By taking a fresh look at popular culture, students are breathing new life into feminist theories of a generation ago.
A favorite party game among feminist academics I know is sharing stories about young women who avoid identifying as “feminist,” as though it might give them leprosy. My colleagues bemoan the fact that these same students seem to practice feminism in their daily lives but will not embrace a term that our generation found so empowering. Bemused and dismayed, they wonder why these students refuse to reinvigorate a political movement that we think remains crucial to social change. Why do our students capitulate to media pundits who have successfully denigrated “feminists” as child-hating, man-hating, self-absorbed, universe-destroying harpies, instead of rejuvenating or even renovating the movement’s language?
I too have pondered these questions, but have long felt that it does not matter to me what my students call themselves, as long as they try out the feminist-friendly ideals I try to instill through my teaching. In a seminar I taught at Princeton last semester on gender, sexuality and popular culture, I learned that language is an even more complicated problem for my students than I had expected — while their proto-feminist predilections seem much more finely honed than I had initially thought.
My course, titled “For Your Viewing Pleasure,” argued that feminist critical engagement with pop culture is not antithetical to pleasure. I am an enthusiastic consumer of television, film, novels, and theater/performance, and I am also a long-time blogger. I was eager to think with my students about how pop culture can be entertaining and provocative all at once, since in my own experience, I have found as much cause for hope as for despair in the objects I consume. And my feminist critical practices more often than not enhance rather than detract from the pleasure I take as a pop culture consumer. The course, then, proposed that we can enjoy our inevitable pop culture consumption while developing skills that let us look critically at how it promotes certain understandings of gender, race, and sexuality.
Sponsored by the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, which I direct, and cross-listed with English and Theatre, my course was one of the first Princeton offered that addressed a wide swathe of popular culture. I unwittingly offered this new course at a moment when gender and women’s issues once again captured the public imagination. Princeton professor and former senior State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter had recently published her provocative Atlantic essay, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, which argued that women are still forced to choose their families over their careers as long as there are insufficient professional structures that support working women and marriages that contribute equally to child-care and domestic responsibilities. Sheryl Sandberg’s zeitgeist-inspiring “Lean In” was also published last spring. Many of her bromides for professional success took up where Slaughter’s essay left off, but they offered more specific strategies for navigating a corporate environment in which high-powered men are utterly unaware of the needs and dilemmas of their female colleagues.
At the same time, Princeton has focused on mentoring women students after a task force appointed by then-President Shirley Tilghman found that many young women declined to run for powerful student government offices or head the campus’s influential eating clubs. Women were also nominated less frequently for prestigious national academic prizes than their male peers. Ascribing these imbalances to female students’ inclinations to see authoritative campus positions as off-putting to their potential romantic partners, Tilghman and the task force instituted a host of structures to encourage women students to “lean in,” instead of presuming that they should automatically count themselves out.
Finally, into all these conversations walked Susan Patton ’77, a Princeton alumna whose letter last spring to the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, went viral when she strongly suggested that coeds use their four years on campus to find an appropriate husband (one older than them, and intellectually their equal or better). Patton was prompted to offer her advice after she talked to students about mentoring, which in turn followed a public conversation between Slaughter and Tilghman in which they addressed, in both personal and professional terms, how each has navigated the challenges of being full human beings as women.
Patton reported that the young women students to whom she spoke only wanted to be married, and she accused campus feminists of shutting down their desires by making marriage politically “incorrect.” Patton’s remarks agitated the Princeton campus, and alongside Slaughter’s essay, Sandberg’s book, and the women’s mentoring project, provided an activist political context for the issues raised in my course. How were women and men students to organize themselves around this conversation? And what does pop culture teach us through its own strategies about how to be full human beings in the world?
The students’ choices for the objects we studied delved right into the midst of these controversies, even though they ranged across decades of pop culture consumption. In “The Gilmore Girls,” mother Lorelai and daughter Rory measured the distance between themselves and a 1950s version of women by watching “The Donna Reed Show,” which Rory then proceeded to reenact for her boyfriend. In “Glee,” the two lead couples—one straight, one gay—try to navigate the distance between themselves as Rachel and Kurt move to New York to pursue the theater training that they hope will jump start their careers. In “Scandal,” political fixer Olivia Pope’s clandestine relationship with the president of the United States presents a stark contrast between personal happiness and political efficacy. We studied these examples and more, considering how the show’s narratives, character arcs, and camera angles weighted our sympathies for the characters in one direction or another, and demonstrated the complications of “having it all.”
As I developed the course, I had to think hard about which examples I would select. For instance, I had been thinking about assigning the 1990s lesbian soap opera “The L Word,” in part because I had taken so much pleasure in what was then the first sustained representation of lesbian characters on television, and in part because the show was controversial when it aired. But I also worried that a show I had liked so much would not be at all pleasurable for the students. (In fact, when “The L Word” did come up in conversation in our class, few of the students had even heard of it.)
I also worried about the generational differences that inevitably frame our pop culture consumption preferences. As a middle-aged, white, Jewish lesbian, my tastes would no doubt be distinctly different from students several generations younger than mine, and diverse across nationality, race, class, and gender. To try to ensure that they would take the lead on determining our sphere of taste preferences and pleasure, I decided to ask them to choose the objects of our analysis, working in groups to select films, television shows, novels, music videos, or whatever they decided was worth our collective critical attention. They either assigned films for pre-viewing or screened scenes in class, and then led us in discussions based on questions they shared before each meeting.
One of the distinct communal pleasures of the course turned out to be watching scenes together in class. In our first meeting, I took a chance and made my own selection, screening the first episode of Lena Dunham’s now iconic HBO television series “Girls,” hoping that the very contemporary, much-discussed series about women around their age would at least strike something of a chord. Some of them had seen the show; all of them had heard about the controversies it stirred, especially around the representation of Dunham’s body (which is not conventionally svelte and attractive), its sexual practices, and around the show’s lack of racial diversity.
Watching the show together in class that first day, the students quickly formed into a distinct viewing community that morphed throughout the semester as we got to know one another’s habits and predilections. That first session also got us past the issue of watching sex on screen across generations, setting the stage for a frank discussion about what it means for women (and men) to ask for what they like sexually, and express what they do not want. That experience on the first day of class made us comfortable watching anything together, whether the gay desire of “Glee” or the interracial heat of “Scandal,” both of which we watched later in the semester, Sexual pleasure and how it was expressed on screen became one of our crucial reference points.
I wanted my course to dispel notions of feminism as anti-pleasure and anti-pop culture, two stereotypes the field and the movement have come by somewhat honestly. In the history of feminist criticism, a foundational moment was the introduction of the so-called “male gaze,” first popularized by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. She argued that film viewing is organized by gender, and that women’s bodies are constructed as objects that men can look at for their voyeuristic pleasure. Feminist artists and critics responded by either not representing the female body at all or by reorganizing patterns of reception to empower women as spectators and as agents, rather than objects, of the gaze. These feminist values often resulted in avant-garde artistic practices, and produced films and performances that were strangely dour and vehemently against what were considered the objectifications of popular culture.
Most of my students had never heard of Laura Mulvey. Yet they understood intuitively what she meant by the “male gaze,” which became a powerful tool in their nascent critical arsenals as they began teasing out their own thoughtful engagements, even though they were not enthused by her sometimes turgid theoretical language. Indeed, critical framework Mulvey offered with the “male gaze” has been repurposed time and again in different contexts, used now to address the popularity and visual power of Beyoncé in the same way it once parsed the agency of Madonna. But where Mulvey saw only objectification and disempowerment, my students saw in contemporary pop culture possibilities for subversion and resistance. In subjects as diverse as the Harry Potter novels and films and the TV series “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” my students entertained the idea of turning the gendered gaze on its head, so that women are both beckoned to and empowered by their representation through characters, narratives, and filming techniques that treat women as agents rather than objects.
In addition to Mulvey, I assigned my students to read a raft of feminist theories about representation across film, television, and performance studies. We discussed Susan Douglas’ “Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media” (1995) and her follow-up, “The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild” (2010). We were sobered by her discussion of how it has become inexplicably cool to give sexism a pass in pop culture, and we were cheered by her insistence that feminists must take pop culture seriously. We read criticism from the blogs on BitchMedia and Feministing, discussing the new generation of feminist models for mixing pleasure and political engagement. We applied the famous and persuasive Bechdel Test to the films and television shows we discussed to determine if they might qualify as feminist. To meet this test, a film must include at least two named female characters that talk to each other about something other than a man. My students were as appalled as I am by how many films fail to clear this low bar.
We also read feminist media manifestos and feminist television criticism that moves from Mulvey’s notion of the singular male gaze to how communities of spectators use popular culture in often counterintuitive and radical ways. For instance, we can find progressive positions on gender, race, and sexuality in television series about vampires or housewives. We discussed Princeton professor Christy Wampole’s provocative New York Times op-ed about irony, considering how we often allow ourselves to feel superior to pop culture by adopting ironic attitudes that echo Douglas’ notion of enlightened sexism. We read Melissa Harris-Perry’s “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” (2011), demonstrating how gendered stereotypes that still pervade popular culture are also racialized. And we debated academic Alexander Doty’s influential “Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture” (1993), illustrating how even the most conventional popular culture can be “queered” through the eye of any viewer willing to see from a marginalized perspective.
My assignments asked the students to practice their critical skills in various ways. The first asked them to review the literature around an object of popular culture. For example, if I were to engage “Girls,” I would survey what other critics had to say, annotating three or four exemplary commentaries from newspapers, magazines, blogs, academic journals and books. Then, I asked them to write close readings of a moment or a scene from their chosen object, never constraining what they might choose for examination. One student, in fact, completed this assignment by looking at the much-discussed sexual encounter between Adam and Natalia in the second season of “Girls” and debating whether it constituted rape.
Another assignment asked the students to write thematically about an object of popular culture. Again, in the “Girls” example, they might tease out which ideas the show’s narrative engages. This could be the status of young white women trying to establish their lives in New York, or the larger issue of gender relations in an era of purported sexual liberation but constrained professional choices, especially for those who see themselves as artists. And finally, the students conducted ethnographies that explored how a particular group of pop culture consumers used the films or television shows they consumed.
As the semester flew by, I was struck by how much fun we seemed to be having, looking at pop culture together, debating the merits of old and new feminist theories of representation, testing ideas against our own experiences, and thinking about the political implications and cultural hierarchies of taste and aesthetics, all without necessarily defining them as feminist or not.
At our final meeting, when I asked for their reflections on the semester, the students acknowledged that they could be critical spectators and still have fun with pop culture. They also admitted the importance of a feminist lens on culture and understood that people use feminism differently at different historical and cultural moments. And they realized that pop culture saturates our environment in ways that they absorb in spite of themselves.
They reported that the course had made them self-conscious in a good way about their viewing habits and practices. They realized the social and political importance of film and television, and that criticism helped them collect their thoughts and formalize what they think and feel. Some of them half-jokingly complained that once their eyes were “opened,” they could not undo what had become a deeply deconstructive perspective, because they realized that viewing is complex and that interpretation has multiple layers. (They reminded me of a student in a class on women and theater I taught decades ago, who sighed that she could no longer watch “Little House on the Prairie” without noticing that there were no Jews in the show.) And almost to a person, the students left the class much more willing to call themselves feminists. It no longer seemed like that big a deal: the term remains the most succinct way of identifying critical strategies that the students either already employ, or new ones that felt congenial.
The way their writing and discussions used other language was more eye-opening to me. They often called their peer group “girls” (and for the three males in the class, “boys”), and they preferred to use phrases like “the female perspective” instead of “women’s perspectives.” “Masculine” and “feminine” rarely came up in their speech, while “male” and “female” were often short-hand for descriptions of what I think of as gender rather than sex. This might have indicated intellectual imprecision or their general lack of prior knowledge about gender and sexuality studies. I probed them about this with genuine curiosity, explaining that for my generation, being called “women” was a hard-won right. Why, I asked, did they revert to “girls”?
Their answers surprised me: they explained that they do not yet feel like “women.” Rather than a term of political or social agency, they see “women” through a generational lens, as people older than themselves. Even the male students admitted that they do not identify as “men” but as “boys.” I found this fascinating, as I had assumed the tendency towards “girls” was an ironic reclaiming of language that had once been denigrating but is now empowering, just as it is in Dunham’s show. Instead, my students attested to not feeling quite “there,” to not yet having the authority to call themselves women.
I found myself moved by their vulnerable obeisance to those they perceived as elders, despite their impressive intellectual power and ability. In fact, many of the 25 students in the class were graduating seniors. I asked when they might feel entitled to call themselves women, but they demurred, still unable to see themselves in that role, even though they were willing to take seriously the polemics that Slaughter and Patton had outlined for us that semester.
I learned many things teaching “For Your Viewing Pleasure.” It reinforced my belief that modeling feminist practices is more important than insisting students self-identify as feminists, even though one eventually does seem to follow from the other. I learned that popular culture is an enormously important site of feminist intervention, in part because it is where our students live on a daily, intimate basis. Pop culture is this generation’s lingua franca; even those few students who described growing up in lefty feminist households without televisions admitted that they absorb pop culture through the zeitgeist, forcing them to think about it intelligently.
And I learned that if my class represents even a small sample, this generation is indeed tentative about their right to engage in large questions of gender, race, and sexuality. But these young students are also more adept and capable than they think once they start wielding the key strategies of feminist critical practice. Our students engage a thriving feminist critical culture that deserves to be articulated in ways that do not tie it to facile expressions of “I am” but to more complicated and productive declarations of “I see” or “I think.”