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Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
Chapter · September 2018
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Emilie Zaslow
Pace University
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Zaslow, E. (2017). “Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power” in Travis, Cheryl and Jackie White
(eds.) APA Handbook on the Psychology of Women. Washington, D.C: American Psychological
Association, p. 47-67.
In a 2013 interview with BBC News, pop star Miley Cyrus announced that she sees
herself as “one of the biggest feminists in the world” because “I tell women not to be scared of
anything and... girls are beautiful.... Guys get to show their titties on the beach, why can’t we?”
(Butterly, 2013). In 2015 she added, “Feminism . . . is the greatest thing ever” because “I think
it’s cool to be a woman and be, like, super in charge.... I think [women] are more free than we’ve
ever been” (Press, 2015).
Cyrus’s statements, analyzed alongside the media discourse surrounding her, shed light
on popular definitions and (mis)interpretations of feminism in the new millennium. Just months
before the BBC interview, Cyrus had performed at the MTV Video Music Awards. In a skintoned body suit, Cyrus sang her hit “We Can’t Stop,” moving around the stage “mugging and
twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set AfricanAmerican backup dancer” (Rosen, 2013, para. 4). Later in the performance, Robin Thicke, a
White male pop star, joined her for a duet of his single “Blurred Lines,” a song that had been
facing criticism from feminists for promoting rape culture with its repetitive hook “I know you
want it” and lines such as “So, hit me up when you pass through / I’ll give you something big
enough to tear your ass in two.” During this part of the performance, Cyrus danced with a fully
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
suited Thicke while grinding her behind into his crotch and then used a giant foam finger to
caress her own and Thicke’s genitalia.
Critics were split on their analysis of the politics of Cyrus’s performance: She was
molesting Thicke; she was claiming her right to own her own image and sexuality; she was
willingly participating in a culture that objectifies women; she was objectifying the Black female
body; she was appropriating Black culture to create a minstrel show routine; she was being slut
shamed by critics who regarded her as self-objectifying (see Cottom, 2013; Juzwiak, 2013;
Rosen, 2013; Yates, 2013).
Cyrus’s claim to feminism, in relation to this performance, demonstrates both the
extension of second-wave feminist values and the shift from a social politic of collective social
change to a market politic of individual choice. Like much of second- wave feminism, Cyrus’s
feminism is missing an awareness of her positionality in racial relations of power. Unlike
second-wave feminist thought, however, which was grounded in understanding the political
nature of personal choices and the role of patriarchy in structuring personal experience, Cyrus’s
neoliberal feminism—her girl power feminism—is relativistic and individual. Moreover,
assimilated into a market culture, feminism has become, as we see through Cyrus’s performance,
symbolic and sexual.
In this chapter, I compare second-wave feminist visions of a collective sense of common
cause to contemporary media translations of empowerment and autonomy through girl power.
“Sisterhood is powerful” and “the personal is political” served as key mantras in the second
wave of feminism. In the 1990s and 2000s, fueled by sociocultural shifts and a market skilled in
turning social change movements into profitable trends, feminism has become a mainstream,
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
marketable commodity that no longer shares the values of the second wave. At its core, girl
power reconceives both of the fundamental concepts of second-wave feminism: Individual
achievement now trumps collective struggles and an individual’s choice has now replaced the
structural system as the focus of critique. Now, energized by a neoliberal discourse, a girl power
feminist is celebrated for her individual choice to objectify herself rather than encouraged to
explore the structural normative femininity that she internalized. Rather than a movement for
social change, popular feminism has become a depoliticized demonstration of an ambiguous
empowerment and autonomy. In a time when women’s rights are still very much under attack,
this depoliticized, personalized feminism offers a weak and insufficient path to justice.
Second-wave feminism (1960s–1980s) took on many forms, but a common goal was “to
intervene in, and transform, the unequal power relations between men and women” (Hollows,
2000, p. 3). In general, second-wave feminism provided a critique of women’s social, political,
and economic positions within the social structure. Major focal points in discussions of feminism
were, and continue to be, issues of the body (objectification, violence, reproductive rights,
sexuality, sports, and work), difference (between women and men, as well as among women in
terms of sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, and nationality), and the public versus private (work and
home, personal and political). Second-wave feminist politics are often categorized by the form of
redress demanded by its movement’s membership: liberal, radical, or socialist. Though these
categories are too neat to apply to real-life activism and identities, they are useful in understanding debates within feminist politics.
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
Broadly, liberal feminists sought equality within existing social, political, and cultural
structures. They relied on private sector and government interventions for change and fought for
access and equity in professional, academic, and political realms. Radical feminists believed that
access would not end gender oppression because such oppression was embedded in a patriarchal
culture that was continuously reproduced and reified. For radical feminists, changes in
representation, language, and cultural institutions were necessary building blocks in establishing
a foundation for gender justice. Socialist feminists argued that the economic system of capitalism
created a fertile ground for patriarchal oppression and sought systemic socioeconomic change as
a requisite for altering the relations of power.
Although each of these strands of second-wave feminist politics had a different
understanding of the roots of, and approaches to ending, sexist oppression, they all shared the
belief that collective struggle and some level of structural analysis of relations of power were
fundamental for social change.
Sisterhood Is Powerful
“Sisterhood is powerful” served as the title of an anthology of feminist writings published in
1970 (Morgan, 1970). The phrase, which represented a frame through which activists understood
their movement, became a leading mantra in the second wave of feminism. Sisterhood
represented the idea of a collective struggle in the interest of equality for all women and the
belief that despite differences, there were fundamental oppressions faced by all women. On the
basis of their knowledge of power and, in some cases, their involvement with the Civil Rights
Movement, feminist activists knew they had to resist the divide-and-conquer strategies of those
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who sought to maintain masculine hegemony (Evans, 1979). Rather than focusing on individual
moments of success, the concept of sisterhood drew on the commonalities of women and their
ability to coalesce around similar oppressive conditions. Although few women of color were
contributors to Sisterhood Is Powerful, the collection’s editor, Robin Morgan (1970), posited that
divisions such as race, class, age, and sexuality have kept “women apart from each other” (p.
xxv) and that feminism must bring them back together because universally “women . . . must
play essentially the same role, albeit with different sets and costumes” (p. xviii). Morgan’s
discussions of collectivity are somewhat naïve, but it is significant that she did not view
sisterhood as an idealistic dream but as a political strategy. In her 2007 sequel, Sisterhood Is
Forever, Morgan wrote that because “patriarchy’s genius lies in emphasizing differences
between people,” feminists must “emphasize similarities wherever we can find them” (p. 577).
From the perspective of second-wave feminism, it was women united in struggle that could end
patriarchal oppression. hooks (2000) wrote of the 1970s movement,
We understood that political solidarity between females expressed in sisterhood
goes beyond positive recognition of the experiences of women and even shared
sympathy for common suffering. Feminist sisterhood is rooted in shared
commitment to struggle against patriarchal injustice, no matter the form the
injustice takes. Political solidarity between women always undermines sexism and
sets the stage for the overthrow of patriarchy. (p. 15)
Although collective struggle was deemed a requisite strategy, racial, class, and sexual
inequalities continued to exist within feminist organizations. White women with economic
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
privilege at the helm of these organizations often set agendas that served their own interests and
failed to address intersectional oppressions. Even the language of equality fell short of truly
tackling gender oppression across race and class. As hooks (1984) asked, “Which men do
women want to be equal to?” (p. 18).
Feminists of color, working-class feminists, and lesbian feminists argued that some
White women leading the movement had not accounted for different forms of gender oppression,
relinquished their own privilege, or included a critique of racism, classism, and heterosexism in
their feminist critique of patriarchy. Indeed, as middle-class White straight women began to gain
some economic and social power, they celebrated their own successes, some- times seeming to
forget about the connective politics that had been the foundation of the movement’s philosophy
(hooks, 2000, p. 16). In 1977, a collective of Black feminists wrote, “We are made constantly
and painfully aware of how little effort White women have made to understand and combat their
racism” (Combahee River Collective, 1977/1983, p. 218). Feminist women of color and lesbians
advocated for a recognition of the intersectionality between various oppressed identities and an
under- standing that connective gender politics requires feminists to see their own liberation as
tied to that of oppressed men (Moraga & Anzaldua, 1981; see also Chapter 27, this volume).
Sisterhood’s light brush strokes over difference marred it as a key strategy of secondwave feminism. Yet many who developed a valid critique of a politics of sisterhood continued to
find the notion of collectivity important. Audre Lorde (1984), who famously preached, “The
master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (p. 110), reaffirmed that division was a
tool of patriarchy. Although she advocated that individual women take stock of their own racist
actions, she suggested that recognizing and celebrating difference could lead to collective
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
liberation. Lorde wrote, “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to
view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change” (p. 112). If the
master’s tools of separation would not lead to the social change feminists sought, community
would; “Without community,” Lorde wrote, “there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and
temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression” (p. 112). Collective struggle,
although imperfect and requiring introspective acknowledgment of difference and privilege, was
a significant tool of second- wave feminist social change efforts.
The Personal Is Political
The central organizing principle of 1970s feminism, that sisterhood is powerful, was
paired with the equally important belief that the personal is political. This broad statement had
two related tenets: (a) What feels like individual oppression is often a result of systemic and
structural conditions and (b) to make social change women must make individual change.
Consciousness-raising groups, small groups of women who met to develop local feminist
communities, were often encouraged to understand their personal relationships, family lives, and
work issues within a political context. In these groups, “women questioned the disciplines and
practices of femininity and developed individual and collective resistance to them” (McLaren,
2002, p. 65). Betty Friedan’s (1963) Feminine Mystique was an instrumental text for mainstream
second-wave feminism. Friedan’s message helped college-educated middle-class White women
view their isolation in a newly suburban United States as a social result of a patriarchy rather
than a personal failure. Readers were guided to see the lack of fulfillment they experienced from
caring for their families was inevitable in a culture that suppressed their intellect and creative
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spirits. An individual woman complaining that her husband did no housework could come to
understand that her concern was not an individual problem but a result of patriarchal inequities
of labor; a woman who was not being promoted in the workplace could move beyond blaming
herself for failing at negotiations to fighting for policies such as antidiscrimination laws. Spousal
rape, legal in some states until 1993, was no longer seen as a private matter but as within the
realm of male sexual violence against women. In all aspects of their lives, women were
encouraged to think outside of their discrete circumstances and understand their conditions as
part of the structural relations of power that privileged men and masculinity.
Feminists’ rejection of aesthetic femininity was, in part, resultant from their
understanding of the personal as political. Second-wave feminists challenged the sexual
objectification of women both in everyday life and in the media. Mulvey’s (1975) important
critique of the “male gaze” argued that through the cinematic lens women’s bodies were seen as
erotic objects existing for male viewing pleasure. The camera depicted a male perspective,
lingering on female bodies that were positioned as passively available for visual consumption
rather than as active and engaged. Some second-wave feminists believed that the objectification
of women’s bodies was directly linked to violence against women. Antiporn activists believed
that pornography led to a society inured to violence against women and perpetuated the
patriarchal control of women (Dines & Jensen, 2008). These feminists believed that the personal
experience of violence and oppression was derived in part from the institutionalization of sexist
media. On the other end of what came to be known as the “sex wars” were “pro- sex” or “sexpositive” feminists who argued that this condemnation of female sexuality and pornography
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
was an extension of conservative political control over women’s bodies and sexual freedoms
(Willis, 1981). They, too, believed that the personal as political was a defining lens for feminism.
The personal is political also reframed body dissatisfaction; it was no longer a private
struggle but a consequence of being raised within a sexist culture. Beauty culture was understood
as a tool of patriarchy and big business “that served men’s personal and political control of
women” (Peiss, 1998, p. 261). Beauty culture, they argued, drew women’s attention away from
issues of economic, political, and social gain and toward oppressive beauty norms that could
never be satisfied (Wolf, 1991). Feminists who chose to let their body hair grow freely or to curb
their make-up use furthered critiques against the cosmetic industry leveled by civil rights
activists who argued that natural skin color, hair, and beauty should be celebrated rather than
whitewashed (Peiss, 1998). The 1968 Atlantic City protest against the Miss America pageant
exemplified second-wave feminists’ challenge to the positioning of women as objects of a male
gaze. Staking their claim that the personal body was a site of political struggle, feminist activists
“filled a trash can with makeup, curlers, hair spray, and crowned a pig as America’s beauty
queen” (Peiss, 1998, p. 260).
Feminists of color equally embraced the power of the “personal is political,” although
they maintained that feminism must continue to complicate the relationship between the public
and the private spheres. Aida Hurtado (1989) argued that in communities of color, women’s
private lives have always been sites of state or public intervention through welfare, the criminal
justice system, and sterilization programs. She argued that the relationship between the private
and the political has a different meaning for women of color (Hurtado, 1989). Although White
second- wave feminists were becoming aware that the private spheres of beauty culture and
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household labor were structurally shaped by patriarchal relations of power, feminists of color
began to focus on public issues that have private effects, such as racism, school desegregation,
prison reform, and voter registration (Hurtado, 1989). Other feminists of color have pointed out
that there are often limits to which White feminists are able to intellectualize “the personal is
political” when politicizing issues that are outside of their intimate experiences; Angela Davis
(2000) noted that White feminists often decry a “greater incidence of misogynist violence in poor
communities and communities of color, without necessarily acknowledging the greater extent of
police surveillance in these communities—directly and through social service agencies” (p. 2). In
other words, Davis was arguing that when there is greater institutional scrutiny into interpersonal
relationships in any community, more violence against women will be seen. Feminists of color
were shining light on the fact that ignoring the effects of intersectional oppression can sometimes
lead to a shallow analysis that overlooks the social, political, and economic inequities that extend
beyond gender.
The political, then, became much more than public life; it was broadened to include
issues such as the body, the home, interpersonal relationships, criminalization, and educational
inequity that were previously deemed private. In turn, personal actions served as political
statements with social implications. Everyday activities—from childcare and household labor to
purchasing food or dieting—could be seen as playing a role in constituting the feminine identity.
The way a woman engaged in her activities could be seen as reifying her femininity, acting in
resistance, or negotiating feminine oppression. As such, this approach to politics encouraged
women to understand that issues in their individual lives were part of a system of gender
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
injustice organized by social relations of power and required a collective struggle for feminist
social change.
Although women still had many battles ahead of them, young women born after the 1970s grew
up in a world that was dramatically different from that of their second-wave forebears. The
stories their mothers told them about growing up in a male- dominated society did not always
reflect their realities. The education and wage gaps between men and women were closing, and
the glass ceiling now had many cracks, if not some holes (Heywood & Drake, 2007). In addition,
the number of women who worked outside the home had greatly increased, birth control had
been legalized, and Title IX had made gender equity a requirement for all federally funded
educational and school-related programs. Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Salt n’ Pepa made the
Billboard charts singing songs about female sexual desire. Feminist goals of ending all sexist
oppression for women had not been met, but girls coming of age after the mid-1980s were
entering an adulthood that was visibly different from that of their mothers. This generation did
not abandon feminism but based their “wave,” the third wave, on the prevailing political thought
of their time.
Like most shifts in thought, the move from second wave to third wave and ultimately to
girl power feminism cannot be understood solely by examining a chronological flow of events; it
is best understood by examining a confluence of overlapping, often contradictory, currents in
political thought. The rise of neoliberalism and postmodernism shaped third-wave feminism and
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the language surrounding the most visible, ongoing activist feminist issues: abortion rights and
sexual violence. With neoliberalism’s foundation in individual choice and postmodern- ism’s
fundamental belief in shifting truths and anti- essentialism, third-wave feminism tended toward
individual action and the sense of a mercurially defined movement.
The term third-wave feminism originally emerged from feminists of color who demanded
an intersectional politics. The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Race, an unpublished
anthology, which was stymied by the financial troubles of a small feminist press, suggested that
the third wave was originally begun as a movement to position antiracism as central to feminist
discourse (Henry, 2004). By the mid- 1990s, however, the term third wave was largely used to
represent a new generation of feminists (Henry, 2004). Third-wave feminism initially referred to
those born between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s but has continued to develop into a term that
applies to a political generation that was raised after many of the demands of second-wave
feminism were built into policy and feminist values were made common- place in mainstream
popular culture (Mann, 2013).
Scholars routinely identify two distinct shifts in political thought as foundational for the
move toward a new discourse of autonomous choice in feminism. At the same time as
neoliberalism was ushered into Western nations in the 1980s and became the era’s guiding
sociopolitical and economic theory, in colleges across the country many young women and men
were being raised on a philosophical diet of postmodernism. Both of these philosophical turns
had an influence on feminism and conceptualizations of choice, justice, and political strategy.
Neoliberalism and postmodernism shaped the key issues and strategies of what became thirdwave feminism.
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
Neoliberalism and Postmodernism
The term neoliberalism can be confusing because although people commonly think of liberal as
left- leaning, progressive, or aligned with Democratic Party values, it is used to define a very
conservative concept embraced by right-wing Republicans. A 1930s economic theory,
invigorated by economic and political conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, neoliberalism is an
approach to the political economy that “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by
liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework
characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey, 2005, p.
2). The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberal government spearheaded by President Ronald Reagan in
the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Neoliberal
ideology supports a political project of market supremacy, privatization of social programs, and
deregulation of market activities. Shunning social welfare, neoliberalism positions the free
market and individuals as pinnacles of civilization. In neoliberalism, at the center of the free
market is a free self who is constructed through “maximum material gain and profit” (Chen,
2013, p. 443) rather than through democratic social protections to life, liberty, and property.
The neoliberal emphasis on personal responsibility leads to increasing attempts at selfimprovement and self-monitoring (Giddens, 1991). Attention is turned from improving society
and creating a path to social justice to improving the self and creating a path for personal
success. Because individuals are understood to be logical and self-regulating, their choices are
understood to be autonomous and deliberative. Though many feminists in the United States
protested Reagan’s cuts to social welfare programs, neoliberal philosophy filtered into
mainstream feminism and other social movements. This conservative philosophy changed the
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
way in which choice was theorized and discussed. The ability to self-determine was no longer a
goal to strive for. Instead, the enactment of choice (by already free individuals) became the key
political strategy (Chen, 2013). In a feminism influenced by neoliberalism, choice is not
understood as limited by patriarchy, sexism, and inequality. To achieve success, women are
expected to be self-determined, without consideration for their experiences within social,
economic, and political contexts; failure to succeed is evidence of a personal flaw rather than of
systemic inequality and the reduction of government support (Gonick, 2006). Therefore, the
personal is no longer tied to the political. One is led to believe that personal empowerment, not
social change, will end inequality. Rosalind Gill (2007) has drawn on Marx and Engels to argue
that neoliberalism fails to acknowledge that “girls and young women do make choices . . . but
they do not do so in conditions of their own making” (p. 72). In other words, neoliberalism
masks the ways in which power relations structure and constrain individual choice making.
Where the “personal is political” had previously asked women to consider their
individual problems as emblematic of a structural oppression, in the absence of a belief in
structural constraints, the concept is now “reversed to mean that everything including the
political is actually personal and individual” (Chen, 2013, p. 445). In neoliberalism, feminism
takes on a performative rather than activist stance and becomes an individual act rather than a
collective movement (see Chapter 11, this volume). Where second-wave feminists, rooted in the
personal is political, fought against inequality and normative femininity, third-wave feminists
used choice rather than critique as the form of redress.
Although quite different from neoliberalism, postmodernism—which also emerged as a
guiding theory for young women coming of age in the 1980s and beyond—had a significant
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
influence on feminist thought and practice. Postmodernism is a philosophy that challenges
traditional Western approaches to thought and their emphasis on universal truth and dualism (i.e.,
right–wrong, good–bad). Development of postmodern theory began in the 1960s; in the 1980s
theorists, mostly French, began to write prolifically on the topic and apply it widely through- out
academic disciplines. Postmodern thinking was in vogue and read widely at most universities
throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Within social sciences and humanities, postmodernism
questions the idea that all knowledge and relations of power can be understood through their
relationship to overarching systems or structures. Rather than accepting metanarratives—theories
that are generalized and all defining—about the functions of truth and power, postmodernism
seeks to replace normative systems of thought with theories of fragmented, mercurial, and
incomplete knowledge and power. In postmodern thought, truth is not something that simply
exists and is waiting to be revealed; truth is constructed and ever changing. Similarly, in postmodern thought, power is not fixed and immutable; it is networked and shifting (Foucault,
1975/1995; Lyotard, 1984).
These postmodern theories about lack of universality, multiple truths, and shifting power
relations mirrored many of the conversations feminists were having about intersecting identities,
the multiple experiences of living as a woman, and power relations within feminist institutions
(Weedon, 1999). Since the 1970s, second-wave feminists had been writing about the ways in
which gender, race, class, and sexuality worked concurrently to shape the experience of
oppression, but it was in the late 1980s, with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) coining of the term
intersectionality, that this area of analysis became institutionalized within the academy (Nash,
2011). Like critiques of feminism that challenged a homogeneous female identity and created a
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
conversation about the ways in which race, class, and sexuality intersected with gender to create
varied oppressive gendered conditions, postmodernism emphasized a belief in multiple,
positional truths and the need for “polyvocality,” or multiple voices (Haraway, 1991; Mann,
2013). Postmodernism’s critique of grand theories that sought to universalize all experience led
some young women to see feminism as a “disciplinary and regulatory discourse that restricts
individual freedom and sits authoritatively in judgment” (Henry, 2004, p. 39). Despite the fact
that many feminists who focused on intersectionality and difference continued to advocate for a
unified movement, feminism was represented by some as “ethnocentric and overly concerned
with imposing similarity upon women’s difference” (Budgeon, 2011, p. 5). Furthermore,
feminism was popularized as antisex and rooted in a victim paradigm (Budgeon, 2015; Reger,
2014). Moreover, postmodernism’s distrust in group identities, which it saw as essentialist and
therefore in need of deconstruction, and in power, which was seen as webbed and ever shifting,
led many young women to see a collective social change movement as an unachievable, and
even undesirable, goal (Brown, 2003; Budgeon, 2011). Both neoliberalism and postmodernism,
along with co-optation of feminism by the consumer market, have influenced the shift from a
politics of collectivity and structural change to one of individual choice and identity
Further understanding of third-wave feminist politics shines a light on the subsequent cooptation of its hallmark strategies, critiques, language, and visual codes by the market into what
is known as girl power. Heywood and Drake (2007) argued that growing up in a postmodern and
neoliberal era of “relative gender equality in the context of economic downward mobility” (p.
118), globalization, deregulation and decentralization of power, third-wave feminists extended
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their focus beyond traditional women’s issues. Issues such as racism, heterosexism, ableism,
environmental protection, and economic justice took on greater import
for feminists of the third wave (Findlen, 1995; Garrison, 2000). However, the fight for a
woman’s rights to make decisions regarding her own repro- duction and sexuality continued to
be central issues for young women.
My Body, My Choice: Third-Wave Feminism and Individual Choice as a Defining Strategy
Despite the many achievements of second-wave feminism, the fight for reproductive rights was
beginning again in the 1990s. For 15 years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973,
antichoice activists had attempted to overturn or block the decision through the courts, Congress,
and vigilantism, but the Supreme Court consistently rejected attempts to minimize access to
abortion (Faludi, 1991). Then, in 1989, the Supreme Court upheld Webster v. Reproductive
Health Services, a Missouri state law that restricted the use of state funds, facilities, and public
employees in performing abortions. In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the high court
made it legal for states to require preabortion counseling, parental consent for minors, and
waiting periods for those seeking abortion. These challenges to reproductive rights invigorated
many young women to consider their relationship to feminism and join 600,000 others in
Washington, DC, to protest encroachment upon these rights (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000).
Although reproductive rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s had celebrated the guarantee of
what they considered to be a right, the concept of choice became the hallmark of the renewed
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According to historian Rickie Solinger (2002), in the decades after the Civil Rights Movement,
the equal rights movement for women, and other progressive movements for equality, choice
was a more easily digestible term than rights. She argued that the rhetoric of choice is “the
language of shopping . . . of options in the marketplace,” a less threatening concept than
reproductive freedom (Solinger, 2002, p. 5). Likewise, reproductive rights activists of color
challenged the centrality of choice in the fight for reproductive freedom, arguing that
it did not fully address the economic and political structures that constrain the reproductive lives
of poor women and women of color. For these women, choice is mitigated by the poverty that
affects their experiences of bearing and raising children (Nelson, 2003). However, the neoliberal
language of choice prevailed and, as the most public feminist issue of the decade, individual
reproductive choice, or “my body, my choice,” became a framework through which many young
women understood feminism.
Third-wave feminists were also greatly influenced by Anita Hill’s testimony to the Senate
during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Hill charged Thomas with
sexually harassing her while she had been his professional subordinate. Although Thomas was
appointed, Hill’s accusations brought a heightened awareness of the issue of workplace sexual
harassment and the underrepresentation of women in the Congress that confirmed him (Henry,
2004; Wolf, 1991). The hearings were said to have shaken “latent feminists out of their slumber”
when they realized that “some of the rights they had taken for granted were tentative at best”
(Siegel, 2007, p. 112). Third wavers took up the issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and
the end of rape culture but, using a “my body, my choice” philosophy, often highlighted different
strategies for social change than their second-wave predecessors.
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
Many vocal second wavers had argued that to abolish sexual harassment and violence
against women, feminists should adopt an androgynous or asexual style and fight to ban
pornography, which was cast as the most sexist media form and an instigator of violence against
women (Dines & Jensen, 2008). They also supported passing stricter harassment and rape laws.
Antirape activists argued against victim blaming and maintained that women should be able to
dress however they desired with- out the risk of being raped or being vilified in the courts that
were supposed to be convicting the perpetrators (Brownmiller, 1975).
Supported by neoliberal choice discourses and postmodern understandings of power
relations, many third-wave feminists viewed critiques of female sexuality as oppressive and
stifling. Some began to feel that feminism was an oppressive doc- trine that, like patriarchy, was
inhibiting their freedoms. They argued that this second-wave approach to sexuality and
femininity was regulatory and disciplining (Henry, 2004). Instead, third wavers claimed the right
to celebrate female sexuality on its own terms; they identified as sex positive and critiqued what
they believed to be a victim mentality in second-wave feminism (Budgeon, 2015). They
celebrated the vagina and women’s sexual pleasure through Eve Ensler’s 1998 Vagina
Monologues, which has become a staple on college campuses around the United States, and the
proliferation of feminist pornography.
Alongside sexual choice, third wavers staked a claim for sartorial choice and rejected the
asexual attire of second wavers. In one of the first third- wave anthologies, To Be Real, Naomi
Wolf (1995) admitted to being infatuated by the fantasy of the Victorian wedding dress, and
Jennifer Allyn and David Allyn (1995) declared that play with beauty products did not have to be
antithetical to feminist activism. Writing in their influential text Manifesta: Young Women,
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Feminism, and the Future, third wavers Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (2000)
explained that feminists of their generation condemn normativity but not femininity, which they
understand to be a gendered performance that is enacted consciously and is, at various times,
celebratory, playful, and ironic (p. 60). Girlhood, although seen by second-wave feminists as the
most belittling female position, was embraced by third wavers as “raucous, resistant, sexual,
[and] ageless” (Scanlon, 2009, p. 135). Many third wavers interpreted their pleasure of the
feminine as campy and ironic as well as sexy and decorative, but not as indicative of their
exploitation by men or a commodity market (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000; see also Chapter
12, this volume). Choice was at the center of this challenge to second-wave feminism’s tenuous
relationship with femininity; in neoliberal fashion, third-wave feminists claimed the right to
choose their own feminist and feminine expressions. These were their bodies, and it was their
choice to adorn them and sexualize them as they wished.
Finally, third-wave feminism often proposes the living of a feminist life as feminist
action. Some third wavers cite a sense of entitlement as a result of being raised after secondwave feminism (Baumgardner & Richards, 2000), and others have claimed feminism as their
birthright rather than their struggle to carry on (Henry, 2004). In third-wave feminism, one could
be perceived as a feminist, sometimes unintentionally, simply by being a woman performing
with a strong persona (Siegel, 2007). This woman who lived her feminist life was not only
popular among third-wave activists but was also the most visible feminist in popular culture.
From its earliest representation on television, feminism, like other social movements, was
watered down for ingestion by mainstream audiences. Feminist storylines focused on the
successes of individual characters rather than on collective feminist struggles, and social
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
problems were solved by changes in individual women’s lifestyles (such as new jobs and
positions of power) rather than by policy changes or revaluations of relations of power (Dow,
1996). Lifestyle feminism (Dow, 1996), or what I have termed feminism performed (Zaslow,
2009), reduced feminism to an individual cultural identity rather than a political movement with
collective strategy.
Third-wave feminism was based in a critical thought informed by second-wave feminism,
intersectionality, neoliberalism, and postmodernism. For many young women, the chant “my
body, my choice” took on a meaning beyond the right to make one’s reproductive decisions; “my
body, my choice” came to mean that they were already free individuals who could determine the
political meaning of their own bodily expressions outside of historical frameworks, institutional
limitations, or dominant ideologies about gender and sexuality.
Although third wavers discussed and debated how to fight for “my body, my choice”
throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the consumer market happily adopted the language and visual
codes of this new feminism. These new approaches to feminist politics were easily adopted by
the consumer market, where they were watered down, depoliticized, and coined “girl power.”
Girl power has been made into a fashionable visual and rhetorical accessory that individuals can
put on and take off at will rather than a political movement in which women unite to challenge
structural inequities. Girl power, the most visible feminism today, advances public conversations
about gender, but as a feminism diluted by neoliberalism and the commodity market, it cannot
end gender injustice (Zaslow, 2009).
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For a decade before Miley Cyrus and other popular celebrities, teen magazines, and television
characters began embracing the label feminist and using it to explain the choices they make about
their bodies, feminine self-representations, and work, popular journalism contemplated the end
of feminism. In 1998 Time magazine asked if feminism was dead and columnist Ginia Bellafante
wrote, “Some would argue that . . . [feminism is] dead because it has won.” After all, the Lilith
Fair had become the first mainstream all-female rock festival, and it had been nearly 25 years
since Mary Richards graduated from trying to “make it after all” to being promoted to producer
of the fictional news program on which she worked. It was no longer unusual to see television
shows in which a female character’s work was a true source of satisfaction and purpose rather
than a placeholder until she found a husband (Dow, 1996). Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena
the Warrior Princess, physically powerful female leads, were saving the world from evil. On Sex
and the City, a show that celebrated female friendship and female sexual desire, Samantha Jones
had declared that she was going to forget romance and start having “sex like a man” without
emotion because “the right guy is an illusion.” She claimed that at this historical moment when
“women have . . . as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men as sex
objects.... [Women] can start living [their] lives” (Star & Seidelman, 1998). Feminist concepts
had become mainstream but watered down for corporate sponsorship and consumption.
However, once this discourse was identified as a marketable commodity, girl power
became its popular manifestation. Even as journalists depicted feminism as having succeeded in
what it set out to achieve, girl power feminism became a trendy selling technique and the
capitalist incorporation of feminist dissent. When Adweek, Brandweek, and Fortune all declared
the late 1990s to be the era of girl power, the woman of girl power feminism came into focus
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
(Zaslow, 2009). She was the “Independent Woman,” described by Destiny’s Child, who “bought
her own diamonds” and declared her power through conspicuous displays of financial success
and sexual self-determination (Knowles, Rooney, Olivier, & Barnes, 2000). She was Christina
Aguilera making the choice to be a sexual subject while appropriating the cloak of objectified
femininity. She was, and still is, the embodiment of feminism shrink-wrapped in femininity; she
was a choice-making agent who was equally committed to adhering to the rules of beauty
culture. Empowerment has become an identity marker for characters and performers, and young
women’s attention has shifted from a politics of change to a celebration of achievements.
Drawing on neoliberalism, girl power encourages girls and women to adopt a paradigm
of choice as they construct their feminine and feminist identities. The creation of opportunities
for choice has always been a feature of liberal feminism, but girl power ushered in a new kind of
choice. In girl power, choice is no longer something to be sought as the goal of a quest for
justice; choice is not something to be fought for. Rather, choice has become an unproblematic,
unfettered badge of entitlement that women can claim to enact with the social and cultural capital
they inherited from their foremothers (Budgeon, 2011).
In this popular discourse, structural inequity is made invisible, and women’s choice to be
girly, sexy, powerful, professional, or any combination of these is celebrated as always possible.
Feminist critiques of normative beauty culture become disarmed and trivialized by the
incorporation of feminist rhetoric and imagery into cosmetic and fashion advertising and
magazine editorials (Lamb & Brown, 2006). Girl power mainstreams an important counternormative discourse about gender that celebrates agency, female sexual desire and pleasure, and
conscious identity construction and performance (Zaslow, 2009). Yet, at its core, girl power’s
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
foundation is rooted in a symbolic feminism that reeks of individualism and relativism and that
threatens to void feminism of its political consequence. Further- more, it is a distraction from the
ongoing injustices that require collectivist social change, including racism, global and local
poverty, homophobia, sexual violence, workplace discrimination, and attacks on reproductive
Social movements, like feminism, have long been incorporated into social norms in order
for the market to contain and leverage oppositional thought, particularly when it is a challenge to
the growth of profits (Goldman, Heath, & Smith, 1991). For teen girls and women, girl power
aims to swap oppositional consciousness rooted in collective struggle and critique of systemic
sexism for individualized symbolic confidence and self-determination. Repackaged as girl
power, feminism is a performance, not a political stance; young women learn that calling oneself
a feminist no longer requires one to commit to ending sexist oppression for all women but simply
to declare a feminist identification and to wave the flag of self-determination (Zaslow, 2009).
In 2015, actor Jennifer Lawrence wrote, “When I found out that I was getting paid less [for the
movie American Hustle] than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony, I got mad at
myself for negotiating poorly.” The editor of the feminist pop culture newsletter that published
her remarks called Lawrence “a living argument for using wage transparency to close the gender
pay gap” (Grose, 2015) despite the actor’s declaration that the wage disparity lay in her own
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inadequacies. This murky understanding of gender injustice and its necessary redress is apropos
in the neoliberal age of Sheryl Sandberg’s (2013) Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Self-identified as a feminist, Sandberg suggested that individual will is the most significant
change required for gender equity. Sandberg identified success not as systemic and structural
equality for women of all race, class, and sexual backgrounds but as “making the best choices we
can” (p. 137). Echoing this sentiment, when Seventeen magazine defined feminism for its teen
readership in April 2014 as “being confident, embracing your femininity however you choose to,
and just being you” (Moscatello, 2014, p. 122), the implication was that individual responsibility
is at the root of feminist identity.
Taken together, these three texts shed light on several characteristics of millennial girl
power media culture disguised as feminism. Girl power is both disciplinary and relativistic.
Women and girls are, at once, asked to self-improve and self- regulate and invited to apply the
term feminist to all and any of their actions so that girl power turns a political movement founded
on collective action, and the understanding of the political nature of personal struggles, into a
readily available identity that individuals are responsible for enacting. A girl or woman who
cannot find enough confidence to declare her empowerment has not been failed by a “girl
poisoning culture” as Pipher (1994, p. 12) suggested in the previous decade, nor by an “enemy
within,” or the internalization of “patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men” as
hooks (2000, p. 14) suggested more recently, but by her own lack of will and the making of
inadequate choices.
Individual Choice and Personal Responsibility: GoldieBlox’s Inspirational Toys
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In neoliberal girl power feminism, structural and systemic inequities such as racism,
classism, heterosexism, and sexism are overlooked in favor of individual acts that demonstrate a
version of female empowerment. Consumers are taught that their individual purchasing decisions
can mark them as feminists and provide the necessary opposition to normative gender role
expectations to make the world different for their daughters. When GoldieBlox, a toy company
founded by Stanford engineering graduate Debbie Sterling that aims to “inspire the future
generation of female engineers,” introduced its new action figure, the ad warned consumer
parents that “fashion dolls teach girls to value beauty over brains.” The ad depicted a dystopian
world in which Big Sister repeated the phrase “You are beauty and beauty is perfection” as dolls
clad in pink were pumped out of a factory and real girls, from a variety of racial backgrounds,
wearing the same pink outfit, walked along a life-sized conveyor belt (“GoldieBlox vs. the Big
Sister Machine,” 2014). One girl wears red sneakers and overalls; her long blonde hair is wild,
and as she steps off the conveyor belt she reaches into her tool belt to pull out a hammer. The
normative girls on the factory belt smile and shed their pink high heels as the heroine
symbolically smashes the television screen and shuts down Big Sister. The message is not simply
that girls introduced to building toys have a greater chance of becoming interested in science and
engineering but that buying and playing with consumer goods such as the GoldieBlox action
figure are a form of rebel- lion and can challenge social norms surrounding sexism and racism.
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
GoldieBlox is laudable for introducing a new generation of girls to a consumer world that
includes them in engineering play. At the same time, a feminism grounded in individual
successes and achievements is captured in both the advertisement and the toy company’s
mission. The ad does not depict a social uprising, but one girl who breaks free, thereby liberating
all. Likewise, the mission of the company suggests that gender inequality in the field of
engineering will happen on an individual level rather than on an institutional one. GoldieBlox’s
goal to inspire the future generation of female engineers by helping it develop an early interest in
building and construction suggests that it is girls’ waning interest in engineering that keeps them
out of the field. However, research has shown that the field’s gender inequality is fueled by the
male- dominated workplace culture that undermines and belittles women and does not support a
work–life balance sought or needed by many women (Fouad, 2014). Implied, too, is the
requirement of self- regulation; a parent who buys a Barbie doll rather than a GoldieBlox action
figure has failed in her self-discipline to provide her daughter with the right tools to succeed.
Relativism: Seventeen Magazine’s
“You Do You” Feminism
In 1984, hooks noted the risks of relativity in defining feminism. She argued that if, as
Carmen Vasquez had claimed, “feminism in America has come to mean anything you like,
honey,” and the focus of feminism has turned to individual gains, freedoms, and choices, then
feminism becomes “apolitical” and is rendered meaningless (pp. 17–23). If “any- thing goes”
feminism was a concern in the early 1980s, it has only become more pernicious. In April 2015,
blogger Mariella Mosthof wrote that “‘You do you’ may have origins in black vernacular,
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but…the phrase has undoubtedly been embraced as a tenet of radically inclusive, intersectional
feminism” (para. 3). She argued that
“You do you,” in a feminist framework, means not being dismissive of anyone’s
experiences or choices—it delivers us from all the trappings of being a “bad
feminist.” Are you a feminist who’s also a stay-at-home mom? You’re a great
feminist! Are you a feminist who likes to get tied up by her boyfriend and called a
slut? You’re a great feminist, too! You know why? Because YOU CAN DO YOU
and still advocate for the social, political, and economic equality of people of all
genders! (para. 4)
Although Mosthof (2015) advocates for a political feminism, it is coated in relativism, asking
one to view all acts as choices and therefore as feminist. Seventeen magazine, citing “You do
you” as one of three “new rules of feminism” in its April 2014 issue, told readers that feminism
is “not just some giant movement—it’s personal” and can be defined as being true to yourself,
“thinking you can do what- ever you want,” and “having the power to define who you are”
(Moscatello, 2014, pp. 122–123). In girl power feminism, a feminist makes choices
in her own interest, without thinking about the political implications of those choices or about the
social structures within which those choices are made; the “commitment to reorganizing society
so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic
expansion, and material desires” (hooks, 1984, p. 24) is moot when society is already imagined
as ripe for self- determination. Collectivity, too, becomes irrelevant when feminism means
“going for your [italics added] dreams no matter what they are” (“What Makes You Powerful?”,
2014, p. 97) rather than “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” for all
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
women (hooks, 1984, p. 24). Likewise, the political becomes murky when anything can be called
a feminist decision as long as it means “just being you” (Moscatello, 2014,
p. 122). A neoliberal politics of relativism and choice shifts feminism from a political movement
to an identity marker.
Sartorial Feminism: Lenny’s Perfect-Fitting Pair of Trousers
In the same issue in which Lenny celebrated Jennifer Lawrence’s taking personal
responsibility for the institutional sexism that led to her being paid less than her male costars, it
published “Get It: Second-Wave Style,” written by Laia Garcia (2015), the newsletter’s associate
editor. In the article, also featured on Cosmopolitan and Elle magazines’ websites, Garcia used
photos from Cynthia MacAdams’s 1977 photography book Emergence to offer fashion
inspiration to contemporary women. In her collection, MacAdams took pictures of women, many
of them involved in the feminist movement, whom Kate Millet, writing in the book’s introduction, described as “a new kind of woman” (as cited in Garcia, 2015). These were women who
were not positioned for the male gaze, as Mulvey (1975) had written about 2 years earlier, and
not just static images waiting for the viewer to define them [but]. . . have their
own stories. Whether they are posing for the photograph or seemingly caught
mid- smoke, they are active women, they are alive. They are not stereotypically
beautiful, because they have rendered the stereotypes useless. (Garcia, 2015, para.
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Garcia (2015) said she “fell in love with” (para. 3) these women and that readers “might inject
some of their sartorial flair into our wardrobe and, in the process, absorb some of that power”
(para. 4).
Offering three photos, Garcia introduces readers to Cheryl Swannack, coordinator of a
women’s art building; Colleen McKay, owner of a feminist restaurant; and Jeri Chocolate Harris,
a lineswoman. Whereas a White Swannack1 is revered by Garcia for her power suit and her
1970s-style wide lapel, African American Harris, sporting her perfect-fitting trousers and “a tool
belt slung low on her hips” (para. 3) is fetishized by Garcia, who fantasizes about Harris
“climbing a telephone pole and feeling the breeze on her face while doing a job that to this day is
mostly held by men” (para. 3). A few months later, Garcia (2016) again invokes feminism in her
Lenny style article. In this one, Garcia suggests that one of three ways that women can get style
inspiration for the new year is by embracing their “feminist narcissism” and resolves “[I will]
envelop myself in the things that give me the most power in the moment, indulge in the things
that make me feel good without guilt” because, she reasons, “If my body is a battleground, then
maybe I can turn it into a weapon” (para. 8) In another of three style inspirations, Garcia invokes
Tawney Kitaen, an actress who is known for her roles in videos for the 1980s band Whitesnake.
In the video that Garcia references, Kitaen serves no narrative function. Rather, Kitaen is
positioned in the video as eye candy for male sexual pleasure. For the majority of the video, she
wears a sheer, gauzy white dress and rolls around doing splits on the tops of two luxury cars; in
Swannack appears to be White, though her race and ethnicity are undocumented in the
literature about her.
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other scenes, she preens at the camera while hanging out of the car or kisses the band’s lead
singer. Although Kitaen can be seen as a hood ornament in this video, Garcia understands the
actress to be a role model who “wholeheartedly embraced her sexuality” as evidenced by her
“just having fun, showing off her gymnastics abilities on top of a car,” “unlike other music-video
girls whose bodies become just another prop in the scene” (para. 9). Garcia says that Kitaen is a
style inspiration because “on Tawny days” Garcia does not allow herself to engage in self-hatred
of her body or concerns about the appropriateness of her clothes. After all, Garcia argues,
“There’s no time to think things like that while you’re lying across the hood of a car with one leg
carefully bent and the other gracefully extended” (para. 10).
Garcia’s essays are emblematic of the recent relationship between fashion and feminism,
in which both fashion magazines and mainstream newspapers often trivialize feminism as a hook
to grab readers’ attention and invoke women’s consumption as a reward for their hard work
(Mendes, 2012; Sternadori & Hagseth, 2014). Fashion becomes another element of lifestyle
feminism, in which one can identify with the movement not as an activist but as the wearer of
clothing that empowers. Although fashion and feminism have long had a relationship (Fischer,
1997), and feminism need not adopt an antibeauty ideology (Scott, 2006), a contemporary
neoliberal narrative of feminism as fashion has come to represent a depoliticized personal style,
boiled down to a look that can imbue a woman with power (Groeneveld, 2009; Sternadori &
Hagseth, 2014). This depiction of feminism as “the perfect pair of trousers” can paint feminism
as “unthreatening and minimizes some of its ‘uglier’—yet important—dimensions: anger,
criticality, and dissent,” while also establishing feminism as an individual marker of a struggle
that has already been fought (Groeneveld, 2009, pp. 188–189). Feminism becomes a
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
performative cloak that can be put on and taken off on a whim rather than a fight to change
social structures and power relations (Zaslow, 2009).
Moreover, “commodity feminism” ignores the intersectionalities of race and class, thus
defusing a politics of collective struggle (Goldman et al., 1991). Feminism as fashion focuses on
style and rarely, if ever, explores the politics of production in which women (many of whom are
of color) work in low-wage nonunionized factories in poor working conditions around the globe.
Although choice and power are celebrated in articles on feminist fashion, garment workers’
physical and mental health is rendered invisible (Groeneveld, 2009; Sternadori & Hagseth,
2014). Worse yet, feminist fashion journalism can fetishize class and race, as seen in Garcia’s
(2015) piece with respect to Harris, an African American, blue-collar worker whose style can be
emulated by readers who purchase the pair of $125 jeans to which Garcia links. Although Garcia
noted that Harris was in a position typically held by men, she ignored the feminist issues of racial
and social institutional injustice that leave Harris doing manual labor while the two other White
style icons have the privilege to organize their professional lives around their feminist politics:
one the coordinator of a feminist art building and the other the proprietor of a feminist restaurant.
Rosalind Gill (2003) argued that one of the markers of neoliberal feminism is a “knowing and
deliberate re-sexualisation and re-commodification of women’s bodies” in which there is “a shift
from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification in constructions of femininity in the media
and popular culture” (p. 101). Gill aptly defended her position that this new sexualization is
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
neither empowering nor feminist: (a) only heterosexual, thin, normatively beautiful women are
positioned as desiring and desirable sexual subjects; (b) the self-discipline and regulation
required to make or keep oneself looking like the normative desiring and desirable sexual subject
is rendered invisible in popular discourse and benefits a capitalist market but not agentic women;
and (c) women’s choice is seen as the driving force for resexualization so that a critique of
institutionalized sexism becomes seemingly superfluous. In a relativistic feminism, anything can
be called feminist if it is declared so, but Gill posited that sexual subjectification is not an act of
feminist agency but a new form of policing that arises out of the internalization of the male gaze.
Sexual subjectification has become a dangerous new manifestation of patriarchal ideology that is
no less pernicious than objectification. Despite Gill’s critique, girl power feminism continues to
hail sexual expression and the ownership of one’s sexuality as liberating (Zaslow, 2009).
In 2014, after the release of her fifth studio album, Beyoncé performed a 16-minute
musical medley at the MTV Video Music Awards. A detailed analysis of three of the songs she
performed, their lyrics, and their corresponding music videos is illustrative of the ways in which
this sexual owner- ship, while celebrated as feminist, often contradicts itself and lacks an
appreciation for collective social change.
Beyoncé began her performance with a rendition of the song “Drunk in Love” (Knowles,
Fisher, et al., 2013), known to fans as a testament to the sexual pleasure Beyoncé experiences in
her relationship with her husband, rapper Jay Z, who is a featured artist on the track. In the lyrics,
and the video that depicts the couple enjoying each other’s bodies, Beyoncé is a woman
empowered with the knowledge that she can express her own desire and pleasure; unlike women
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in songs before the second wave, Beyoncé boldly declares her sexual appetite. Beyoncé
challenges normative beauty to a degree.
She is a Black woman with curves that test the thin ideal. At the same time, she is heavily made
up, has perfectly tweezed eyebrows, is clad in a bikini, and rolls around in the water in a way that
is not atypical of the femininity constructed for the male (porno- graphic) gaze. Jay Z’s featured
rap also highlights the couple’s lust for one another but toward the end of his verse he declares,
“I’m Ike Turner . . . no I don’t play / ‘Now eat the cake, Anna Mae,’ said ‘Eat the cake, Anna
Mae!’,” which refers to a scene in Tina Turner’s biopic when her abusive husband forced her to
eat cake during one of his jealous rages. Despite the song’s overwhelmingly positive message of
a mutually fulfilling sexual relationship, Jay Z’s proclamation of himself as a violent, coercive
partner in his relationship mitigates, to a great extent, the song’s message of consensual sexual
joy. During Beyoncé’s MTV Music Awards performance, she is sitting on bleachers, surrounded
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by nine women who are lying on their shoulders with their legs in the air so that their heads are
obscured, singing about the erotic pleasure she shares with her husband. As she sings agentic
lyrics of subjectivity, she performs in front of these nine faceless women, who are objectified in
gold unitards, wearing only black bras and thongs; along with Beyoncé, they slowly spread and
bend their legs throughout the song. Beyoncé may be a sexual agent, but these female props on
stage with her are not.
When Beyoncé transitions into the next song, “Partition” (Knowles, Nash, Timberlake, et
al., 2013), she begins by dancing on the phallic pedestal she uses in the song’s video. She then
moves to an area of the stage with five stripper poles and four other women all clad in skin-toned
undergarments that simulate their nakedness. “Partition” similarly develops the narrative of a
sexually desirous Beyoncé. The song tells the story of Beyoncé and Jay Z in a limousine asking
the driver to “roll up the partition please” because they are going to have a sexual encounter in
the back seat. The song’s lyrics focus slightly more on male satisfaction, highlighting the fact
that “‘yonce on her knees” but also that Beyoncé is focused on Jay Z’s pleasure as she repeatedly
sings to her husband, “I just wanna be the girl you like.” In the video, Beyoncé performs for her
husband, first at a stripper pole and later in a cage with an animal print projected on her body.
Sex- positive feminists have long decried the wholesale feminist critique of sex work but do
remain critical of work and imagery that is exploitative (Miller- Young, 2013). The cage and the
animal print both harken back to a stereotypical depiction of African American women that is
laden with racist ideologies about the need to contain Black women’s wild and uncontrollable
sexuality. Beyoncé’s consent to the use of this imagery complicates the interpretation of it as
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However, Beyoncé’s discussion of her choice to create a video in which she danced on a
stripper pole illustrates the self-disciplinary nature of sexual subjectification that defines sexy
within a limited range of body sizes and shapes:
I was 195 pounds when I gave birth...I worked crazily to get my body back. I
wanted to show my body. I wanted to show that you can have a child and you can
work hard and you can get your body back . . . I know that there’s so many
women that feel the same thing after they give birth. You can have your child and
you can still have fun and still be sexy and still have dreams and still live for
yourself . . . I’m not embarrassed about it, and I don’t feel like I have to protect
that side of me because I do believe that sexuality is a power we all have.
(Heinzerling, Burke, Kirsten, & Hugo, 2013)
Though in the lyrics and videos for other songs Beyoncé focuses on self-esteem and bucking
normative beauty standards, in “Partition”—and in the documentary in which she describes it—
Beyoncé does not highlight the beauty of the maternal body or the concept that women can each
find beauty within themselves. Instead, she showcases a body that can be regulated to hide the
aftermath of pregnancy not only for the self but also for a gaze by others. It is in this disciplined
body, one that is required to parade its skill and its success, rather than a liberated one, that one
finds the “promise of power” (Gill, 2003, p. 104).
Beyoncé’s music awards performance moves directly from pole dancing to another stage
area, in which an edited version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We Should All Be
Feminists” lights up one word at a time on a video wall. Preparing to sing “Flawless” (Knowles,
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Nash, Hollis, & Reel, 2013), widely known as a feminist anthem because of its use of Adichie’s
definition of feminism, Beyoncé claims her identity as a feminist standing tall and silhouetted in
front of the sign as the word feminist lights up. This image works well with the song she is
performing; in the lyrics, Beyoncé sings, “You wake up flawless,” suggesting that women do not
need to create a self outside of who they are when they rise. She celebrates a powerful female
voice and natural, human beauty in the lyrics “My sister told me I should speak my mind and say
I look so good tonight.” In the TED talk that is sampled in the song, Adichie argues that society
should not pit girls against one another for male attention, teach girls that their greatest ambition
should be marriage, curb girls’ goals for success, or enforce a sexual double standard in which
girls are punished for sexual expression and action.
The song quotes Adichie’s definition of a feminist as “the person who believes in the
social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” In the performance, however, Beyoncé has
remixed the song, as well as Adichie’s talk, to highlight the concept of powerful female sexuality
as central to the definition of feminism. A phrase much less significant in the full TED Talk and
on the song’s audio recording, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
in the way that boys are,” is repositioned so that it is the first line uttered from Adichie’s mouth
after Beyoncé completes her pole dance.2 The remix has also altered the format of the song so
that the definition of feminist is followed by a portion of the song in which Beyoncé reminds
other women, “I know when you were little girls / You dreamt of being in my world / Don’t
forget it, don’t forget it / Respect that, bow down bitches.” In Beyoncé’s remixed performance,
This line is a little more than half way through Adichie’s 30-minute speech and line 22 of the 25 lines Beyoncé
quoted in the song’s recording.
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
Adichie’s words, decrying competition (“We raise girls to see each other as competitors . . . for
the attention of men”) are over- shadowed by the singer’s lyrical and visual depiction of
powerful sexuality as a competitive tool.
Beyoncé’s feminist message is at once empowering and disciplinary. She marks herself
as subject while positioning other women’s bodies as objects. She fetishizes the striptease
without ever discussing—either visually or lyrically—the class and race realities of most erotic
dancers, who generally are the working poor or—worse—trafficked women. Also, Beyoncé is a
highly paid African American woman whose sexuality appears to be self-defined (Weidhase,
2015), yet she regulates her body to hide maternal development so that she can return to a
normative sexual figure. If self-defined, however, why do she and so many other freely choosing
women “invariably end up making the same choice prescribed by normative culture . . . the sexy,
eroticized and fashionably adorned female bodily charm that has always been promoted by
patriarchy and capitalism?” (Chen, 2013, p. 443). In girl power, Beyoncé’s sexualized selfpresentation appears to be chosen in a free marketplace of identity positions and can be
celebrated as feminist; critiques that question the political nature of her performance can be shut
down by the relativism inherent in a “you do you” feminist culture.
Sexual agency and empowerment often become the sole defining characteristics of a
feminist in the era of girl power. Even feminist activist movements that emerged outside of
commercial girl power position the expression of female sexual sartorial choice as defining. In
2011, when a Toronto police office gave a speech at a college campus suggesting that women
could avoid sexual assault if they did not dress like “sluts,” activists created protests against
sexual violence and victim blaming in the form of “SlutWalks” in major cities around North
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
America as well as parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. Building on the “Take Back the
Night” movement, SlutWalk activists reclaim the word slut and the sexual attire associated with
promiscuity and the male gaze as they call for an end to rape culture (Reger, 2014).
Although scholars recognize the political potential of SlutWalk’s critical thought and
activism, their optimism is tempered by the focus on the individual and on choice (Budgeon,
2011). Some have argued that protests such as SlutWalk, which aim to reclaim the female body,
are neither addressing intersectionality nor challenging patriarchal norms in their activism
(Miriam, 2012; O’Keefe, 2014). As Miriam (2012) has asked, “If the choice of sexual selfpresentation for women were such a free, unconstrained choice, why does it seem to come in
only one flavor, namely, some preconceptualized variant of the patriarchal construct of ‘slut’?”
(p. 263). These appraisals center on the concern that feminism has abandoned the goal of unified
social structural change in favor of individual choice.
For many women, it is a welcome change to be living through a period in which girls and young
women are not afraid to identify with the term feminist. Indeed, this “more individualized form
of feminism . . . can respond to diversity and ambiguity” (Budgeon, 2011, p. 16) in such a way
that makes it appealing to many young people who do not want to feel disciplined by a
movement’s aesthetics or political expectations. One need only read Roxane Gay’s (2014)
collection of essays, Bad Feminist, or watch the BuzzFeed (2015) parody video “Am I a Bad
Feminist?”—in which young feminists humorously ask each other if actions such as shaving
their legs, enjoying a song by a performer known to have committed domestic violence, and
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
watching porn make them bad feminists—to know that young women seek a flexible feminism
that allows for multiple identity positions, few rules, and a malleable definition while still being
understood as a movement for equality for all women.
Although diverse in its goals, second-wave feminism had two mantras that provided a clear
definition of common strategies. The first, “sister- hood is powerful,” represented the belief that
a collective politics was vital to making social change. The second, “the personal is political,”
captured the notion that personal experience is informed by social inequalities. This allowed
women to see the challenges they faced as part of a system of patriarchy that shaped all personal,
local, and global institutions. Although women-of-color feminists and lesbian feminists
challenged the notion of sisterhood because hierarchies, racism, and hetero- sexism existed
within feminist politics, many still believed that—as they had with the Civil Rights Movement—
collective politics was the key to social change. Second-wave feminists understood that
individual change was not enough to bring forth social justice. They knew that social justice
requires social, political, and economic change.
For young women coming to feminism today, two new mantras—“my body, my choice”
and “girl power” —have emerged to represent a politics born of neoliberalism, postmodernism,
and third-wave feminism. Neoliberalism, the prevailing political framework of the 1980s and
beyond, has created a focus on individual choice in a presumably free society. Asking one to
think of choice rather than rights or justice, neoliberalism has created a feminism that is
relativistic and focused on self-empowerment. Postmodernism, an equally powerful governing
philosophy, asks young women to question static understandings of truth and power. Scaffolding
the intersectional feminist work of the second wave, postmodernism has also challenged the
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
notions of a social movement that could fight with one voice and a political movement flexible
and broad enough to include all women under its umbrella.
Shaped by the second wave as well as by neo- liberal and postmodern philosophies, the third
wave of feminism emerged in the late 1990s with a new focus on individual choice, sexual
choice and empowerment, and the living of a feminist life. Third wavers fought for reproductive
rights and the end to sexual violence and rape culture. In these fights, and their fight to selfdetermine their identity expressions, third-wave feminists used a language of personal choice.
Although a powerful cry for reproductive freedom, “my body, my choice” also captures the
generation’s focus on the self and on choice rather than on collective justice. Furthermore, in part
because they saw themselves as being born into a world shaped by feminism, third-wave
feminists often saw the personal as existing outside of the political. A women’s choice to opt out
of the workplace in favor of raising a family, for example, was often discussed as agentic rather
than determined within a society that devalues parenting, household labor, and anti-family
corporate policies (Vavrus, 2007). Likewise, donning hypersexual garb could be interpreted as
the enactment of female choice and does not have to be analyzed for its reproduction of
patriarchal objectification of the passive female body.
Third-wave feminist rhetoric and symbolism were easy for advertisers, marketers, and
other manufacturers of popular culture to adopt. They called this girl power and sold it as a
market commodity. Marketing and profit motives make good use of this desire for feminist
choice. Girl power completed the fusion of feminism and neoliberalism; inequality no longer
needed to be solved through collective social change but through individual personal change.
Any failure to be empowered belonged to the individual woman who failed to “lean in” or
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
advocate for her- self. Any woman who made any kind of choice was enacting her right to selfdetermine. This girl power version of feminism not only has been incorporated into popular
culture but also is delivered as news by journalists whose reporting on feminist issues has
become depoliticized and covers up the movement’s deep-rooted beliefs (Mendes, 2012).
Girl power feminism became the appropriation of certain elements of feminist politics
melded with an investment in feminine normativity. The girl power feminist celebrates
independence, power, and freedom while embracing a femininity shaped by hegemonic male
fantasy. Issues of intersectionality, inclusiveness, and social justice are seldom part of a girl
power feminist discourse. Feminism seen through the lens of girl power becomes performative
rather than political, symbolic rather than activist. “Sisterhood is powerful” is replaced by “my
body, my choice” because individual achievement replaces social justice as the movement’s
goal, and “the personal is political” becomes a mantra declaring “you do you” because anything
can be read as a political statement in an indefinable marketplace of feminist meaning.
However, although this girl power feminism is informed by the language of strength,
confidence, and ambition, it is individualistic and relative rather than political or activist. This
feminism is the performance of female power, not a movement for social change. While so many
gender injustices continue, however, women are not ready to perform their power; they still need
to fight for it.
Still, scholars have explored the possibilities for a feminist politics that is coated in girl
power aesthetics but challenges its neoliberal political foundations. They have argued that girls
can see the flimsy foundations of girl power feminism and are negotiating their own feminisms
outside of popular culture (Keller & Ringrose, 2015). Dobson (2015) and Keller (2015) have
Emilie Zaslow, Moving from Sisterhood to Girl Power
argued that the social media landscape produced by girls and young women around body
politics, sexuality, rape culture, and other feminist issues has the potential to destabilize the
individualized self-disciplined body of neoliberal feminism. Baer (2016) has claimed that digital
spaces create the place for collective struggle and that in many of these unabashed feminist
spaces the connection between personal experience and structural injustice is brought to the fore.
Feminist actions by girls, surrounding the body politics of dress codes, may also serve as
practical introductions to feminist body politics and intersectionality (Zaslow, 2016). It remains
to be seen, however, whether these protests will be successful at combating patriarchy or if they
will, as O’Keefe (2014) has suggested of SlutWalk and the Ukrainian topless protest group
FEMEN, “embrace heteronormative, hegemonically masculine ideals of women and sexuality
through performance as they attempt to challenge societal norms” (p. 5). Moreover, will these
feminist conversations extend beyond issues of choice, which have been so central to
neoliberalism, to explore broad issues of economic, political, and social justice? Will young
women be able to fight through the neoliberal noise and create collective organizations that
recognize the ways in which women’s lives are constrained by social structures and systems?
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