The poem is filled with images that depict a particular experience and understanding of the world. These are sometimes hard to interpret and they may inspire the reader to consider them more than once. It’s likely that most readers are going to come away from ‘Postfeminism’ with differing opinions in regard to what Shaughnessy is alluding to throughout the final stanzas.
‘Postfeminism’ by Brenda Shaughnessy is an interesting depiction of feminism and how far the world still has to go.
The lines of ‘Postfeminism’ are interesting and multilayered. The poem starts by drawing a line between women and soldiers or virgins and wolves. There are these two different type of people in the world, both fulfilling a role. It’s from this initial premise that the rest of the poem spins off and “you” and “me” are put on opposite sides. There are different ways of addressing life and the speaker acknowledges these through complicated and sometimes confusing images.
You can read the full poem here.
There are two kinds of people, soldiers and women,
We have choices now. Two little girls walk into a bar,
In the first lines of ‘Postfeminism,’ the speaker begins by quoting Virginia Woolf or at least summarizing her view on soldiers and women. The world is separated into these two kinds of people and both of them are “for decoration only.” This is a striking opening stanza and one that’s likely to bother some readers. But, as the lines progress, the speaker’s meaning and why she included these lines become clear.
The following stanza suggests that the “soldiers” and “women” difference is too kind. In reality, there are only “virgins and wolves.” There are those who are preyed upon and those who do the hunting. The phrase “We have choices now” sticks out in this section of the poem. It could be referring to the changes that have happened (and alluding to those which haven’t) throughout the course of history. From the original tenants of feminism, through the second and third waves and into postfeminism.
one orders a shirley temple. Shirley Temple’s pimp
in less fear of predators than of walking around
The speaker tells a story in the next lines, depicting two girls in a bar and one “orders a Shirley temple.” Then, “Shirley Temple’s pimp” comes over and, “says you won’t be sorry. She’s a fine / piece of work.” This is a way of emphasizing how despite the changes that have happened, women are still incredibly objectified and commodified.
The speaker refers to herself and suggests that in these situations she’s in less fear of predators than of walking around “in my mother’s body.”
in my mother’s body. That’s sneaky, that’s more
metallic lingerie. And rare black-tipped cigarettes
These interesting lines lead up to a series of images that are likely to evoke different feelings in different readers. Walking in her “mother’s body” would require her to take steps back, to a time in which reporting sexual assault and a breach of one’s basic human rights was even harder than it is today. The following lines juxtaposed different images together, ones that belong to the speaker and to “you.” The “you” in these lines is also not clear. They’re someone who has a different worldview. There’s a fierceness in these lines that suggest a power on the speaker’s part and a willingness to stand up and stand out from the crowd.
in a handmade basket case. Which of us weaves
Ascetic or carnivore. Men will crack your glaze
The speaker goes on to draw differences between “you” and “me.” The other person weaves the world together “with a quicker blur of armed seduction” in regard to ‘your war on thugs.” This is contrasted with “my body stockings.” There are two different ways of moving through life, using what one has to take advantage of others. Again, these images are juxtaposed versions of life, “Ascetic or carnivore,” relating back to the virgin and the soldier.
even if you leave them before morning. Pigs
light, drunk on insult. You and me.
The previous line is enjambed, starting a line about how “Men will crack your glaze / even if you leave them before morning.” This suggests that even today, men have a control of a woman’s life that is hard to put off and avoid. The poem ends with the speaker once more drawing a contrast between “You and me.”
Structure and Form
‘Postfeminism’ by Brenda Shaughnessy is a twenty-line poem that is divided into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couplets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, there are a few examples of half-rhyme throughout the piece. For example, “fine” at the end of line six and “I’m” at the end of line seven. “More” and “your” are perfect rhymes at the ends of lines nine and ten.
Throughout ‘Postfeminism’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “We” and “walk” in line four and “says” and “sorry” in line six.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “as Virginia Woolf said. Both for decoration only” and “than naked. Let’s even it up: you go on fuming in your.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as between lines nine and ten.
Shaughnessy wrote ‘Postfeminism’ to explore how far feminism has come but to also emphasize how far it still has to go. There is a great deal that’s still wrong with the world from her speaker’s point of view.
The tone is critical and analytical. It is also more passionate at times as well as the speaker gets more worked up about the differences between “you” and “me.”
The speaker is a woman, someone who has experienced the way that women are treated differently than men throughout her life. She’s also able to look back on her mother’s life and understand the differences between the contemporary world and the mid-1900s.
The mood is curious and impassioned. The reader is likely to walk away from this poem with a few questions about what the images Shaughnessy used mean and how they relate to the broader experience of postfeminism or earlier versions of the movement.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Post Feminism’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Power’ by Adrienne Rich – a memorable poem that focuses on the power of Marie Curie and the impact she made on her field.
- ‘Barbie Doll’ by Marge Piercy – was inspired by the traditional girl’s toy, the Barbie Doll. It explores themes of feminism and expectations.
- ‘The Prologue’ by Anne Bradstreet – is an interesting analysis of the poet’s own writing abilities in comparison to those possessed by men.