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Postmodern feminism is an approach to feminist theory that incorporates postmodern and post-structuralist theory, seeing itself as moving beyond the modernist polarities of liberal feminism and radical feminism.
Postmodern feminism's major departure from other branches of feminism is perhaps the argument that sex, or at least gender, is itself constructed through language, a view notably propounded in Judith Butler's 1990 book, Gender Trouble. She draws on and critiques the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, as well as on Luce Irigaray's argument that what we conventionally regard as 'feminine' is only a reflection of what is constructed as masculine.
Butler criticises the distinction drawn by previous feminisms between (biological) sex and (socially constructed) gender. She asks why we assume that material things (such as the body) are not subject to processes of social construction themselves. Butler argues that this does not allow for a sufficient criticism of essentialism: though recognizing that gender is a social construct, feminists assume it is always constructed in the same way. Her argument implies that women's subordination has no single cause or single solution; postmodern feminism is thus criticized for offering no clear path to action. Butler herself rejects the term "postmodernism" as too vague to be meaningful.
Paula Moya argues that Butler derives this rejection to postmodernism from misreadings of Cherríe Moraga's work. "She reads Moraga's statement that 'the danger lies in ranking the oppressions' to mean that we have no way of adjudicating among different kinds of oppressions—that any attempt to casually relate or hierarchize the varieties of oppressions people suffer constitutes an imperializing, colonizing, or totalizing gesture that renders the effort invalid…thus, although Butler at first appears to have understood the critiques of women who have been historically precluded from occupying the position of the 'subject' of feminism, it becomes clear that their voices have been merely instrumental to her" (Moya, 790) Moya contends that because Butler feels that the varieties of oppressions cannot be summarily ranked, that they cannot be ranked at all; and takes a short-cut by throwing out the idea of not only postmodernism, but women in general.
Although postmodernism resists characterization, it is possible to identify certain themes or orientations that postmodern feminists share. Mary Joe Frug suggested that one "principle" of postmodernism is that human experience is located "inescapably within language". Power is exercised not only through direct coercion, but also through the way in which language shapes and restricts our reality. However, because language is always open to re-interpretation, it can also be used to resist this shaping and restriction, and so is a potentially fruitful site of political struggle.
Frug's second postmodern principle is that sex is not something natural, nor is it something completely determinate and definable. Rather, sex is part of a system of meaning, produced by language. Frug argues that "cultural mechanisms ... encode the female body with meanings", and that these cultural mechanisms then go on explain these meanings "by an appeal to the 'natural' differences between the sexes, differences that the rules themselves help to produce". Rejecting the idea of a natural basis to sexual difference allows us to see that it is always susceptible to new interpretations. Like other systems of meaning, it is less like a cage, and more like a tool: it constrains but never completely determines what one can do with it.
Cixous argued for a new form of writing, writing with the body—a kind of writing rooted not in biology but in linguistic change.
Irigaray considered that "man would search, with nostalgia and repulsion, in woman for his own repressed and uncultivated natural pole"—something which would "prevent woman from truly being an other for him".
Kristeva argued that 'woman' does not exist, but is rather in a state of becoming.
"One of the most appealing aspects of postmodernism to many feminists has been its focus on difference. The notion that women have been created and defined as 'other' by men has long been argued and explored by feminists, most notably Simone de Beauvoir. She challenged male definitions of woman and called on women to define themselves outside the male female dyad. Women, she urged, must be the subject rather than the object (other) of analysis."
Feminist Moya Lloyd adds that a postmodernist feminism "does not necessarily represent a post-feminism, but alternatively, can affirm feminist politics in their plural, multivocal, fluid, oft-changing hue"
Post-structuralism is defined in the Penguin Reference, Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, as "... a more rigorous working out of the possibilities, implications and shortcomings of structuralism and its basis to Saussurean linguistics itself... . Post-structuralism doubts the adequacy of structuralism and, as far as literature is concerned, tends to reveal that the meaning of any text is, of its nature, unstable. It reveals that signification is, of its nature, unstable."
"Post-structuralism, pursues further the Saussurean perception that in language there are only differences without positive terms and shows that the signifier and signified are, as it were, not only oppositional, but plural, pulling against each other, and, by so doing, creating numerous deferments of meaning, apparently endless criss-crossing patterns in sequences of meaning. In short, what are called 'disseminations.'"
Gloria Steinem has criticized feminist theory, and especially postmodernist feminist theory, as being overly academic, "I always wanted to put a sign up on the road to Yale saying, 'Beware: Deconstruction Ahead'. Academics are forced to write in language no one can understand so that they get tenure. They have to say 'discourse', not 'talk'. Knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful. It becomes aerialised."