Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"A Critique of Post-feminism" by Zsófia Kulcsár

Zsófia Kulcsár is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:


It is a common claim in contemporary women’s (fashion) magazines that in the 21st century in Anglo-American societies women have already achieved equality. These magazines tend to imply that feminism has only a past but not a future because in contemporary societies there is no need for it any more. As an illustration of the validity of their claim, magazines present images of successful career women in order to provide a “proof” that women can achieve positions of decision making. They can be successful in business life, what’s more, they can even act as politicians on the national level. Accordingly, the conclusion that women have equal chances with men is immediately made. At the same time, this assumption voiced by the media is very close to, if not the same as, what post-feminism or to be more precise post-feminist scholars have made about the already achieved gender equality and the end of (second-wave) feminism. In contrast to these ideas, when I took a closer look at the representation of professional women in these magazines, I realized that they mostly present women in high status jobs in relation to their appearance. Furthermore, the image that the magazines create about female politicians seems to be controversial in many ways.

For this reason, in this paper I intend to problematize the ideas of post-feminism concerning gender equality. In order to be able to argue that we have not arrived at the post-feminist era in contemporary modern societies, I draw on Angela McRobbie’s (self-)criticism of post-feminism’s alleged acknowledgement of the success of second-wave feminism and her insistence on the need of a systematic critique of gendered power relations, as well as Liesbet van Zoonen’s studies that discuss the relationship between popular culture and (female) politicians. Through my analysis of the representation of Hillary Rodham Clinton during the last presidential election campaign, I try to expose the ideological work of the images that are created around women and ’femininity’. I deconstruct the validity of post-feminism’s claims through analyzing the editorial letter in Vogue written by Anna Wintour in which she criticizes Hillary Clinton for changing her mind about appearing on the cover of her magazine in February 2008. Hillary Clinton and her campaign team’s decision is based on the fear that Hillary Clinton would have been regarded as too feminine if she had accepted to appear as the cover photo of Vogue and therefore would have run the risk of having an inadequate image of her as a reliable and ’authentic’ US political leader. In my paper, I propose that Clinton’s decision was reasonable and in fact it is the logic of Wintour’s very argumentation that can prove the Clinton team right. I argue that feminine appearance is still a hindering factor for female politicians and for women in general if they want to get into high-status jobs or politics and, therefore, this form of inequity must be an issue for feminist scholarship.

’Post-feminism’: A Debate in Contemporary Feminism(s)

A central debate within third-wave feminism, starting in the 1990s to date, is concerned with the existence of post-feminism. There are more and more products of the media that seem to emphasize the idea that feminism is no longer necessary because society has changed and women have achieved equality. However, academic feminists, for example, Kristyn Gorton (2007) or Angela Mcrobbie (2009) mostly reject this assumption and in the course of developing their ideas, they use and analyze the very products of the media. For arguments, they tend to turn to the alleged changes in the representation of women in the traditionally heteropatriarchal ’woman’s genre’, the changes in the prime time television series and journal articles in the upper-middle class segment of the print media, mostly women’s monthly glossy magazines.

By taking a look at the history of feminism, we can clearly see that there has always been a kind of backlash against women and feminism in order to keep patriarchy in its place and to win a new consensus about men’s redefined relative privilege. Firstly, there was the main goal of first-wave feminism, organizing women’s struggle for access to various social assets, best represented but not to be reduced to, the fight for getting the vote. After achieving it, it could have been claimed that there was equality, which, according to this logic of argumentation, would have meant that it was the end of feminism. In contrast, now we know that with the vote patriarchy in society did not come to its end but came to be reconfigured. (After all, when suffragette movement set out for the vote they meant the right to be voted as well which meant that they wanted women to be able to participate in decision-making, for instance in politics. However, they only achieved the right to vote, which meant the restructuration of the patriarchal privileges, and not their end.)

As for the backlash against the partial success of the second-wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, addressing issues like equality in the workplace and reproductive rights, we still cannot find any figures that could prove the inessential status of feminist struggle. Quite the opposite, there is still a lot to do. For instance, to secure access to childcare for working mothers, or to achieve autonomy of women over their body in decisions concerning reproductive sexuality, or to guarantee women’s equal representation in the workforce, as Kristyn Gorton (2007, 83) and Andrea Stuart (1990, 28) point out convincingly, are most certainly tasks yet to be done.

However, the post-feminist approach in contemporary third-wave feminism would argue for a focus on issues of individual autonomy and diversity of representation, and an individual based empowerment of women. This conception of feminism is highly problematic, argues Gorton (2007), because its logic reduces the political struggle that is always a matter of a collective fight to individual issues to be “managed.” At the same time, post-feminism has therefore also come to the point of backlash, claiming yet again that, in today’s society we have arrived to the point where feminism is no longer necessary.

The first influential book that exposed backlash in third-wave feminism is Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). When developing her ”backlash thesis,” Faludi addresses the counter effective arguments – academic or otherwise in the media – that try to prove the validity of claims to ’post-feminism’. As an illustration supporting her critique, she shows how the media manipulated the statistics produced by feminist research. For instance, on the basis of some data it implied a favorable shift in women’s access to waged jobs, moreover it presented negative stereotypes of/against women who instead of staying at home and wanting to have it “both ways,” chose to have a career “only.” This means that with the help of these false results the media was able to manipulate and undo, or at least minimize the achievements of feminism. With regard to this, it follows from Faludi’s argument that this kind of representation of women degrades the achievements of second-wave feminism.

For a second example of the dangerous position of post-feminism within feminist scholarship itself, Faludi takes into account the phenomenon of ’new traditionalism.’ The essence of that move is that women in the media, especially in the new generation of prime time television series, come to be protagonists of the series. At the same time, since the traditional western family life is promoted, they are still most concerned with the apparent ’choice’ available for them. In other words, women should be concerned with how to return home and to domesticity, i.e. how to find a husband. The situation that Faludi described about the 1980s seems to be still present in contemporary American society. There is still a circulation of these so-called post-feminist images in the new generation of women’s magazines, represented by Marie Claire or Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue which are the rivals at the contemporary (US) magazine market for “the new professional woman” (McRobbie, 1996). This means that although the representation of femininity (might) have changed since the 1980s, the ‘new’ representation is not inevitably a feminist success because feminist success would be less oriented towards patriarchal values. However, what post-feminism seems to celebrate is precisely this highly problematic change in the representation of femininity in the media.

Angela McRobbie (2009) in her latest book, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change claims that the appearance of post-feminism in contemporary popular culture contributes to the undoing of (academic) feminism because post-feminism suggests that feminism is no longer necessary, equality is achieved. In her view, academic feminism in the media is now presented as if it was “out of fashion” (16). In contrast to this, post-feminism is made to seem as a media-friendly version of feminism and it is therefore also seen as an appropriate substitute of feminism. Kristyn Gorton, the third major author whose work I draw on for problematizing post-feminism, would say that this move counts as turning feminism itself into a “fashion statement,” the latest trend in the “modern” world of ‘up-beat.’ (83) (For a detailed discussion see below.)

McRobbie agrees with, and gives credit to Susan Faludi’s ‘backlash thesis’, however, she proposes a more dynamic approach to Faludi’s thesis and redefines it as a network of social practices. Firstly, she explains the most characteristic feature of the phenomenon of backlash called ’undoing feminism.’ It is, in her view, an instance of ‘disarticulation’ of feminism that means “a force which devalues, or negates and makes unthinkable the very basis of coming-together…on the assumption widely promoted [in the media] that there is no longer any need for such actions” (26). In other words, through the articulation of such ideas feminism is devalued and seen as out of fashion. The ‘disarticulation’ of feminism can also mean that negative ideas are disseminated of feminists; such as the assumption that they hate men; thus feminism is not only made to seem unnecessary but also highly negative for society. Secondly, McRobbie describes post-feminism in popular culture as a case of ‘double entanglement’ (6). This means in her opinion that there are ‘neo-conservative’ values presented “in relation to gender, sexuality and family life” (12). By the term ‘double entanglement’ she implies that, on the one hand, there is a kind of insistence and emphasis on traditional ’values’ and norms that are argued to be accepted by most of the people in a society, like traditional marriage while on the other hand, giving (some reduced) rights to homosexual and lesbian couples as well. Thirdly, she indicates that the media emphasize the phenomenon called ‘female individualisation.’ (19) Accordingly, women must act individualistically with the help of ‘self-monitoring’ practices like the diary, the life-plan and the “self-help guides,”1 which maintain and promote individualization. This kind of female individualization can be best exemplified, in her view, with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary, which can be seen as a romance in a post-feminist tradition; Bridget is independent, she has a job which means that she is economically independent, she has a choice, however, her goal is to find ‘Mr. Right’. Moreover, in order to appeal to male desire she constantly monitors and disciplines her body. For instance, she is always conscious about how she behaves and what she says, she constantly watches her weight, reads about how to be ‘properly feminine’ and fashionable and even writes a diary about all these.

In her study, The Politics of Equality and the Media: The Example of Feminism, Kristyn Gorton (2007) explores how a kind of post-feminism, or popular feminism is present in the media to maintain the image of social transformation. Her major claim is that not too much have changed since second wave feminism in the 1980s articulated its critique of patriarchy. She points out that the media, while arguing that feminism was once a relevant political struggle but is now left with no causes to fight, offer representations or ideas of fictive individuals like Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal as if they were representatives of actual (academic) feminists. The paradox is that it is through their imaginary example that the media want to point out that actual feminist political agendas have succeeded. Besides, these female characters of woman-centered genres do not actually come to be articulated as feminist characters. By associating contemporary representatives of feminism with a nostalgia, feminists are presented as a past thing ’then’ against whom representative figures of post-feminism emerge inevitably as today’s ’now’.

According to Gorton’s critical position, the media is to be seen as the cause of post-feminism in that it reduces the complexities of feminism “into a marketable success or a disaster story” (85). The media is accused of being only profit oriented, and caring about representation of today’s individual feminists, and not about feminist politics. According to Gorton the major assumption of the media about ’feminism’ is that a ” ’new’ and ’improved’ variety of feminism called post-feminism has replaced the ’old guard feminism’” (90). However, she rejects this idea by arguing convincingly that we do not need a ’new’ movement because the old one is still in action to end patriarchy.

In her study of the new generation of woman-centered television series in the 1990s, New Traditionalism and Post-Feminism: TV Does the Home, Elspeth Probyn also claims that feminism should still be important. She, just as Faludi (1991), also argues that ’new traditionalism’ and post-feminism are in the air and they need to be addressed by academic feminists. Although she argues that this new version of the genre may appropriate feminism when representing strong women for heroes, these female figures cannot be described as embodiments of feminist ideals. They have rather created a post-feminist vision of the home yet again of all places which is made to seem a place where women can ’freely’ choose to return if and when they do not choose to pursue a career. This goes along with her explanation of new traditionalism, i.e. the re-positioning of women in the home which is a safe place and from where women have the alleged freedom to leave if they want. Probyn argues that new traditionalism is just made to seem as a choice, but it is not indeed, since for women the home is taken as the ’natural choice’ that they are supposed to choose. Accordingly, the ’choice’ that is so much appealing does not really exist. To name this phenomenon, she quotes Leslie Savan’s expression, ’choiceoisie’, which is said to be present in post-feminism and new traditionalism as well (Savan 1989, 49 quoted in Probyn 1997, 130).

Fashion, Femininity and Post-Feminism in the Media

Fashion is a liberatory factor for women according to post-feminists. However, in the view of academic feminists, it is highly problematic to state that fashion is liberating. As McRobbie argues (58), fashion is a tool of post-feminism for ’gender re-positioning’. This ’gender re-positioning’ is carried out through the idea of what she calls ’post-feminist masquerade’. This kind of ’re-positioning’ does not inevitably mean a change in the social organization of gender relations. As she puts it: ”I want to propose that the post-feminist masquerade is a strategy or device for the re-securing of patriarchal law and masculine hegemony.” (58) Basically, this means that post-feminism does not end hierarchical relations of gender or in other words, it reiterates patriarchy in the society. That is to say, the only thing it does – with the help of fashion – is ’gender re-positioning’ i.e. it changes one ideal feminine image/representation for another. To demonstrate the point, in contemporary women’s magazines the image of a traditional housewife is replaced by the image of an individual, successful, fashionable female character who has a career as well, such as Helen Fielding’s fictive character Bridget Jones. However, as McRobbie convincingly argues, it means the undoing of the gains of feminism. The ’post-feminist masquerade’ (58) reintroduces patriarchal ideas though with a different or changing representation of femininity. This new image of woman (or femininity) seems to be highly reliant on fashion; especially in women’s magazines, and is now made to seem as a matter of choice. In other words, fashion and the idealized feminine appearance is now seemingly a ’freely chosen look’ for women.

In contrast, it might be argued that what post-feminists regard as a ’free choice’ is not inevitably a free choice but rather a controlled one. In fact, fashion in general tends to have a kind of dictating role. We are conscious about what we wear, and it makes sense for us because we have learned how to do it properly. This indeed means that our preferences are not entirely our own, they are formed by the social institutions around us. Thus, by fashion femininity becomes regulated and socially prescribed. This social space of regulation is called ’habitus’ by Bourdieu (Pierre Bourdieu in C. Lury 1996, 81). Bourdieu highlights the importance of the ’logic of practice’. It is often made to seem that wearing fashionable clothes, or rather having a traditional feminine style is an individual practice (or a choice as it is claimed by post-feminists) of women. What Bourdieu points out with the help of the ’logic of practice’ is that it is not an individual practice but rather a collective and a socially governed one.

The media, especially women’s fashion magazines as mediators of discourses of femininity, have a great role in creating an image of/for ideal femininity. In her study, More! Angela McRobbie (1996) claims that the women’s magazine is “possibly the most concentrated and uninterrupted media-scape for the construction of normative femininity” (172). However, she has a more favorable view on the representation of sexual life and sexuality in magazines, influenced by (academic) feminism. In so far as it is ’denaturalized’ sexual life now is represented as a practice that requires a kind of learning process or at least, it needs to be practiced (186). In other words, sex is no more based on the previously naive assumption, she argues that it comes naturally if you are with the man with whom you are in love (which, by the way, presupposes a heterosexual relationship).

Nevertheless, McRobbie regards fashion as a tool for achieving ’proper’ female (hetero)sexuality. For this, women need to go through self-improvement by the means of consuming products like self-help literature and beauty items as McRobbie (1996) and Cameron (2000) have pointed out. This means that these magazines still represent a ’normative femininity’ through fashion and body image which inevitably results in prescribing or defining the ideal female beauty. Hence, the kind of ’free choice’ that post-feminists tend to take for granted, and the coexistence of feminism and femininity does not really seem to be present in women’s fashion magazines. Kristyn Gorton presents a similar idea when she claims that ”the representation in post-feminism focuses more on what a woman should look like, and they claim that women today can be feminist and fashionable” (86). Each month, magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar give guidelines and boundaries of what to do i.e. what women should look like, what fashion or beauty products they should consume and if women are not willing to follow these ‘rule(s)’ they become heavily criticized and publicly denigrated.

In her study, Femininity as Discourse (1995) Dorothy Smith claims that to achieve the ideal femininity the specialized work of advertisers and the fashion designers of women’s magazines is needed. What they do is that they “provide the direct material organization of the discourse which mediates and structures a market for an extensive organization of industry-garment, shoe fabric, cosmetics…” (164). By claiming this, she actually points out the role of the discourses in magazines that are created around femininity. The fashion industry is in the need of a supportive discourse, a space where fashion and female ‘values’ could be talked about and as a result of this female behavior becomes controllable. She explains the way our contemporary form(s) of ‘femininity’ developed through images in 18th and 19th century art, and she claims as a consequence that these have been textually mediated discourses like today’s image of ideal femininity in women’s magazine. In other words, she assumes that ‘femininity’ has a meaning that is established by texts, like women’s magazines, and women may not have a complete control over them because these discourses are socially governed.

In addition, Dorothy Smith also brings an example, to show the way certain women might fall outside ‘femininity’, by not having the proper ‘look’. She quotes from the study of Susie Orbach (Orbach 1979, 13 quoted in Smith 1995, 182) in order to show how women, who were considered to be fat, felt less feminine because of being overweight, and the way their colleagues (business partners, in a male-dominated workplace) accepted them much more because of their ‘less feminine look’. Yet, she claims that a woman’s body is considered to be imperfect and it needs to be worked on by her.2 Accordingly, women have to engage with fashion, make-up and sometimes even with cosmetic surgeries. Additionally, age is also considered to be an important factor or measure of femininity, it seems that somehow women lose their femininity when they get older.

From all above, it can be concluded that ’femininity’ can and must be consumed or at least it is partly a matter of consumption. This means that clothes or rather fashionable dresses sell ’femininity’ that women only need to buy and put on. From this, we could argue that femininity might also be seen as a kind of commodity. For the fashion industry making an ideal universal feminine subject and represent it in a magazine is profitable because of the need of consumers who wear their clothes, without whom probably there would be no fashion.

However, post-feminists do not problematize these phenomena, they regard the representations in magazines as a projection of images of women with successful careers, who are economically independent and are able to take control of their lives. For them, these representations of female empowerment are coupled with images of female consumer success or as they would say women’s ‘choice’, for example the consumption of high fashion and beauty items. That is to say, with the help of these products, the new idealized image of femininity can be attained. This changing representation of women is again, what McRobbie (58) would call a form of ‘gender re-positioning’. Through her argumentation, we can clearly see that the post-feminist ‘choice’ does not end patriarchal relations. What might change is the representation of hegemonic femininity.

I would like to conclude that the idea that post-feminists celebrate, namely, closing the gap between the ‘feminist subject’ and ‘ordinary women’ (Thornham 17); in the name of the already achieved equality, i.e. the possible configuration of the ‘feminist’ and the ‘feminine’ seems to be problematic. By closing the gap they aim to position feminist thought or ideas as it was in an already ‘equal’ post-feminist era. Academic feminists obviously do not seem to agree and occupy this position. They do not regard the idealized femininity in women’s magazines as a ‘free’ choice of women, but rather they see it as another form of backlash against feminism. With this representation it is made to seem as if women’s problems would not exist anymore. For this reason, feminist scholars deny that the ideas that are circulated in women’s magazines in the name of ‘feminism’ should have anything to do with their feminist conceptions.

Female Politicians in/and Popular Culture

In the 21st century, in spite of their derogatory evaluations of the cultural field, politicians participate more and more often in popular culture. As Liesbet van Zoonen claims in her study Imagining the Fan Democracy (2004), the position of politicians in contemporary society are in many aspects quite similar to, for example, that of movie stars in America. To begin with, for enhancing their publicity, they take part in public programs, like football matches, or rock concerts that are to be covered in tabloid media. Therefore, fans shouting for their favorite movie star is not really different from the crowds cheering when a leader of a political party arrives. This means that entertainment cannot be completely separated from politics, the field of apparently purely reasonable acts. In addition, politicians appear in the media constantly. They give interviews, for example, in talk shows, and when they are invited, they are required to share to some extent their private life with the audience. As van Zoonen persuasively argues, this salient presence can be seen as the appropriation of the popular cultural logic by party politics (43). Political parties and candidates nowadays tend to be judged on the basis of their appeal, and therefore they try to create an image that might be appealing for the masses. The emotional side of politics is emphasized for people as prospective citizens to vote, politics borrows elements from popular culture that produce the intense reaction of the audience. This means that the audience is partly invited to invest in citizenship as a matter of entertainment – despite the fact that the formative presence of popular culture is explicitly acknowledged by politicians when they want to minimize or undermine the performance of the adversaries as non-serious entertainment (47).

According to her later study on popular culture and politics, The Personal, the Political and the Popular: A Women’s Guide to Celebrity Politics published in 2006, van Zoonen focuses on the specificity of the presence of political culture in the media and grasps it through the concept of ‘celebrity politics’. In this study, she discusses the articulation of celebrity politics in relation to gender, with a specific focus on the representation of two contemporary prime ministers, the Finnish Tarja Halonen and the German Angela Merkel. She makes a distinction between the words ’celebrity’ and ’fame’. Celebrity is associated with high publicity in the media while fame is associated with being famous because of an achievement. On the basis of that distinction, she claims that “one is tempted to suggest that fame is primarily a man’s preserve for it is built on public achievements, whereas celebrity would be a woman’s domain because it is predicated on being (in the media) rather than doing,” (290) celebrity associated with femininity is a matter of immense, of pure being while fame associated with masculinity is a matter of transcendence, of agency.

In my view, however, this claim seems to be too much of a strict categorization because today in the media there might be exceptions that could indicate a more complex categorization of celebrity/fame in practice. For example, in reality shows male politicians when willing to act as participants might come to be positioned as celebrities, too when interrogated about their love life. However, van Zoonen is right in that this questioning is still not running the risk of being also associated with ‘glamour’, which would be the effect of a bodily discourse (see my discussion about glamour below).

Furthermore, van Zoonen argues that the figure of a female celebrity is articulated mainly in/by the codes of the media representations of women. However, her main assumption is that the representation of a contemporary female celebrity, in other words, her “feminine” appearance does not offer a helpful image for female politicians. As an illustration, she mentions the example of the two political leaders and she argues that both Merkel and Halonen, unlike their ‘famous’ male colleagues, are constantly subject to comments about their appearance because the female celebrity remains built mainly on the image of the body and her fashionable appearance. Therefore, being fashionable means that women constantly need to change their style, for instance, in dressing, which paradoxically reinforces the association of femininity with a body-oriented existence. As a result, this changing image is not considered to be reliable for a female politician. It could be for that reason that femininity (in the political sphere) is devalued. Or put another way, being fashionable is associated with a frivolous behavior of women that is not considered to be appropriate in politics. Consequently, she assumes that a female politician needs to change her appearance in order to be accepted in politics.

On the other hand, she also takes into consideration that current celebrity politics requires political leaders to appear in popular culture. For instance, when they have to appear in the media on a TV show, or in magazines “dress and looks are key measurements of success” (297). This means that appearance is important for a female politician too, but yet again, she has to produce her image differently from a female celebrity in order to be successful.3 From this, we can see that it is often a problem for female politicians to cope with the requirements of celebrity culture and politics at the same time. This means that they tend to be appreciated in politics more if their look is ‘unfeminine’. As she quotes a previous study:

The hyper-femininity of current celebrity culture and post-feminism, with fashion, sexuality, glamour and consumption as core ingredients (Hollows and Moseley, 2006 in Van Zoonen 2006, 298) construes female politicians as exceptions to the feminine mainstream…(Van Zoonen 2006, 298)

By considering this, it could be claimed that certain women, in this case female politicians might fall outside ‘femininity’; or to be more precise, ‘ideal femininity’ since wearing ‘unfeminine’ clothes is similar to the idea that Dorothy Smith (1995) pointed out about fat women who were not regarded as feminine by their male colleagues as ‘thin’ women. As a result, female heads of state and female politicians can either be accused of not being feminine enough (by culture), or being too feminine (by politics) at the same time. From this argumentation, we can clearly see the way the female body becomes socially constructed and controlled, from which it immediately follows that clothes are extremely important to create ’(un)femininity’.

In her study, Feminization? Female Politicians, Family and Celebrity (2005), van Zoonen assumes that politics and women are seen as the antithesis of each other. As she argues, women are still regarded to be the traditional symbol of innocence and for this reason, they are said to be incompatible with the hard world of politics. Because of such beliefs they are seen as outsiders, and they are socially excluded from politics as a result of this traditional view on female behavior. Besides, what most often argued is that they belong to the private sphere because of their reproductive function. It may seem to be an exaggeration today but it is not indeed. As van Zoonen claims (89), family life is still a strong barrier for women’s participation in politics. The statistics about the marital status of female politicians show that high-status professional women tend to be unmarried or without children, moreover female politicians mostly have the chance to take part in politics after their children grew up, therefore they are often older than male politicians. This means that because of these cultural obstacles, because of patriarchy, women who have little children are bound to traditional female roles and therefore they are considered to be less suitable for being a politician.

Van Zoonen observes that celebrity press, including women’s magazines, construct the role of the family for female politicians as problematic. These magazines usually bring up the missing family life of women who work in politics and it is often argued that the family of the female politician suffers because of her absence from the private sphere (91). In contrast, men are not depicted in that way so it is accepted that they work in the public sphere and after they go to have a rest in the private space of the home. Female politicians, however, live “in two conflicting worlds” (91). They should be equally present in both worlds, which is (un)surprisingly not required from men. On the other hand, the image of male politicians may include their private life in a positive way to suggest that they are complete human beings. Their private life is a possible political resource for them, which might be appealing for people. As opposed to this, the private life of female politicians mostly signify their odd position as unusual family members if indeed they have the culturally so much required and celebrated family. As van Zoonen points out: “private life is a potential site of trouble for female politicians, not because it contains the danger of sexual scandal as it does for men, but because it is a continuous reminder of women’s odd choice of public mission instead of private fulfillment.” (299)

From these argumentations, we can conclude that there is a cultural backlash against female politicians. A certain image is constructed for ‘femininity’ and because of that women are considered to be less acceptable for politics than men. From this follows that women’s chance of becoming a successful politician is lower. In addition, the representations in magazines do not really help to change this situation, since instead of focusing on women’s achievement in the professional working life, or in the political sphere, they tend to focus more on their appearance and their private life.

The Representation of Hillary Rodham Clinton

As I have previously discussed, in the 21st century, it is often argued that women have achieved equality. They can have jobs, they might have a career, they are said to be independent. We can often hear the media emphasizing that now women can even be head of a state. What follows from these claims is the concluding remark that we have already achieved gender equality therefore we are in the post-feminist era. However, if we take a look at global statistics, we can clearly see that women are still underrepresented in politics,4 especially as MPs in the parliament or in high-status government jobs and positions5 in almost everywhere in the world. At the same time, post-feminists tend to ignore these problems when arguing that gender equality is already achieved.

The dangerous disposition of post-feminism in women’s magazines can be exemplified with a recent article written by Anna Wintour. Wintour is a British fashion editor and the editor-in-chief of the American top magazine Vogue. Back in February 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate at the time was invited to appear on the cover page of the magazine. However, short before the photo was taken she and her camp changed their mind about appearing in Vogue because they feared that it would produce a too feminine image of her, which could jeopardize her chances at the elections as a reliable candidate. This made Wintour write an editorial letter in the magazine in February 2008 expressing how much she disagrees with this decision:

Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that Hillary Clinton, our only female presidential hopeful, had decided to steer clear of our pages at this point in her campaign for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our culture come to this? How is it that The Washington Post recoils from the slightest hint of cleavage on a senator? This is America, not Saudi Arabia. It’s also 2008: Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment. (Wintour 2008)

Basically what Wintour claims is that femininity, or more precisely, a feminine appearance, is not a problem for (American) women in the 21st century anymore when they are aspiring for positions that entail leadership. Nevertheless, she supports her argument by highlighting the ‘development’ between different ages and cultures by claiming that “This is America, not Saudi Arabia.” This however could be called an instance of ‘othering’ that mobilizes a highly problematic colonial tradition of appealing to “civilization” for legitimizing the patronizing attitude of the representatives of the colonizer culture. One could immediately ask therefore to challenge Wintour’s self-perception: What is new about that?

Moreover, she combines her implied claim to civilization with her explicit categorization of women’s movement: “It’s also 2008.” This is in fact a positivist understanding of time and history that is invested with the ideological aim of justifying the “development for the better” of today in comparison with a self-evident, vaguely “defined” scale of temporality “back then”. It is a depiction of the current situation of women’s life that can be seen as typical for magazines. With that, a homogenous, equally non-specific definition of the category of “women” is argued to be equal and thus, feminism is made to seem as if it was no more necessary. In other words, the explanation for the unnecessary fear of looking too feminine is mostly justified by the argumentation that in comparison with another (by implication a Muslim) contemporary culture or with American women’s life in the past, the situation here and now is unproblematic.

There are, however, a number of difficulties with Wintour’s critique. For instance, as I stated above, it follows from the logic of her editorial letter that she admits that in other parts of the world she sees serious problems of women, while she considers the USA a relatively unproblematic country when it comes to gender (in)equality. By claiming this she homogenizes women’s experience. Angela McRobbie (2009) for a particular example of the neo-conservative logic of the allegedly post-patriarchal late modern social space, calls attention to the function of ’post-feminist masquerade’ in re-instating whiteness as a culturally dominant and ’obvious’ value, especially within the fashion industry, whose practices of multicultural diversity makes it seem as if there would be no racial inequality any longer. Accordingly, one could argue that post-feminism does not end hierarchical relations of gender but relocates it more vividly than ever within different groups of women.

Furthermore, we can easily argue that in America the gender relations are fairly problematic as well. One can, for example, take the inequality in payment between men and women in the same job or the underrepresentation of women on the federal and state political level.6 Consequently, Wintour’s claim seems to be distorting or at least disregarding these type of problems (for the sake of discrediting the target of her viscous criticism). That is to say, the very irony of Wintour’s position lies in the fact that in so far as the reader comes to accept the logic of the argument, Hillary Rodham Clinton is positioned as a non-appropriate political candidate who should not be supported any more as she does not seem to have an accurate picture of the US political scene.

However, much more to my current point about the damaging effects of post-feminist discourses in popular media, with this disposition Wintour may contribute to what McRobbie calls the ‘disarticulation’ of feminism (26) which means that the idea of feminism is made to seem unnecessary by claiming that the society has already arrived to gender equality. And thus, by implication, Hillary Rodham Clinton may lose the support of the female voters who should apparently know and understand that there is no need for a prospective president who could be believed to demonstrate a favorable disposition towards feminism.

At the same time, even if we go along with Wintour’s argument and concentrate on the issue of dressing, we do not come to a less damaging effect of her logic either. In terms of women’s appearance her trivial observation that the USA is not Saudi Arabia may be read as an implication that in the US, women do not have to cover themselves up from the male gaze and wear abaya. For Wintour, the problem with Saudi Arabia seems to be that in Saudi Arabian culture women are forced into a certain way of clothing and bodily behavior. But this is again a highly ironic position for her to assume. After all, giving voice to a concern about the binding force regarding women’s looks would be quite controversial to hear from Anna Wintour whose very job is actually to ‘dictate’ fashion. More particularly, her editorial letter is motivated by her concerns about her authority in the fashion industry, one could argue. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance on a cover photo could be the symbolic stamp on what is to follow on the glossy pages of her fashion magazine. It could also be argued, that she makes claim to an equally powerful potential, although, in a different way. She draws on the secular power of the fashion industry – in its protection.

As Celia Lury (119) puts it, in spite of all the flexibility and apparent playfulness in the stylization of women’s self-appearance, under certain circumstances, this could be called a disciplining power of fashion through the operation of taste i.e. the way fashion industry makes women wear certain type of clothes that are culturally accepted and through this attractive image they are able to regulate women’s appearance within a given range. In other words, the fashion industry positions women in a similar way, expecting them to be occupied with their looks in accordance with the “appropriate” design provided they would like to see themselves “modern”. Apparently, Hillary Rodham Clinton is accused of either being not exactly in the know about what is fashionable these days or, worse, disregarding the image of the “open minded” female political leader, clearly avoiding “to look good”. Indeed, it might be assumed that this is exactly what Wintour does (as well) in her editorial letter, when she gives guidelines to Hillary Rodham Clinton of the fashionable way of dressing:

Therefore, in a spirit of fashion, feminism, and fun, we have taken some looks from the recent New York pre-fall collections and will put them forward for Senator Clinton’s consideration. We hope she will find them inspiring and empowering. For example, we would love to see her wear a demure coat in delicious purple by Carolina Herrera to memorial services on Martin Luther King Jr., Day. Or a niftily tailored white sile pantsuit by Franscisco Costa for Calvin Klein when she campaigns in sunny Florida. Senator Clinton is a fan of the trouser suit: Why not for a lunch with supporters in South Carolina, a chocolate brown ensemble with fuller legs and pretty sleeves by Oscar de la Renta; or a rethought tuxedo by Herrera with cardigan, feathered shell, and satin-striped pants for a black-tie fundraiser in New York? For bigger nights, still, and for a romantic Valentine’s Day look, we would suggest long dresses from Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Herrera, and de la Renta that provide glamour without girliness. They speak volumes about the confidence, discretion, experience, and – yes — femininity of their wearer. And they’d get my vote. (Wintour 2008)

Such advisory is very common in fashion magazines. Liesbet van Zoonen calls attention to the phenomenon of what Angela McRobbie (1996) and Deborah Cameron (2000) introduces as self-help or self-improvement literature, i.e. that contemporary femininity in magazines seems to be about “the constant recreation of the self, changing hairstyle, dress, appearance” (291) according to the given guidelines of the fashion magazines. Therefore, even if these advises are given by an outsider, in this case by Wintour, they should accepted and practiced by women as “self-help”. As McRobbie (2009) argues women seem to be the privileged subjects since they now can have rewarding jobs, they can be financially independent, and most importantly, they participate in consumer culture. On the basis of this, ’post-feminist masquerade’ interpellates a ’new’ type of ’post-feminist femininity’ mainly due to women’s ability to participate in consumer culture as cultural agents (and not at political agents). However, as van Zoonen points out, the representation of a contemporary female celebrity, in other words, her “feminine” appearance does not offer a helpful image for female politicians, since being fashionable is associated with a frivolous behavior of women that is not considered to be appropriate in politics. Furthermore, since the media, such as fashion magazines tend to be occupied only with the appearance of female politicians and not their political views or achievement, women need to change their appearance in order to be accepted as reliable politicians.

On the whole, it is important to mention that there would be nothing “wrong” with (any kind of) ‘femininity’, if it was not used as a backlash against women. This means that in spite of the alleged post-feminist claim to diversity and individualism, femininity is associated with certain kind of values, ideas only. For example, if we take a look at Wintour’s letter we can clearly see that she connects ‘femininity’ with fashionable appearance. In contrast to this, the figure of the male political leader is not associated with their looks as much as a female leader. After all, Wintour has not a single statement to spend on their ‘fashionable looks’ – what ever that should mean.

Related to these arguments is the critique that Wintour is fully aware of the relative importance of her symbolic vote: as long as Hillary Clinton refuses to follow her advice she would not have her vote. From this it follows, that the exclusion of women from the public sphere, in this case from state politics, can be justified by Wintour’s self-chosen gendered condition for her vote. Accordingly, in contrast to post-feminist assumptions and Wintour’s opinion, if women want to get into high-status jobs, they might have to be particularly concerned with their femininity defined in terms of their ‘appropriately fashionable looks’, or they have to change their appearance in order to be taken seriously as political leader.

It could also be argued that the role of the presidency is male-defined, i.e., it is associated with ‘the masculine traits of leadership’, not with ‘the feminine ones of attractive, fashionable body’. Since women are socialized from birth to adopt feminine traits and men to orient to masculine ones, this makes women and men candidates unequally differentiated in the presidential race or in any political situation. When women aspire to positions of power, they must adopt the traits of those positions. Hence they inevitably run the risk of becoming masculine-like if they want to be accepted as a potential holder of power. From this it follows that femininity in politics is not as valuable as masculinity. As Roger Schwartzenberg claims, female politicians “need to mask their femininity and imitate men, otherwise, accusations of being frivolous, coquettish” are made against them. (Schwartzenberg 1977, 93 quoted in van Zoonen, 2005, 94) Therefore, Clinton and her campaign team’s decision seem to be justified about considering consequences of appearing too feminine.

Yet, as far as equality is considered, women’s participation in political life should be an essential part of democracy. For this reason, negative or minimizing images of female politicians and their determination and capacity to participate in politics reduced to their fashionable appearance cannot be read as proof of post-feminism in popular culture, as demanded equally by Wintour and post-feminist scholars. Although the organization of society and gender relations might change, it does not mean that the new conditions would entail different perspectives for their problematization. In other words, the new organization of gender relations, including new modes of media representations of ‘femininity’ do not necessarily mean that society has achieved gender equality or, to put it another way, that society is structured in terms of equal power relations. In my understanding, the contestatory nature of the discourses about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public performances can be considered to be signs of the continuous struggle taking place in contemporary society over the position and chances of women. Actually, we could state that the gendered images and symbols used by magazines to depict ‘woman’ are in fact triggered by seeing her violation of traditional gender norms. This means that these post-feminist attacks against her can be regarded as a backlash against professional women, including feminist scholars themselves.


With my analysis I have tried to reveal the seemingly common phenomenon of post-feminism in women’s magazines. I have argued that post-feminist ideas about the end of feminism and the existence of gender equality can be misleading and they do the ideological work of undermining women’s struggle for equity. The media, especially women’s (fashion) magazines, as mediators of discourses of ’femininity’ have a significant role in creating an image of/for ideal ’femininity’ that they depict as the ’freely chosen’ fashionable look. However, the fashionable appearance as a ’free choice’ of women has been proved to be a problematic post-feminist assumption. What post-feminism celebrates so much, i.e. the changing representation of women in the media does not inevitably mean a feminist success. As McRobbie (2009) argued, fashion is a tool of post-feminism for ’gender re-positioning’, i.e. with a ’new’ depiction of women patriarchy is still left in its place.

Although women are underrepresented in politics and in high-status government jobs, post-feminists still ignore these problems and on the basis of a minor change in media representation they claim that women have achieved equality. However, in my analysis of Anna Wintour’s editorial letter in Vogue, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and her team’s decision about not appearing on the cover of the magazine because of being regarded as too feminine has been proved to be reasonable. I have tried to show that the image of the new ideal, fashionable post-feminist ‘femininity’ that these magazine’s disseminate can considered to be a hindering factor for a female politician. Therefore, female politicians are faced with a double bind, they female need to cope with the requirements of celebrity culture and politics at the same time, and they need to reject fashion or fashionable appearance in order to be accepted in politics.


Works cited

  • Cameron, Deborah. 2000. ”A Self off the Shelf? Consuming Women’s Empowerment” In M. Talbot et al. eds. All the World and Her Husband: Women in 20th Century Consumer Culture. London:Cassell. 210-223.
  • Faludi, Susan. 1991. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Gorton, Kristyn. 2007. “The Politics of Equality and the Media: The Example of Feminism” In Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth ed. Rewriting Democracy. Cultural Politics in Postmodernity. Ermarth: Ashgate. 82-97.
  • Lury, Celia. 1996. ”Habitat and Habitus” In  Consumer Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press. 79-117.
  • Lury, Celia. 1996. ”Making Up and Making Do” In Consumer Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press. 118-155.
  • McRobbie, Angela. 1996. ”More! New Sexualities in Girls and Women’s Magazines” In J. Curran et al. eds. Cultural Studies and Communications. London: Arnold. 172-194.
  • McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage.
  • Probyn, Elspeth. 1997. ”New Traditionalism and Post-feminsim: TV Does the Home” In Brundson, C. et al. (eds). Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 126-137
  • Smith, Dorothy. 1995. “Femininity as Discourse”. In Texts, Facts, and Femininity. London: Routledge. 159-208.
  • Stuart, Andrea. 1990. ”Feminism, Dead or Alive?” In J. Rutherford. (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 28-42.
  • Thornham, Sue. 2007. Women, Feminism and Media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • van Zoonen, Liesbet. 2004. ”Imagining The Fan Democracy” European Journal of Communication. 19(1):39-52
  • van Zoonen, Liesbet. 2005. ”Feminization? Female Politicians, Family, and Celebrity” In Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 87-103.
  • van Zoonen, Liesbet. 2006. ”The Personal, the Political and the Popular: A Women’s Guide to Celebrity Politics”. European Journal of Cultural Studies.  9: 287-301.


Primary Sources
  • The Global Gender Gap Report: 2008. Available: “http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gendergap/report2008.pdf”:http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gendergap/report2008.pdf. (Access: 26 April, 2009)
  • Women in National Parliaments: Situation as of 28 February 2009. Available: “http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/arc/classif280209.htm”:http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/arc/classif280209.htm. (Access: 26 April, 2009)
  • Wintour, Anna. 2008. ”Letter from the Editor” in Vogue, February 2008. “http://mediamatters.org/items/200801220006”:http://mediamatters.org/items/200801220006. (Access: 20 April, 2009)



”Letter from the Editor” by Anna Wintour

In February 2008, Anna Wintour writes in her editorial letter:

”This spring we are blessed with a fantastic variety of subtle, sophisticated clothes that make a woman — at work, at the playground, at cocktails — look marvelously modern. See for yourself in Craig McDean and Grace Coddington’s celebratory portfolio of day dressing at its most compelling, appropriate, and chic.

Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that Hillary Clinton, our only female presidential hopeful, had decided to steer clear of our pages at this point in her campaign for fear of looking too feminine. The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our culture come to this? How is it that The Washington Post recoils from the slightest hint of cleavage on a senator? This is America, not Saudi Arabia. It’s also 2008: Margaret Thatcher may have looked terrific in a blue power suit, but that was 20 years ago. I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.

Therefore, in a spirit of fashion, feminism, and fun, we have taken some looks from the recent New York pre-fall collections and will put them forward for Senator Clinton’s consideration. We hope she will find them inspiring and empowering. For example, we would love to see her wear a demure coat in delicious purple by Carolina Herrera to memorial services on Martin Luther King Jr., Day. Or a niftily tailored white sile pantsuit by Franscisco Costa for Calvin Klein when she campaigns in sunny Florida. Senator Clinton is a fan of the trouser suit: Why not for a lunch with supporters in South Carolina, a chocolate brown ensemble with fuller legs and pretty sleeves by Oscar de la Renta; or a rethought tuxedo by Herrera with cardigan, feathered shell, and satin-striped pants for a black-tie fundraiser in New York? For bigger nights, still, and for a romantic Valentine’s Day look, we would suggest long dresses from Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Herrera, and de la Renta that provide glamour without girliness. They speak volumes about the confidence, discretion, experience, and – yes — femininity of their wearer. And they’d get my vote.”



1 In relation to the expression “self-help guides” I would like to note that ’self-help’ guides are written by someone else, therefore, what women are supposed to do is not helping themself or in other words do ’self-help’ but rather to do what do what someone else, namely the author of the ”self-help” book suggests, In my view it should rather be called ’help-guide’ which would inevitably change our perception of it, we would be able to grasp its disciplinary tendency.

2 Yet again, this is basically the same idea that McRobbie (1996) and Cameron (2000) present about the need of self-improvement in order to achieve femininity.

3 It would be interesting to analyze whether it is required from the male politician in the same way to differentiate themselves by appearance from male celebrities.

4 Women in National Parliaments: Situation as of 28 February 2009 Available: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/arc/classif280209.htm. Access: 26 April 2009

5 The Global Gender Gap Report: 2008 Available: http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gendergap/report2008.pdf. Access: 26 April 2009

6 The Global Gender Gap Report: 2008 Available: http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gendergap/report2008.pdf. Access: 26 April 2009.