Choice Feminism by Meghan Murphy
Have you noticed that a lot of conversations about female empowerment today seem to be stuck in a discourse of choice that makes it difficult to challenge—well, anything at all?
Falling somewhere between victim feminism and the American dream, choice feminism is the new reigning queen of empowerment discourse. In contrast to political philosophies that explore the ways in which structural inequality limits freedom, choice feminism tells us that every individual is free to choose and that choice is empowering, no matter what the choice actually is.
The result is that the term choice is now employed in feminist debates about everything from the sex industry to marriage and makeup. Choice feminism dictates that any time a woman makes a choice it is an act of (photo-illustration: Michele Buchanan) feminism.
Because a woman chooses to work in a strip club, for example, the factors that could affect her choice to do this work—which may include class, colonialism, education, abuse or the reality of living in a culture that objectifies women’s bodies—are neatly erased. No one is forcing her to be there, choice feminism says. If men will pay, why not take the cash?
The decision made by Slutwalk DC organizers to hold a fundraiser for an event last year in a strip club invoked this notion of choice feminism. Many feminists balked at the idea of using a strip club for a seemingly oppositional cause. However, the organizers responded in a statement on their Tumblr page stating, “This is a non-judgmental movement that embraces all choices a woman wishes to make.” Really? Since when is nonjudgmental the descriptor of a movement based on achieving collective freedom from oppression and exploitation? What if the choices being made perpetuate patriarchal ideas?
Part of the problem is that all of the well-intentioned talk about female empowerment in the third wave has left many of us fearful of falling into the much-criticized realm of “victim feminism.” Maybe, for some, the empowerment message of choice is simply a reflection of a sense of entitlement to all the world has to offer.
Perhaps, too, liberal feminism, commonly seen as being focused on individualism and on reform rather than on structural change, is as far as some are willing to go. Perhaps some think it is the best they can hope for.
Whatever its origins, choice feminism has co-opted feminist language in a way that takes the political out of the personal. It’s all about whatever makes you feel good—right now!
We need to reclaim the word choice. After all, it is one of the founding philosophical underpinnings of the modern feminist movement and the slogan in the fight for reproductive rights. Choice is the embodiment of the political demand for abortion. Historically, it was a liberating concept that represented women’s freedom and autonomy—not only in terms of their reproductive decisions, but also in more public aspects of life and society. Having the right to choose an abortion allows many women to feel they have a measure of control over their bodies and their lives.
This particular use of choice rhetoric was not without problems, however, since more privileged women always had greater access to reproductive choices compared to more marginalized women. Today, though, choice is no longer a rallying cry for change. Instead, choice has become a gag used to stifle debate.
Denise Thompson wrote about the problem of individualism as a foundation for feminist action in her book Radical Feminism Today. She argues that “if domination is desired, it cannot be challenged and opposed.” So, for example, if sex worker is framed as an individual choice, the system of prostitution can be dissociated from the idea of systematic or gendered oppression. If prostitution is only a personal life choice, it need not have anything to do with patriarchy. It becomes a private issue rather than a public one. And yet, as we all know, private choices don’t provide the basis for a movement. Viewing prostitution as a personal choice frames it as an empowerment exercise and, in so doing, erases the context of male domination and female exploitation in which it typically occurs.
The rise of choice feminism could either be interpreted as a significant weakness of the movement or simply as the effect of postmodernism on feminist theory and women’s studies, an aspect of feminist thought that is often criticized for being too vague and offering little in terms of action. Either way, choice feminism is not furthering debate, but stifling it.
Choice is far more complex than adherents of choice feminism make it out to be. For example, while our freedom to make choices enhances our ability to feel personally empowered, many of the choices we make do not help anyone but ourselves. One woman’s pole-dancing class might be another’s sole method of obtaining an income.
Heaping this decontextualized notion of choice upon the often very limited decisions made by women who are disadvantaged erases the structural inequities that feminism would normally set out to change. As feminists, we need to remember that, in this world, one person’s freedom often comes at the expense of another’s. This includes the West’s exploitation of developing countries as well as issues of class and privilege right here at home. The birth control pill, later hailed as a huge leap towards women’s liberation, was tested on under-priviledged women in Puerto Rico before it was allowed to be sold on the North American market. White middle-class women’s choices have always taken priority over the choices of more marginalized women.
And yet, who am I to tell another woman that she isn’t empowered or that she isn’t really making her choices freely? As one of the founders of Slutwalk Toronto, who appeared in a debate to defend her reclamation of the word slut in 2010 said: “For me to call myself whatever language I want if I find it empowering, for somebody else to say that that’s not a right choice, when this is my choice, I find that problematic.”
If we consider the objections that have been heard by some women of colour—such as a statement by Black Women’s Blueprint that read, “We do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is”—the idea of reclaiming the word slut under the guise of choice may not be so radical after all.
For me, it comes down to whether one person’s choice to play with objectification may actually have an impact on other women. Feminism isn’t simply doing whatever we want, whenever we want, without considering how our actions impact others.
If choice is going to continue to be a valuable part of feminist discourse and a foundation for activism, we need to start thinking of it in collective, rather than individualistic, terms.
Individual autonomy and empowerment has been eagerly taken on by mainstream media as an all-too easy way to sell products. Choose to buy whatever you like—it’s empowering! Whether it’s a new vacuum cleaner or Virginia Slims cigarettes, it’s all a choice and, by extension, all feminist.
Sexist media has also caught on to this trend. This kind of language is used to justify the objectification of women’s bodies. Look at the way choice is presented in the show Girls Gone Wild, which has been discussed at length by American feminists Ariel Levy and Karen C. Pitcher. The messages of these videos are that a) this is fun, b) everyone is participating through their own free will and c) this kind of behaviour is inevitable.
One Girls Gone Wild participant is quoted in Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch
Culture saying, “It’s not like we’re creating this.... This is happening whether we’re here or not. Our founder was just smart enough to capitalize on it.” The message here is that if we make a decision to objectify ourselves, then we can’t be exploited because we made that choice.
We can make sexism fun if we choose it. In fact, we can make sexism disappear if we choose it.
Beyond simply choosing objectification, women are told that if they are compensated, sexism can be all the more empowering. Capitalism, partnered with media and neo-liberalism, tells us that all we need to do is to get paid in order for something to become a feminist act. Famous burlesque dancer Dita von Teese asked, “How can it be disempowering when I’m up there for seven minutes and I’ve just made $20,000? I feel pretty powerful.”
Not only does von Teese ignore the fact that most women who are paid to take their clothes off do not earn that amount of money, but there is also the fact that receiving payment does not negate objectification.
Undeniably, choice is fundamental to feminism. But that does not mean that every choice we make is a feminist one. Choice, and the feminist context within which the slogan was born, has been de-politicized. Hey, we’re so free and empowered that we don’t even need the feminist movement anymore! See how dangerously easy it is to manipulate this rhetoric into something that actually limits choice for women?
I want real choices. I want to change the system within which those choices are made, not just use the language of choice to benefit or to comfort me. I want liberation from the forces that lead women into strip clubs, stilettos and Girls Gone Wild. I want collective empowerment, not temporary empowerment for only a few. I don’t want fake choices designed by the very mechanisms that oppressed women in the first place.
-published in the Summer 2012 issue of Herizons. Support Herizons and subscribe for just $26.45 plus taxes at http://www.herizons.ca/catalog/143/subscriptions.
Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer, a host and producer of The F Word radio show, and the editor of www. feminisms.org. She has a master’s degree in women’s studies and lives in Vancouver.