Although there is not absolute consensus, popular writings about feminism suggest that there have been three waves of feminism: (1) The first wave of feminism is said to have occurred in the 18th through the 20th centuries and was characterized by a focus on suffrage; (2) The decades spanning 1960 to 1990 are said to encompass the second wave of feminism, to which a concern with cultural and legal gender inequality is attributed; and (3) The third wave of feminism began in the early 1990s partly in response to the conservative backlash the second wave engendered, and partly in recognition of the unrealized goals of the second wave of feminism up to that time ("NOW," 2009). This third wave of feminism made salient a more subjective voice that pointed at the intersection of race and gender with greater resolve than would have been possible when civil rights issues garnered the lions' share of public attention.
Given this perspective, one is led to believe that feminism is no longer an active issue -- that the goals women sought to attain were fundamentally accomplished through each subsequent wave of feminism, each building on the other ("NOW," 2009). . The bald-faced reality, however, is that the Equal Rights Amendment has not attained ("NOW," 2009). Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress in 1923 ("NOW," 2009). It innocuously proposed that: Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction [and that] Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation ("NOW," 2009). The Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1923 ("NOW," 2009). In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed but not ratified by the 38 states necessary to meet the deadline in July 1982 ("NOW," 2009).
On January 29, 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law, effectively ensuring that claims for wage discrimination can be filled within 180 days of receiving a paycheck, and amending a prior Supreme Court decision by enabling the clock to reset at 180 for each issued paycheck ("NOW," 2009). The point is that equality for women in America continues to be undermined, sometimes blatantly and sometimes through skillful obfuscation.
Does Media Mirror or Project Society?
A substantial force undergirding unequal treatment of women is the portrayal of women in the media. Permitting an essentialist perspective for the sake of argument, a more activist -- and, yes, militant -- feminist population would tolerate less sexist slurring that is common in the media than the current generation of women. Dow (2003) suggests that the film The Stepford Wives, which was released in 1975, "both contributed to and drew from popular notions of the purpose and meaning of second wave feminist ideology and practices" (p. 128). Walters (1995), speaking from a period when the backlash against feminism was overt, argued that media texts of thirtysomething, Pretty Woman, Baby Boom, and Working Girl provide "representations that have the veneer of feminism but are actually encoding reactionary ideas about women and women's lives" (p. 134). How is it that the images of women portrayed in the media become more real to media viewers and influential than woman themselves do?
Media viewers appear to absorb the inherent biases about women that are characterized in television and film, such that, their emotional responses and ever-ready rhetoric seem to accept the imagery without hesitation. Walters (1995) offers one explanation. According to Walters, a "signification paradigm" exists in which researchers grounded in semiotics argue that "the entire cultural notion of 'woman' is itself constructed in and through images rather than somehow 'residing' in the images themselves" (p. 48). This sort of transformation suggests that media projects its constructed imagery of women rather than mirroring what exists.
Kate Engelbrecht, a photographer living in New York City, grew curious about the characterization of teenage girls on shows like Gossip Girl, 90210, and 16 and Pregnant. The contrast between her memories of her own growing up years and these media portrayals were simply too divergent. In 2007, Engelbrecht sent disposable Kodak camera and questionnaires to 5,000 American girls between the ages of 13 and 18 years. Engelbrecht wrote a book titled Please Read (if at all possible): The Girl Project revealing photographs and handwritten passages from the girls who participated. Englebrecht's conclusion: "They're innocent in a real and beautiful way. These girls are not any different than girls were 20 years ago or 30 years ago -- and, probably for that matter, 80 years ago."
Media entertainment has found its mark -- the lowest common denominator, or a form of entertainment that is referred to as "reality TV." In light of analyses like that conducted by Engelbrecht in her The Girl Project, the question begs, whose reality? It is readily clear to any viewer of reality television that the conflict and violence are deliberately escalated by the show staff. As with any media broadcast, the purpose is to increase viewership. According to Carbone, who runs the spoiler site Realitysteve.com, "There's over 100 (reality shows) with all of the cable programs. You almost have to outdo the others to get noticed." With the reality television competition squarely focused on ever newer and ever more shocking interactions and situations, aggression in these shows has increased. A 2010 study at Brigham Young University published reported that "reality-television programs contained high levels of verbal and relational aggression, but almost no physical violence. Such 'meanness' is so frequent, that it is almost expected in reality programs" (Goldberg, 2012). Commercials such as the Dr. Pepper Ten: It's Not for Women and ABC's television show Work It -- cancelled after two seasons -- perpetuate gender-based stereotypes.
Post-Feminism ala Martha Stewart
Conservative women have eroded feminist principles by portraying them -- in the style of Phillips Schafly -- as threats to the special rights of women. Foremost in the conservative position are the arguments against women in combat, reproductive rights, abortion, stem-cell research, and legislation that is portrayed as having the potential to break the backs of business by requiring costly supports to women -- such as equal pay, family leave, and other family-friendly, single-mother-friendly policies. From this milieu, a movement known as neodomesticity arose.
As a movement neodomesticity is as determined to mediate the image of women as are reality television shows, albeit for the purpose of adding to its ideological roots as opposed to television broadcast ratings. "Neodomestic texts evoke the myth, the icon, and the fantasy figure of the 'housewife' in order to undermine feminist values, and erect in their place, thinly-veiled in the guise of post-feminism, a pervasive contempt for the adult, independent, working woman" (Wright, 2007, p. 45).
These neodomestic texts are not the only spin-offs from the eddy currents of fomenting anti-feminists. Young women are challenged to find a position that feels like a fit, enabling them to move forward on the platform built by the second wave. An aspect of this younged-down brand of feminism is the focus on being sexually empowered, but the articulation between feminine and feminist is awkward. Some consensus seems to have formed that permits young women to embrace the iconic sexual imagery older feminists rejected with a complete lack of irony. Popular clubby environments seem to require women to project not only a perfect image, but an exceedingly sexy image -- and the proponents of this lifestyle argue that it is the ultimate in feminist behavior. The notion is that in this post-feminist environment, women can focus on something other than equality, the latter having been achieved by the second wave of feminists.
Angela McRobbie, who is known for her examination of the relationship between modern women's magazines and contemporary women, argues that this post-feminist attitude is unequivocally portrayed in television shows such as Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones' Diary, and Sex and the City. The argument that this is feminist media is undermined by the fact that the protagonists in these shows, such as Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones, many not be as liberated as they claim -- despite the fact that they enjoy their sexuality -- because they seem to be continually seeking Mr. Right. Regardless, McRobbie asks fair questions. If the print, film, and television can use one brand of feminist argument that the goal is to be confident, assertive, and sexually true to one's own self -- demanding rights, pleasures, and respect -- how can this contemporized view of feminism be reconciled with the more radical feminist perspective?
Feminist: The Paradoxical Label
Goudreau (2011) argues that so many images of feminism exist in popular culture and in the media that it is not a simple matter to describe oneself as a feminist -- everyone has their own definition. Goudreau (2011) emphasized the inherent tensions in the label, saying that "At times I am concerned, hurt and even angry that if I feel pressured to bury my alliance, how many others are omitting the…