Post-Feminist Pop: My talk at App State 10/8.

Here’s the outline from which I will be speaking at App State on 10/8/14. Please feel free to follow along.


Post-Feminist Pop

Abstract: Pop stars Lily Allen, Beyonce, Meghan Trainor, & Taylor Swift have all released work that depicts them overcoming feminized damage such as negative body image or objectification. Is this overcoming–which I call “resilience”–evidence that patriarchy is over and the problem of sexism is solved, or is it the very means by which patriarchy prescribes our gender performances and by which white supremacy cuts the color line?




  • Traditionally, ideal, stereotypical femininity–which is also white, cis/het, able-bodied, etc.–is passive, fragile, pure and virginal.
  • In 1977, Poly Styrene challenged these stereotypes on one of the first feminist punk records, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”
  • XRay Spex: “O Bondage, Up Yours!”:
    • Her scream resisted patriarchial notions of femininity as silent, chaste, and charming.
  • But today, Poly Styrene’s scream has been co-opted; not resistant/disruptive but normalizing.
  • Girls aren’t supposed to be virginal, passive objects who “should be seen and not heard,” but Poly-Styrene-like sirens who scream back in spectacularly noisy and transgressive ways. They’re supposed to “go gaga,” to use Jack Halberstam’s terms.


  • For example, we have a ton of post-feminist pop songs that show women spectacularly and loudly overcoming the limitations of traditional femininity
    • Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” is about her overcoming objectification, bad body image, and sexism in her job, which is the music industry.
    • Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” is about her overcoming negative body image.
    • Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is about her ‘shaking off’ externally-imposed stereotypes and shaking her booty along to the tune that’s in her head and hers alone.
    • Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” is about cross-racial feminist alliance cemented in the execution of a misogynist, abusive black boyfriend.
  • these are examples of Post-Feminist Pop. How are they “post-feminist?”
    • Post-feminism is the idea that society has overcome the problem of sexism, and thus any women who still feel feminized damage, like negative body image, have individually failed to keep up, and must remediate themselves by therapeutically overcoming their pre-feminist baggage.
    • all of these videos show or discuss a distinction between women who have overcome, and women (or men) who have failed to keep up, who are insufficiently post-feminist.
      • in post-feminism, there’s a separation between “women” and the structural position of feminization: some women can (and indeed ought) to overcome the limitations of feminization, whereas others can (and ought) not overcome these limitations.
    • this distinction between the post-feminist future and the pre-feminist past is key to how white supremacist patriarchy–what I call MRWaSP (MultiRacial White Supremacist Patriarchy)–works today.


  • Post-Feminist Pop is an example of broader, more fundamental shifts in patriarchy, in gender norms and ideals, in femininity, and in white supremacy. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
    • Going gaga–making lots of noisy damage, openly proclaiming and embracing your monstrosity so that you are then rewarded for overcoming what others experience as disabling and disempowering–this is the new norm for proper femininity. Contemporary patriarchy expects women to be RESILIENT.
  • Resilience discourse is how neoliberalism reorganizes or upgrades white supremacist patriarchy to work more efficiently in 21st century material/technological conditions. It also impacts music aesthetics. I’m mainly going to talk about resilience as a gender ideal and racializing technology, but I will speak briefly, at the end, about how avant-garde music aesthetics might hint at some ways to queer resilience.


  • What is resilience?
    • Resilience is a broader cultural discourse or ideology that’s present everywhere from national security to ecology. There’s even an academic journal called “Resilience.”
    • Broadly, resilience is Rham Emmanuel’s maxim “never let a crisis go to waste”
      • it’s the idea that damage can and should be recycled into something bigger and better than what was there before — basically, recycling is a source of surplus value.
    • Mark Neocleous, writing in Radical Philosophy, argues that resilience, “the capacity of a system to return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back after a crisis or trauma” is the ideal that grounds contemporary structures of subjectivity, logics of governmentality, and capitalism.
    • It’s related to “creative destruction,” to use David Harvey’s term, and “shock capitalism,” to use Naomi Klein’s.


  • How does resilience work as a form of gender performance?
    • Resilience has replaced fragility and passivity as white/respectable feminine ideal
      • Neoclaus: “what is at stake and why the concept has become so appealing: rather than speak of fragility and its (negative) associations, we should be speaking of resilience and its (positive) connotations.”
    • Traditional white femininity–fragility, passivity, objectification, “throwing like a girl”–that’s over for nominally white women. (As I will explain later, resilience is how non-white women get folded into multicultural white supremacy).
      • We don’t expect privileged women to be fragile anymore. we expect them to have it all.
      • These new features–strength, activity, “grit”–don’t read as masculinity b/c they are the result of overcoming specifically feminized damage (e.g., negative body image, stereotype threat, etc.)
    • Resilience is a specific type of therapeutic overcoming. Overcoming a specific kind of damage in a specific kind of way. It has a particular form, and a particular outcome.
      • Its form has three steps:
        • make evident damage tied to your marginalized identity
          • negative body image, abuse/domestic violence/assault, hesitancy to speak up for oneself, etc.
          • What this step does for patriarchy: instead of disavowing/overlooking patriarchy, presenting it as the natural, self-evident order of things, resilience calls it out as such
            • e.g., Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze argues that it works only if patriarchy, in the form of the ‘camera’ is disavowed–there’s no breaking of the fourth wall, women can’t be aware that they’re oppressed. Resilience discourse breaks that fourth walls, affirms patriarchal objectificaiton and the means of that objectification’s production (i.e., the camera).
        • overcome that damage in a spectacular way that others can access, understand, and enjoy (e.g., women’s magazine covers that proclaim both “love your body!” and the benefits a of a new diet craze). The spectacle is key. The point of resilience isn’t to heal you, but to recycle damage (sexism) at a profit, to extract surplus value from your oppression. ANd the only way that can happen is for your overcoming to be consumed by others.
        • This surplus value is the third step. This value takes the form of:
          • (a) one’s own human capital. You appear as a ‘good’ or ‘modern’ woman; not a backwards women who needs white saviorist feminism.
          • and (b) increased power and efficiency of MRWaSP; doubles down on patriarchy
  • Resilience doubles down on patriarchy in two ways.
    • First, it does not eliminate or solve traditional patriarchy, but in fact requires it. Sexist damage is the ‘waste’ that gets recycled by resilience, so there has to be some old-school patriarchy somewhere to make women’s damaged goods.
      • But, where exactly is old-school patriarchy? Old-school is in the past, not the present.
      • Treating sexism as something that only happened in the past, resilience discourse obscures ongoing sexism, both old-school and new wave.
      • Resilience further obscures patriarchy by making it a personal problem not an institutional or systemic one: individual women are responsible for overcoming their personal damage instead of, say, revolutionizing society.
    • Second, resilience co-opts traditional forms of feminist and anti-racist resistance.
      • disruptive damage, like Poly Styrene’s scream, is traditionally how “others” have resisted oppression. But now what used to damage patriarchy is its raw material.
      • consciousness raising is another traditional feminist tactic. But resilience makes consciousness of your oppression the first step not in fighting the Man, but strengthening his grip over you.
      • For example, the idea that “one is not born, but becomes a woman” is a powerful challenge to patriarchy that presents femininity as an inborn essence or biological fact. However, Resilience discourse admits precisely this–that women aren’t born but made. Resilience is how one makes oneself a proper woman.
        • The catch is–and I’ll return to this in a minute–that not all female persons can actually be seen as embodying resilience, so resilience discourse re-cuts old lines dividing privileged from multiply-oppressed women.
  • Not all types of response to trauma/damage count as “resilience”
    • it depends on what kind of body performs the overcoming
      • What is rewarded as resilience in some will be punished as pathology in others. (Katy Perry’s “This is how we do” vs welfare queens)
    • it depends on the outcome of that overcoming–the profit. If your healing does not contribute to and support MRWaSP, if it’s not profitable enough, then even though you might be performing the very same activities that resilient women do, your performance won’t be legible as resilience. It will likely be understood as something like “the stupid logic of poor people” — i.e., the meme about welfare mothers spending money on supposedly frivolous indulgences.
  • precarity as inability to profit from resilient-like practices–none of your surplus value returns to you as human capital
    • just hovering at/above bare minimum/threshold of death
    • some populations most socially productive as resilient, other populations most socially productive as precarious. Just as it demands (some) women be resilient, MRWaSP actively produces some parts of the population as non-resilient. In fact, women’s resilience is the very mechanism for producing blackness as non-resilient.
  • Let me explain with some examples.
    • First, think back to the Lily Allen video. What kinds of women overcome objectification, and what kinds of women are presented as objects, as victims of patriarchal false consciousness?
      • reworked/upgraded virgin/whore dichotomy: good women overcome, ‘bad’ women fail to overcome and need saving (often from supposedly unreconstructed non-white men)
      • active production of WOC as damaged and/or toxic, as unable to overcome white supremacist patriarchy as a thing of the past (they’re either not feminist enough, as in these videos, or too feminist–as in the white male left blaming ‘intersectional’ feminists for impeding left activism).
    • Beyonce’s “Video Phone” and Gaga’s “Telephone”
      • In “Video Phone,” the “Male Gaze”, the gaze of patriarchy as it manifests in both men and in the institution of the ‘media’, is represented by male dancers with cameras for heads. Thing is, all these dancers are black or brown. Men of color represent the patriarchy that Beyonce’s character overcomes and executes (she shoots one with an arrow and kidnaps and tortures others).

      • Similarly, in “Telephone,” Bey and Gaga cement their cross-racial feminist alliance by executing Beyonce’s character’s excessively misogynist black male ex-boyfriend.
      • In both videos, women overcome patriarchy, which is embodied by black men. Thier performance of strong, contemporary, “feminist” femininity is not only doing the work of establishing their gender, it’s also racializing both them and the black men they execute: they deomonstrate their inclusion in MRWaSP society by eliminating non-resilient, un-reformable blackness from it.
        • unlike these resilient women, the black men are presented as incapable of reform, of overcoming limitations, and as stuck to obsolete habits and traditions.
  • white/’good’ women’s gendered performance of resilience includes cleansing society from any obvious remnants of patriarchy and racism. This amounts to scapegoating black men (in the US) and some foreign men (e.g., “the Taliban”) as responsible for any “remnants” of ongoing sexism.
    • Resilient femininity produces blackness as exception, that is, a the part of society that must be incarcerated, executed, etc., bc it is evidence that we are not, in fact, post-race, post-patriarchy, etc.
  • In order to be a ‘good’ or ‘real’ woman, to even be seen or “count” as a woman, you have to do the work of white supremacy. This type of work has long been outsourced to women; resilience is just its latest upgrade.
    • If white femininity was traditionally tasked with keeping whiteness pure as hegemon (through her sexual/reproductive practices), then MRWaSP femininity is about keeping blackness pure as exception.
      • In this way, resilience discourse echoes what Jared Sexton has identified as the shift from white/non-white binary to a black/non-black ‘multicultural’ politics of exception.

[SLIDE 8] How to respond? What’s a feminist to do?

  • well, like, there’s no one solution, bc there’s no one subject of feminism, duh.
  • First, take care of yourself even and especially if that upsets the overall ‘health’ of MRWaSP capitalism. Resilience is not the only way to handle your damage. In fact, it’s a particularly individualistic method; other more just and more effective methods would be more collective and/or social.
    • Self-care is never just about you.
    • sometimes self-care means not passing off crap (crap work, crappy circumstances) to those with less privilege; that’s how institutionalized oppression works. So self-care can mean taking care of your crap. And you’ll have to work with and get help from others to do that.
  • working at the individual level will never cut it; you have to work relationally.
  • Be a “bad conductor” of privilege
    • queer silience might be an example of poor conduction
    • Jonathan Katz’s essay “John Cage’s Queer Silence” begins with the line “John Cage never did quite come out of the closet.” He was neither really “in” nor “out” of the closet: Cage never publically said he was gay, but he didn’t hide his relationship with Merce. As Katz explains,
    • What silence offered was the prospect of resisting the status quo without opposing it….the attempt was not originally oppositional so much as it was “other,” a seduction away from dominant expressive discourse towards other meanings for other purposes…Cage’s silence was quite precisely “other,” escaping the binaries that circumscribed the status quo as the sole arena for contestation. As result, it managed to be an anti-authoritative mode that was nonetheless not oppositional. And as an anti-authoritative mode, it revealed the power of the individual to construct meanings unauthorized by dominant culture–and all the while under its very nose. Silence was, in short, seditious
    • Silence was a bad conductor of heteronormative authority. It bent its circuits.
  • So, what if, instead of spectacularly overcoming our feminized damage, we just live lives that work for us, lives that don’t “Lean In” but are bent “towards other meanings [and] for other purposes”?