Postfeminist Fiction

Postfeminist Fiction

Elisa Sheffield

Elisabeth Sheffield on the implications of the anthology that helped to put the term “postfeminsim” into circulation.

Chick-Lit. It rests on my desk, the only pink thing in the room. Not only is it pink, it’s bright pink and not, for instance, mauve. Not mauve, which Jane Gallop, describing the cover of the 1984 landmark anthology of feminist criticism, Writing and Sexual Difference, praisingly calls “a stylish, sophisticated version of [pink], one that bespeaks not the messy, carnal world of the nursery but high culture, high feminine culture, the realms of interior decoration and haute couture, and also, of course, things from the French…” Not mauve, nor raspberry nor even shell, but a bright sugary pink - the color of Bazooka Joe Bubblegum and innumerable Barbie Doll accessories. “A blatant little-girl color” that could be seen as an affront to the mature feminist, to all the women who have struggled over the decades to be taken seriously. And one could say that the title, Chick-Lit, only deepens the insult, that it’s like snapping gum in your mother’s face.

Yes, one could view the color of this anthology as an affront, a lapse of good manners, and even a relapse - a return to our political girlhood. But in visually referring back to the “carnal” pink of the nursery, this text also perhaps points to the stage at which the identification between girls and pink should be sundered. And in fact, if one looks at the cover more closely, there is an image for the violence and alienation that such a split would entail in the face of a mannequin that is split asunder, ruptured by a shark’s grinning head. Because such a split would require not just the rejection of our fathers, but our mothers as well, of that feminine world where pink inevitably matures into mauve, and Barbie dolls turn into mannequins modelling haute couture.

If that shark “speaks” of a refusal to identify, this refusal is explicitly reiterated in the subtitle of the anthology: Postfeminist Fiction. The prefix “post-” means “after”; it implies no genealogical relationship, not even a transcendent one - unlike, for instance, “pan-“, “ultra-“, “super-” or “sub-“. One could read this as a rejection of feminist values and achievements and again, see the anthology itself as a return to our political girlhood. But to do so would be to completely ignore the stories it contains, their cruel humor and sexy irreverence - their complete lack of lady-like propriety or girlish modesty. It might be more useful to look not at what the word “feminism” has come to stand for - after all, would there even be a place in the contemporary publishing world for Chick-Lit without the political and cultural ground gained by the feminist movement? - but at the word itself…

A look at Webster’s shows that “feminism” signifies “feminine character or characteristics” before it signifies a political movement with the full equality of men and women as its goal.

feminism (fem’i-niz’m),n.
1.Feminine character or characteristics; also, a feminine expression.
2.The theory, cult, or practice of those who advocate such legal and social changes as will establish political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. - fem’i-nist(-nist), n.and adj. fem’i-nis’tic(-nis’tik), adj.

I am thus forced to travel up the page to “feminine” and it is at this point that the problem becomes clear. The word signifies not just sexual difference, but the possibility of a host of added connotations as well.

feminine (-nin), adj.[OF.feminin, L.feminus, fr.femina woman.]
1.Female; of the female sex.
2.Characteristic of women.
3.Gram. Conforming or denoting to the class of words viewed as distinguished for females.
Abbr.fem. - SYN. FEMALE, adj. - ANT.Robust, strong, male. - n.Gram. A noun, pronoun, adjective, or tender, soft.
See inflectional form or class of the feminine gender; also, the gender. Thus distinguished - fem’i-nine-ly, adv. - fem’i-nine-ness,n.

“Feminine” means “tender and soft” (and “nurturing” and “vain” and “irrational” and “emotional” and so on…) just as “pink,” from the delivery room onwards, signifies “girl.” The cover of Chick-Lit refers back to that early identification of girls and pink in order, perhaps, to thrust us through and beyond it. I’m aware, by the way, of the phallic connotations of my diction in the preceding sentence. And I’m wondering why they should be considered phallic, why they should immediately be associated with the “masculine.” Our failure to question such associations makes possible sentences like the following: “Feminists suggest that female writers value communality while male writers value competition, that women write stories about nurturing and mothering while men write stories about conflict and violent rites of passage” (the preceding is from the “Feminism” chapter of a recently published college critical theory textbook).

Do women write about, or only about, nurturing and mothering? Or is this what they’re expected to write about, and thus what gets noticed and published? In her groundbreaking introductory essay to Chick-Lit, Cris Mazza says she used the word “post-feminist” in her call-for-manuscripts without defining it, to see what it would produce. Mazza acknowledges that she took a risk in using such a word, and realizes that the project could have thus been construed as “anti-feminist.” But the risk was a necessary one, I think, in that it created a “place” for me and the other women writers included in this anthology to exist - a place beyond the age-old cultural connotations and expectations entangled with the word “feminine” and its derivative, “feminism,” beyond the kinds of clichéd feminist stories Mazza so wittily evokes in her essay. And thus I would like to conclude this by thanking Cris Mazza, and Jeffrey DeShell as well, for their generous and imaginative vision, a vision which has made available a “world” (or “worlds”) of literature where women suckle cats instead of babies and a girl who is interested in neither can make enough money to buy “a beautiful blue car [emphasis mine]” and drive away.

—> link to Cris Mazza’s introduction to the Chick-Lit anthology.