“Feminism LOL”: VFH Fellow Andrea Press on the Postfeminist Age

Culture & Identity  •  Fellowships

What happens when a university’s first female president and first female rector spar in the “postfeminist” age? That’s what Andrea Press wants to know. The VFH Fellow wrote a few articles this summer on the controversy over the forced resignation and later reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.

Press, a professor of Media Studies and Sociology at U.Va., explores the “gender factor” in the conflict between Sullivan, U.Va.’s first female president, and Helen Dragas, the school’s first female rector. Press argues that the incident was very gendered, despite the fact that media coverage did not portray it along those terms.

UVA President Teresa Sullivan literally “laughs out loud” at an appearance at the Miller Center following her reinstatement. Photo courtesy Miller Center.

In December, Press’ articles “Sex, Gender and the 2012 Struggle over the Presidency of the University of Virginia” and “Faculty Governance Under Siege” will be published in the Yale Journal of Sociology and in Contexts magazine, respectively. While in residence for the fall semester, Press is focusing on her project Feminism LOL: Media Culture & “Feminism on the Ground” in a Postfeminist Age.

“Feminism LOL” was a response to a survey question Press posed to a large group of undergraduates at a state university.  She asked students why their friends refused to use a popular, anonymous online message board, where students post negative and often very derogatory comments about other students. One student’s reasoning—“feminism LOL”—particularly struck Press. This response, Press realized, was representative of the contradictions within feminism today, “identifying feminism as an important social influence and in the same breath ridiculing it as a social joke.”

Through focus groups, surveys, interviews and ethnographic research, Press is examining the responses of media viewers—and media producers—to representations of body image, sexuality, career goals, and reproductive rights.

Press aims to explore gaps in recent academic work about feminism, and specifically, the ways that feminism captures the public imagination. Press assesses the aftermath of the feminist movement, the ways the movement has changed opinions, and the ways that those changes are resisted in our culture. She is interested in how the media influences and shapes the public’s reception of feminism and feminist issues and is examining why women adopt feminist perspectives on certain issues, but then reject the political label of “feminist”.

Why does feminism still matter?

According to Press, feminism is still vitally important because we haven’t solved most of the issues that the second-wave feminist movement identified as issues for women.  Our society is still facing an enormous inequality between men and women, a staggering number of single-parent families headed by women, and the cultural pressure for women to believe that they can “have it all”—a successful, fulfilling career and a flourishing home life.  In her research, Press develops the concept of “feminism on the ground” in order to capture the fact that people often live their lives according to the principles of second-wave feminism while rejecting the feminist politics necessary to tackle these issues in an ongoing, constructive manner.

In addition to the Teresa Sullivan articles and countless others, Press has also published several books dealing with her research on women’s and media issues, including Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience (1991); Speaking of Abortion: Television and Authority in the Lives of Women, cowritten with Elizabeth Cole in 1999; and The New Media Experience, co-written with Bruce Williams in 2010.

Her latest publications are two book chapters containing excerpts from the new book: “Feminism in a Postfeminist World: Who’s Hot—and Why We Care—on the Collegiate “Anonymous Confession Board” (with U.Va. graduate student Francesca Tripodi) in The Routledge Companion to Media and Gender; and “Fractured Feminism: Articulations of Feminism, Sex and Class by Reality TV Viewers” in The Blackwell Companion to Reality TV.

Andrea Press

Andrea Press is professor of Media Studies and Sociology at the University of Virginia and a Fellow at VFH.