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III Power Struggles

Feminism and Social Justice. Challenging the Media Rhetoric

Margaret Gallagher

Girls [sic] today have never had it so good, right? Apart from the fact that you’ve got more equality than you ever can deal with, the fact of the matter is that you’ve got real democracy and there really are no glass ceilings, despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time . . . I mean what else do you want? . . . Women astronauts. Women miners. Women dentists. Women doctors. Women managing directors. What is it you haven’t got?

—Sir Stuart Rose1

As the twenty-first century celebrated its tenth birthday, to some it may indeed have seemed that women had little to complain about. In 2008 Hillary Clinton got closer than any woman in history to shattering “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”2—the presidency of the United States of America. By that same year, a growing number of women—including Angela Merkel in Germany, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, and Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines—had broken through to reach the highest political office. Between 1960 and 1970 only four women were elected as heads of government worldwide. In the decade after 2000, more than 20 female heads of government were elected in countries spanning Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.3 This fivefold increase could hardly be interpreted as anything but progress for women.

Yet the claim that women today experience a “surfeit” of equality—“more than you can ever deal with”—does not stand up to even cursory scrutiny. In the United Kingdom, for instance, according to the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, women are only 4 percent of executive directors of the country’s top 100 companies, less than 20 percent of members of parliament, and earn 17 percent less per hour than men for doing work of equivalent value; less than 7 percent of rape cases reported to the police result in conviction.4 One in four women in the United Kingdom experiences domestic violence in her lifetime.5 Only one of Britain’s 17 national daily and Sunday newspapers (6 percent) is edited by a woman.

No country in the world has achieved gender equality. The 2010 report of the World Economic Forum, which since 2006 has measured progress on tackling gender gaps in health, education, economic, and political participation, stated that in 16 of the 114 countries for which it has data for the five year period, the overall gender gap has actually widened.6 Yet media narratives regularly suggest that the struggles launched by the women’s movement of the 1970s are no longer relevant, or that women’s rights have been achieved at the expense of men, who are the new “victims,” or that the pursuit of equality has resulted in women’s “unhappiness.” In many of these narratives, there is an explicitly negative critique of feminism as a social movement. For instance, in their widely reported study, “The Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness,” Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers chart the subjective well-being of women and men in the United States since the early 1970s. While they stop short of “immediately inferring that the women’s movement failed to improve the lot of women,” they do go on to conclude that “the changes brought about by the women’s movement may have decreased women’s happiness.”7

The Stevenson-Wolfers research, and many of the media reports it generated, supports the “backlash” thesis proposed in the early 1990s by Susan Fal- udi.8 For Faludi, backlash was integral to a conservative response whose purpose was to deliberately challenge or undermine the achievements of feminism. Over the past two decades, this challenging of feminism has continued in ever-more sophisticated ways. Contemporary responses frequently draw on and invoke feminism itself and feminist vocabulary in a “post-feminist” discourse implying that feminism has been “taken into account.”9 The result is yet another paradox. On the one hand, feminism has ostensibly become part of the cultural field. On the other, modern media narratives frequently present feminism as irrelevant to today’s social struggles, and indeed as something to be repudiated—albeit often in a humorous or ironic tone, which of course makes feminist countercritique particularly difficult.10

Feminist discourse in the media remains, with few exceptions, conservative. Relying heavily on notions of women’s individual choice, empowerment, and personal freedom, media treatments fit perfectly within a vocabulary of neoliberalism. Cultural theorist Angela McRobbie describes this as “disarticulation,” a process that, through its insistent focus on female individualism and consumerism, severs the seams of connection between groups of women who might find common cause, and “makes unlikely the forging of alliances, affiliations or connections,” whether locally, nationally, or internationally.11 McRobbie’s bleak lament for the displacement of feminism as a political movement is shared by other major feminist theorists such as Nancy Fraser, who distinguishes between feminism as a social movement and feminism as discourse. In the context of neoliberal capitalism, Fraser argues, feminism in the discursive sense has “gone rogue.” As a result, today’s feminist movement is “increasingly confronted with a strange shadowy version of itself, an uncanny double that it can neither simply embrace nor wholly disavow.”12 These paradoxes and contradictions—in particular, the incorporation of feminist ideas into media discourse that serves to deny the politics of feminism as a movement—makes the pursuit of social justice for women especially challenging in today’s world.

 
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