When Time magazine ran its infamous "Is Feminism Dead?" issue in June 1998, I was in the process of moving back to Seattle from a brief stint in San Francisco. That spring had been the wettest in memory, and every day when I rode the N train downtown, moisture from the drenched passengers glazed the windows. When it was dark, it was like hurtling toward birth. When it was light, it was stuffy.

I had been offered a job in Seattle, which was a very good thing, because working at a glossy computer magazine was about to consume any independent creativity I might have ever thought I possessed. The magazine--it had a brief life, so I can tell you it was called Equip--was undergoing a redesign to make it more "friendly" toward its target audience of wealthy white men, age 30 to 45. This elaborate and heavy-handed redesign was taking place despite the fact that most available data showed that women purchased just as many high-tech products as men, and in fact made the majority of online purchases. But someone, somewhere high in the monolithic publishing industry, had decided that men really needed a magazine that catered to their willful confusion between sex, capitalism, and high tech. Every piece of text written for Equip was to be a parable of sexual consumption; every product featured therein was to be photographed under lurid light as if it inhabited a gadget-ridden porno set.

My friend Sally--the sole other woman editing for Equip--and I bent ourselves silly trying to come up with sexual allegories for products like digital cameras, scanners, and GPS hardware. The only one I remember now is Sally's stellar ode to night vision goggles: "She likes to do it in the dark; you like the lights on." One editor, a highly educated man who somehow managed to behave as if he were always at a pool party, loved the description so much that he offered Sally an immediate promotion, which would have been a nice thing if the offer had not been followed by a tit joke.

Since I had come to this job, after a gap of several years, from working at a country music radio station in Spokane (where only one song by a female artist was allowed on air per every five songs by a male artist, by direction of the manager, who thought listenership went down when women were played), the level of sexism inherent to Equip only mildly baffled me. At that point in my life, I seemed to move through levels of irony without a solid point of reference, which was supposedly sincerity. Sally and I had some discussion about how perplexing the whole scenario was, but we never struck the fiery point of outrage. It all seemed too utterly ridiculous to get outraged about. When we passed other editors in the hall, photos of fetish-ready high-tech gadgets clutched beneath repetitive-stress-resistant elbow slings, we exchanged grins of foolish complicity--men and women alike. Most of the people who worked there had little knowledge of technology, let alone the various tenets of feminism. We were just trying to put out a magazine absurd enough to sell.

Absurdity is only a commodity, however, if it can achieve a level of irony that implies absolute cool detachment. Before I left my job at Equip, I was lucky enough to witness such a level at a conference known to the high-tech world as "E3." E3, that year, took place in Atlanta, beneath the roof of a convention center that seemed, in memory, to have spread across a land tract the size of Sea-Tac Airport. This center was divided into smaller tracts, each occupied by a company that produced some kind of entertainment hardware or software. The biggest excitement that year was over Eidos' newest Tomb Raider game. Eidos' booth was a cave-shaped structure, exuding breaths of laser-lit mist and bearing images of Lara Croft in a skin-tight, spy-esque ensemble, adopting various adventure-topping poses. When I first saw this vision, I stood for a few moments in awe, absently overhearing two men nearby heatedly debate whether or not nipplage was visible at a certain Lara Croft angle.

Throughout the entire spectacular complex that housed E3, women were apparent in only three capacities: as booth hostesses, as journalists, or as decorations. Two booths featured stripper-type women dancing in cages. One booth had the women dancing behind backlit screens; it took me a while to realize there were real women behind those silhouettes, since everything else on screen was digital. The trope was hardly shocking considering that, even now, women make up only six percent of high-technology CEOs--a figure that doesn't even register as real, for god's sake. Six percent of the vowels in this essay could be removed and you probably wouldn't even notice.

So, at the time I didn't feel any outrage. It was too absurd being among the single-digit percentage of women at the conference with a high-level press pass. The concentrated attention from hundreds of computer boys was nearly crippling. At one point, dancing in a mosh pit at a company-sponsored punk rock concert, I found myself lifted, kitten-bannered T-shirt stretched tight, above the heads of dozens of staring, messy-haired boys. Several of them, I noticed, wore Eidos watches, featuring Lara's steely-eyed face and cushiony bosom.

Newly into 2001, the resignation to absurdity that has "killed" feminism--and all sorts of other "isms"--deserves new attention. The postmodern belief that, as Jean Baudrillard puts it, reality is merely a "radical illusion," doesn't exactly inspire activist fervor. The funny thing is, of course, the Time magazine story was a big, stupid fiasco. Feminism is no more dead than sexism is: It's just bled into the laissez-faire language of popular culture.

When you sit down to write, or talk, about feminism, you realize that it's an exploded ideology. Pieces of it are everywhere--in advertising, politics, entertainment--but these pieces are frequently so tiny, so far apart from their mothering body, they've lost the identifying brand of feminism.

Consider my friend S., who doesn't like to call herself a feminist. A single, black, self-employed ex-New Yorker, S. has been a source of great inspiration for me--inspiration I thought was based in feminism. But when I e-mailed her that I was writing about why feminism is not dead, she shot back, "Aside from issues like equal pay, a woman's right to choose, and the like, I find myself mostly disinterested in the issue. Men and women are equal, sure, but different--and I revel in those differences. I don't do Dutch. I expect a man to open doors and to offer to carry my bags."

Among what scholars refer to as the "Third Wave" (basically, women age 30 and under), this is a fairly common attitude. Some people call it postfeminism, but the "post" seems to refer not to a rejection of feminism's basic tenets--even S., after all, supports "issues like equal pay, a woman's right to choose, and the like"--but to a rejection of the type of humorless sincerity identified with old-guard feminists. Postfeminists, in general, love irony and deplore boring narratives. In this way they are no different than anyone affected by postmodernism--and most people under the age of 30, whether they know it or not, have been affected by postmodernism.

Reading Jean-François Lyotard's now-15-year-old key text, The Postmodern Condition, is like reading a progress report delineating today's Western cultural life: the "grand narratives" of the Enlightenment, Marxism, and humanism--ideologies that had defined the 20th-century American bootstrap identity--are broken, and boundaries of high and low culture have been dissolved. Language is inextricable from the conditions that create it; culture is endlessly able to recycle ideologies and art forms (most easily via Hollywood); there are no moral imperatives. All universal certainties are up for grabs.

In the '60s, definition was the footstool of political outrage: it was all about claiming your identity. Feminism found its most populist call in the idea that being a woman was an empowering identity, and one similar enough from person to person to serve as a unifying force. This idea is sometimes called "essentialism."

Then postmodernism encouraged students of any ideology to "deconstruct" their beliefs: to figure out how they were limited by the context of their ideology, how its language might be biased, how power, in the words of Michel Foucault, was sprinkled out in "capillary" form. Identity was no longer the grounded, solid center of a political movement, and suddenly words like "essentialism" started to smell like boosterism. The subject was knocked off its high stool--it was the misty cloud around it that counted now.

But women not wanting to label themselves does not, as the mainstream media is wont to claim, mean that feminism no longer exists. Instead, feminism has become like that power system Foucault described: capillary--a basic element of everything for most women, unnamed but omnipresent. As Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney so eloquently put it, "Feminism is a lens through which I view the world, not a club I belong to." This subversion of feminism's political agenda allows women to duck the judgmental right hook that society, via language, routinely tosses. Identity can become a temporary and changeable construction, used as an ironical tool for activism or self-advancement. Women fight discrimination and misperception as unique individuals, from positions of individual strength--small battles raging all around are difficult to dismiss and even harder to extinguish.

A simplistic example of this is the appeal of Girlie style. Stretch "Foxy" across your chest in glitter letters, and sexism becomes a stupid construction held up to ridicule. Women excel at playing with identity's superficiality, so postmodernism's prankster attitude has come naturally. If we use this with intention, we can move through a male world forcefully, preempting sexism's power plays. Many academics, these days, prefer to refer to "feminisms" as a plural construction, in fact.

The theorist Linda Hutcheon, author of The Politics of Postmodernism, was one of the first people to assert that Second Wave feminism shaped postmodernism, and not the other way around, by beginning to question, or "complexify," identity. She also lays out the reasons why irony works as a position of power. In an interview, Hutcheon stated, "It seems to me that... women are often in the position of defining themselves against a dominant culture or discourse. One way to do that, a way with great subversive potential, is to speak the language of the dominant (which allows you to be heard), but then to subvert it through ironic strategies of exaggeration, understatement, or literalization."

A complex example of this strategy is Donna Haraway's seminal text "A Cyborg Manifesto" (which you can find online). The manifesto skewers "isms" like biological determinism through parody; Haraway describes it as, in part, "an effort to build an ironic political myth.... Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method." Although Haraway's piece reads like a fictional cyber-punk screed, it has influenced academics and activists alike--and amused them at the same time.

As Nancy Hartsock, a University of Washington professor who describes herself as "one of the original women's libbers," puts it in the interview that follows this essay: "The goal of the Third Wave is not transformation... but subversion." But can subversion lead to transformation? Can we somehow unite beneath the murky, amoebic flag that is our chromosomal aesthetic, in light of the fact that we still make substantially less than men in the workplace, in light of the fact that abortion continues to be a right decided by men? Perhaps, using tools like irony, even those of us who don't call ourselves feminists can reconstruct an understanding of identity that can act as agency in a world that still, to many women, inspires outrage.

Or is outrage outdated?

In response to these questions, The Stranger will run, over the next few weeks, a series of essays and interviews examining angles of feminism as it manifests all around us, in personal, theoretical, and practical ways. Paula Gilovich will interview a male feminist; Trisha Ready will investigate the trickle-down theory of feminism and whether or not it's working; Meghan Austin will talk to women age 24 and younger; and in the arts section, Stacey Levine will examine the postfeminist appeal of "ladylike" style, and Emily Hall will ask, "What ever happened to feminist art?"

And hopefully, we'll hear from you.