1980s Backlash & Post-Feminism

You’ve come a long way, baby

The feminist gains of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s cannot be underestimated in their successes and contribution toward gender equality. Many of the opportunities enjoyed by women today, especially in a professional capacity, are credited to the second wave of feminism. Women, albeit most white, middle class women, made serious progress in their quest for equality during the second wave, and put feminism on the map as a force to be reckoned with. However, as is often the case when marginalized groups begin to chip away at the status quo, the reality of the dominant group losing power had the predictable effect of a public backlash against feminism.

As the young, fresh faced Kate Bush prepared to release her first album, The Kick Inside, in 1978, the media was just beginning to grapple with the rising tide of the second wave. Rather than focusing on the political aims of the movement, the new media emphasized the apparent decay of family values as more women entered the work force, and focused on the appearances of prominent feminists rather than what they had to say, “liberated women, new makers worried, would abandon their children… make a mockery of the armed forces and of traditionally male work places by displacing men who’d ‘earned’ the right to be there” (Zeisler 63). While feminism continued to be a prolific influence on the lives of many women, it seemed to be destined to lose its battle for fair representation in mainstream media.

Many strong female musicians rose to popularity during the time, including Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, and (arguably) Madonna. Kate Bush’s career was doubtlessly influenced by feminism. The high level of creative control she was able to assert and the way she portrayed herself gender ambiguously is certainly a sign of changing times for women in music.

Bush’s emergence as an artist also coincided with another social movement. During the 1970s, punk music was revolutionizing the music scene in Britain, and aggressively making way for more alternative and unusual artists, like Bush, to be accepted into the realm of popular music. Punk was musically stripped down and opposed to the elitist mainstream of rock, it was highly politicized, anti-authority, and expressed resentment toward the bourgeoisie. Although Kate Bush certainly doesn’t fit in musically or stylistically with punk, Berkoz argues that, “this sociocultural environment gave Bush the freedom to explore and put forward her confrontational and individual artistic expression” (144). The subject matter of her debut album, including incest, pregnancy, and a woman’s menstrual cycle, were all topics considered taboo for the British music scene (143). This fearlessness and experimentation is what aligns Bush with the punk movement, and makes her such an important icon in female music.

As the 1980s came to a close and the MTV revolution was fully underway, an active process to undermine the feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes referred to as post-feminism, had begun (McRobbie 255). This phenomenon, outlined by Angela McRobbie in “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture”, suggests that, “by means of the tropes of freedom and choice which are now inextricably connected to the category of ‘young woman’, feminism is decisively aged and made to seem redundant” (255). Post-feminist thought puts forth that equality has been achieved and that, to celebrate their freedom, young women ought to assert their individuality through and consumption while older generations of feminists are dismissed as out of touch and old fashioned.

However, this apparently glorious equality that had now been achieved didn’t sit right with the realities of younger generations of women who did not see a correlation between their lives and the glossy images they saw of femininity on screen. As the 1980s ended and the 1990s began, the third wave was born, giving way to movements like Riot Grrrl and an understanding of intersectionality that had been largely absent from the second wave.

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