On Feminism: “Choice” Politics

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.