Media @ McGill

Andrea Braithwaite: Female Dicks, Male Tricks, and Popular Feminisms

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In my dissertation I critically assess a body of popular fiction and television narratives featuring a protagonist I have dubbed the “chick dick.”  The chick dick is a hybrid character that adapts elements from the hardboiled detective and the ‘chick lit’ romance heroine: she is a young, urban, single, childless amateur sleuth. This group of texts displays consistent and political concerns: chicks who solve crimes repeatedly engage with the gendered power dynamics made visible and problematic through the intersection of ‘chick’ and crime genres, most particularly the sexualization of violence. Her investigations raise questions about how young women live, work, date, and study within the condition some critics call postfeminism. One of the key forces at play in contemporary mediations of femininity and feminism, postfeminism suggests that feminism has successfully lobbied for female freedom and equality, and is now largely irrelevant.

In this project I closely read a range of chick dick texts, paying attention to how this character mobilizes and manipulates discourses about young women and feminism. I contend that chick dick stories offer their audience a discourse on female identity, sexuality, and subjectivity that differs from those most often found in contemporary media. I see these narratives as ‘speaking feminism’ in a context that insists such a perspective is no longer necessary. These texts present women’s lived experiences as crime stories, suggesting that the contemporary cultural context in which women are systemically devalued on the basis of their sex results in an unacceptable risk of (literal and symbolic) sexual and sexualized violence. Detection becomes a form of feminist inquiry and praxis, in a political environment that exhaustively encourages, commodifies, sexualizes, and vilifies female agency. Media is central to this process, as popular texts bring ideas into public culture, becoming a resource for talking about young women and feminism. At the intersection of the popular and the political, chick dick narratives engage with public discussions about young womanhood, particularly conflicts innate to education, employment, sexualized violence, family and romance. My work thus situates these texts as sites where postfeminist claims about – and erasures of – feminism’s relevance are contested.

My first chapter attends to questions of gender and genre, and I tease out sexualized violence and the commodification of ‘choice’ as core themes through which the chick dick examines rather than just exists within postfeminism. Chick dick narratives turn these tropes into sites for debate; they trouble postfeminist uses of ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ by employing and performing gender as a weapon, making it both the subject and object of their investigations.  

In Chapter Two I investigate the spatialization of postfeminist gender politics. During their investigations, chick dicks move through spaces gendered by rhetorics of fear and risk.  The construction of dangerous places relies on patriarchal perceptions of women’s bodies, capacities, and abilities, and functions as a form of ‘management’ of disruptive or disorderly gender identities. Chick dick stories depict spaces differently.  Instead of geographies of fear (descriptions of the dangers that await women in particular places), chick dicks’ investigations sketch out a terrain in which sexualized violence occurs not in certain spaces to women, but rather to women in multiple spaces – across broader geographies of sexualized violence.

In my third chapter I argue that representations of men are a key, and often overlooked, means for post-ing feminism. I situate masculinities as social constructions, deployable concepts that display and dramatize contemporary gender relations.  When exploring how these stories tap into the popular sentiment of a ‘crisis in masculinity,’ I also attend to how they mobilize a rhetoric of victimization. This strategy highlights the spaces and places in which masculinities are made vulnerable at the same time as it offers simplistic and individualized explanations for systemic sexualized violence.    

My fourth chapter will look at how biological sex and sexual intercourse are depicted as problems in young women’s lives. I will show how chick dick stories scrutinize sex – in both senses – as an investigative strategy, and how sex becomes an instrument of truth-telling for the politics of gender identities. Chick dicks’ reliance on and inversions of traditionally female realms and tactics expose the spurious distinction between public and private spheres and selves, while the suspicions the chick dick voices about (heterosexual) monogamy both build upon and resist postfeminist scripts about female sexuality and desire. Chick dick narratives conjoin sex and labour to insist upon the continued existence of gendered power structures across women’s private and professional relationships.    

The conclusion will pinpoint spaces in which the chick dick does not appear, and suggest possible explanations for this absence. In contrast to the book industry’s ability to profit from small niche markets, I will use the short-lived television series Honey West (ABC, 1966) to talk about why the chick dick has only recently – and briefly – become a commercially viable television figure (e.g. the success of Veronica Mars, UPN 2004-2007), emphasizing the confluence of generic, industrial, and cultural factors that surround both series. Surprisingly, the chick dick has yet to become a film phenomenon; I will address this absence by discussing the discursive conventions that govern mainstream film’s representations of authoritative action females, and how the chick dick often contravenes these codes. This chapter will demonstrate that while a postfeminist media and cultural environment has conditioned and enabled the chick dick’s existence, it cannot fully explain why this character succeeds in some places and not others.

Pinpointing which media the chick dick appears in also tells us about the ways some media forms can speak feminism more easily than others.  This chapter will suggest that chick dick texts can enable us to better comprehend the links between certain industrialized media forms and the social criticisms they are capable of expressing. By broadening and revising the popular use of generic resources, chick dick narratives significantly contribute to our understanding of the roles popular media play in making public and repoliticizing gendered experiences of violence, sexuality, and identity.