Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault
In all three articles this week, questions about the ontology of twenty-first century feminism itself take precedence over the close readings of texts and, to a certain extent, all three are more interested in descriptive readings (and re-writings) of feminist history (particularly, though not exclusively, with regards to popular culture and media) than prescriptive manifestos for feminism’s future. The contentious relationship between third wave feminism and postfeminism is at stake for all three authors. Where Banet-Weiser provides a more positive reading of third-wave feminism, holding it (and particularly its conceptions of empowerment and consumerism) in contrast with postfeminism’s more patently capitalist agenda (Banet-Weiser 209), Butler complicates this by emphasizing the “fundamentally neoliberal” (Butler 42) space of the third wave, arguing that it, too, lends itself to a depoliticization of feminism, an ongoing disavowal of racism, and an excessively uncomplicated celebration of sexuality that [has] continued to privilege a white middle-class, heterosexual feminist subject” (Butler 40). McRobbie, in her genealogy of postfeminism, concludes that “relations of power are are indeed made and re-made within texts of enjoyment and rituals of relaxation and abandonment” (McRobbie 262), justifying her readings of lighthearted “women’s media” such as Bridget Jones’ Diary as politically and socially relevant. Similarly, in investigating Dora the Explorer, Banet-Weiser is interested in the ways that contemporary media, with both its “postfeminist” and “postracial” imperative, works to “constitute audiences as particular kinds of cultural citizens” (Banet-Weiser 223).
As I read all of these pieces, I became (perhaps anachronistically) interested in how potentially postfeminist media, which, according to all these articles, so often focuses (to its benefit and detriment) on pleasure and empowerment, might handle questions of trauma, violence, and pain. Equally, none of these pieces seem especially interested in a postfeminist viewership or audience, which seems to me at least as important as the media itself. I would like to consider media at two levels: first, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a show which has had an enormously successful and lengthy run (17 seasons and counting!), and second, Emily Nussbaum’s 2013 New Yorker piece on the show’s so-called “pulp appeal” for women, entitled “Trauma Queen.” Nussbaum is interested in the show’s enormous success with young women, in spite of -- or due to -- its reliably horrific and explicit narratives of sexual assault, with an overwhelming majority of female-identifying victims. Nussbaum writes: “For survivors, there may be something validating about seeing one’s worst experiences taken seriously, treated not as the B story but as the main event. But the show also has a strange therapeutic quality for any woman, a ritualistic confrontation with fear...and, of course, the show is also a fantasy about something else, something largely out of reach: an incorruptible legal system, in which the police are eternally in the rape victim’s corner.”
Where is the neoliberalism here? Is it in Nussbaum, a white woman who, for all her good intentions, purports to speak for “all women,” or in SVU, which (and it is worth noting that the show presents a whitewashed view of New York City) so strenuously juggles a pro-victim and pro-police standpoint? Nussbaum notes that “none of this would work if it weren’t for [Mariska Hargitay’s] Benson, a Xena with empathy, the woman created from -- but not destroyed by -- rape. The worse the stories get, the stronger she becomes; it’s the show’s unspoken dialectic.” The double bind of the female police officer, always over- or pre-signified as a potential victim (past, present, future), always being policed as she polices, is brought out in a character like Olivia Benson, and I would argue that it is in this harkening back to, and acknowledgment of, past trauma that the show escapes some of the pitfalls of postfeminism, celebrating, certainly, the individual strength and “empowerment” of a woman (who represents an entire, deeply oppressive state institution) but without denying or diminishing the significance of her own victimhood and her status as gendered.
Ultimately, however, Nussbaum concludes that SVU is excessive, dramatic, and perhaps exploitative, but the true fantasy it puts forth is this: “we expect [the show] to keep one promise: no matter how bad things get, the story will end.” In its formulaic, comfortingly predictable plot structure, the show (in spite of its complicated heroine) provides a kind of resolution that keeps it in many ways deeply in line with the project of postfeminism, forecloses its own future, and indulges the fantasy of a ‘clean start’ with each new set of opening credits, containing, regulating, and controlling women’s trauma in a way that bears increasingly little relation to the realities victims in America face today.