Peter Zylstra Moore 2010 Recent Social Movements and Social Change Recent critical movements have tended

to avoid offering an over-reaching ideology, or what would be better yet; participatory prioritization, planning and goal setting combined with collective action. Because of this they are either overcome by dominant culture and politics, or remain too fragmented to offer any sort of coherent voice with the kind of movement behind it to move society forward. This paper will look at how although they formed in response to genuine faults in the movements that preceded them, third-wave feminism and postmodernism, both demonstrate this new tendency. I will offer a critique of third-wave feminism through Kristyn Gorton’s “(Un)fashionable Feminists: the Media and Ally McBeal” and of post-modernist Michel Foucault’s “Power/Knowledge.” I will argue that if these movements wish to overcome the dominant culture and politics they will need to retain their critical edge and diversity while finding ways to act collectively and coherently in effecting social change. To some degree, third -wave feminism developed as a criticism of both first and secondwave feminism. The first wave of feminism was built around clearly defined goals generated by well-to-do, liberal, white women who began to question their lack of equality under the law. As many women began to recognize that equality under the law was not bringing genuine liberty to a lot of women, second-wave feminism developed as a response to the dominance of these ‘liberal white women’. This brought questions of racial and class conflicts into feminist discourse, however the second movement ultimately created an overly-defined picture of what it meant for a woman to be liberated, creating a “tyranny of expectation” which could often determine private life and simplistically misinterpreted cultural norms as expressions of men’s domination of women.1 This is the critique third-wave feminism attempts to address.

1 Gorton, Kristyn, (Un)fashionable Feministy: The Media and Ally McBeal in Gillis, Stacy, Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, Palgrave Macmillan, pg 159.

‘Ally McBeal’ has become one of the caricatures of third-wave feminism. The clash of feminisms is enacted in an episode called ‘Love Unlimited’ where Ally is asked by Lara Dipson to be a role model for young professional women provided she can fit the proper stereotype. We are going to have to make a few adjustments in the way you dress. And I’d really like to fatten you up a little bit. We don’t want young girls glamorising that “thin” thing. Now my sources tell me that you feel an emotional void without a man. You’re really going to have to lose that if women are going to look up to you.2 In the scene Ally growls at Lara, and bites her nose off, revealing the scene as a dream. However this dream is a caricature of the defined roles for women in 2nd wave feminism encapsulated by Lara in her power suit. Miniskirt wearing Ally, successful lawyer but yearning for a man is not going to allow her paradigm to be defined for her. Despite the fact that Ally is allowed her career it is her various relationships in her search for ‘true love’ that dominates the show’s narrative. Even in the development of her career in a male-dominated profession she is presented as being lead by her “sensibility over sense,” again reiterating familiar cultural assumptions of women.3 Women’s liberation through solidarity and ‘social critique’ has been replaced by liberation through personal expression. While this often involves a reclaiming of what was not allowed in 2nd wave feminism, it also seems restricted within certain familiar stereotypes. The media has created a set of different feminist caricatures for women to consume. This choice is symbolically offered through the different Spice Girls characters: Sporty, Posh, Scary, Ginger, and Baby.4 The media has projected a range of various, generally apolitical, and especially young and petit women as figureheads for feminism today. At the same time, the media spits out sitcom 2 Ibid, 157-158. 3 Ibid, 157.

4 Ibid, 157

after sitcom, where a range of men; sometimes athletic, sometimes heavy set; sometimes unintelligent, sometimes nerdy; sometimes rich, sometimes working class all vie for relationships with stereotypical women. Though second-wave feminism needed to allow for more variety in the female expression, even this critique has arguably been swallowed up by the overwhelming demands of the media for a particular type of woman. Third-wave feminism has no coherent critique and very often lacks a critical edge. The faces of feminism, unlike in earlier generations, do not generally represent women devoting the majority of their public lives to issues pertaining to women. In fact very often actors, musicians, or worse yet their screen characters are set up as today’s feminists. For instance Times magazine set up the character, Ally McBeal as a face for feminism while ignoring her real-life actor Calista Flockhart.5 Liberation and justice are something that we need to continue to move towards. Women today may be paid for work outside of the home, but they earn 20% less than men6 and they return home every evening to an often radically unchanged context. Many women have taken up full time work without the relief of much of the pressures of home responsibilities.7 Feminism needed choice, but it also needed to retain its social critique. Shifting to post modernism, it is hard to argue that people like Foucault have failed to retain their critique of the dominant culture. However, it is far easier to suggest that postmodernist offer very little beyond this, in that they specialize in criticism without allowing for any particular alternative, either in terms of over arching ideologies, or immediate goals. They 5 Gorton, 156. 6 The Gender Wage Gap: 2009, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, March 2010, available online at http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/C350.pdf, pg 2

7 Hochschild, Arlie Russel and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, Viking Penguin, New York, 1997.

criticize without creating mechanisms for sifting through the mass of criticism such as participatory prioritization of both problems that need addressing and steps towards resolving these problems. As well, by focusing strictly on the local, Foucault undermines the historic role of the State in creating positive social changes during the era of the welfare state, and so also does little to mobilize any effective opposition to the reversal of those positive social changes during the Reagan/Thatcher Era. Because post-modernists tend to be uncompromising in their individual rational beliefs they are unable to make the kinds of compromises necessary to become a significant voice for changes in the dominant society. Because of this, they have largely been relegated to the sphere of the personal. I would argue that ultimately, post-modernists end up reflecting the highly individuated society they often criticize. In contextualizing and criticizing post modernism by way of the writing of Foucault it is important to elaborate on his method. One does not need to dig very deeply to encounter the fragmented nature of postmodernism. In Power/Knowledge, Foucault, upon whom I will base my critique, is forthright that even his individual research fails “to develop any continuous or coherent whole.”8 He describes his works as an “indecipherable disorganised muddle” that are “(i)n a nutshell... inconclusive.” They have no “predetermined starting point and destination.”9 He begins his book sounding like the overly honest student who begins his/her presentation by saying that they did not finish preparing, are not quite sure what they are going to say or where they are going, and offers his/her hope that we still get something out of it.

8 Although he suggest they bear some relation to each other which I will emphasize later. Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge; Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Pantheon Books, New York, pg 78.

9 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge; Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Pantheon Books, New York, pg 78.

Foucault defends his approach through the growing “criticism of things, institutions, practices, (and) discourses.” He defends this through the increasing recognition of the fragile nature of the bedrock formerly provided by religious or social/economic totalitarian theories.10 Of course there are always plenty of reasons for criticizing dominant ideologies, and his era offered up its examples: the growing recognition of the failure of communism, the US role in Vietnam, etc. These dominant narratives often subjugated and emphasized history in relation to how it conformed to their theories. By setting up theories as science groups it enthroned theories such as Marxism,11 Christianity, Liberalism, etc and in so doing subjugated knowledge to their narratives. For Foucault the “predominant feature” of his writing is his attempts to offer ‘local criticisms.’ His writings are an attempted “insurrection for subjugated knowledges.” Thus his analysis in criticizing dominant structures while preferring the local, shares an affinity with anarchism.12 His preference for the least shares an affinity with the historical Jesus. He can use Marxist critiques as a tool in critiquing13 traditional morality, hierarchy, the legal and penal systems and class dominated injustices14 but it is limited to a tool rather than a concrete vision for society. Also, in emphasizing local knowledges, his critique is predominately directed “not (to) the domination of the King in his central position” but to the various “forms of subjugation that have a place and function within the social organism,”15 beginning from the lowest levels.16 10 Ibid, pg 80 11 Ibid, pg 85 12 Ibid, pg 80.

13 Ibid, pg 81 14 Ibid, pg 80. 15 Ibid, pg 96 16 Ibid, pg100

There is much for social movements to learn from Foucault in terms of listening to all voices, and especially the least in narrating history, and in subsequently evolving social and political policies that are particularly sensitive to the needs of those who are left behind. It is true that by concentrating on the local we are less likely to misinterpret history into our dominant ideology. It is also true that by concentrating on the lowest levels of power relations one can more quickly promote change. However, by concentrating his critique on local circumstances of domination, Foucault fails to either narrate an effective critique or form an effective movement for change in the dominant institutions, where a significant amount of power is located. While Foucault is also correct in his recognition of how as ideologies become truths they gloss over any history that does not fit neatly into them. Marxists cannot ignore Stalin’s purges, or the lack of democracy in the former Soviet Union or Cuba. However, when the left is fragmented into individual ideologies the movement that is created lacks the collective voice necessary for confronting dominant institutions. When a group of individuals who are not dominated by any one ideology cannot submit their individual preferences to the collective one, they are immobilized and overwhelmed by the collective and united action that comes from Fundamentalist worldviews.17 Not only that, when we cannot act collectively, we become the individual, rational, self-maximizers of the recent hyper-liberal system. To live in community involves compromise. We can learn from Foucault in moving incrementally towards justice rather than violently towards our envisioned utopia. But we need to determine ways to democratically discuss and decide issues to prioritize and steps towards getting there. We need to develop this if we are to

17 This of course was well displayed by the diversity of perspectives coming from the Democratic party against the overwhelming unity within the Republican party on most issues and most recently healthcare.

genuinely offer an alternative to the individualism of liberalism or respond effectively to the real risks of nuclear war, climate change, growing inequality, etc. Both third-wave feminism and postmodernism include important and necessary critiques of the rigidness of modernism generally and the social movements it produced. If however these critiques are going to become a relevant movement in a world that is becoming increasingly unjust18, then they must find ways to retain their critical edge, while prioritizing issues, and communicating common goals that result from participatory processes. By emphasizing choice, diversity and local knowledge both third-wave feminism and post-modern criticisms open up many possibilities for creative challenges to the dominant system, the question is whether they can find ways to balance their inherent emphases on the particular and individual with the inherent needs of an effective movement for broad-appeal, shared values, and compromises. If not we can hope that another critical movement will soon rise up to take their place.

Works Cited Chen, Judy, Dean Baker, and Mark Weisbrot, The Scorecard on Globalization: Twenty Years of Diminished Progress, Center for Economic Policy Research, July 2001, http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/globalization_2001_07_11.pdf Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge; Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Pantheon Books, New York 18 For a concise but fairly thorough summary on the decline in social indicators world-wide see Chen, Judy, Dean Baker, and Mark Weisbrot, The Scorecard on Globalization: Twenty Years of Diminished Progress, Center for Economic Policy Research, July 2001, http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/globalization_2001_07_11.pdf For an excellent report on the same decline in the US see Skipes, Kim, Neoliberal Economic Policies in the United States: The Impact of globalisation on a ‘Northern’ country, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 2008, http://links.org.au/node/1056.

Gorton, Kristyn, (Un)fashionable Feministy: The Media and Ally McBeal in Gillis, Stacy, Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, Palgrave Macmillan Hochschild, Arlie Russel and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, Viking Penguin, New York, 1997 Skipes, Kim, Neoliberal Economic Policies in the United States: The Impact of globalisation on a ‘Northern’ country, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 2008, http://links.org.au/node/1056 The Gender Wage Gap: 2009, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, March 2010, available online at http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/C350.pdf

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful