With yet another attempt to be “woke,” America is actually harming one of our most vulnerable demographics of society—adolescent girls.
Starting in the early 2000s after the finale Friends, continuing through the mid 2010s with Gossip Girl, and most recently, Euphoria, there’s been a large trend of portraying female protagonists occupying postfeminist lifestyles. More specifically, there’s been a huge push for female characters to reclaim attributes formerly considered anti feminist, hoping to convey messages of empowerment—however, these portrayals of women only create unhealthy behavioral expectations for the teenage girls that consume this content.
First, let’s take a moment to define postfeminism. The term was first coined in the 1990s, immediately sparking controversy—many didn’t agree with the implication that we are now in a post–gender or post–patriarchal America, where traditional feminist ideals are no longer relevant or needed. The theory states that we're now ready to reclaim attributes previously classified as anti feminist, including highlighting female sexual desire, marketing oneself as a commodity, and pursuing male validation. There’s also the presence of heightened individualism, to be sure that a woman’s free will is driving this line of decision making, rather than any cultural pressures (as within a postfeminist society, they're now free from all of those).
On the surface, writing the ideals of postfeminism into American television seems like it would equip modern girls with the tools to make empowered decisions free from negative patriarchal influences. However, aligning with everything else in US history, there are conditions to being accepted in postfeminist discourse—its lack of judgment is not distributed equally. There is a predetermined model that girls must fit in order to be uplifted in the act of “making their own choices”: if they’re not straight, white, skinny, and well–off, this narrative will not serve them.
Women that don’t fit this standard will never feel represented in the postfeminist discussion, or will be vilified for attempting to act in the same manner as their societally accepted peers. This was shown in Gossip Girl with the downfall of Jenny Humphrey. Portraying the white and the wealthy, the main characters Blair and Serena are allowed to treat men as objects to be used and discarded, with much of their power and characterization derived from their alluring beauty—anything (or anyone) they wanted, they could have.
However, when Jenny Humphrey, a side character with significantly less money and a style that could only be described as “emo” (which she adopts after a dramatic tumble from grace, in which she begins to rebel against her father and eventually leaves home) is treated as “tainted” once she sleeps with Chuck Bass. Vanessa, the only recurring person of color on the show, is characterized similarly: she's demonized and loses nearly all credibility in the eyes of the main cast when news circulates that she's been with Chuck. Less than a season later, she departs the show permanently.
Additionally, Gossip Girl attracts viewers as young as 12 years old. With an audience of this age, who are just reaching adolescence and highly impressionable, promoting the pursuit of male validation is a slippery slope. They’re beginning to take agency over their own lives and develop their own identities, no longer blindly accepting the status quo. Teaching girls from this young that their power in this world is directly correlated to their ability to attract men can easily create negative thought patterns. Additionally, it puts them at higher risk to be manipulated by older men, who will use these adolescent girls sexualizing themselves to excuse for their predatory tendencies.
Jules from Euphoria exemplifies this danger. She is often shown engaging in sexual relationships with men close to double her age as only a junior in high school. However, there is never any acknowledgment that her actions are dangerous; rather, she is uplifted by those around her for cashing in on her desirability.
However, there's a stark contrast with Kat's characterization on the show. From the first episode, she's defined by her sexual "wrongdoing." A video of her losing her virginity is leaked, and she becomes the laughing stock of the school. Her face isn't in it, but as she's bigger than all her peers, everybody knows it's her. This catalyzes a spiral that ends with her becoming a cam girl for cash. While Jules is very loud and proud about her sexual exploits, Kat doesn't share her endeavors with anyone; her plot line is treated as shameful.
While there's a certain idealization of Jules' behavior present in the show, it's clear that the audience is meant to look down upon Kat. A viewer who doesn't fit the mainstream beauty standard could watch this representation of feminism and be inspired to act in a similar manner, but will be vilified because they don’t have the protection of being a thin white girl.
Here is one such example of conflicting behavioral expectations: girls are expected to settle down (in the process, remove themselves in the workforce), but also maintain their sexual prowess and market themselves and their bodies as a commodity. In order to do so, they need to meet a certain beauty standard, the conditions for which are determined by factors decided before birth. With the new emphasis on consumer culture, women are encouraged to buy various items to reach this standard or even medically alter their appearance—even though postfeminist rhetoric claims that women are “free” from societal pressure and able to be unapologetically individualistic. The contradictions are enough to give a girl whiplash!
As we clearly don’t live in a society that is beyond the constraints of race, class, and gender, the ideals of postfeminism can easily create problematic undercurrents. Unless America fundamentally changes its cultural framework, the representation of postfeminist ideals in the television sector will only harm adolescent girls.