On Feminism: “Choice” Politics

Monday, 7 November 2011

i fight back

I've been reading a lot of mainstream articles on feminism as part of my research lately. A constant keyword that cropped up in these articles is "choice". This is a fairly common mode of engagement with feminism these days: stating how far we've come by highlighting how much "choice" modern women have compared with previous generations. On the one hand, this argument is valid. We have come a long way in many practical areas. But it also glibly glosses over the huge amount of inequalities that still persist, and the fact that we need to tackle new inequalities that have arisen as our modern societies have evolved. A lot of these new inequalities directly relate to this notion of "choice".

The keyword of "choice" has in fact become co-opted against feminism and gender equality. When I read modern articles about the relevance or irrelevance of older modes of feminism based on solidarity, what strikes me is the movement away from political and ethical debates. Instead, the focus is on individual and personal lifestyle choices, often reduced to buying nice things and participating in consumer culture. This naively ignores the fact that the decisions individuals make are often governed by the societies and cultures in which they live. How far can "choice" politics take individual women when they still have to contend with a world that may not accept and hamper their choices? Or, which may only offer them limited choices in the first place?

Sure, a woman can now choose to get married, or not to get married, to have kids, or not to have kids, to have lots of sex, or not to have lots of sex, to wear make up, or not to wear make up, and so on, and so on. But she can't choose how others will react to her choices, based on her gender alone. Having these choices does not neatly get rid of problems such as the justification of rape, violence against women, misogyny, the rampant objectifying of women as marketable pieces of meat, salary inequalities, and the problematic fact that many advanced Western societies are still structured according to antiquated gender binaries which instantly limit women's choices before they even have a chance to decide.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of how far we've come and the fact that women can now do things that would be unthinkable in previous generations. But we need to balance this sense of pride with realistic debates about the many inequalities we still face today. I just don't see such realistic debates in the mainstream media. Instead, I've been reading article after article about the right to wear lipstick and buy nice things - something us feminists just "don't get", according to these articles. On the contrary, we get it, and it's rather funny that this is what many journalists assume feminists are interrogating. I'm also getting tired of the silly old "burning the bra" metaphor. Come on, are we in fifth grade here?

I wear lipstick, I buy nice things. Most of the feminists I know would never judge other women based on these things (despite the many silly claims that all feminists are just bitter spoil-sports). Most of the feminists I know try not to judge other people, full stop. What they question, however, are the social, cultural and economic conditions that determine women's self-worth. There's a huge difference between deriving pleasure from buying a certain product, and having entire industries built on products that are pushed as essential to your self-esteem, image and status as a woman. The problem is not the right to buy nice things, but the fact that modern women's power is often reduced to consumer and individual action alone. You know that L'Oréal advertising catch phrase, "you're worth it"? Well, that's mighty inaccurate, you're worth a hell of a lot more.

Occasionally though, I've stumbled upon some pretty great articles on this topic. This is the kind of realistic, non-condescending feminist discussion I would like to see occur more often:

I think the notion of choice and individualism as shibboleths of all contemporary feminism is really, really pernicious. Women grow up surrounded by messages that our bodies are not okay, not acceptable, need to be changed, everyone has an opinion on how we look and what we eat and what we wear. We also live in a world of physical threat – the threat of rape, sexual violence and other violence – and finally the work our bodies do and our reproductive capacity are not ours to determine. Then we are told that the ultimate liberation is to have control over the body, to ‘free’ the body from this artificially-induced state of liminality, that freedom, that individual liberation, always somehow seems to involve being quiet and well-behaved and buying all the things. And that’s freedom.

-Quoting Laurie Penny from the article, "Feminism, Socialism and the Meat Market: An Interview With Laurie Penny".

Yes, this is how "freedom" and "choice" are defined these days. And feminist critics have been arguing this for years, seemingly unheard. As long as women's bodies live under the threat of violence, as long as there are entire industries built on making them feel like they are not okay without buying some product, and as long as the dominant mode of feminine "liberation" is participating in consumer culture rather than engaging in political and ethical debate, feminism is needed. The current strand of "choice" politics only reinforces for me how much we still need feminist critique, not how much we have moved beyond it.

Image credit: image from here. I chose this image because it highlights the problems, assumptions, inequalities and justifications that are hidden behind "choice" politics.

P.S. Thanks Sky for the link to the Laurie Penny interview.


nancy said...

I absolutely adore your words on feminism. unlike myself, you are able to clearly and concisely express the frustrating truth of what it means to be a woman to today's society without getting bogged down in emotion.

you say what needs to be said, and I sincerely hope you continue to do so.

SJ said...

my friend and i were having a chat yesterday about career choices and how she would have been a lot better paid had she chosen to pursue her first degree in chemical engineering. the reason she didn't choose this? Becuase she was scared that as possibly the only female on a mine site, she was putting herself at risk of sexual assault. so yes, she had a choice to pursue a degree in a male dominated field, only to have to make the choice not to pursue it as she was convinced she was putting herself in danger.

yes, we've come far but we have so much further to go....

great post as always.

melancholyswan.com said...

I believe its endemic in the language. The continual recourse to sexual epithets and degrading of things coded feminine continues to lurk beneath this culture of women's "choice." In the US we aren't even women anymore, but "females." End of rant.


odessa said...

hila, you said what i've always wanted to say but so much more eloquently. i was just talking to a friend of mine about something very similar to this topic. we were watching this historical drama set in imperial china where a 21st century woman "traveled" through time and how the issues that women faced before were so different and yet very familiar. yes, women have come a long way from needing a man to "protect" her and give her a name but the issues that we are facing now are much more subtle and pervasive in such a consumerist society, and like you said, they come under the guise of "choice", which in certain ways is even harder to fight against....

thank you for this post.

rooth said...

Hila, I really do appreciate that you highlight such topics on your blog. Your introduction of violence as an issue is something that hits very close to home for me, however I'm not sure that all forms of violence have to do with "feminism." I do think these topics need to be highlighted and we emphasize "choice" many times in our women's group at work.

Tana said...

there is so much truth in your words, Hila.

Emily Vanessa said...

Thanks so much for this post Hila because somebody needs to say this. I'm tired of being labelled anti-feminist just because I wear make-up and dresses; why are the two exclusive? The element of choice in restrictive society is also something crucial we need to be aware of and deal with.

Monica said...

i find it interesting that in your research you're not finding many articles realistically debating the inequalities. how frightening.

for me, i dislike looking at how others see me as an issue about choice. i never have choie of others. i prefer to consider choice as an internal manifestation.

so, what i find interesting is the concept that today women are free to choose, but only a small portion consider where their choices stem from. marketing.

we're not as free as we would like to think. free to wear that lipstick or wear x clothes, but the choices heavily influenced by marketing that tells us what women ought to be. and we delude ourselves that advertising (and it's cultural byproducts) doesn't really touch us - 'not me' we proclaim.

an ongoing and necessary discussion hila, thanks.

Petra said...

very interesting post. and one I have to think about a little longer before making a proper comment. it raises so many other questions, or rather things i'd like to hear your point of view about... so for now all I do is thank you for yet another thought provoking article!

hungryandfrozen said...

Hi Hila, this is a fantastic read. You're very right, while a lot has been achieved there's still so far to go - that image sums it up nicely - it concerns me when I hear things like 'women have all the power' or 'feminism has gone too far' and so on.

naomemandeflores said...

Hila, you always hit the right spots. I'm a little scared that this oldfashioned view of feminism and feminists is still so popular amoung many journalists.

Camila Faria

steph. said...

keep it up hila! i find myself commenting less and less here these days - not because i don't appreciate what you have to say, but because you already seemed to have said it all! i admire your thought patterns, i really do.

with love x

Louise said...

As always, an insightful and considered post, Hila. From a non lipstick wearing Louise today (though I normally do)

Niina said...

Thank you for your post again! It was interesting to read about contemporary feminist articles as I have been a little out of that field lately. And it´s true: one can´t decide how other´s encounter you (atleast not wholly) and that sometimes makes me disappointed. And yes, one shouldn´t stop with this feminist agenda until everyone is perceived primarily something else than their gender.

Sasha said...

How you express yourself as an individual person is one thing. Yes, it is something most people in a Western globalized world cherish, especially if that comes with the ability to purchase self-expression.

How people associate that with feminism, though, is beyond me. The construction of all patriarchal societies (which is all of the Western world)is built upon a base of dominance of one sex over another. Just because women have more choices now doesn't mean feminism has no place in the world. I'd reckon that, due to high rates of sex trafficking, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women through daily modes of cultural transmitters (advertisements, etc.), feminism is still very much needed.

Just because gains have been made doesn't mean women suddenly have absolute "freedom," whatever that means in any society.

Great post! I really like the Laurie Penny quote you chose. When I have a moment I'm going to read the interview. Thanks for you brilliance and eloquence.

Danielle P. said...

Feminism was never spoken about when I was growing up. I'm still unsure whether this was a good or a bad thing...

It's only recently that I've started to read and listen to what women have to say about themselves, their lives, their conditions, their aspirations. I'm learning so much that I should have long known, and it's also proving to be a step towards self-discovery.

Thank you for writing about this, Hila. As always, the comments are just as interesting and enlightening as the post that prompted them.

hila said...

nancy: there's nothing wrong with getting lost in emotion, these topics should inspire passion. But thank you for the compliment.

sj: that's quite terrible to hear, and a bit sad. I think this is something that's hard to explain to some men - the fear of bodily and physical assault. There's this assumption that women's bodies are public property, and it's ingrained.

acacia: yes, you're absolutely right. And it's not just in American culture, but many other western cultures (not to mention non-western cultures). One thing that's always really annoyed me is when people use feminising words to 'insult' men - like being a woman is a bad or degrading thing.

odessa: that's just it, it's so much harder to fight against inequality and ingrained sexism when we're faced with this pseudo-liberation of 'choice' culture. I think most of this choice politics is one big marketing tool anyway, and it has little to do with women's rights. Still, it manages to beguile us because it's so much easier to deal with and believe.

rooth: oh of course, there are many forms of violence, which relate to different social issues. I was just highlighting one of them here.

tana: thank you tana.

emily vanessa: I think anyone who would label you as 'anti-feminist' because of wearing lipstick is just looking for an easy interpretation of feminism.

monica: there are varied and complex articles on feminism in academia obviously, but I'm finding a plethora of really silly ones in the mainstream media. It's like journalists have been told they need to 'brand' feminism as an infantile stereotype. It's a bit disheartening.

petra: my pleasure, I'm glad you read it.

hungryandfrozen: oh yes, that old chestnut. I find it funny when I hear stuff like 'feminism has gone to far'. Really? What world do they live in?

camila: me too, it's annoying. Just the other day I picked up a coy of Vogue with an article that linked feminism to bras and lipstick. Sigh. enough already. I'm surprised hairy legs weren't mentioned too.

steph: oh steph, I don't even begin to say it all :) but good to hear from you!

louise: with or without lipstick, you are lovely louise.

niina: yes, as long as people are judged primarily by the gender, I'm afraid many of these issues will just persist.

sasha: well, thank you for your brilliance and eloquence! What an amazing comment sasha, I agree with every word.

danielle: yeah, it wasn't talked about when I was growing up either, I sort of came to it individually. I find it interesting when people tell me they had feminism 'shoved down their throat' when they were in school, because I never had those experiences.

Amelia said...

Ah the ingrained sexism in society is pitiful sometimes.

The industries won't change themselves until women stand up and ask for those changes - even if it is a boycott of everything that supports the idea that the average woman is not enough.

Sometimes though it's tiring.

Shell said...

Thank you!

hila said...

amelia: that's just it, these industries won't change themselves, they have too much to lose. It is incredibly tiring.

shell: thanks

Anonymous said...

I know its a bit late to comment, but this post addresses so many of the things I have been thinking about recently but haven’t really been able to articulate. Following on from one of the previous comments, it really bothers me when people think that because on the surface level women do seem to be have a lot of choices in how we can live (or a lot more than in previous generations) people think the work is done. This just ignores all of the ingrained inequalities that even some women are guilty of playing to at times.. and also the fact that we have far more choices in western societies compared with most of the world. I also don’t understand how people can ignore the constant attacks on womens bodies and reproductive freedoms.

Interesting how you mention you never really talked about feminism when you were younger. It was never a big part of my life growing up either. It just never really occurred to me because my parents both worked full time and shared the housework, and I don’t remember ever having any experiences were I felt like being a girl was a disadvantage. So it didn’t seem relevant to me until I moved out.

Also, I was wondering if you sometimes found it hard to reconcile your enjoyment of ‘nice things’ with you as a person, rather than just as part of consumer culture?

hila said...

anonymous: it's never too late to comment, so thanks.

Feminism wasn't talked about when I was growing up, but that didn't mean obviously that it wasn't relevant. I guess I mentioned it because I'm really surprised to hear people complaining that they had it shoved down their throat via the education system. If anything, it needed to be talked about more, I hardly heard anyone mention women's rights.

Also, to answer your question: sometimes I feel like I have to pull back from learned responses to images of beauty, and the expectation to buy certain things as a woman. But this usually doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of 'nice things'. I think this is because I've always placed my value as a person elsewhere: in my achievements, what I can do, hard work, my writing, my mind, my important relationships. So the fact that I buy and enjoy nice things doesn't really affect my sense of self. I hope that makes sense.

We're all part of consumer culture and in essence, it's a matter of balance with how we participate in it. If it becomes our only avenue of cultural power, or if it starts to dominate the way women's identities are shaped, that's when it becomes problematic for me.

Amy said...

This is something I've been struggling with for years and have never really been aware of it - yes, I can choose to do this, but because of the reaction I will get from nearly everyone around me, I probably won't even consider it. And yet there are many choices I make that get a lot of negative reactions (or people simply cannot comprehend my choice), and dealing with the reaction takes so much energy that it can turn you bitter. And also I've realized how many times I have lost the battle, simply by judging other women for their choices. Thank you for writing about this. Thank you for your perspective.

Anonymous said...


"chemical engineering. the reason she didn't choose this? Becuase she was scared that as possibly the only female on a mine site, she was putting herself at risk of sexual assault."

I am a male Engineer and i think this statement said allot about the sexist view of this woman about the MEN in this scenario! The greater majority of men would not "assault" you just because you are one of a small number of women on a job/mine site!

Sexism is a two way street and i think this is often forgotten. Treat men as if they are all rapists and you will probably turn them all it on sexual deviants!

Anonymous said...


We're all part of consumer culture and in essence, it's a matter of balance with how we participate in it. If it becomes our only avenue of cultural power, or if it starts to dominate the way ANY ONES! identities are shaped, that's when it becomes problematic!

This once again is not just an issue face by women. I admit in the past it has been a larger issue for women but in recent years the divide is closing quickly!

hila said...

anonymous: I don't think SJ's comment was sexist, it's just a statement that reflects a lot of the unease women feel about their safety and security. Unfortunately, rape culture is still ingrained in our society, and until this is dealt with, women will feel some form of apprehension when it comes to such situations. That doesn't mean SJ is labelling all men as "sexual deviants". Try to put yourself in a woman's position with regard to this matter. I mean, physically, I'm small and fragile looking. There have been many times when I felt physically intimidated, as there's still this wide assumption that women's bodies are public property.

Also, the responsibility for rape and "sexual deviants" doesn't fall on women. If someone chooses to behave that way, it's their responsibility, no one forces them into such behaviour.

with regard to your comment about my response regarding consumer culture: yes, this is true, the pressure is felt on both sides. But it's naive to suggest that women don't bear the larger brunt of this pressure. You only have to examine the double standards that exist for male and female celebrities to see my point. Also, it's pretty obvious that the majority of those in political power for example, are men. My point is that consumer culture is fast becoming the only outlet for women to exercise a pseudo-power, whereas men seem to enjoy far more varied avenues.

hila said...

amy: it's so tough, huh? I hope I don't come across as some sort of moral police here, because I'm only sorting through my ideas and battles myself. Still, it's important to voice these opinions. Thanks for such a thoughtful response.

Anonymous said...

"consumer culture is fast becoming the only outlet for women to exercise a pseudo-power, whereas men seem to enjoy far more varied avenues."

May i ask, what you mean by pseudo-power? Also what additional avenues do men have to exercise this pseudo-power?

When i mention that the gap is closing it is not to say we are yet effected equally. Yet many of my friends are considered to be, what may be referred as, "Metro's". When i spend time with them i often feel judged for not wearing certain clothing and even for not using certain cosmetics! This once was a scenario, that i think, many believed to only effect women. It is often media (Tv/Magazines) which influence these young men into believing what they are doing is the social norm, anything else is lesser/unacceptable.

"Also, the responsibility for rape and "sexual deviants" doesn't fall on women." I never said or implied that! What i meant is if you treat or judge someone to be something they are not, then you cannot be totally innocent when that constant judgment changes them!

sexual deviants does not equal rapist! "Sexual behavior that diverges from the norm"

"wide assumption that women's bodies are public property." I live in Australia and i do not see this. Where is this idea/concept coming from?

"rape culture is still ingrained in our society" ??? I don't see this either? Australia had 91.6 sexual assaults (Rape) recorded by police in that country per 100,000 population in 2003. Assuming all of the victims are female and halving the population to only consider women. The result is less than 0.1832% of the Female population; I am NOT saying this is acceptable. What I am saying is this in my mind does not equal "rape culture” being “still ingrained in our society"! Countries such as France have over 100 times this many sexual assaults per capita!

If you think this does equal a “rape culture” than Australia must also have a “Murder culture” as murder is THREE times more prevalent than sexual assault!

Source of my info;

(Note; Careful when using Oz statistics as most appear to round Up to the nearest whole, making the results = 1%, not the apparent 0.2%)

This was the only reputable source that separated rape from sexual assault I could find quickly.

hila said...

anonymous: rather than getting into a rather pointless back and forth argument with you (and I think you've already assumed everything I write is "wrong" anyway), may I direct you to this article which pretty much summarises my feelings about why it's actually possible to talk about these issues specifically with regard to women, without it resorting to "but what about the men?": http://feministslut.tumblr.com/post/13849622118/men-get-raped-too-a-response-tw

This post is about women with regards to feminism. Full stop. It is not about men, it is not about murder, it is not about anything else. Choosing to discuss the issues I've raised here specifically with regard to women does not discount their wider implications, it means I've chosen to tackle them from a specific perspective.

This is ultimately my blog, and I don't have to defend why I choose to focus on women when it comes to these issues. I've stated my opinions very clearly, and if you disagree, that's fine. You're free to not read my posts, and move on.

Anonymous said...

Hila, it's David. I read the emails/comments you sent me last night. They obviously don't get you or what you've written. Don't let it bother you, you're smarter than that.

I have to cut and paste these paragraphs from the post you showed anon:

That’s why “But what about the menz?” is a meme in feminist circles. It’s because we see that idea ALL THE GODDAMN TIME. If we talk about about anything related to harassment, anything related to how we experience the world on a day to day basis, some asshole will come in and say “Men could conceivably experience that too, YOUR ARGUMENT IS IRRELEVANT.” It’s a derailing tactic. A way of telling us to Shut The Fuck Up, and center the conversation around the people that matter: straight white cis guys.

It’s a reminder that if we make the conversation about us and our own experiences, and we don’t go out of our way to acknowledge those straight, cis white guys… well, clearly it’s because WE are excluding THEM, and it has nothing to do with their inability to identify with us. Because they’re the default. So you can’t talk about human experience in female terms and have it not be automatically exclusionary to the guys that you are not talking about.

hila said...

love you david!

p.s. I do believe I'll mark this day on my calender, because you actually commented on my blog ;)

Anonymous said...

Don't get used to it (crawling back into my hermit's nest). You kids and your fancy technology.

Love you back.