Lads, bras and other burning feminist issues

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The Independent Culture

Overloaded: popular culture and the future of feminismby Imelda Whelehan (The Women's Press, £11.99)

The bra-burning feminist never existed. At a feminist demonstration at the Miss America contest in 1968, bras and girdles, as well as shoes, false eyelashes and women's magazines, were thrown into a "freedom trash can". It challenged not only a beauty industry that propagated artificial norms, but also a society that demanded that women use their appearance to compete for male approval. An agency reporter invented some flames and the story took off.

This caricature has dogged feminism ever since, reducing it to the bad faith of saggy-boobed fanatics. Radical feminists later responded to the "Underneath they're all loveable" poster campaign for the eponymous brand of bras by replacing the adjective with "angry".

Yet, in the Nineties, the pneumatic push-up bra came back with a vengeance, an essential fashion accessory if women were to create the impression of Playboy breasts. Eva Herzigova's echoes of Mae West in the Wonderbra campaign played on an autonomous female sexuality only to underline its subjugation. Bras were not about comfort, but aspirations to the impossibly pert globes that (supposedly) turned men on.

Similarly, the recent spate of soft-porn shots of female celebrities in men's (and other) magazines suggests that, however successful or powerful a woman may be, what really matters is her appeal to pornographic fantasy. As Baby Spice put it: "Of course I'm a feminist. But I could never burn my Wonderbra. I'm nothing without it!"

In Overloaded, Imelda Whelehan applies Susan Faludi's influential 1992 study of the US cultural backlash against feminism to a narrow segment of popular culture in Nineties Britain: lad mags (Loaded, FHM), lad telly (Men Behaving Badly, Chris Evans), lad politics (New Labour) and lad lit (Nick Hornby), as well their female counterparts (Cosmopolitan, Ally McBeal, Denise Van Outen, Blair's Babes and Bridget Jones).

All are rightly "lamented" for their adolescent vulgarity, their lack of genuine feminism and their recourse, often under the guise of irony, to "retro-sexism" - as Whelehan calls nostalgia for gender relations before second-wave feminism.

In a climate in which feminism counts as the F-word unless its politics have received an egalitarian makeover (as post-feminism or power feminism), Whelehan's book ought to be welcomed. But I find it almost impossible to do so. Overloaded is intellectually dismal, unoriginal, repetitive and thin on both the theory and empirical data that would enrich its argument. The backlash turns out to be everywhere Whelehan looks, a baggy all-devouring monster which leaves little room for explaining her "cultural moments" in other ways.

In one sense, the backlash has always been there, inseparable from feminism - or rather, from the way the media has constructed feminism and, more problematically, the way it has constructed itself. In another sense, as recent books by Germaine Greer and Lynne Segal show, anti-feminism in both theory (social, sociobiological, psychological) and reality (medical, domestic, sexual) is new and growing.

Instead, Whelehan insists on the primacy of the cultural, so that "there is no point in a female barrister... obtaining equal pay... if her hormones are blamed the first time she loses a case". But this also means Whelehan can't do much more than wag her finger at the words backlashers use, and wish there were a British equivalent of the US National Organisation of Women. Without a broader analysis - such as the general failure of radical movements - Whelehan's final hope is that some of today's young women "will feel nostalgic for the heady days of the women's movement".

Redolent of a seminar taught too often, Overloaded may be the result of the triumph of cultural feminism in academe, but it also shows how academic discourse kills radical politics. Concluding her introduction, Whelehan writes, "It may, as Greer says, be time to get angry again; and it certainly isn't time to be complacent." Ho hum. No need for bra-burning myths here.