New Criticals

This is not to suggest a simple boundary between mainstream and digital media, in which the former is conservative and the latter subversive. Today’s post-crash and post-Internet media culture embodies a sensibility that is grittier and more ambivalent than the shiny-happy aesthetic of postfeminism. It is not always clear whether this change in sensibility represents a backlash against feminist ideas, or an embracing of them. Recent years have seen a huge number of representations of sexual violence which seem to embody a sensibility which is more ambivalent and more violent than the postfeminist aesthetic: often gritty, they grapple with issues of consent, power, and objectification.  Often these expose doubt or confusion about how consent works: the agonising sex scene between Natalia and Adam in Girls, in which she technically consents according to the letter of the law but is clearly left unhappy and degraded, is a case in point and generated a wide feminist response. If postfeminism was a reaction against a perceived denial of pleasure and erasure of feminine subjects’ agency, the current sensibility of feminist ambivalence can be seen as a reaction against postfeminism’s own absences and silences: indeed it may be seen as a direct response to postfeminism, as Rona Murray argues is the case with Girls.  Often these media products evoke the question, why would feminists want to watch such a thing? The question of whether engaging with certain media makes one a ‘bad feminist’ is a constant anxiety even as it seems to be the wrong question. Feminist fandom, once seen as a contradiction in terms, makes sense since the figure of ‘the feminist’ and the figure of ‘the fan’ have historically been defined through the use of DIY media praxis as well as by an intense engagement with media, and since both have been stigmatised as excessive. The changing relationship between audience and text is crucial here:  where once some strands of media theory spoke ‘for’ women as empty vessels of ideology, now the audience – in all its diversity, polyvocality, and with its often fiercely critical engagement with media products – is an unignorable presence. This makes sense, since there is a natural affinity between the figure of ‘the feminist’ and ‘the fan’: both historically stigmatised, associated with feminine or super-feminine excess: both – crucially – accused of reading too much into things, of over-attachment and over-analysis.