • Arguably, monitoring and surveying the self have long been requirements of the performance of successful femininity — with instruction in grooming, attire, posture, elocution and ‘manners’ being ‘offered’ to women to allow them to emulate more closely the upper-class white ideal.
  • Magazines offer tips to girls and young women to enable them to continue the work of femininity but still appear as entirely confident, carefree and unconcerned about their self-presentation.
    • From sending a brief text message to ordering a drink, no area of a woman’s life is immune from the requirement to self-survey and work on the self.
  • But it is not only the surface of the body that needs ongoing vigilance — there is also the self: what kind of friend, lover, daughter or colleague are you? Do you laugh enough? How well do you communicate? Have you got emotional intelligence?
    • In a culture saturated by the individualistic self-help discourses, the self has become a project to be evaluated, advised, disciplined and improved or brought ‘into recovery’.

The makeover paradigm

  • This requires people to believe, first, that they or their life is lacking or flawed in some way; second, that it is amenable to reinvention or transformation by following their advice of relationship, design or lifestyle experts and practising appropriately modified consumption habits.

Irony and knowingness

  • Irony is also used as a way of establishing a safe distance between oneself and particular sentiments or beliefs, at a time when being passionate about anything or appearing to care too much seems to be ‘uncool’.
  • Harmless fun/just a laugh: 
    • Asking men how much they pay for sex. 
    • Evaluating breasts and the difference in sizes of the breasts.
    • Dumbest girlfriend competition.
  • Any attempt to offer a critique of such articles is dismissed by references to the critic’s presumed ugliness, stupidity or membership of the ‘feminist thought police’.

Feminist and anti-feminism

  • Feminism is now part of the cultural field. That is, feminist discourses are expressed within the media rather than simply being external, independent, critical voices.
  • It seems more accurate to argue that media offers contradictory, but nevertheless patterned, constructions.
  • In contemporary screen and paperback romances, feminism is not ignored or even attacked, but is simultaneously taken for granted and repudiated. 
  • Postfeminist heroins are often much more active protagonists than their counterparts in popular culture from the 1970s and 1980s.
    • They value autonomy, bodily integrity and the freedom to make individual choices.
    • However, what is interesting is the way in which they seem compelled to use their empowered postfeminist position to make choices that would be regarded by many feminists as problematic, located, as they are in normative notions of femininity.


  • What makes postfeminist sensibility quite different from both pre-feminist constructions of gender and feminist ones, is that it is clearly a response to feminism.
  • On the one hand, young women are hailed through a discourse of ‘can-do girl power’, yet on the other hand, their bodies are powerfully reinscribed as sexual objects;
    • Women are presented as active, desiring social subjects, but they are subject to a level of scrutiny and hostile surveillance which has no historical precedent.
  • Neoliberalism is understood increasingly as constructing individuals as entrepreneurial actors who are rational, calculating and self-regulating.
    • The individual must bear full responsibility for their life biography, no matter how severe the constraints upon their action.
  • Feminism is not simply a response to feminism but also a sensibility at least partly constituted through the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideas.
  • In the popular discourses examined here, women are called on to self-manage and self-discipline.
    • To a much greater extent than men, women are required to work on and transform the self, regulate every aspect of their conduct, and present their actions as freely chosen.
  • Could it be that neoliberalism is always gendered, and that women are constructed as its ideal subjects?