Meagan Tyler, RMIT University
Feminism is back in fashion.
As the push to claim the “f-word” has intensified, public figures, corporations and much of the mainstream media have propelled a largely unchallenging version of feminism into the popular consciousness. It is a feminism that never mentions women’s liberation, instead opting for a celebration of “choice”.
Read almost any online article about feminism and the comments will soon devolve into a debate about choice. It doesn’t seem to matter what the topic is, people are quick to reframe the issue as one of women’s empowerment and right to choose. This provides a neat diversion from talking about the larger power structures and social norms that restrict women, in many different ways, all around the world.
It’s been a big month for “choice feminism”. In late March, the fashion magazine empire Vogue launched a “My Choice” video in India as part of its Vogue Empower campaign which, quite literally, reduced women’s empowerment to a series of choices.
The video went viral and, as the India-based reporter Gunjeet Sra noted, the hypocrisy of an “industry that is based on fetishising, objectifying and reinforcing sexist standards of beauty on women”, supposedly promoting feminism, went largely unremarked.
This liberal brand of “choice feminism” was then followed to its logical, if absurd, conclusion, when a Liberal Democrat candidate in the upcoming UK election tried to explain away footage of him getting a lap dance in a strip club. Apparently, it was all part of his feminist mission to assist in “empowering women to make legal choices, not to judge the legal choices they make”.
Even Playboy has recently decided to weigh in on the finer points of feminist theory, and have come out in favour of a woman’s right to be subjected to the pornographic gaze. Which, conveniently, fits in very nicely with their own business plan, of course.
It is incidents like these, as well as hackneyed arguments about whether Beyoncé is a feminist, or whether male politicians should wear This is What a Feminist Looks Like T-shirts, that inspired a new collection of feminist writing, Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism.
In the book, which I co-edited, 20 of us take on different topics that have become part of the “choice feminism” landscape: from pornography and prostitution, to female genital mutilation, from women’s magazines and marriage, to sexual violence. While coming from a range of different perspectives, we all critique the notion that “choice” should be the ultimate arbiter of women’s freedom.
Many of us argue that the rise of this pop-feminism is actually more insidious than poking fun at the inane end of the “I choose my choice” spectrum might suggest.
First of all, the choice arguments are fundamentally flawed because they assume a level of unmitigated freedom for women that simply doesn’t exist. Yes, we make choices, but these are shaped and constrained by the unequal conditions in which we live. It would only make sense to uncritically celebrate choice in a post-patriarchal world.
Second, the idea that more choices automatically equate to more freedom is a falsehood. This is essentially just selling neo-liberalism with a feminist twist. Yes, women can now work or stay at home if they have children, for example, but this “choice” is fairly hollow when child-rearing continues to be constructed as “women’s work”, there is insufficient state support for childcare, and childless women are decried as selfish.
Third, the focus on women’s choices as the be-all and end-all of feminism has resulted in in a perverse kind of victim-blaming and a distraction from the real problems women still face. If you’re not happy with the way things are, don’t blame misogyny and sexism, the pay gap, entrenched gender roles, women’s lack of representation on boards or in parliament, or an epidemic of violence against women. Blame yourself. You obviously made the wrong choice.
As sociologist Natalie Jovanovski points out in her Freedom Fallacy chapter, it is not surprising this kind of liberal feminism has risen to prominence. In privileging individual choice above all else, it doesn’t challenge the status quo.
It doesn’t demand significant social change, and it effectively undermines calls for collective action. Basically, it asks nothing of you and delivers nothing in return.
Instead of resistance, we now have activities that were once held up as archetypes of women’s subordinate status being presented as liberating personal choices. Sexual harassment has been reframed as harmless banter that women can enjoy. Marriage is reconstructed as a pro-feminist love-in.
Labiaplasty is seen as helpful cosmetic enhancement. Pornography is rebranded as sexual emancipation. Objectification is the new empowerment.
Instead of talking about a vision for a more equal future, we are left with inward-looking, futile discussions about whether or not individual women are “bad feminists”. Or what journalist Sarah Ditum has termed the “can you be a feminist and …” game. As though the real issue of women’s progress is whether or not we can live up to some fabled feminist ideal.
So thorough is the individualisation of “choice feminism” that when women criticise particular industries, institutions and social constructions, they are often met with accusations of attacking the women who participate in them. The importance of a structural-level analysis has been almost completely lost in popular understandings of feminism.
By way of comparison, it would seem quite ludicrous to suggest that by critiquing capitalism a Marxist was attacking wage labourers. It would similarly seem very odd to suggest that those critiquing Big Pharma hate people who work in pharmaceutical factories. Or that those who question our cultural reliance on fast-food have it in for the kids behind the counter at McDonalds.
Ultimately, the promotion of “choice” – and the myth of an already-achieved equality – have hampered our ability to challenge the very institutions that hold women back. But the fight is not over.
Many women are reasserting that feminism is a necessary social movement for the equality and liberation of all women, not just platitudes about choices for some.
Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism was launched in Australia in March. It is also available internationally.
Meagan will be on hand for an author Q&A between 3 and 4pm AEST on Thuesday April 30. Post your questions in the comments section below.
Meagan Tyler co-edited Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism.