Postfeminist News: Political Women in Media Culture

SUNY Press
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In the media-saturated decade of the 1990s, news reports shaped public sentiment about women in electoral politics and beyond. Mary Douglas Vavrus explores the process of representing political women in media, and argues that contemporary news accounts promote a postfeminist politics that encourages women’s private, consumer lifestyles and middle-class aspirations, while it discourages public life and political activism. The author discusses the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, the 1991–92 “Year of the Woman” in politics, the 1996 presidential campaign’s use of “soccer moms,” and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for Senate in 2000. Vavrus assesses the logic that emerges in these narratives’ recurrent themes about gender and explores their significance for women and for feminism, ultimately arguing that feminism has been supplanted by postfeminism in news accounts of political women.
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About the author

Mary Douglas Vavrus is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She is the coeditor (with Catherine Warren) of American Cultural Studies.

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Additional Information

Publisher
SUNY Press
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Published on
Feb 1, 2012
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Pages
235
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ISBN
9780791488348
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / Popular Culture
Social Science / Women's Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Women today are inundated with conflicting messages from the mass media: they must either be strong leaders in complete command or sex kittens obsessed with finding and pleasing a man. In The Rise Of Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas, one of America's most entertaining and insightful cultural critics, takes readers on a spirited journey through the television programs, popular songs, movies, and news coverage of recent years, telling a story that is nothing less than the cultural biography of a new generation of American women.

Revisiting cultural touchstones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Survivor to Desperate Housewives, Douglas uses wit and wisdom to expose these images of women as mere fantasies of female power, assuring women and girls that the battle for equality has been won, so there's nothing wrong with resurrecting sexist stereotypes—all in good fun, of course. She shows that these portrayals not only distract us from the real-world challenges facing women today but also drive a wedge between baby-boom women and their "millennial" daughters.

In seeking to bridge this generation gap, Douglas makes the case for casting aside these retrograde messages, showing us how to decode the mixed messages that restrict the ambitions of women of all ages. And what makes The Rise Of Enlightened Sexism such a pleasure to read is Douglas's unique voice, as she blends humor with insight and offers an empathetic and sisterly guide to the images so many American women love and hate with equal measure.

Contributions by Marleen S. Barr, Shiloh Carroll, Sarah Gray, Elyce Rae Helford, Michael R. Howard II, Ewan Kirkland, Nicola Mann, Megan McDonough, Alex Naylor, Rhonda Nicol, Joan Ormrod, J. Richard Stevens, Tosha Taylor, Katherine A. Wagner, and Rhonda V. Wilcox

Although the last three decades have offered a growing body of scholarship on images of fantastic women in popular culture, these studies either tend to focus on one particular variety of fantastic female (the action or sci-fi heroine), or on her role in a specific genre (villain, hero, temptress). This edited collection strives to define the "Woman Fantastic" more fully. The Woman Fantastic may appear in speculative or realist settings, but her presence is always recognizable. Through futuristic contexts, fantasy worlds, alternate histories, or the display of superpowers, these insuperable women challenge the laws of physics, chemistry, and/or biology.

In chapters devoted to certain television programs, adult and young adult literature, and comics, contributors discuss feminist negotiation of today's economic and social realities. Senior scholars and rising academic stars offer compelling analyses of fantastic women from Wonder Woman and She-Hulk to Talia Al Ghul and Martha Washington; from Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series to Cinda Williams Chima's The Seven Realms series; and from Battlestar Gallactica's female Starbuck to Game of Thrones's Sansa and even Elaine Barrish Hammond of USA's Political Animals. This volume furnishes an important contribution to ongoing discussions of gender and feminism in popular culture.
Susan Douglas first took on the media's misrepresentation of women in her funny, scathing social commentary Where the Girls Are. Now, she and Meredith Michaels, have turned a sardonic (but never jaundiced) eye toward the cult of the new momism: a trend in American culture that is causing women to feel that only through the perfection of motherhood can true contentment be found. This vision of motherhood is highly romanticized and yet its standards for success remain forever out of reach, no matter how hard women may try to "have it all."
The Mommy Myth takes a provocative tour through the past thirty years of media images about mothers: the superficial achievements of the celebrity mom, the news media's sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the staging of the "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and the onslaught of values-based marketing that raises mothering standards to impossible levels, just to name a few. In concert with this messaging, the authors contend, is a conservative backwater of talking heads propagating the myth of the modern mom.
This nimble assessment of how motherhood has been shaped by out-of-date mores is not about whether women should have children or not, or about whether once they have kids mothers should work or stay at home. It is about how no matter what they do or how hard they try, women will never achieve the promised nirvana of idealized mothering. Douglas and Michaels skillfully map the distance traveled from the days when The Feminine Mystique demanded more for women than the unpaid labor of keeping house and raising children, to today's not-so-subtle pressure to reverse this thirty-year trend. A must-read for every woman.
The landmark 2008 presidential and vice presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin brought the role of women in American leadership into sharper focus than ever before. These women and others such as Nancy Pelosi and Katie Couric who are successful in traditionally male-dominated fields, demonstrate how women's roles have changed in the last thirty years. In the past, the nightly news was anchored by male journalists, presidential cabinets were composed solely of male advisors, and a female presidential candidate was an idea for the distant future, but the efforts of dedicated reformers have changed the social landscape. The empowerment of women is not limited to the political sphere, but is also echoed by the portrayal of women in film, television, magazines, and literature. You've Come a Long Way, Baby: Women, Politics, and Popular Culture investigates the role of popular culture in women's lives. Framed by discussions of contemporary feminism, the volume examines gender in relation to sexuality, the workplace, consumerism, fashion, politics, and the beauty industry. In analyzing societal depictions of women, editor Lilly J. Goren and an impressive list of contributors illustrate how media reflects and shapes the feminine sense of power, identity, and the daily challenges of the twenty-first century. Along with a discussion of women in politics, various contributors examine a range of gender-related issues from modern motherhood and its implications for female independence to the roles of women and feminism in pop music. In addition, Natalie Fuehrer Taylor outlines the evolution of women's magazines from Ladies' Home Journal to Cosmopolitan. The impact of television and literature on body image issues is also explored by Linda Beail, who draws on trendy chick lit phenomena such as Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, and Emily Askew, who analyzes the effects of image transformation in programs such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover. As comprehensive as it is accessible, You've Come a Long Way, Baby is a practical guide to understanding modern gender roles. In tracing the different ways in which femininity is constructed and viewed, the book demonstrates how women have reclaimed traditionally domestic activities that include knitting, gardening, and cooking, as well as feminine symbols such as Barbie dolls, high heels, and lipstick. Though the demand for and pursuit of gender equality opened many doors, the contributors reveal that fictional women's roles are often at odds with the daily experiences of most women. By employing an open approach rather than adhering to a single, narrow theory, You've Come a Long Way, Baby appeals not only to scholars and students of gender studies but to anyone interested in confronting the struggles and celebrating the achievements of women in modern society.
What elements of American political and rhetorical culture block the imagining—and thus, the electing—of a woman as president? Examining both major-party and third-party campaigns by women, including the 2008 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the authors of Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture identify the factors that limit electoral possibilities for women.

Pundits have been predicting women’s political ascendency for years. And yet, although the 2008 presidential campaign featured Hillary Clinton as an early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin as the first female Republican vice-presidential nominee, no woman has yet held either of the top two offices. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but the authors assert that the question certainly encompasses more than the shortcomings of women candidates or the demands of the particular political moment. Instead, the authors identify a pernicious backlash against women presidential candidates—one that is expressed in both political and popular culture.

In Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture, Kristina Horn Sheeler and Karrin Vasby Anderson provide a discussion of US presidentiality as a unique rhetorical role. Within that framework, they review women’s historical and contemporary presidential bids, placing special emphasis on the 2008 campaign. They also consider how presidentiality is framed in candidate oratory, campaign journalism, film and television, digital media, and political parody.
Something is going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and afraid to speak honestly. How did this happen?
 
First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths are incompatible with basic psychological principles, as well as ancient wisdom from many cultures. They interfere with healthy development. Anyone who embraces these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—is less likely to become an autonomous adult able to navigate the bumpy road of life.
 
Lukianoff and Haidt investigate the many social trends that have intersected to produce these untruths. They situate the conflicts on campus in the context of America’s rapidly rising political polarization, including a rise in hate crimes and off-campus provocation. They explore changes in childhood including the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade.
 
This is a book for anyone who is confused by what is happening on college campuses today, or has children, or is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines.
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