Heather Brown

HDR student

I am writing a thesis entitled ‘Interrogating Postfeminist Female Empowerment in Bestselling Post-millennial Young Adult Literature’.

Thesis Summary

In recent years, fourth-wave feminist campaigns against systemic gender inequalities such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have exposed the failure of third-wave feminism’s discourses of individual empowerment to overcome sexism. Although third-wave feminism rejected the second-wave essentialist views of women as universal victims of patriarchy, as fourth-wave campaigns show, the performative signification of ‘choice’ not only fails to achieve equality for women, but reinforces patriarchy through a kind of anti-feminism or postfeminism.

Despite this fourth-wave revelation, this thesis contends that like the real-world, postfeminist discourses of female empowerment remain prevalent young adult literature (YAL), suggesting that a new generation of readers continue to be exposed to this complex and misleading form of feminist empowerment. Drawing on Judith Butler’s performance theory in conjunction with a wider critical discussion of feminist theory, power and subjectivity, this thesis examines the way in which four common tropes of postfeminism uphold patriarchy under the guise of ‘choice’ in a number of bestselling YAL.

The first two tropes ‘Postfeminist Feminine Masquerade’ and ‘Postfeminist “Sex-positive” Female Sexuality’, consider whether female protagonists can challenge stereotypes of femininity by instead re-signifying dress, beautification and sexuality as powerful and pleasurable. The following two tropes ‘Postfeminist Authentic Individualism’ and ‘The Postfeminist “Strong” Female Character’, look at whether the female protagonists’ resistance towards stereotypes of female essentialism through their performance of traits associated with masculinity are empowering.

This thesis shows that although the narrative devices, genre conventions and even (mostly) male secondary characters in the bestselling YAL analysed appear to support third-wave objectives, the female protagonists’ empowerment through a re-signification of gender are shown to subtly and complexly reinforce a traditional patriarchal worldview of gender, power and subjectivity.

  • What first sparked my interest in my field?

    Honestly, my interest in feminism, female empowerment and the role of discourse in involuntarily forming the subject has been bubbling away inside my head since I was a kid. Of course, I did not have the academic language to describe what I was thinking, but the concepts were there, informed by a catalogue of real-life incidents. So I need to tell a story. When I was very young, I saw for the first time, the lad’s mags at the petrol station at my eyelevel under the bench when my dad went to pay for the petrol. I was shocked, not that I didn’t know what women’s bodies looked like, but that I instantly perceived that these images were meant to be attractive, after all, they were for sale! Who buys these? I thought. Just as I realised that they were aimed at men, I also wondered: Is this how men will look at me when I grow up? Right there and then I felt a deep betrayal standing next to my dad as he paid for the petrol, knowing that he could not protect me from that, if that is what other men were like. As I looked at those covers, I realised the complex relationship between having a female body and monetary value.

    While I clearly saw the existence of lad’s mags at the petrol station as an issue of right and wrong, as I grew up the issue of ‘choice’ complicated this picture. Without reference to feminism, I grew up in an atmosphere which spoke of equality and the freedom to choose. I was told to ‘be myself’ and not be hampered by what other people might think of the way I dressed, what I said, or how I behaved. As a teen I saw in Absolutely Fabulous, Edina and Patsy lurching through life rich, perpetually drunk, stoned, engaging in copious amounts of casual sex and objectifying the bodies of the (younger) men around them. They were free to do to the men just as the male fictional characters of Men Behaving Badly did to women. Pole-dancing, an activity once negatively associated with strip-joints and nightclubs and transgressive female sexuality began to be marketed to women both as ‘just another way to exercise’, and a way for women to express their feminine sexuality freely. Similarly, immensely popular shows like Baywatch (called ‘Boob Watch’ by a male peer at the time) could no longer be called sexist, because (as mostly male peers but a lot of female peers too asserted) the female actors had a choice as to whether or not they took the role, just as anyone who objected to the show’s content had the choice to not watch the show. These cultural instances supposedly told me that I had freedoms to do, say and be that had only previously only belonged to men.

    Yet I was troubled at how these apparent freedoms seemed to increase the amount of objectification going on. I heard in excruciating detail all about Pamela Anderson’s rack, just as I heard or read what having a pole-dancing partner connoted to men. Despite having free choice, women, specifically women’s bodies continued to be judged in relation to their sexual desirability to men. When I tried to raise this point, I was quickly reminded that because Jennifer Saunders had written Ab Fab, and that women were not pressured to join a pole-dancing class, my concerns were invalid. Who was I to ‘know better’ than these women? I could not speak for them. By this logic they had a point. While I don’t think it was ever my intention to speak on behalf of someone, my questions and concerns were effectively voided.

    Worse still, the freedom to judge without being thought sexist, reinforced the opposite of how I had been encouraged to think about myself. If I did not want to be judged, empowerment via sexuality and beautification were out. Certainly, the all girls’ school I attended backed this up. The combination of a strict no make-up, jewellery and conservative uniform policy, and the necessity of ‘daring’ to do academically and otherwise things that girls don’t always do (ie: male things) consistently told me that relying on feminine attractiveness was selling out. In order to be taken seriously, to be equal to men – especially for those who wanted to enter into male dominated areas at university – such as engineering, science, medicine, we had to show we were not only as good as the boys, but better. That we had earned our place through brains, not beauty, or any Affirmative Action type directives. I remember one day my mum interrupted something I had been telling her (I can’t remember what) saying, ‘you don’t have to compete against boys’. I had not thought that was what I had been saying, but I later realised: This is exactly what it’s like! Beating some AFL footballers at a school hockey match and having them compliment female schoolgirl players on their athleticism showed that. The fact that my Karate generated more interest than my ability or interest in arts and humanities showed that. While I agreed that I shouldn’t have to be measured against a man, because I’m not a man, what this empowerment via ‘masculinisation’, showed me, just as the empowerment via feminine beautification showed me, was that either way, I would continue to be subject to judgement – specifically male judgement. And there I was, right back to petrol station seeing for the first time the covers on those lad’s mags.

    So how did I, with this knowledge choose to empower myself? Because it was vastly more important to be respected rather than seen to be desirable, clothes that showed my figure, more skin and makeup became an anathema to me. I never wear high heels. I didn’t drink. I didn’t go to nightclubs or go anywhere where I may not be able to defend myself. Are these choices? Sure. Are they free? No. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was demonstrating personal responsibility, a key aspect of the third-wave feminist bargain, which says women are free to choose, and that we are no longer victims of patriarchy, or anyone else. However, what my choices were also doing was taking responsibility for other people’s behaviour, and silently endorsing patriarchy. My empowerment was hollow, because it sapped the joy and simplicity of just enjoying that dress, wearing some shorts, playing with makeup, or seeing my body shape every now and then. It can never be ‘just for me’ when it’s always being judged by everyone else and his dog. Or conversely, that I will only be validated as a person if I am equal to, or surpass someone else in brains.

    Despite these ‘precautions’, I have been harassed in everyday contexts. As sexism supposedly does not exist anymore, I was made to feel I could not object. Every time I tried (and I did not always try, because frankly, it’s tiring, and sometimes it’s just easier not to), I was treated as some kind of man-hating feminist, (which is not true), my sexuality was questioned (which is infuriating and nobody’s business), I was told I was either being too sensitive (which could be true, but effectively overrides my opinion), that catcalls, stares or comments were complimentary (perhaps from their side, and again overrides my control over my body), that it is a ‘normal’ part of being a woman (this made me want to disappear altogether). Regardless of how I tried to empower myself, apparently, I failed.

    It was not until I did Honours in 2013 that I was able to tackle some of these problems. Although my research focused on the gothic genre and the relationship between romance and violence, the self-directed reading of feminist theory and criticism started me on a journey to answer why I thought feminism was failing me (and other women), and why I felt like I was failing it. The answer was postfeminism. Third-wave feminism apparently gave women the tools so that any choice was feminist. Yet because the social framework had not altered, and women’s subjectivity continues to be constructed by others, the deception is that we are all in a postfeminist era, and disguises ongoing inequalities.

  • Why did you pursue an HDR?

    After doing Honours I realised there was heaps more I wanted to explore and an HDR was the only way to do it! Initially, my HDR was going to be an expanded version of the topic explored in Honours. However, my research topic evolved into something far more complex and I think, more interesting. Rather than just focussing on how various genres replicate romance/violence myths in a postmodern context, I decided to examine the reproduction of discourses of postfeminist empowerment in female characters, as very little has been written on the topic in relation to literary studies. I was particularly interested in how tropes of postfeminist empowerment in YAL disguise an adherence to patriarchal values through choice. It’s the distortion of freedom which I find intriguing and misleads the reader.

  • What has been the highlight of your candidature?

    Funnily enough, the highlight of my candidature has not been achieving goals, being published or receiving praise, as enjoyable as these moments might be! It has been far more personal, occurring when the sociological studies, philosophical, feminist and literary theories have suddenly met up with and given me language for my own ideas. It has been immensely mentally satisfying to slot my own pre-existing thoughts into, or against existing theories. It has been a joy to be able to read as much as possible. While the outcome has enabled me to address my research questions, this is secondary to understanding at a greater depth the nuances of various theories and interrelated disciplines.

  • What has been the most unexpected moment of candidature?

    One of the most unexpected aspects of candidature has been personal as well. While it would be the first to say that undertaking this HDR has been the hardest thing I have ever attempted to complete, the sustained amount of concentration and dedication required has reminded me of my character traits of single-mindedness, perseverance and endurance. Also, the fact that I have had the time to read primary source material widely, and to a greater depth has been an enormous boon to my engagement with secondary criticism let alone my own thesis contention. The sheer volume of reading undertaken has made me far more confident in my understanding of various disciplines and my handling of information especially in relation to my own arguments.

  • What would you like to do after your HDR?

    While I want to give my brain a rest, I have so much more to say! I would like to supervise Honours students and continue to submit and publish articles on topics within my field. I would also like to work as part of a research team putting together information for someone else’s project.

  • What do you do to relax and unwind after a long day of research writing?

    Weirdly, my favourite wind-down activity is another form of analysis! I enjoy watching murder-mysteries, as long as they are not gruesome. The challenge of being driven along by the narrative yet remaining attuned to misdirection and subtle clues is satisfying! I also get creative. I have taken up patchwork quilting, made handcrafted Christmas ornaments to sell at a pop-up shop in town, and completed various sized tapestries during my candidature.

  • Writing is a big part of the HDR process. Do you have any rituals to help you get in the mood/vide/mindset?

    I have developed several routines over the years which pretty much have been a mainstay of my candidature.

    1. I generally go for a walk in the morning which helps energise my brain for sitting down and concentrating.
    2. I know it may sound really corny, and maybe some people might not believe me, but doing the housework helps get me in the mood to write! I think it is the sense of completing one task, ready to move onto the next that does the trick, plus I get a clean environment into the bargain!
    3. I have also learnt over the years that I concentrate better when I am alone. So although the HDR ‘shut up and write’ sessions may be helpful to some, for me, they are not conducive to productive work. If I know the environment where I write is going to be interrupted, I aim to work around those times, or go somewhere else.
    4. I have found that it is best to finish whatever section or paragraph I am working on before I finish up for day. This doesn’t mean that it has to be perfect, but if I know I can’t complete the section thoroughly, I will make notes somewhere with as much detail as possible including references and my basic argument, to help kick me off the following day. Leaving something incomplete, mid-sentence or mid-paragraph may mean that I may risk losing where I was heading, particularly if there is an unforeseen break between writing sessions.
    5. If I get stuck, I have stop-gap activities which helps me think: I head into the kitchen and cook for a while with a pad and pencil on the bench, do something arty, or I go for a walk with a piece of paper and pencil so I can think and jot things down while I’m walking. There is a scene in Little Women (in the 1994 and 2019 films, and the 2017 television series) which to me perfectly reflects the intensity of my writing process. When Jo March is up in the family attic, pacing the floor, frowning with concentration as she writes, and furiously re-writes, and eats while she writes, it’s like seeing myself (minus the Noddy-like writer’s hat Winona Ryder wears, the attic, candlelight and the calligraphy pen). It needs commitment, love of the original concept, and a drive to just do it.

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