Popular culture, political economy and the death of feminism

Penny Griffin


In 2009 I started working on a project examining the feminist shape of popular culture, inspired, in large part, by reading Janet Halley’s Split Decisions and Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism. At the time, my experiences in the university classroom were decidedly mixed. Every time my students squirmed uncomfortably in their seats when the ‘f’ word was mentioned, I felt, both personally and professionally, that feminism had taken a head shot while I wasn’t paying attention. Feminists appeared on television, when they appeared on television, as shrieking harpies devoid of humour, even across cultural sources I otherwise admired and enjoyed, and sexually explicit content and demeaning representations followed me everywhere.

At this point, antifeminism seemed much more prolific in popular and commercial form and feminism in decline, submerged by popular rhetoric and representations that questioned its relevance and obscured its incisiveness. The misogyny squared at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign was brutal, but yet not perhaps very surprising (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had not yet made televisual feminism so appealing) and, in Australia, no one cared (or seemed to care publically) that a future Prime Minister believed that the best board for an Australian woman to sit at had an iron on it. I began Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism: Why Women are in Refrigerators and Other Stories with a sense, then, of despondency; for the prospects of feminism in Australia, and for a future teaching apparently disinterested, desensitised, neoliberalised youth. Like feminists such as McRobbie, Whelehan and Levy, I was convinced that popular culture was indeed reproducing the dismissal of feminism in order to better maintain the (assumed) profitability of sexualised market products.


If feminism was suffering from an image problem, how, I wondered, had the representational practices embedded in our everyday cultural lives come to constitute and shape feminism and our responses to it? Were cultures of production and consumption in the West contributing to derogatory attitudes to women and, particularly, to feminism? To what extent were negative representations of the women’s movement in the popular media depoliticising feminism as a form of collective politics in a world where young women were being taught that discrimination had been eliminated and individual efforts, self-definition and choice were key to women’s advancement? Why was sexism so prevalent across popular culture? Why could popular culture produce at best only uninspiring, and uninspired, representations of women, while sexism was all that consumer culture seemed to be selling? Feminism did, indeed, appear ‘undone’ in the contemporary West, dismissible and irrelevant to young women’s (and men’s) lives and incompatible with a cultural landscape in which the sexualisation of market products and objectification of the human body was valued above all else.

Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism, I hope, challenges International Political Economy (an academic discipline that tends to forget that there are actual human beings in the world) to produce a view of the world attentive both to the politics of gender and of cultural production, including the myriad ways in which these are inseparable. For the critically-minded, it is nothing new or controversial to argue that the abstracted pictures of the world offered by International Relations, where life exists as a sequence of isolated events unrelated to everyday practices of social and cultural reproduction, is flawed. Yet, if International Relations has struggled to take (frivolous and insubstantial) popular culture seriously, International Political Economy has not even got close. Although a ‘cultural political economy’ has drawn near to articulating the many and varied ways in which meaning and practice interconnect, very little writing in International Political Economy takes popular culture seriously as a core part of the global political economy. I find this baffling, particularly because the success of the neoliberal globalisation thesis has been, at least to me, so glaringly visual. I find it hard not to see the representations of masculine success that fill the pages of The Economist, or the pictures of poor, rural women (invariably with some sort of child strapped to their backs) that populate development banks’ pages on gender, development and ‘smart economics’. Corporate capitalism and global finance, their legitimations, dominant narratives, practices, and sources of support and subversion, are always visual and powerfully so. Yet International Political Economy scholarship rarely considers visual language a worthy subject of analysis.


Arguing that we ignore the significance of visual language in global politics at our peril, Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism makes a case for centralising analysis of popular culture in our examinations of the global political economy. It explores the intimate connections between the politics of feminism and the representational practices of contemporary popular culture, examining how feminism is ‘made sensible’ through visual imagery and popular culture representations. It investigates how popular culture is produced, represented and consumed to reproduce the conditions in which feminism is valued or dismissed, and asks whether antifeminism exists in commodity form and is commercially viable. Asking whether popular culture is contributing to a dismissal of feminism is a question worth thinking about because, for me, it is more than simply being interesting: it is a question of the politics of power and the circulation (and regulation) of knowledge, exclusion and appropriate behaviour. The cultural ‘turn’ across the social sciences has taught (some of) us that representations matter. The representational practices of contemporary popular culture help define our codes of conduct and horizons of possibility. Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism proceeds from the assumption that we cannot understand the processes and forms of our social, economic and political activity without trying to understand the properties, biases and effects of the cultural systems in which we are located. These make ‘real life’ (whatever that means) possible. Images and cultural constructions are intimately connected to patterns of inequality, domination and oppression: to understand their power is to begin to unravel the exclusive and discriminatory hierarchies that sustain them.


Cultural theorists have often discussed political economy in their considerations of culture and identity, but political economists (in their incarnation as a discipline in International Political Economy, at least) have not often ruminated on the world of popular culture. I cannot say for certain that many International Political Economy scholars would care what the relationship was between feminism, popular culture and political economy. The possibility that popular culture might undo some of their constructions of ‘legitimate’ knowledge remains, however, too tantalising a prospect to ignore.

[This post originally appeared at Progress in Political Economy]

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