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Anthea Taylor

Further information

About the author

Anthea Taylor is a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of English, University of New South Wales. She was awarded her doctorate in feminist cultural studies through UNSW’s English and Women’s Studies Program. She is currently preparing a monograph for publication by Peter Lang in 2007.

Publication details

Volume 15, November 2006

The ‘Daughter’s Reply’: Self-Representations of the ‘Young Feminist’ in Generation F and DIY Feminism

Following the publication of Helen Garner’s controversial rendering of the Ormond College sexual harassment case in her ‘non-fictional’ book, The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power (1995), Australian feminism reached a point of what John Fiske would call ‘maximum discursive turbulence’ in media discourse (Fiske, 1996: 7). Published in early 1995 the book was loosely based on events at Ormond College, a residential college of the University of Melbourne, in 1991. The College’s Master was alleged to have sexually harassed two young female residents, who subsequently sought legal redress. In The First Stone (1995), Garner offers her personalised response to these events in a polemic on the limitations of feminism as she saw it being practised by younger women. Focusing on Garner’s nostalgic narrative about the misdirection (or misuse) of feminism by young Australian women, the media event played out in state-based and national newspapers and also resulted in a number of book length publications in response.1 Over ten years later, it remains a significant cultural flashpoint in recent Australian feminist history that requires critical reassessment. The texts of this media event, as indicative of the mediatisation of feminism, can be read symptomatically in terms of the broader relationship between feminism and media culture (including its print varieties). As part of that broader project, my focus here is the self-representational practices of those marketed as part of the ‘hotly contested’ (Harris: 2001) younger generation of women whose feminism came under scrutiny throughout this highly volatile, affective debate of the mid-1990s.

Although it is often assumed that older commentators dominated this media furore (see Davis: 1997), with the publication of Virginia Trioli’s Generation F (1996) and Kathy Bail’s edited collection DIY Feminism (1996) two younger journalists were constructed (and constructed themselves) as representatives of the generation about which many public voices, with varying degrees of authority, seemed to be speaking. This article contextualises these ‘popular’ best-selling feminist books in The First Stone media event and identifies how the dominant tropes and discourses used in each book were shaped by such a context. Both books represent important, though remarkably rhetorically and ideologically different, contributions to the hyper-visible struggle over the meanings of feminism occurring in Australian public discourse at this time. While their willingness to take up generational speaking positions ensured the audibility of their voices in this debate, my close analysis makes it clear both that their diversity challenges assumptions about a unified generation of young Australian feminists and that the generationalism which rendered their books newsworthy concomitantly limited the type of stories they were able to tell about contemporary feminism.

In terms of the media event, the need for two young feminists to function as replacements for the voiceless Ormond women created a discursive space wherein Bail and Trioli were authorised to circulate their own conflicting versions of feminism (see Ling Kong: 1997). In Jennifer Wicke’s terms, both Bail and Trioli became ‘celebrity feminists’ in the context of this media furore. Wicke argues that the absence of a visible women’s movement has created a void which popular feminism – and specifically celebrity feminism – can (albeit partially) fill: ‘The celebrity zone is there, and we all must pay heed to it, intersecting as it does with academic-feminist quarrels and controversies, with public debates, politics, and representations’ (Wicke, 1998: 407). In this spirit, Trioli’s and Bail’s ‘popular’ publications certainly warrant further critical attention. Furthermore, recent work by Lynne Pearce (2003) and Astrid Henry (2004) demonstrates a growing critical preoccupation with the rhetoric of popular feminism with which this paper is consistent. However, the way these books – like much popular feminism – are ‘marketed and received as representations of an entire generation’ (Siegel, 1997: 65) requires troubling, not least because of their authors’ abundant cultural and educational capital. Both authors are white, middle-class journalists whose voices had already been foregrounded in the media event (as commentators and/or journalistic sources). But as Chilla Bulbeck observes, the privilege of such feminist speakers crosses the erstwhile generational divide: ‘Class and ethnicity are flattened away and the media voices in the generation debate – younger and older – are those of middle-class articulate women’ (Bulbeck, 2001: 3). In addition to drawing attention to their privilege, Bulbeck also underscores how speakers in this debate were required to take up explicitly generational subject positions. In this sense, generationalism was central to the media event’s actualisation. As international and local examples such as The First Stone debate suggest, the 1990s in particular is marked by an over-reliance on the generational paradigm as a means of figuring relationships between different cohorts of feminists (Henry, 2004: 3).

Both Trioli’s and Bail’s books are important for the assumptions they make about the feminist past as much as its present; generationalism (as in The First Stone itself) is the dominant – and necessarily constraining – mode of narration (see Henderson, 2006: 158-159). In what she sees as an often overlooked expression of agency, Sarah Maddison argues that in their contributions to this debate Trioli and Bail strategically position themselves along the axis of age (Maddison, 2002: 11). Limited though this generational positioning may be, Bail and Trioli’s strategic (self)positioning along it secured their media presence and viability as authorised speakers on feminism. These books were made possible – and publishable – by the overarching generational narrative in which they were located (and strategically located themselves). Conflict was central to this event, as it is to news discourse more generally, and the potential of a feminist ‘catfight’ is always newsworthy (see Genovese, 2004: 149). Given their positioning as the ‘daughter’s reply’ to The First Stone (Bird, 1996: 50) it is not surprising that their contributions to public discourse, replete with generational tropes, have been seen as those of a unified generation. This homogenisation, however, is an inevitable consequence of generationalism.2 The most obvious example of this presumed generational unity is Anne Summers’ review article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s supplement, The Good Weekend, an assumption signalled by its neologistic title: ‘DIY Generation’. The cover of the magazine also semiotically signifies this presumed unity, with a frontal shot of their faces that makes their bodily boundaries literally blur (Summers: 1996). As Jane Long notes, although the books differ in many respects their defensive tone derives from their shared premise: ‘that the castigation of young women in the press and in books is unwarranted’ (Long, 2001: 3). Despite such unity of purpose, Generation F and DIY Feminism are ideologically and structurally very different textual products. Relying heavily on personalised anecdotes and interviews, Generation F seeks to justify young women’s use of legislation inspired by second-wave feminism and to identify new forms of activism among young feminists. Conversely, DIY Feminism – an edited collection of essays – assumes a postfeminist climate where purportedly ‘savvy’ young women do not need to rely upon such measures or adopt explicitly feminist identities. The remainder of this article underscores how these rhetorical and ideological differences complicate assumptions about a unified younger generation of feminists, while also demonstrating the limitations of their mutual reliance on generational framing.3

Desparately Seeking Young Feminists: Virginia Trioli’s Generation F (1996)

‘Popular’ feminism, including in its written forms, remains the subject of intense feminist debate, and it is sometimes dismissed in favour of a more ‘authentic’ form of feminism that is ‘“elsewhere”’ (Brunsdon, 1998: 101). Virginia Trioli’s text is less ideologically problematic than some critics of this genre might assume, with a strongly feminist speaking position adopted throughout.4 As part of her concerted effort to challenge the terms of the debate into which she intervenes, in her ‘Introduction’ Trioli suggests that the discursive constitution of a generational divide is unsustainable or ‘shallow’ (Trioli, 1996: 9). She alludes to the media’s role in the manufacture of the alleged generational rupture occurring in The First Stone debate: ‘the knowing, mature, libertarian feminists on the one side; the cringing, punishing, young things on the other. It makes for good copy’ (Trioli, 1996: 9). Despite Trioli’s explicit acknowledgement of the limitations of such a paradigm, her book remains constrained by the generationalism it rhetorically disavows. Her inability to move beyond the generational tropes and familial metaphors she critiques is patently clear in the title of her final chapter: ‘The Jealous Mother’. Such a frustrated attempt is unsurprising, for as Long argues, ‘once the generational cleavage is invoked, it is a difficult discourse to step outside in order to counter its easy assumptions’ (Long, 2001: 3). This irreconcilable tension between defending her generation and calling into question the very concept of feminist generations is at the centre of Generation F (d’Arcens, 1998: 110). However, Trioli does attempt to guide the media event from internecine battles between feminists to the politics of sexual harassment and other forms of masculine domination. Her book also works as a form of meta-commentary on the media event itself which she critiques throughout.

As a sign of the way the book was marketed, its backcover blurb attempts to position Trioli’s text as ‘redrawing’ what has become the caricature of the ‘new feminist’. As part of such an aim, she seeks to locate the ‘highly practical breed of feminism that is the practice of young women’s lives’ (Trioli, 1996: 11). For Trioli, the feminism of these women has been written out of dominant narratives that alternately fixate on feminist inaction (Anne Summers) or inappropriate action (Helen Garner) by young women. The tone of her book is defensive, particularly as she mounts a justification of the Ormond women and their decision to take legal action. Charging Garner with ‘misrepresentation’ of the gendered power dynamics constitutive of this case, she suggests:

Placed in the context of the debate stirred up by Helen Garner’s The First Stone, this book argues in defence of a generation of women who are now prepared to speak out about the culture of harassment and assault that still persists in many areas of Australian life (Trioli, 1996: 11).

Moreover, the text’s cover – a photograph of stones – is certainly not subtle in the way it intertextually situates the book in relation to Garner’s, with its myriad stones contrasting with the singular stone that appears on the latter’s cover. Trioli’s title too signals an ironic allusion to Summers’ assumption in her ‘Letter to the Next Generation’ that young women refuse to utter the ‘f’ word.5 For Trioli, feminism is not an unutterable expletive, but a socially relevant body of ideas and practices whose adoption she fervently advocates. Like many critics of the case, for Trioli mainstream media culture (of which she herself was a part) simplified the issues and feminism itself, a simplification she purports to rectify through Generation F.

Trioli’s journalistic sources are an odd mixture of friends, acquaintances, other journalists and those deemed qualified to speak by virtue of their institutional position: lawyers, femocrats, politicians, high profile second-wave feminists, journalists and counsellors. Her account is textually-mediated by the very texts of the media event to which she contributes, and also consists of a multitude of micro-narratives, either of incidents she has observed or those recounted by sources. Such personalised stories help form the basis of her argument against Garner, antifeminist commentators, and even against those women who fail to concede the validity of feminism as a way of being in the world. Along with identifying the forms of activism in which young women are involved in the mid-1990s, one of the central premises of Generation F is that young women should be supported should they choose to access the relevant legal avenues to contest sexual harassment (see Chapter 1: ‘Ormond College – the Aftermath or why we go to the cops’, 13-47). In this way, Trioli uses the Ormond case as the basis for a critique of the legal system, as she highlights in particular the recalcitrant engendering practices of legal discourse and its assumption of the ‘reasonable man’. As she implies, The First Stone media event demonstrates Nancy Fraser’s suggestion that the public vocabularies relating to sexual harassment do not automatically shift with legislative change (Fraser, 1997: 116-117). After a discussion of Bettina Arndt’s (anti-feminist) media commentary, Trioli observes:

After twelve years of sexual harassment laws in this country, after countless reports – private or public, well-known or obscure – testifying to the rampant discrimination against women practised in workplaces for generations, you’d think we’d have all finally understood what is and what isn’t welcome behaviour. Apparently not (Trioli, 1996: 77).

Unlike Arndt and Garner, Trioli fails to conceive of women’s bodies as a problem to the public sphere and cogently argues that the gendering of the workplace remains vexed for women. In this sense, her text represents an important feminist contribution to this media event and to broader public discourse. For Trioli, as for a number of feminists (regardless of their generational location) the State must continue to play a role in the elimination of discrimination and violence against women.

One of the often overlooked elements in discussions about Generation F is its speaking position, a remarkable elision given its author’s explicit emphasis on situating herself in relation to her subject matter. At various times Trioli personalises her narrative by reading The First Stone autobiographically. For example, through a personal anecdote regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, the writing subject locates herself in an empathic relation to the young women involved in the Ormond case:

One evening at work, a male colleague I knew, but not well, came up to me to show me a piece of work for the paper. Clapping eyes on me, his body loosened, his face widened in a grin, and he moved quickly towards. It was one of those horrible moments, you realise with sinking heart, that you can do little to avoid. Even then, he greeted me with an enthusiasm I hadn’t expected. With a great how-ya-going he pulled me into a crushing embrace, jamming my body up against his (Trioli, 1996: 1-2).

While Trioli implies that deployment of legal remedies may not be relevant or appropriate in all cases, such as her own, her conviction that the Ormond women’s actions were justified drives her argument. In commencing her work with such a personal anecdote, she claims an authoritative position from which to speak, one which extends beyond that of her role as a so-called objective and detached journalistic chronicler. For Lynne Pearce, such ‘authenticating anecdotes’ are a common narratorial strategy in popular feminist writing which serve to authorise the feminist speaker (Pearce, 2003: 41).

Trioli carefully recounts the affect of this incident, and how it – unlike the Ormond case – was resolved at the individual, as opposed to the structural, level. That said, this vignette is not deployed to advocate resolution of harassment at the micro level. Rhetorically it serves a different purpose; in ‘popular’ feminist writing, the author must ‘conscript the reader as her “ally” in her assault upon her “object of utterance”’ (Pearce, 2003: 42) and such personalised anecdotes can be seen as one in a network of rhetorical practices to help engender sympathy for Trioli’s challenge to Garner’s discursive construction of the excessive ‘young feminist’. It is clear that this incident framed her own response to The First Stone: ‘This bizarre little incident took place in early in 1995, just as the novelist, Helen Garner, published her explosive book about sexual harassment, The First Stone’ (Trioli, 1996: 6). Pearce argues that the use of stories or events in author’s lives as the basis for non-fictional discursive practice has become prominent in popular feminism and journalism (Pearce, 2003: 47). For feminists though, the use of a first person pronoun has always represented a means through which women’s experiences can be authorised and their voices empowered.

Performing Generation F

As a response to assertions of young women’s apathy towards both feminist politics and organised politics in general, Trioli’s book is at pains to demonstrate that the opposite is true. Throughout Generation F, she emphasises that there are many different ways of being feminist and sites of feminist identification, particularly as she suggests that many women who do identify as feminist often have little in common (Trioli, 1996: 9). She observes that there is ‘no young feminist. There is no one movement’ (Trioli, 1996: 9), a point consistent with theoretical complications regarding the constituency that feminism has historically claimed to represent. For Trioli, feminism is still being practiced in Australia, but the notion of the unified, shared feminist identity can no longer be considered viable : ‘There are young women in Australia who call themselves feminists but who have almost nothing in common – politically, ideologically – with each other’ (Trioli, 1996: 9). Thus, in her account, feminism for young women in Australia is characterised as ‘post-identity politics’ (Siegel, 1997: 54). Furthermore, though not entirely advocating a return to a feminism based in collectivist practices, Trioli challenges the individualism constitutive of her peer’s DIY discourse. She identifies a broader tendency towards ‘rampant individualism’ that makes identification with feminism seem unnecessary (Trioli, 1996: 61). She argues that ‘the mainstream argument is to trust that individual power is enough. Young women are being encouraged to go it alone – and without ideology’ (Trioli, 1996: 69). For Trioli, young women may not need to be collective actors, but the ideological framework and commitment of feminism is yet required to counteract neo-individualism and its regressive implications for women.

In spite of her attempts to identify young feminists, Trioli contradictorily argues that feminism has been so pervasive in Australian culture that it no longer can (or needs to be) defined: ‘Contemporary feminism has become a philosophical and political ethos so accepted by a younger generation of Australian women that they don’t even bother to explain it’ (1996: 9). Such ‘rhetoric of naturalisation’ is a common technique in writings of young feminists (Siegel, 1997: 49). Here, in conceptualising feminism as a ‘birthright’, active identification with it is deemed redundant (Henry, 2004: 40). Her observation that feminism has become the preferred interpretive framework for Australian women simplifies the complexities of institutional and structural factors which often (still) exist in tension with such a privatised ‘ethos’. But Trioli also emphasises that the rhetoric of feminist success, telling young women ‘that your gender should not matter anymore’, has resulted in a series of insidious myths about the lack of barriers to women’s participation in a masculine public sphere (Trioli, 1996: 61 & 67). In addition, she argues that the more active feminists are invisible to the previous generation due to their particular form of activism: ‘Once you start looking the young feminists are everywhere. It is their strategies that initially make them so hard to find’ (Trioli, 1996: 110). Here, she reasserts the incommensurability between generations that mar(k)s her entire book.

Trioli’s identification of such women is strategic and central to her argument; young women do identify with feminism, an identification evidenced by their multiple, diverse feminist practices (Trioli, 1996: 11). In this way, she responds to Summers’ assertion that young women not only fail to practice feminism, but recoil from it as an identity. Arguing that the terrain of feminist activism and practice has shifted, Trioli seems to measure feminist success in terms of women’s appropriation of institutional space (Trioli, 1996: 10). In her analysis, ‘radical politics’ has been ‘incorporated into the mainstream reform agenda’ (Trioli, 1996: 164) and it is through taking up, negotiating or challenging the efficacy of legal and policy frameworks that contemporary feminism is predominantly practiced. While Trioli’s ‘Introduction’ articulates her recognition of the heterogeneity of younger feminists, the young feminist of Trioli’s sub-title is predominantly a young liberal feminist, involved in policy formation, legislative amendment, and efforts to secure women’s equality within the context of the State. Most problematic is the exclusion of Indigenous and migrant women from Trioli’s narrative of contemporary feminist practices; the feminism she catalogues does not explicitly address race and her feminism appears to be the province of privileged white women. One of the text’s other significant rhetorical limitations, which it shares with Bail’s, is its representation of an insurmountable generational divide.

Generation F’s Mothers and Daughters

Like those of Garner and Summers, Trioli’s argument is governed by a restrictive mother/daughter binary whose limitations for feminist discourse have been well-documented. Furthermore, being consistent with the dominant way of figuring difference between cohorts of feminists, this framing served to make her work more marketable. As one commentator observed, despite her desire to move beyond the limitations of generationalism ‘as her argument unfolds, her account of contemporary feminist debate hardens into two poles: older, libertarian feminists at a loss to understand their feminist offspring, and younger women who are capable of separating sex from sexism’ (Lumby, 1996: 12). Throughout the chapter ‘The Jealous Mother’ she defers to a number of feminist experts on the perceived generational fissures thought to have been exposed (or rather constructed) by the media event. For example, Trioli again narrativises a personal incident which serves to reinscribe the polarisations established by Garner and maintained by some other commentators regarding the radically divergent libertarian second-waver and the puritanical younger feminist. She remarks that following a discussion on The First Stone with a fifty-something feminist: ‘One afternoon late last year the generation gap opened under my feet and I fell into it’ (Trioli, 1996: 137). Here, Trioli recounts her personal experience of the ‘gap’ that she has explicitly set out to problematise:

My friend and I had come to a miserable halt. She said she could never, ever understanding going to court over an alleged touch on the breast. I had said I could see exactly why a woman would, and should, be able to do so. Silence. The libertarian and the young feminist staring angrily at each other. As feminists we had rarely disagreed with each other, but something was different this time. (Trioli, 1996: 138).

The assumptions made by Garner about personal responsibility and women’s agency are thought to have destabilised a unity upon which Trioli’s intergenerational feminist friendship was based. Through voices such as this, the generational gap upon which Garner and Summers had relied reappears in Trioli’s text. The woman she quotes concurs with Garner; in light of her libertarian suspicion of the State, she wouldn’t have dreamt of ‘going to the cops’ either. Due to the ‘failed experiment’ of sexual libertarianism that their ‘daughters’ have ‘rejected’ (Trioli, 1996: 140), older women such as this one are disconcerted with feminism and its contemporary representatives. Like Garner, Trioli’s source argues – in the rhetoric of ressentiment characteristic of the entire debate (Probyn, 1998) – that she had to personally defend herself against harassment, an experience that sees her unable to comprehend the actions of the Ormond women (Trioli, 1996: 138).

While Trioli here offers a deconstruction of Oedipal metaphors and contests the tendency to view generational disagreements as an ineluctable part of the ‘daughter’s’ individuation, the chapter as a whole is trapped within the logic it critiques:

The disappointment has been played out in the archetypal language of a jealous mother: the mother resentful at her daughter’s rejection of her ways and jealous of a new culture that aims to protect, in law and in community awareness, control over her own body. The mother now at a stage in her life where she is prepared to forgive the blunderings of men, watching in awe of her daughter’s cool ability to distinguish between a nerdish pass and something more troubling. The mother, while overjoyed at her daughter’s success, unwilling to let her assume authority for fear that it extinguishes the mother’s own (Trioli, 1996: 141).

As in many popular feminist texts, the older feminist (Mother) is seen to be profoundly troubled by the daughter’s emergent feminist subjectivity (see Henry: 2004). Trioli continues: ‘How is a mother to feel when a daughter snatches greedily at treasure nurtured for her and then runs with it?’ (Trioli, 1996: 151). The mother’s possession of such a ‘treasure’ evidences the notion of feminism as property, ‘owned’ and ‘handed down’ by its ‘Mothers’, that critics such as Judith Roof have problematised (Roof: 1997).

Despite the limitations of Trioli’s text and its fundamentally liberal politics, in emphasising both young women’s feminist activism and through mounting a defence of the Ormond women, she provides a discourse on young women, feminism and sexual harassment which runs counter to that of the media event’s most prominent speakers. Overwhelming, her focus is on younger women’s identification with feminism (in contrast to Bail’s pronounced disidentification). As Sarah Maddison suggests: ‘Trioli’s contribution to new discussions of the role of young women in the Australian women’s movement was strategic and effective as it delivered a fairly straightforward presentation of the work young women were doing’ (Maddison, 2002: 16, see also Else-Mitchell and Flutter, 1998: xiv). While Maddison here values the text for its mimetic accuracy, being more cautious of its truth-claims I assume that Trioli makes an important contribution to the representations of the ‘young (white) feminist’ which were circulating in journalism and the mainstream publishing scape in mid-nineties Australia. One contribution to The First Stone media event by another woman assumed to be speaking on/for a younger generation of feminists was, unfortunately, marred by less transcendable limitations.

Daughters doing it (for) themselves: Kathy Bail’s DIY Feminism (1996)

Kathy Bail’s edited collection, DIY Feminism, like its peers’, is explicitly positioned as a contribution to The First Stone media event. As an intervention into such a highly visible debate, the text’s title foregrounds its editor’s problematic assumption that the Ormond women should have done it themselves. In the book’s acknowledgements, despite her explicit disassociation from second-wave feminism and formal feminist politics later in the text, Bail offers a ‘huge thanks’ to a number of people, including ‘Anne Summers for leading the way and for her encouragement over the years; Helen Garner for provoking a fascinating debate’ (Bail, 1996: v). Here, she declares the type of daughterly gratitude Summers had accused young women of failing to express in her provocative ‘Letter to the Next Generation’. In contrast to Trioli’s pointed defence of them, Bail sees her text as a corrective to the misrepresentation of the Ormond women as representative of all young feminists: ‘Their actions fuelled the debate and left many wondering whether these women’s actions were typical. Were young women victims who’d run to the cops for protection at the slightest encouragement?’ (Bail, 1996: 9). It is clear that Bail wishes to disassociate herself and the book from the actions of the Ormond women. For Bail, these women had imbibed too much second-wave feminist ideology, representative of the Other against which DIY feminism is defined.

Like Trioli, Bail heavily criticises the media debate over The First Stone. Despite the presence of her own voice during the event, she argues that DIY’s heterogeneity and basis in sub-cultural practices precluded its articulation in the ‘mainstream’ media. Arguing that ‘a younger generation of women felt removed from the discussion’ (Bail, 1996: 9), Bail taps into ideas of voicelessness and young women’s lack of access to public space (see Harris: 2004), and positions her own text as an attempt to rectify the silence of the generation in which she situates herself/was situated. As Bail herself came to be seen as a young celebrity feminist the assumptions of her ‘Introduction’ metonymically stood for the whole collection. That said, a few articles in the collection effectively contradict Bail’s introductory assertions (see Lewis: 1996, Kenny: 1996). For example, Kath Kenny challenges ‘antivictim’ narratives, noting: ‘In a dressed-for-success world, it is no longer fashionable to present oneself as having problems: you must have a solution, a can-do attitude, and a Filofax to organise your quality time’ (Kenny, 1996: 143). Likewise, rather than questioning their actions as does Bail, Felicity Lewis criticises the institutional response to the Ormond complainants (Lewis, 1996: 153). Despite these oppositional voices, Bail’s DIY discourse ‘almost entirely depoliticises the actions of the young women who contribute to her book’ (Maddison, 2002: 16). For Maddison, the conflicting voices present in Bail’s text were themselves effectively silenced through their subordination to her overarching DIY narrative. The most problematic element of Bail’s DIY rhetoric is the specific idea of self it invokes, a self for whom gender, race, class or any other modalities of difference seem inconsequential. That is, DIY – as a discourse – produces a certain type of subject.

As a discourse, DIY is contingent upon a number of assumptions consistent with liberalism, particularly through its reliance on autonomy and personal self-realisation. DIY discourse is predicated on the kind of bourgeois, masculine subject which feminism, amongst other bodies of thought, has sought to displace. The subject who ‘does it herself’ chooses not to choose a feminist identity, but instead adopts an individualism underpinned by a reluctance to identify with victim-centric ideology. In the sub-section ‘I’m not a feminist but…’, an utterance thought to be popular among young women, Bail asserts: ‘When it comes to using the word “feminism” there’s extreme caution. Young women are nervous about associating themselves with feminism’ (Bail, 1996: 4). This simultaneous embrace and disavowal marks an ambivalence towards feminism common in media discourse (Douglas, 1994: 270). The idea that feminism is a signifier charged with negative connotations that prevents young women’s self-identification is mobilised elsewhere during the media event (Jackman, 1995: 18). Furthermore, Bail’s disassociation from feminism contrasts markedly with Trioli’s proud articulation of the ‘f’ word and provides the basis for her supposedly ‘new’ brand of feminism.

‘New’ cultural politics?

According to Bail, young women are seeking to reconstitute feminism, to make it over in their own – as opposed to their mothers’ – image. Bail assumes that it is only in the 1990s that women are able to embark on their own interpretation and negotiation of feminism (O’Brien, 1997: 27); such a position fails to recognise that considerable disagreements over how feminism is practiced have occurred at various points in Australian feminist history (O’Brien, 1997: 27). That is, ‘feminism has always been fragmented, even if the fragments were organised differently’ (Smart, 1995: 203), a point which Bail overlooks in her attempt to establish the ‘new-ness’ of ‘diy feminism’ (see Taylor, 2003). However, Bail’s anti-victim rhetoric is not original and aligns her with American celebrity feminists such as Rene Denfeld, Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf:

Younger women assume their rights to the resulting opportunities [of the second wave] yet they regard feminism as a prescriptive way of thinking that discourages exploration on the individual level. The word ‘feminism’ suggests a rigidity of style and behaviour and is still generally associated with a culture of complaint. Young women don’t want to identify with something that sounds dowdy, asexual or shows them to be at a disadvantage. They don’t want to be seen as victims (Bail, 1996: 5).

Feminism here, unlike that of the former generation, is pro-sex and anti-victim. Furthermore, the word ‘dowdy’ suggests that the earlier feminism is both ‘unsexy’ and unfashionable (Henry, 2004: 124). This representation of the previous generation as ‘dowdy’ or ‘frumpy’, reinforcing the enduring opposition between the maternal and the sexual, is an inevitable consequence of figuring the previous form of feminism as ‘Mother’ (Henry, 2004: 126). In order to embrace (hetero)sexuality, the ‘feminist mother’ must be repudiated (Henry, 2004: 126).

The DIY philosophy is symbiotic, both temporally and ideologically, with the ‘girlpower’ phenomenon, a consumerist rhetoric of empowerment mobilised by and around young women. For Susan Hopkins this shift towards a pro-girl stance in media culture is explicitly generational: ‘The Girl Power of the 1990s and beyond marks a generational shift in feminist-inspired thinking towards more optimistic but individualistic positions and perspectives’ (Hopkins, 2002: 2). This shift came in the form of a consumer-based discourse about which many feminists, including myself, remain deeply conflicted. As Anita Harris recently observed, ‘girlpower constructs the current generation of young women as a unique category of girls who are self-assured, living lives lightly inflected by but no means driven by feminism, influenced by the philosophy of DIY, and assuming they can have (or at least buy) it all’ (Harris, 2004: 17). It is also important to be conscious of the broader political shifts, which formed the context from which DIY and its counterpart girlpower emerged. In the year DIY Feminism was published, 1996, the Keating Labor Federal Government was replaced by the Liberal-National Coalition, led by John Howard. The conservative government’s regressive emphasis on personal responsibility and individualism is echoed in Bail’s DIY feminism.

The notion of doing it yourself, while foregrounding the performative aspect of identity or the subject’s role in the doing, feeds into what Anna Cronin has referred to as ‘compulsory individualism’ mobilised in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ advertising campaigns and other sites of popular culture (Cronin: 2000). In DIY, feminism becomes reduced to individual life choices, a critique often made of what has become known as ‘commodity feminism’ (Goldman: 1992). For Bail, it is this rejection of organised feminism that distinguishes DIY from previous, supposedly outmoded, forms of feminism. She contrasts the multiplicity of DIY feminist identities with the presumed singularity of the second-wave:

This debate is about the eternal struggle for identity. The femme gen wants to define a place that is not smothered by either patriarchy or a new feminist elite. They pursue activities that don’t always fit the feminist mould. Even the way they present what they do feels different. Seventies-style separatist rhetoric has been abandoned; there’s more interest in how gender identities blur and in adopting different sexual roles (Bail, 1996: 5).

Bail seeks to universalise the struggle for feminist or political individuation – here both Father (patriarchy) and Mother (feminist elite) must be rejected, as Bail claims an alternative way of performing both feminism and femininity. She also romanticises the identity play which is a mainstay of DIY, particularly the supposedly unconstrained resignification of gender.

In DIY, activism is primarily performed in the field of cultural politics not in the realm of organised or institutional politics. In Bail’s purportedly marginalised DIY, the preferred sites for the articulation for feminist identities are zines and the ‘alternative’ music scene and other sub-cultural sites. The irony of Bail celebrating such ‘sub-cultural’ practices of production within a ‘mainstream’ publication (published by Allen & Unwin) such as DIY Feminism is obvious. Moreover, she stresses that choosing not to identify with feminism is an expression of young women’s agency, and therefore can be constituted as something for which feminism has fought. But despite Bail’s assertions, the oppositionality of DIY cannot be automatically assumed. As Bulbeck puts it: ‘One can easily overdraw the “new” cultural politics of young women’s feminism’ (Bulbeck, 2001: 4). For Bail, such an emphasis on the ‘“new” cultural politics’ is indelibly generational. As in news media coverage of feminism, Bail here dichotomises feminism into ‘the good and the bad’ (Sheridan et al., 2000: 335); in order to position DIY as a new form of feminism, such an inscription is crucial. Her assertions of DIY’s heterogeneity are contingent upon the homogenisation of a contrastingly inadequate second-wave. While it has been suggested that writers of ‘third-wave’ texts long for an ‘uncomplicated identification with a mythical feminist past’ (Siegel, 1997: 59), DIY by comparison seeks disassociation from such a mythologised moment through its advocacy of ‘disorganised feminism’ (Bail, 1996: 15).

Individualism and the disavowal of second-wave feminism

Although I would caution against unproblematically conflating Australian and American ‘third-wave’ texts, Bail’s assumption that feminism requires ‘rehabilitation’ does rhetorically and ideologically align her with writers such as Denfeld, Roiphe, and Wolf (Henry, 2004: 36). Like these writers, for Bail the unimpeded self is free – not from patriarchy – but from organised feminism. To enable this focus on this un-subjected individual, Bail assumes a pervasive feminist presence in Australian women’s lives. Though Trioli makes the same assumption, her account contains little of Bail’s negativity towards, and desire for dis-identification from, feminism. For Bail, the purportedly hegemonic form of feminism has been rejected due to its reliance upon ‘constricting dogma’ (Bail, 1996: 5). Rhetorically, Bail’s book also occupies similar ground to Garner’s, with each invoking a ‘monolithic, irrelevant, and misguided feminism’ against which their own fragmented brand of feminism can be positioned (Henry, 2004: 30). In this sense, Bail’s alignment with Garner’s position further complicates arguments about generational cohesion within the media event and within feminism itself. Garner’s construction and subsequent critique of contemporary feminism posited that ‘going to the cops’ represented a relinquishing, as opposed to an exercise, of agency on the part of the young women; this use of systemic or structural remedies is seen as a failure at the level of self. For Bail, as for Garner, the Ormond women failed to ‘do it themselves’. Not surprisingly, ‘popular’ feminism is often criticised for its individualism, for emphasising ‘self transformation’ over ‘social transformation’ (Rhode, 1997: 20). In ‘DIY’ logic, individualism represents more than the romanticisation of the sovereign individual. The individual foregrounded in this discourse is a symbol of the repudiation of the ‘mother feminism; that is, of a second-wave feminism contrastingly based in collectivism’ (Henry, 2003: 220).

In Bail’s framework, young women’s feminism is being performed outside the institutions and groups featured so prominently in Trioli’s text, a fundamental difference in the two texts that is often strategically elided in press reports of a unified generation. In accounts such as Bail’s, the ‘spectacle of mass activism’ associated with the second-wave is the Other of the micro-politics of a purportedly more sophisticated contemporary feminism (Orr, 1997: 42). As is inevitable in generational discourse, DIY works to fix its subject – and the older feminist from whom she differs – in her generational location. Furthermore, Bail’s assessment of DIY culture relies upon a conventional notion of progress and linear feminist history as she assumes that DIY transcends the limitations of feminism in its previous forms. Megan Jones’ following comments, while made in relation to feminist historiography, appropriately describe the rhetorical strategy used by Bail to position DIY feminism against a unitary feminism of the second-wave:

The feminisms of 1970s Australia are often perceived as a unitary, simplistic and predominantly uncomplicated whole. This reification of a feminist moment is repeatedly propagated in a history of Australian feminism that constructs an unsophisticated feminism at its beginnings in the 1970s and progresses to the supposedly sophisticated feminisms of the 1990s – feminisms of plurality, multiplicities of meanings and complex specificities (Jones, 1998: 117).

For Bail, the feminism of the second-wave has been replaced by something more nuanced and multiplicitous. DIY feminism, like other forms of post-feminism, ‘seeks to legitimise its epistemological foundations through the negation of a feminist (m)Other, in order to confirm its own sense of self, and to produce a ‘good’ feminist subject as opposed to the ‘bad’ feminism of the 1960s and 1970s’ (Nurka, 2002: 178). Bail defines her feminism against a theory-based Other, particularly as she is at pains to dissociate her collection and the DIY philosophy from women’s studies. Bail speaks disparagingly of ‘fashionable jargon’ (Bail, 1996: 12), as she suggests that feminism ‘has become a predominantly intellectual pursuit removed from daily, grassroots activity’ (Bail, 1996: 7). While disdainful of the activist second-wave, she uses the rhetoric of ‘grassroots activity’ to reclaim feminism from its elite position within the academy. However, despite Bail’s inclusive rhetoric, the option of ‘doing it yourself’ is not open to all women.

Despite her acknowledgement of the exclusionary potential of any fixed definition of feminism, Bail’s DIY narrative inevitably erases certain subjects from view. In a different context, Mary Vavrus invokes the Althusserian notion of interpellation to highlight the exclusions of such ‘popular’ discourses: ‘The women who are not hailed by this class-specific discourse continue to suffer economically, physically, psychologically and socially from a range of power abuses’ (Vavrus, 2002: 29). The young woman envisaged by Bail is the ‘can do girl’ (Harris, 2004: 13), relatively unhindered by her difference. As the editors of Talking Up: Young Women’s Take on Feminism (a text itself illustrative of feminism’s heterogeneity) suggest, this discourse raises a number of unsettling questions: ‘What if we can’t do it ourselves? What if I can’t? What if you can’t?’ (Else-Mitchell and Flutter, 1998: xvi). The exclusions of hegemonic feminism in Australia have been highlighted by a number of indigenous critics, and the type of subject upon whom DIY is predicated further substantiates criticism surrounding the whiteness and class privilege of Australian feminism (Moreton-Robinson: 2000). For Wendy Parkins, too, the focus on individualism within ‘popular’ feminist texts such as DIY Feminism, has significant ethical implications; the privileging of individualism represents a failure to acknowledge one’s ethical relation to the Other:

These popular texts share a suspicion of previous forms of organised feminism and advocate a libertarian form of ‘feminism’ in which female autonomy becomes synonymous with individualism. What is strikingly absent from these books is a feminist ethic in which claims to autonomy are considered alongside the claims of the other (Parkins, 1999: 378).

In this sense, DIY is also ‘do-it-for-yourself’, as in alone and not for others (Mitchell, 2000: 72). In thereby promoting a self who is able to ‘do it’, Bail elides obdurate forms of oppression and discrimination encountered by subjects who are inevitably not only gendered but raced, classed and sexed.


As the preceding textual analysis has shown, the self-representational practices (like the political practices) of young feminists markedly vary yet there is a key point of connectivity: their use of the generational frame. Despite this common dependence on the constraining rhetoric of generationalism, Bail and Trioli produce two very different representations of the young women on whose behalf they claim to speak. These books, therefore, demonstrate the impossibility of a unified generation of young feminists pitted against an equally homogenised older generation upon which the mother/daughter paradigm relies. Furthermore, as self-representations by those claiming to speak from within the generation being scrutinised, these books also demonstrate that the young feminist on whom the debate pivoted was not merely an object but an active subject. Although Bail and Trioli in no respect represented the full spectrum of young Australian feminists in the 1990s, their substantial differences signal a little conceded diversity in the way feminism is conceptualised and represented in mainstream discourse. That said, Bail’s and Trioli’s willingness to position themselves as feminist ‘daughters’ within the context of The First Stone media event – itself a condition of their texts’ possibility – also served to mitigate their professed desire for a fuller, more open debate over feminism and its practitioners in the mid-1990s.


1. For an analysis of this ‘media event’ in its entirety, see Taylor, Stones, Ripples, Waves: Refiguring The First Stone Media Event, PhD dissertation, University of New South Wales, 2005. In this work, I argue that this ‘media event’ needs to be critically refigured, seen both in terms of the opportunities and the limitations of the feminism-contemporary media culture nexus.

2. Media attention to Bail and Trioli’s texts largely linked the two texts as representative of young women’s feminism (Martin, 8-9/10/96, The Age, ‘Metro’: 1, Fraser, 7/9/96, The Age, ‘Extra’: 9, Wark, The Australian, 25/9/96: 32), which had come under such scrutiny in the preceding year.

3. The conceptual and ideological limitations of generationalism have been extensively canvassed in academic feminist literature. See Deborah Siegel, 1997, Elspeth Probyn, 1998, Chilla Bulbeck, 2001, Anita Harris, 2001, Jane Long, 2001, Astrid Henry, 2003 & 2004.

4. Indeed, at the time of its publication I was in my early 20s, with feminist politics aligned more strongly with the ‘second-wave’ than those of younger celebrity feminists like Bail, and felt that it [Generation F] spoke to a number of concerns that I had about the discursive construction of the ‘young feminist’ being offered up by Garner and other commentators at this time.

5 Originally this maternal lament appeared in Refractory Girl in 1993 under the title ‘The Future of Feminism: Letter to the Next Generation’ and subsequently as an afterword in the 1994 edition of Damned Whores and God’s Police. Moreover, this letter was rather opportunistically recast ‘Shockwaves at the Revolution’ in 1995 during the media furore following the publication of The First Stone.


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