Postmodern Feminism

In Italian, a very informal greeting for a male friend would be “Ciao, bello”(=hello, beautiful) The “o” at the end of “bello” indicates you are talking to one, male person. “Ciao, bella!” would be for female singular, “Ciao, belli!” would be for a group of males, and “Ciao, belle!” for a group of females. If we were greeting a group that included a mix of gender identities, we would greet them the same way as a group of men. In this instance, the female form of language virtually disappears, while language reflecting trans and non-binary gender identities are still commonly overlooked. 

Postmodern Feminism Postmodern Feminism

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    This is a small way in which the Italian language reverts to the masculine form, to indicate neutral or both genders.

    Postmodern feminism highlights male biases in languages to show us how the inequality between genders is intrinsically linked with the very way we communicate, think and make sense of our world.

    In this article, we are going to explore postmodern feminism a bit further in the context of postmodernism and feminism. We will look at its theory, features and what it aims for.

    Postmodern feminism definition

    Postmodern feminism is a subsection of third-wave feminism, mainly because of its rejection of the universality of the gendered experiences of individuals living in patriarchal systems.

    Postmodern feminism is based on postmodern ideas as well as concepts from post-structuralism and French feminism. It understands gender stereotypes to be a cultural construct of patriarchy and aims to de-construct them to liberate individuals to define their understanding of what it is to be themselves.

    Postmodern feminism is a branch of third-wave feminism that incorporates the philosophies of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and French feminism. It sees gender stereotypes as culturally constructed through language and aims to de-throne the prevalent patriarchal binary norms, in favour of embracing differences and individual experiences.

    Structuralism is a movement that understands culture to be made up of complementary structures defined in opposition to each other and often arranged in a hierarchy. Examples are man-woman; rational-emotional. Post-structuralism rejects the binary view of the world and suggests that history and culture have a big impact in defining each subject.

    French feminism is a branch of third-wave feminism characterised by a focus on philosophy and literature instead of politics. It produced literary works that were metaphorical, effusive and focused on theories of the body.

    Take a deeper dive into Postmodernism, another great article available here!

    Waves of Feminism

    To better understand Postmodern feminism let's have a closer look at Third-wave feminism in context. Feminist thought also has a long history, divided into “waves” to define the key developments.

    First and second-wave feminism were the prevailing schools of thought between the late 18th century and the 1980s. They both emerged in what today we define as the Global North.

    • First-wave feminism presents women as equal to men on grounds of their equal ability for rational thought and achieved women's suffrage.
    • Second-wave feminism celebrates femininity and the sisterhood of women as defined by (white) women, and as if they were concepts that were universally recognised. Second-wave feminism centred on fighting for reproductive rights.
    • While riding on the successes of the previous two waves of feminism, Third-wave feminism rejects some of the assumptions of first-wave and second-wave feminist movements, due to the incorporation of the idea of intersectionality.

    Such an intersectional approach acknowledges the interplay between gender, ethnic background, wealth, class, sexual orientation and the presence of a disability when considering a person's experience of prejudice and marginalisation.

    Intersectionality is the perspective that considers all aspects of a person's identity as intersecting to define their experience of their society.

    Postmodern feminism aims

    Postmodern feminism aims to dissect the intrinsic societal, cultural and language-based causes of gender inequality.

    It analyses society, language and written works to identify biases such as the one highlighted about the Italian language.

    According to Postmodern feminism, the causes of gender oppression in patriarchal structures are multiple. Examples of these could be the erasure and underrepresentation of gender identities that challenge restrictive gender binaries and norms.

    Once inequality is identified, postmodern feminists, aim to challenge these oppressive patriarchal tools. An example of this in action, is generating new ways of being, expressing and behaving which challenge patriarchal gender norms and the gender binary.

    Postmodern feminism is sometimes criticised for a lack of a unified, clear solution. Other critics see postmodern feminism as too academic and jargonistic. This means that it risks getting lost in theories and is, therefore, less applicable to a political struggle.

    Postmodern feminism theory

    “Sex” is assigned based on an individual's external reproductive organs at birth. Whereas, a person's gender reflects how they express their sex through behaviour.

    Postmodern feminist theory tells us that both sex and gender are socially constructed through language. Consequently, different societies have different constructs of both sex and gender.

    Postmodern feminism also highlights how we create a restrictive gender binary with our language. As result, this trend allows strict gender roles and expectations to proliferate within patriarchal societies.

    Gender binary

    The gender binary is the classification of gender expression as strictly two, opposite, feminine and masculine only

    For instance, some postmodern feminists go further by saying that language was not created by and for women; and that the definition of “female” is not in and of itself, but only in the reflection of what it is to be male. This puts the “female” at a hierarchical disadvantage.

    Postmodern feminism criticises this androcentrism and promotes different and subjective ways of expressing masculinity and femininity that go beyond the social constructs.

    Androcentrism

    refers to the prioritisation of the masculine perspective

    Judith Butler is a philosopher and gender theorist who developed the idea of gender performativity. This is a concept that implies that gender is both a performance and one that produces a reaction in society. Butler states that gender is a set of actions that comply with societal norms. They also add that:

    We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman... We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that's simply true about us, a fact about us. Actually, it's a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start. “1

    Postmodern Feminism Judith Butler StudySmarterFig. 1 Judith Butler

    Features of postmodern feminism

    Postmodern feminism, like postmodernism, rejects essentialism and binary oppositions as it sees them as patriarchal constructs that oppress the feminine.

    Essentialism: in philosophy, is the view that objects have certain defined features and can only be defined as so. They cannot have any other characteristics.

    The postmodern feminist philosopher, writer, poet, and playwright Helene Cixous draws a commentary on masculinity and femininity by analysing male writing and encouraging female writing. She describes male writing as (typically) linear, based on oppositions and lacking gender diversity, as it excludes the body. According to Cixous, female writing should be escapism, which can never be “theorised, enclosed or coded”2. She demonstrates this kind of writing by including many writing styles in her works, from densely theoretical, to slang, from flowy poetry and metaphors to associative wordplay.

    Postmodern Feminism Helene Cixous StudySmarterFig. 2 Hélène Cixous

    Postmodern feminism examples

    Luce Irigaray is a French feminist, linguist, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist who spend a vast amount of her life analysing literary works from a logocentric perspective.

    Logocentrism refers to the Western tradition of regarding words and language, and more specifically, written prose, as the best way to express reality.

    In Luce Irigaray's main work, Speculum of the Other Woman3, she analysed and criticised the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes Kant and Freud from the perspective of phallocentrism. Phallocentrism is the prioritising of the male perspective when analysing society and social relations.

    For example, Freud bases a lot of his psychological development theories on the idea that initially we are all boys, and that girls' development hinges on the trauma faced when they realise they are not boys.

    Irigaray studied language deeply, always with a focus on how males and females in expressing themselves, and concluded that in language there are patterns that imply dominance in males and passivity in females.

    In the 1960s, she carried out a study on dementia patients to look at differences in language between males and females. She found that while the male patients were still able to articulate themselves with language, the female patients expressed their conditions through their bodies. She concluded that this was because the male patient could reflect themselves in the language (because of the inherent male bias), while the female patients lacked this connection to it.

    In later years, her works took a slight change in focus. She wrote a book inspired by yoga, on the joining of the body and the spirit,4 and looked at how men and women could come together and create relationships5 in a more democratic way.

    Luce Irigaray is still a feminism activist but refuses to identify with a specific branch of feminism as she thinks that subdivisions contribute to unnecessary competition

    Another example of language bias that postmodern feminism highlights is the use of gendered pronouns.

    As in the example of the Italian language above, English traditionally uses he/him/his and she/her/hers to talk about masculine and feminine subjects. The LGBTQ+ movement has challenged this strict gendered binary inbuilt within the English language. Additionally, promoting the use of they/their/theirs to more accurately represent, and crucially not pre-determine the gender identity of members of the trans and non-binary community.

    Postmodern Feminism - Key takeaways

    • Postmodernism, instead, rejects the idea of an objective, universal truth.
    • Postmodern feminism is a branch of third-wave feminism that sees gender stereotypes as culturally constructed through language and aims to dethrone them in favour of embracing differences and individual experiences.
    • Postmodern feminist theory tells us that both sex and gender are socially constructed through language, and that feminity is at a hierarchical disadvantage in this construct.
    • Postmodern feminism rejects essentialism and binary oppositions.
    • Postmodern feminism is criticised for the lack of a unified solution and for being too academic.

    References

    1. Judith Butler Your Behaviour Creates your Gender 2011
    2. Hélène Cixous The Laugh of the Medusa 1976
    3. Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman 1974
    4. Luce Irigaray A New Culture of Energy: Beyond East and West 2021
    5. Luce Irigaray The Way of Love 2002
    6. Fig. 2 Hélène Cixous (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%A9l%C3%A8ne_Cixous_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_2011.jpg) by Claud Truong-Ngoc (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ctruongngoc) licenced by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://spdx.org/licenses/CC-BY-SA-3.0.html) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Postmodern Feminism

    What is postmodern feminism? 

    Postmodern feminism is a branch of third-wave feminism that sees gender stereotypes as culturally constructed through language and aims to dethrone them in favour of embracing differences and individual experiences.

    What is the belief of postmodern feminism?

    Postmodern Feminism believes that gender stereotypes are constructed through language and behaviour rather than innate.

    What is an example of postmodern feminism?

    An example of postmodern feminism is Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman, where she dissects analyses classics of Western philosophy from a phallocentric perspective.

    What is the criticism of postmodern feminism?

    Postmodern feminism is criticised for not offering a unified solution and for being too academic.

    Who is associated with postmodern feminism? 

    Three prominent thinkers of postmodern feminism are Judith Butler, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray.

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