How to Survive the Postfeminist Impasse

Grace Helbig’s Affective Aesthetics

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 Manchester Metropolitan University C.McDermott@mmu.ac.uk

Abstract

An emerging genre across literature, screen, and digital media is beginning to articulate profound dissatisfaction with postfeminist social norms and scripts. In this article, I explore how American comedian Grace Helbig exploits and reworks classic postfeminist self-improvement genres through her parodying of the YouTube how-to video. Using Helbig’s video as an illustrative case study, my analysis demonstrates that affect theory has the capacity to make a vital contribution to current postfeminist debates. Recent research finds postfeminist analysis lacks the facility to fully comprehend the complexity of contemporary femininities, suggesting that postfeminist media studies as a genre of scholarship has reached a critical impasse. Drawing on Lauren Berlant’s (2008, 2011, 2015) work, I examine how Helbig affectively deflates popular postfeminist fantasies of fun-loving confident girlhood. More widely, I argue that affective approaches offer feminist scholars a dynamic framework to make sense of the continuing impact and legacies of postfeminist media culture.

Designating herself “the internet’s awkward older sister” (Zinoman 2014: n.p.), Grace Helbig’s performative self-representation merges a DIY aesthetic of authenticity with the perception of immediacy and spontaneity afforded by the YouTube platform, establishing an inclusive digital space accessed by the millions of teenage girls and young women of whom her core audience is comprised. In this article, I examine one of Helbig’s videos in which she reflects on her own girlhood experience of learning to shave for the first time, situating herself in the quasi-mentorship role of an older sibling figure for her younger viewers. I use Helbig’s work as an example of girls’ media that draws on the author’s nostalgia to reconstruct practices of becoming a girl. Furthermore, I use Helbig’s work as an illustrative case study to demonstrate the capacity of affect theory to make a much-needed intervention in current postfeminist debates. Specifically, I argue that the work of cultural theorist Lauren Berlant (2008, 2011, 2015) offers a dynamic framework in which to explore the impact that postfeminist discourses continue to have in our contemporary moment. To this end, I use several aspects of Berlant’s work to examine Helbig’s reworking of the YouTube tutorial, or how-to video, and explore how she affectively deflates the fantasy of fun-loving confident femininity constructed by postfeminist genres. Through an analysis of Helbig’s affective aesthetics, I explore the ways in which how-to videos instruct their audience not simply about what to wear, eat, or how to apply eyeliner perfectly, but also how to both be and become a girl.

Postfeminist Impasse

The often-cited complex history of postfeminism in academic discourse has given way largely to an understanding of it as both a “double entanglement” (McRobbie 2008: 6) and a “distinctive sensibility” (Gill 2007: 147). Angela McRobbie theorises that by “taking feminism into account” (2008: 16), popular media constructs feminism as having completed its duty of securing liberation and equality for women and is therefore no longer required. In the postfeminist paradigm, feminism consequently becomes understood as a burdensome legacy from which women can cut loose gratefully to enjoy the benefits of having it all. Along similar lines, Rosalind Gill argues there are several “interrelated themes” (2007: 147) characterizing postfeminism, including the depoliticization of feminism, hypersexuality, associating femininity primarily with the body, and a notion of the self as a never-ending project. I consider these themes as generic elements of postfeminism, spanning multiple genres like the makeover, chick lit, and romantic comedies, as well as confessional Oprah-style talk shows that encourage women to be perpetually on the lookout for methods of self-improvement. Over the last decade or so, a vast archive of interrogations of the diversity of cultural manifestations of postfeminism (Gwynne and Muller 2013; Negra and Tasker 2007; Projansky 2001) has been amassed. I am indebted to their insights, but it has become apparent that a shift in approach is required.

The value of postfeminism as a critical term has come into question from scholars who declare either their “frustration … boredom and ennui” (Whelehan 2010: 159) or claim that postfeminism is “potentially redundant” (Retallack et al. 2016: 88) because a new fourth-wave feminism has since displaced it. Regarding the potential redundancy of postfeminist scholarship, following Gill (2016), I would argue that while focusing on emergent feminist political activism is a vital line of investigation, the existence of feminism has never precluded the circulation of anti- or postfeminist ideas and modes of cultural production. However, Imelda Whelehan’s complaint that “postfeminism can be boring and frustrating to analyze because its message requires little unpacking and lies prominently on the surface of these narratives” (2010: 159) rings true and is more difficult to dismiss. Similarly, Jessalynn Keller and Maureen Ryan (2014) argue that postfeminist analysis “falls short” and cannot account for the “complicated politics” (cited in Gill 2016: 613) of our contemporary moment. I would agree that the results of this kind of analysis often appear predetermined, and that persisting in simply labelling cultural texts as postfeminist (or not) has become a reductive critical practice. The growing frustration expressed by postfeminist media scholars is indicative of what Berlant terms an “impasse,” described as a cul- de-sac in which “one keeps moving, but one moves paradoxically, in the same space” (2011: 199 italics in original). There is a sense from scholars like Whelehan (2010), and Keller and Ryan (2014) that although analyses of postfeminist culture continue to proliferate, the discussion itself appears to have stalled. Hence my proposition that postfeminist media studies as a genre of scholarship has reached a critical impasse.

Unquestionably, postfeminist media scholarship is invaluable when it comes to understanding the cultural climate in which a comedian like Grace Helbig has emerged, as well as the pre-existing media archive available to her. However, these debates do not prove as conducive to understanding the contradictions and ambivalences that are inherent in women’s and girls’ complex relationships to postfeminist culture. Equally, just as scholars are critically frustrated by the term postfeminism, a growing number of texts across literature, screen, and digital media are beginning to express a dissatisfaction with postfeminist “happiness scripts” (Ahmed 2010: 59).1 For instance, I argue elsewhere (McDermott 2017) that the television series Girls (20122017) is characterized by postfeminist impasse, produced by the “disparity between the postfeminist promise of personal and professional fulfilment and its lived reality” (51). Girls belongs to an emerging genre exploring how faith in postfeminism can develop into a harmful attachment. As Berlant explains, a “relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire functions as an obstacle to your flourishing” (2011: 1).2 Through the lens of cruel optimism, we can understand how postfeminist ways of living appear to offer women and girls a route toward a happy so-called good life, yet also impede the realization of that very same fantasy of fulfilment (Berlant 2011). Berlant’s work in particular, and affect theory more widely, offer feminist scholars an expansive vocabulary to make sense of the continuing impact and legacies of postfeminist culture, as well as produce a more nuanced account of contemporary feminine subjectivities.

Affective approaches have become increasingly important to feminist research methodologies. Indeed, the “affective turn” (Clough 2007: 2), or a shift toward exploring emotions, moods, and feelings has gained significant currency in feminist cultural studies and queer theory. In terms of postfeminist scholarship, Gill (2007) notes that media constructions of the “empowered female subject” often feature women who are “simply following their own desires to ‘feel good’” (153-154). This understanding of empowerment as an individualized feeling of emancipation establishes a clear precedent for comprehending and articulating postfeminism on an affective level. Moreover, as Gill (2016) argues in her defence of postfeminist scholarship, “it should not be the only term in our critical lexicon, but it does still have something to offer” (612). For me, that something crystallizes when I am exploring the impact of postfeminism through the lens of affect theory, a discipline with the capacity to shed new light on postfeminist media studies. I will therefore highlight several ways in which Berlant’s work proves useful in exploring and understanding Helbig’s digital practice.

My analysis of girls’ contemporary media culture does not strive to uncover secretly subversive qualities of texts, nor, equally, to condemn works for ascribing to ideologies such as postfeminism. Instead, I argue that an affective approach is key to understanding how performances like Helbig’s work both with and against postfeminist cultural norms. For instance, Berlant’s coinage of the term “juxtapolitical” (2008: 10) opens up discussion beyond dualistic feminist/postfeminist categorizations. Similarly, I explore Helbig’s use of what Berlant calls “flat affect” (2015: 193) and the ways in which Helbig’s style of comedy registers an affective disillusionment with postfeminism. My intent is not to reject postfeminist criticism, but, rather, to propose affect theory as a useful way of extending or adapting existing approaches. I argue that postfeminist criticism is at an impasse in order to highlight that my interest lies not in identifying whether and in what ways a cultural work can be labelled postfeminist, but, rather, in asking what media texts communicate about how postfeminism feels.

Juxtapolitical Self-representation

In this article, I explore how Helbig’s self-representative digital practice expresses discontent with postfeminist cultural ideals. As Berlant (2008) observes, “people’s ‘interests’ are less in changing the world than in not being defeated by it” (27). In this way, Helbig’s practice is not characterized by overtly political subversion or resistance to postfeminist norms. Through parody, her videos reveal the absurdity of postfeminist self-improvement and self-maintenance. While not instructing her audience in how to change the world, Helbig instead provides a valuable guide for surviving postfeminist culture and its damaging effects on feminine subjectivity. As noted above, Berlant calls this type of engagement “juxtapolitical” (2008: 10); it operates alongside but is not itself concerned with politics. I analyze Helbig’s selfrepresentation as a cultural practice residing near to and responding to postfeminism, without itself being overtly political. I also consider, as Amy Shields Dobson (2015) does, that juxtapolitical self-representations are “politically significant in what they reveal about the quest to get by, to survive, and to not be defeated in/by postfeminist neoliberal Western societies” (5 emphasis in original).

Helbig began creating online content in 2007 and is now working primarily through the YouTube platform. Although not her sole focus, Helbig’s penchant for instructional genres has been evident from very early in her career. What began as a hobby—filming daily video diaries and posting them online—eventually became Helbig’s full-time career as a YouTube personality as her fan base gradually increased. The popularity of her YouTube channel it’sGrace (currently graciehinabox) created opportunities for Helbig across a variety of media. For example, she hosted the E! network television comedy talk show The Grace Helbig Show (2015) and also published comedic handbooks, Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-up (2014) and Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It (2016). These titles highlight an investment in parodying and/or subverting typical how-to genres. More importantly, they situate Helbig’s oeuvre in a particular context. Her books offer tongue-in-cheek guidance to adulthood and femininity in our contemporary moment, with the term pretending emphasizing the performative qualities of how-to adult and, more specifically, how-to girl.3

How-to Girl

I am interested in the tutorial or how-to genre of bodily self-maintenance as an example of how Helbig appropriates generic conventions as a method of navigating postfeminist culture and its normative messages regarding femininity, girlhood, and coming of age. YouTube is home to a plethora of howto videos. Regardless of subject matter, they are generally characterized as educational and informative, offering demonstrations or step-by-step directions through the tutorial format.

Significantly, there is a markedly gendered subgenre of digital cultural production seen in the rise of entrepreneurial fashion and beauty bloggers. Research typically contextualizes these traditionally feminine forms of social media entrepreneurship in a postfeminist framework that recognizes how the cultural and economic edicts of neoliberal capitalism have shaped creative work and digital media (Banet-Weiser 2017; Duffy 2016; Duffy and Hund 2015; Shields Dobson 2015). For instance, Sarah Banet-Weiser (2017) describes how fashion and beauty vloggers typically

instruct viewers how to construct a hyper-feminine aesthetic, through the application of make-up, honing the body, buying the proper clothes, and so on. These cultural productions involve labour that produces one’s body as conventionally feminine, and the producers in turn guide viewers on how to deploy the same kind of labour on their own bodies.

(272)
In particular, the popularity of fashion and beauty bloggers emerges from an onslaught of conventional media instruction designed to teach girls and women how to improve themselves, from fashion magazines to makeover reality series. This in turn arises from a wider how-to culture surrounding femininity. As Michelle M. Lazar (2011) observes, “in many societies, ‘doing’ beauty is a vital component of ‘doing’ femininity … and working towards achieving those conventional standards [is] an accepted (and expected) part of what women do by virtue of being ‘women’” (37).
I analyze two videos that address girls through the voice of an older sister figure whose lived experience assists the younger girl to navigate the practice of hair removal, a practice linked to the transition from girlhood to womanhood. A clear distinction between two generations is implied here—the woman who has traversed this rite of passage, and the girl who must learn how to become a woman. However, when we are considering the ways in which girls and women learn how to do femininity, it is important to note that postfeminist culture has effectively collapsed and redefined the relationship between femininity and age (Gwynne 2016; Handyside 2015). As Sarah Projansky (2007) argues, the figure of the girl has resonance in postfeminist culture.

Girlness—particularly adolescent girlness—epitomizes postfeminism. If the postfeminist woman is always in process, always using the freedom and equality handed to her by feminism in pursuit of having it all … but never quite managing to reach full adulthood, to fully have it all, one could say that the postfeminist woman is quintessentially adolescent … no matter what her age.

(45)
Like Projansky, Fiona Handyside (2015) considers “the girl coming of age” to be “a representative figure of postfeminist values and their impact upon the individual female identified subject more generally” (4). Therefore, I argue that girling practices are relevant to female subjects regardless of age, as postfeminist cultural norms dictate, not that girls learn how to become women, but that both women and girls learn how-to girl.

Beauty vlogs typically include product reviews, personal stories, and tutorials, although these categories tend to overlap in a single video. Banet-Weiser (2017) argues that “beauty vlogging is invested in perpetuating a conventional understanding of beauty and femininity through instruction, where disciplined citizens teach others how to become similarly empowered, visually appealing feminine subjects” (272). From video titles like “How to Dress for a Date” or “Healthy Eating and Recipes,” Helbig at first appears to aspire toward the instructive self-improvement found in classic postfeminist genres like the makeover. A newcomer unfamiliar with Helbig’s style of comedy might anticipate gaining some form of educational value from the video. Instead, Helbig exploits the generic elements of postfeminism, such as instruction and the first-time narrative, for comic effect. A close reading of one video in particular will illuminate Helbig’s approach to appropriating and repurposing postfeminist genres.

Published on YouTube in May 2012, “How to: Shave Your Legs” is typical of Helbig’s style in merging an absurd or juvenile style of comedy with the sarcastic cynicism for which she has become famous. I compare Helbig’s parody to a video posted on Gillette’s YouTube channel, titled “How to Shave Your Legs with Gillette Venus | Shaving Tips” (2014). Both videos have a comparable reach in terms of viewership, with Helbig reaching an audience of 1.3m and Gillette’s video gaining 1.6m views. It is important to note that Helbig’s is not a direct parody of the Gillette video, which I use as an illustrative example of the postfeminist how-to genre of selfimprovement. Each video is structured similarly; each features a narrative preamble in which the presenter describes her first shaving experience, followed by a step-by-step guide. However, they diverge in their aesthetic, tone, the method and purpose of their narration, and, most importantly for my analysis, in the affect produced by each video, which in turn shapes the types of girlhood they re/construct.

Authentic Girlhood

Neoliberal entrepreneurialism is intimately connected with notions of the authentic. Nancy Thumim (2012) suggests that “what is always striking about self-representations is the ‘amateur aesthetic’ on which they rely, and which invokes both celebration and derision. Perhaps the amateur is always linked to the idea of authenticity, and both with the genre of self-representation” (162). The amateur, or DIY aesthetic, is prized by YouTube communities precisely because it has become linked to truth telling and authenticity in this way. According to Banet-Weiser (2012), authenticity, based on traditional notions of transparency and sincerity, is perceived as “residing inside the self but also is demonstrated by allowing the outside world to access one’s inner self” (60). The amateur aesthetic is crucial to Helbig’s construction of herself as someone able to tell the truth (or a truth) about girlhood coming-of-age in a way that the Gillette ad cannot even as it tries to establish a similar forum of intimacy with its audience by engaging the confessional mode.

Several elements construct Helbig within the mode of authentic girlhood and femininity. Compositionally, the awkward angle of the video (shot primarily in a single static frame, following YouTube convention) and Hel- big’s position within the frame emphasises the cramped space, constructing her as someone who does not care too much about her appearance (in itself a prized postfeminist attribute).4 The video offers a glimpse of her supposedly real living conditions, creating the impression that Helbig is comfortable with herself; she does not need to construct the video carefully. Rather, she appears to offer viewers access to who she really is. Unlike Helbig’s video, that offers her audience access to her living space, and her interiority, the Gillette video is clearly scripted and most likely set in a hotel room. A polished and professional style characterizes the Gillette video, which hybridizes the traditional advertisement with the YouTube how-to.5 The ad is brightly lit with an upbeat score matching the cheerful smile of the actor playing Victoria, the presenter. Colourful and positive, the video presents an aspirational image of a much more sophisticated bathroom than Helbig’s, without crossing the line into ostentation that might be associated with upper-class unattainability. The aspiration is, of course, not only in relation to the space itself, but to the imaginary of an attainable feminine perfection. The initial shot of the bathroom includes everyday items like a toothbrush and hairdryer; it situates shaving in the context of an ordinary hygienic routine, which in turn both normalizes and normativizes hair removal as an essential feminine practice. By contrast, Helbig tilts the camera upwards, revealing a hole in the ceiling, thus placing her aesthetic labour in the context of household repairs and maintenance—something necessary perhaps, but a chore nonetheless.

Helbig’s deployment of the first-time trope is linked closely to the coming-of-age narrative and is about both the learning process itself, and the role it plays in the transition from girlhood to adulthood. In both videos, hair removal signifies the coming-of-age process, a rite of passage indicating maturity, despite, as Marika Tiggemann and Sarah J. Kenyon (1998) point out, this being “an artifactual link which has been societally constructed, for biologically mature female sexuality is in fact linked to the presence of body hair” (883). Helbig begins by reflecting on the first time she learned to shave, describing the experience of asking her mother for guidance. The narrative draws on the confessional mode, typically designed to elicit a sense of tell- all intimacy. Helbig (2012) describes how, following her mother’s instruction, she used a hair removal lotion, which purports to “magically dissolve the hair” but that, “surprise, Nair is terrible, horrible, it gave me rashes all over my legs.” Here, Helbig not only points out sarcastically the discrepancy between the product’s promise and its material reality, but through commentary like “I don’t feel like a fun girl that just wants to flounce around the outside of a pool” she constructs the entire feminine fantasy of pleasure achieved through bodily self-maintenance as a lie, something falling far short of expectation.

By contrast, the Gillette video (2014) offers a conventional narrative in which, of course, hair removal does produce the expected results. Similar to Helbig’s opening gambit, an instructive mother figure is invoked as Victoria describes a summer vacation with her family that preceded her transition to high school. In this way, the video links the training in femininity to a more traditional educational rite of passage. Both signify the beginnings of the coming-of-age process in which girls learn, through performing conventional femininity, how to “navigate a path to an adult maturity that is primarily represented by social conformity” (Grant and Waxman 2011: 3).

Whereas Gillette’s fictional mother manages to smooth over this educational transition, helping Victoria to “go to the beach the next day rocking [her] new bikini with confidence,” Helbig’s mother does not manage to reproduce the same fantasy of fun and confident femininity presumed to result from shaving; her help is not as helpful. Notice the strikingly similar dialogue, used to very different ends: Helbig’s fantasy of feeling like a “fun girl” is deflated, whereas the Gillette video uses the tell-all to construct the sense of confident self-assurance Victoria derives from shaving, promoting a girlhood imaginary founded on fun-loving summer days at the beach. Helbig’s how-to constructs a similar form of intimacy with her audience, but does so to precisely the opposite effect; she suggests that hair removal is in fact unlikely to deliver happiness or confidence.

In offering their advice (however facetiously in Helbig’s case), both Helbig and Victoria also construct themselves in the maternal role in relation to their audience. Such fluid shifts between the maternal and the sisterly, in addition to summoning their girlhood selves, work to further demonstrate the flexibility of feminine subject positions. In taking up the role of the mother, both videos construct a sense of “the ‘natural’ knowledge of the family and the mother,” which Nikolas Rose (1996: 28) describes as one of the essential components of non-political authority and expertise. Gillette’s fictional mother correctly teaches her daughter how to preserve her femininity in a way that suggests a seamless continuity of inherited knowledge passed down through generations, but Helbig’s mother fails to instruct her daughter correctly, and the smooth lineage of intergenerational feminine education is interrupted. Helbig, therefore, points to the discovery at an early age that generic contracts are fragile, their promises easily broken. A disconnect arises between the message from Helbig’s mother and the reality of her own corporeal femininity, resulting in the painful rift that many girls experience in their efforts to live up to the imperative ideals of grown-up womanhood. Furthermore, Helbig’s role as educator is both disrupted and reworked: it is clear that the knowledge she passes down is unlikely to instruct her audience in how to produce themselves as postfeminist subjects. However, that is not to assume that there is no pedagogical value at all. In fact, what Helbig exposes is the labour that goes into producing this specific kind of conventional femininity, in addition to constructing this labour as an everyday irritation, a hassle, simply another imperative placed on women, rather than an enjoyment-producing activity.

Affective Disalignment

An affective approach proves critical in perceiving a register of disappointment in postfeminism. Each video uses postfeminist generic elements, namely, the practice of shaving (associating femininity with the body), and the subsequent implication that female bodies require continual maintenance (self-as-project). In focusing solely on such conventions, it becomes easy to read Helbig’s video as a straightforward example of postfeminist culture whereas, examining affective aesthetics illuminates the crucial distinction between complying with the material practices of an ideology like postfeminism, and performing the associated emotional component. Typically, postfeminist discourses construct material practices, social inclusion, and personal fulfilment in harmony. For example, in Gillette’s video, shaving enables Victoria to visit the beach feeling confident and ready for fun. Helbig’s video, however, articulates a fundamental division between social acceptance and personal fulfilment; her performance of idealised femininity might secure the former, though patently not the latter. Instead, what Helbig’s video illustrates is an affective disalignment with postfeminist norms.

The affective shift from fun and confident femininity to feelings of irritation, boredom, or a sense of obligation, is primarily achieved through Helbig’s use of deadpan. While her work is not entirely characterized by a deadpan aesthetic, she does draw on what Berlant (2015) terms a “recessive action that appear[s] in styles of underperformed emotion, flat affect, or diffused yet animated gesture (193).” The opening shot of each video features centre-screen close-ups where facial expression (along with verbal delivery) immediately highlight the contrast between Helbig’s straight-faced deadpan expression and Victoria’s wide beaming smile. Berlant defines flat affect as a “recession from melodramatic norms” (193) that demand that emotion be performed with overt intensity. Importantly, flat affect is not characterized as a refusal or withholding of emotion per se. Rather, it signals a refusal to perform certain types of emotions demanded by dominant affective structures (see, too, Holm 2017). Helbig’s unsmiling face registers as precisely this type of refusal: while postfeminist discourses instruct girls to enjoy both the activity itself and the social rewards of shaving, Helbig remains unmoved. Nicholas Holm (2017) defines deadpan in its broadest sense as “a particular style of comic acting in which humorous content is performed with a blank face and an unenthusiastic demeanour” (104). He explains that deadpan “introduces a fissure between the material and the means of presenting it, so that the performance seems to work against—or at least not with—the comic grain of the underlying content” (105). Along similar lines, Helbig’s use of deadpan divides the material content of the video (shaving demonstration) with the means of presentation (affective displeasure) for comic effect. Helbig’s comic style is characterized by the interplay between her exaggerated delivery and an underperformed deadpan aesthetic. Observing how and when Helbig deploys flatness is important since it signals an affective shift, not only within the video itself, but also in regard to a broader sense of dissatisfaction with postfeminist conventions. This is indicative of a wider trend, as discussed earlier, in which cultural producers across various genres and mediums are becoming increasingly alert to the negative consequences of following postfeminist ways of living.

Throughout the demonstration, Helbig shifts tonally between an underperformed cynicism and farcical exaggeration. For example, early in the video, she speaks rapidly, moving energetically within the frame as she explains that a Tumblr user requested a tutorial demonstrating how to shave her legs. Her cadence slows, tone and facial expression flattening out as she says, “so I’m going to teach you how to do that.” What this suggests is that although Helbig will comply (with the appeal to create the video, and with the dominant beauty norms that prompted the request), she deliberately signals her affective displeasure as she does so. Her deadpan/flat affect, therefore, registers a refusal of the positive affect associated with postfeminist beauty norms. Similarly, at each stage of instruction, Helbig repeats, in monotone, “Ow. Ow. Ow.” Her hyperbolic expression of pain details perhaps not actual physical agony, yet nonetheless affectively conveys her discontent. While her verbal and physical performance is exaggerated, her tone and facial expression remain (for the most part) flat. Helbig’s video, then, works “against—or at least not with—” (Holm 2017: 105) the dominant cultural postfeminist norms that dictate not only what girls should do (remove their body hair) but how they ought to feel about it (confident, empowered, fun-loving). In this way, Helbig complies with the material demands of postfeminist aesthetic labour yet rejects the associated positive emotion.

Helbig’s flattened deadpan and distinct lack of enthusiasm expresses the incongruity between the affects demanded as a subjective performance (Victoria’s beaming smile and cheerful demeanour) and those generated in real-life feminine subjects. Importantly, Helbig acknowledges the fantasy of perfectly groomed fun-loving femininity as a genuine imperative most western girls are likely to encounter from a young age. Unlike Victoria, who says, “Actually, it’s totally up to you to decide when, and even if you want to in the first place,” Helbig tacitly recognises that she, and many girls faced with such a choice, are more likely to conform than not. On the one hand, Victoria’s narration appears to offer autonomy to choose, yet on the other, the video constructs hair removal as a practice that will deliver “confidence” as though without shaving, her self-confidence would suffer. Through its narration, the video presupposes a cultural understanding that in opting not to shave, girls may be more likely to experience feelings of insecurity or low self-worth. Moreover, the video discounts the social pressure shaping girls’ choices about performing conventional femininity. As Breanne Fahs (2011) demonstrates in her pedagogical experiment with her students (in which women stopped removing body hair and men shaved theirs), these so-called choices are highly constrained and socially policed by the negative responses women experience when they transgress aesthetic social norms. Fahs’ study is equally applicable to girls learning to shave for the first time, further demonstrating how both women and girls are socially encouraged to comply with the aesthetics associated with girlness.

To conclude, I revisit my suggestion that postfeminist criticism has reached an impasse. In view of the dissatisfaction expressed by prominent media scholars, I have argued it is essential to augment existing analyses of postfeminist culture to recognise the ways it “increasingly operates in and through the emotions” (Gill 2017: 609). Moreover, my analysis has shown that affect theory facilitates a multifaceted perspective on the complex and often-contradictory ways cultural producers respond to postfeminist norms. I selected the video to demonstrate how affective approaches are useful when we are examining works that might otherwise be categorized simply as postfeminist (bad) or feminist (good), in order to sidestep such simplistic binaries. My interest, therefore, is not in whether cultural works conform to or resist postfeminist convention, but what they articulate about how postfeminism feels. Where Gillette’s video constructs hair removal as empowering through its cheerful affect and choice rhetoric, Helbig produces shaving as a chore; her video implicitly suggests that most girls do not in fact have a choice—not if they want to maintain social inclusion. Importantly, Helbig recognizes that feminine signifiers and activities like shaving matter to girls. In her videos, however, they do not signify as a serious directive toward selfimprovement or self-maintenance. Perhaps the social penalties remain too high to permit a shift in behaviour and attitudes toward shaving in particular and feminine beauty practices more widely. However, by going through the motions of how-to do femininity, Helbig demonstrates that she is not taking such expectations too seriously, thereby presenting this stance for the girls in her audience to evaluate and/or potentially adopt in turn. In this way, Helbig does not take political action, or make a radical feminist statement.

Rather, what she provides is a method of simply getting by within postfeminist culture and contending with its quotidian demands. Analysis of Helbig’s affective aesthetics reveals her performance as an act of genre deflation, letting the air out of the postfeminist fantasy. Evidently, the social pressure for female subjects to present themselves as fun-loving and perfectly groomed remains intact. However, while Helbig may have perfected the art of pretence when it comes to her performances of adulthood and femininity, she draws the line at pretending to enjoy shaving her legs. Rather than instruct her viewers in how to girl, she instead teaches valuable skills in how to survive the dominant processes and structures of girling.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Berthold Schoene for his insightful comments on early drafts of this article, to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback, and to the Arts & Humanities Research Council for supporting this work.

Notes
1

Recent texts expressing various styles of disappointment in postfeminism include the film Trainwreck (2015), the television series The Mindy Project (2012—2017), and the novel Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn 2012).

2

There is a clear affinity with Diane Negra, who uses the term “miswanting” (2009: 95) to describe how postfeminist cinema constructs female characters as mistaken in their belief that professional success will fulfil them.

3

Here I use adult and girl intentionally as verbs.

4

As Gill (2007) observes, popular culture and advertising typically encourage female subjects to “appear as entirely confident, carefree and unconcerned about their self presentation (as this is now an important aspect of femininity in its own right)” (155).

5

Although beyond the scope of this article, it is worth reflecting on the intersections between postfeminist and consumer culture. As Lazar (2011) observes, advertisers such as Gillette are “known for their opportunistic ability to read a society’s pulse and respond adroitly by selectively appropriating social discourses” (37). Indeed, Gillette responds to the growing ubiquity of user-generated content by adopting those same aesthetics.

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    • Export Citation
  • Clough, Patricia Ticineto. 2007. “Introduction.” In The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Cloughand Jean Halley, 133. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duffy, Brooke Erin. 2016. “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in the Digital Culture Industries.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 19 (4): 441457. doi:10.1177/1367877915572186

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duffy, Brooke Erin, and Emily Hund. 2015. “‘Having It All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers.” Social Media and Society 1 (2): 111 doi:10.1177/2056305115604337

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fahs, Breanne. 2011. “Breaking Body Hair Boundaries: Classroom Exercises for Challenging Social Constructions of the Body and Sexuality.” Feminism & Psychology 22 (4): 482506. doi:10.1177/0959353511427293

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Flynn, Gillian. 2013 [2012]. Gone Girl. London: Orion Books.

  • Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147166. doi:10.1177/1367549407075898

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2016. “Post-postfeminism? New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times.” Feminist Media Studies 16 (4): 610630. doi:10.1080/14680777.2016.1193293

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2017. “The Affective, Cultural and Psychic Life of Postfeminism: A Postfeminist Sensibility 10 Years on.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 20 (6): 606626. doi:10.1177/1367549417733003

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grant, Catherine, and Waxman, Lori. 2011. “Introduction: The Girl in Contemporary Art.” In Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art, ed. Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman, 116. Chicago: Intellect.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gwynne, Joel. 2016. “Warrior of Love: Japanese Girlhood’s Postfeminist Asian Body in Cutie Honey (Hideaki Anno, 2004).” In International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts, ed. Fiona Handyside and Kate Taylor-Jones, 4962. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gwynne, Joel, and Nadine Muller (ed.). 2013. Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Handyside, Fiona. 2015. “Girlhood, Postfeminism and Contemporary Female Art-House Authorship: The “Nameless Trilogies” of Sofia Coppola and Mia Hansen-Løve.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 10: 118.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Helbig, Grace. 2014. Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to be a Grown-up. New York: Touchstone.

  • Helbig, Grace. 2016. Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It. New York: Touchstone.

  • Holm, Nicholas. 2017. “The Politics of Deadpan in Australasian Satire.” In Satire and Politics: The Interplay of Heritage and Practice, ed. Jessica Milner Davis, 103124. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keller, Jessalynn, and Maureen Ryan. 2014. “Call for Papers: Problematizing Postfeminism.” http://arcyp.ca/archives/4244 (accessed 22 February 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lazar, Michelle M. 2011. “The Right to Be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising.” In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, ed. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 3751. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McDermott, Catherine. 2017. “Genres of Impasse: Postfeminism as a Relation of Cruel Optimism in Girls.” In Reading Lena Dunham’s Girls: Feminism, Postfeminism, Authenticity and Gendered Performance in Contemporary Television, ed. Meredith Nash and Imelda Whelehan, 4560. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McRobbie, Angela. 2008. The Aftermath of Feminism. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

  • Negra, Diane. 2008. What A Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. London: Routledge.

  • Negra, Diane, and Tasker, Yvonne. 2007. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Projansky, Sarah. 2001. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press.

  • Projansky, Sarah. 2007. “Mass Magazine Cover Girls: Some Reflections on Postfeminist Girls and Postfeminism’s Daughters.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker, 4072. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Retallack, Hanna, Jessica Ringrose, Emilie Lawrence. 2016. “‘Fuck Your Body Image’: Teen Girls’ Twitter and Instagram Feminism in and Around School.” In Learning Bodies: The Body in Youth and Childhood Studies (vol. 2), ed. Julia Coffey, Shelley Budgeon and Helen Cahill, 85103. Singapore: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-0306-6_6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rose, Nikolas. 1996. Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, andPersonhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Shields Dobson, Amy. 2015. Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

  • Tiggemann, Marika and Kenyon, Sarah J. 1998. “The Hairlessness Norm: The Removal of Body Hair in Women.” Sex Roles 39 (11/12): 873885.

  • Thumim, Nancy. 2012. Self-representation and Digital Culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Whelehan, Imelda. 2010. “Remaking Feminism: Or Why Is Postfeminism so Boring?” Nordic Journal of English Studies 9 (3): 155172.

  • Zinoman, Jason. 2014. “Grace Helbig’s Digital Path to Fame.” The New York Times, 15 November.

Filmography

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Contributor Notes

Catherine Mcdermott is an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her AHRC-funded PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University uses affect theory to explore the impact of postfeminist cultural discourses on contemporary feminine/feminist aesthetics. She published a chapter recently in Reading Lena Dunham’s Girls: Feminism, Postfeminism, Authenticity and Gendered Performance in Contemporary Television (2017) edited by Meredith Nash and Imelda Whelehan. Email: C.McDermott@mmu.ac.uk

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2012. Authentic™ The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York University Press.

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2017. ‘‘‘I’m Beautiful the Way I Am’: Empowerment, Beauty, and Aesthetic Labour.” In Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, ed. Ana Sofia Elias, Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 265282. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berlant, Lauren. 2008. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

  • Berlant, Lauren. 2015. “Structures of Unfeeling: Mysterious Skin.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 28: 191213. doi:10.1007/s10767-014-9190-y

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clough, Patricia Ticineto. 2007. “Introduction.” In The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Cloughand Jean Halley, 133. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duffy, Brooke Erin. 2016. “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in the Digital Culture Industries.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 19 (4): 441457. doi:10.1177/1367877915572186

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duffy, Brooke Erin, and Emily Hund. 2015. “‘Having It All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers.” Social Media and Society 1 (2): 111 doi:10.1177/2056305115604337

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fahs, Breanne. 2011. “Breaking Body Hair Boundaries: Classroom Exercises for Challenging Social Constructions of the Body and Sexuality.” Feminism & Psychology 22 (4): 482506. doi:10.1177/0959353511427293

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Flynn, Gillian. 2013 [2012]. Gone Girl. London: Orion Books.

  • Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147166. doi:10.1177/1367549407075898

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2016. “Post-postfeminism? New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times.” Feminist Media Studies 16 (4): 610630. doi:10.1080/14680777.2016.1193293

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2017. “The Affective, Cultural and Psychic Life of Postfeminism: A Postfeminist Sensibility 10 Years on.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 20 (6): 606626. doi:10.1177/1367549417733003

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grant, Catherine, and Waxman, Lori. 2011. “Introduction: The Girl in Contemporary Art.” In Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art, ed. Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman, 116. Chicago: Intellect.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gwynne, Joel. 2016. “Warrior of Love: Japanese Girlhood’s Postfeminist Asian Body in Cutie Honey (Hideaki Anno, 2004).” In International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts, ed. Fiona Handyside and Kate Taylor-Jones, 4962. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gwynne, Joel, and Nadine Muller (ed.). 2013. Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Handyside, Fiona. 2015. “Girlhood, Postfeminism and Contemporary Female Art-House Authorship: The “Nameless Trilogies” of Sofia Coppola and Mia Hansen-Løve.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 10: 118.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Helbig, Grace. 2014. Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to be a Grown-up. New York: Touchstone.

  • Helbig, Grace. 2016. Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It. New York: Touchstone.

  • Holm, Nicholas. 2017. “The Politics of Deadpan in Australasian Satire.” In Satire and Politics: The Interplay of Heritage and Practice, ed. Jessica Milner Davis, 103124. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keller, Jessalynn, and Maureen Ryan. 2014. “Call for Papers: Problematizing Postfeminism.” http://arcyp.ca/archives/4244 (accessed 22 February 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lazar, Michelle M. 2011. “The Right to Be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising.” In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, ed. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 3751. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McDermott, Catherine. 2017. “Genres of Impasse: Postfeminism as a Relation of Cruel Optimism in Girls.” In Reading Lena Dunham’s Girls: Feminism, Postfeminism, Authenticity and Gendered Performance in Contemporary Television, ed. Meredith Nash and Imelda Whelehan, 4560. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McRobbie, Angela. 2008. The Aftermath of Feminism. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

  • Negra, Diane. 2008. What A Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. London: Routledge.

  • Negra, Diane, and Tasker, Yvonne. 2007. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Projansky, Sarah. 2001. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press.

  • Projansky, Sarah. 2007. “Mass Magazine Cover Girls: Some Reflections on Postfeminist Girls and Postfeminism’s Daughters.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker, 4072. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Retallack, Hanna, Jessica Ringrose, Emilie Lawrence. 2016. “‘Fuck Your Body Image’: Teen Girls’ Twitter and Instagram Feminism in and Around School.” In Learning Bodies: The Body in Youth and Childhood Studies (vol. 2), ed. Julia Coffey, Shelley Budgeon and Helen Cahill, 85103. Singapore: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-0306-6_6

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rose, Nikolas. 1996. Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, andPersonhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Shields Dobson, Amy. 2015. Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

  • Tiggemann, Marika and Kenyon, Sarah J. 1998. “The Hairlessness Norm: The Removal of Body Hair in Women.” Sex Roles 39 (11/12): 873885.

  • Thumim, Nancy. 2012. Self-representation and Digital Culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Whelehan, Imelda. 2010. “Remaking Feminism: Or Why Is Postfeminism so Boring?” Nordic Journal of English Studies 9 (3): 155172.

  • Zinoman, Jason. 2014. “Grace Helbig’s Digital Path to Fame.” The New York Times, 15 November.

  • Apatow, Judd. 2015. Trainwreck. USA.

  • Dunham, Lena. 2012–2017. Girls. USA.

  • Gillette Venus. 2014. “How to Shave Your Legs With Gillette Venus.” YouTube, 9 June. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpYUMIaHHlM (accessed 30 January 2018).

    • Export Citation
  • Helbig, Grace. 2012. “How to: Shave Your Legs.” YouTube, 30 May. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFvulft5EhE (accessed 30 January 2018).

    • Export Citation
  • Helbig, Grace. 2015–. The Grace Helbig Show. USA.

  • Kaling, Mindy. 2012–2017. The Mindy Project. USA.

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