Hybrid Foucauldian-Butlerian conceptualization
Gender studies researchers and cultural theorists with an interest in feminist theory will definitely be pleasantly surprised after having read Katie Milestone and Anneke Meyer’s »Gender and Popular Culture« (2012). With their well-documented and thought-provoking book on »the dynamics of gender and popular culture« (ibid.: 210), Milestone and Meyer not only highlight the social constructedness and the importance of gender and popular culture, but also convincingly demonstrate that contemporary gender myths, such as the stereotypical notions about women as either seducing vixens or virgins, or men as uber-masculine, sexist lads, are not only represented in and reproduced by popular culture, but are in fact also given shape by and through popular culture and its cultural producers.
And since the majority of cultural production still is in the hands of men, as is revealed in the first part of »Gender and Popular Culture«, and subjects also seem to construct their gendered selves through the consumption of these widely-spread cultural goods, as we are told in the third chapter, a critical analysis of how gender affects and is affected by these cultural processes of representation, production and consumption, should of course not be left out of the picture when examining contemporary popular culture.
Gender analysis therefore lies at the core of »Gender and Popular Culture«, but what really makes this book so interesting and special, is that Milestone and Meyer not only engage in a critical investigation of how gender relates to these three abovementioned processes, but also suggest that popular culture – or the »range of cultural texts which signify meaning through words, images or practices« (ibid.: 5) – can no longer be analyzed separately from the social category of gender in cultural and media studies, exactly because of the fact that both elements constantly seem to be interacting with one another.
The authors’ focus on the intense interaction between gender and popular culture might even remind some readers of physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad’s immensely popular new feminist materialist, or as she calls it herself, »agential realist framework« (Barad 2007: 33), in which the neologism of »intra-action« (loc. cit.) plays a significant role. Barad’s fascinating conceptualization of intra-action – or the philosophical idea that worldly phenomena are always already entangled, and hence »do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action« (loc. cit.) – tells us that our world and everything in it can only be interpreted through a relational, holistic ontology.
By pushing the authors’ argument to its limits through such a Baradian perspective, we could claim that gender and popular culture are intra-acting with one another that much that they seem to co-constitute each other. Which in the end tells us that the academic discipline of popular culture studies would be incomplete without a critical analysis of the popular cultural role of gender, and vice versa – analyses that are by the way brilliantly being undertaken in »Gender and Popular Culture«.
Even though Milestone and Meyer’s focus on the interplay between gender, gender hierarchies and popular culture sounds like a very promising theoretical point of departure, readers specialized in gender studies and feminist theory are nonetheless probably already well-acquainted with projects such as these. But the authors are well aware of that: as Milestone and Meyer in fact demonstrate in the well-written introduction to their book, feminist and queer theorists have indeed been analyzing the effects of (popular) culture on the societal conceptualizations of gender and gender norms for decades.
And these investigations have obviously led to many different theoretical insights, which is why Milestone and Meyer pay close attention to the conceptual development of gender – a concept that has evolved from its more traditional-sounding, yet still widely used definition of »the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine and the socially imposed attributes and behaviours which are assigned to these categories« (ibid.: 12) to other, more narrowly defined conceptualizations, such as the neo-Marxist definition of gender as a hegemonic ideology (see e.g. Connell 1987), the feminist Foucauldian interpretation of gender as a disciplinary practice (see e.g. Bartky 1990), and the poststructuralist feminist and queer interpretation of gender as a performative construct that can also be taken on to subvert and undermine certain societal gender norms (see e.g. Butler 2006 ).
This summing-up of various gender theories in »Gender and Popular Culture« might seem a little redundant at first – especially to those readers that are already acquainted with the basics of feminist theory – but it in the end makes Milestone and Meyer’s own, hybrid Foucauldian-Butlerian conceptualization of power and gender more understandable. I will come back to that later on, but what is really important to note here, is that the authors are not merely working in the field of feminist theory, but are actually introducing a much-needed feminist perspective to the disciplines of cultural and media studies. And it is exactly this introduction of gender analysis to cultural and popular culture studies that makes their analyses thought-provoking and maybe at times even sound a bit controversial in the ears of some cultural theorists.
One potentially controversial – or at least startling – example that is being presented by Milestone and Meyer in their research is the fact that there appears to be a clear gender divide when it comes to the production of popular cultural goods. By unraveling the historical background and evolution of this gender divide in the first three chapters of their book, and by giving us concrete examples of how men have been and still are being portrayed and seen as creative geniuses in television series such as »Mad Men«, the authors adequately prove that popular culture and reality sadly often mirror each other. And even though a lot of progress has been made since the fifties with regards to gender equality, female creative geniuses or cultural producers such as »Mad Men’s« copywriter Peggy Olson, or real-life pop mogul Madonna, are nonetheless still exceptions to the rule.
Interestingly, Milestone and Meyer connect the latter issue to the much-discussed gendered public-private dichotomy (see e.g. Pateman 1988, who relates this dichotomy to the patriarchal construction of a sexual contract between female and male citizens) that for centuries has prevented women to relate to and use space in the same way as men. Analyses of gender and space have been at the core of feminist philosophy (see e.g. Irigaray 1993 ; Grosz 1995) and feminist geography for a while now, but Milestone and Meyer in fact seem to be the first to introduce this topic to popular culture studies.
By contrasting the figure of the male »flâneur« with the feminized figures of the prostitute and the housewife in the seventh chapter of their book, titled »Gender, Popular Culture and Space/Place«, Milestone and Meyer not only show us how the public-private dichotomy has asserted itself in popular culture, but they also touch upon the category of class and the privileges and/or disadvantages that come along with it, which makes their argumentation even more convincing, seen from an intersectional feminist perspective.
Chapter seven in fact not only reveals that Milestone and Meyer’s analysis of the constant interplay between gender and popular culture is of key importance to both cultural and feminist theory, but it fully exposes the authors’ nuanced conceptualization of power and gender as well. By highlighting the gendered dimensions of a variety of previously widespread British youth subcultures, such as the ted, mod and punk movements, the authors show us that these subcultures have not only helped maintain gender normative behavior at times, but also demonstrate that there have been plenty of countermovements within these subcultures and culture in general, which has made it possible for women and men to escape from society’s rigid gender normative structures.
Milestone and Meyer’s own ideas about power and gender hence appear to have been heavily influenced by the poststructuralist philosophies of Foucault and Butler, and seem to counter both the more pessimistic, structuralist and the neoliberal, postfeminist attitudes with regards to free will and agency. And even though the message delivered in »Gender and Popular Culture’s« conclusion sounds rather bleak at first – namely that essentialized and hence stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity are still being produced and »reinforced« (ibid.: 214) by and through popular culture nowadays – Milestone and Meyer do emphasize that popular culture’s consumers also possess enough agency and critical skills to »critically engage« (loc. cit.) with these cultural goods, and are able to resist the stereotypical messages about gender (and other social categories) that are often attached to them. Pop cultural clichés about gender thus appear to engender critical counterimages as well. Or put in Foucauldian terms: »[w]here there is power, there is resistance […]« (Foucault 1990 : 95).
Milestone and Meyer hence appear to be convinced of the fact that even though gender equality has not been achieved yet, subjects still can take on the often stereotypical gender images and norms, and are perfectly able to subvert, deconstruct and change them – exactly because popular culture’s consumers are not the passive subjects that they were long considered to be. The clichés of conventional femininity and masculinity can thus be changed – in and outside popular culture.
And it is exactly this positive message of the possibility of change, together with Milestone and Meyer’s well-documented and well-executed analyses of the intra-action between gender and popular culture that makes »Gender and Popular Culture« a valuable resource for both cultural and feminist theorists.
Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London.
Bartky, Sandra Lee (1990): Femininity and Domination. Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, New York and London.
Butler, Judith (2006): Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity , New York and London.
Connell, R.W. (1987): Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics, Cambridge.
Foucault, Michel (1990): The History of Sexuality. Volume 1. An Introduction [Histoire de la sexualité. Tome 1. La volonté de savoir (1976)], New York.
Grosz, Elizabeth (1995): Space, Time and Perversion. The Politics of Bodies, St Leonards, N.S.W.
Irigaray, Luce (1993): An ethics of sexual difference [Éthique de la différence sexuelle (1984)], London.
Pateman, Carole (1988): The Sexual Contract, Cambridge.
Katie Milestone/Anneke Meyer
Gender and Popular Culture
Cambridge and Malden 2012