Shit Liberal Feminists Say: Choice

Last weekend, feminists gathered at Vancouver’s Public Library to commemorate a tragedy that’s become known as the Montreal Massacre, where Marc Lepine, a poster boy for aggrieved entitlement, opened fire on female engineering students at Montreal’s Polytechnique, killing 14 women because they were women.

Vancouver Rape Relief organized Saturday’s memorial, a jam-packed day of films, speeches, and roundtable discussions by preeminent feminists and organizers. Throughout the event, woman after woman pointed to liberal feminism’s failure to confront the interlocking systems that oppress women, criticizing them for the creative tricks they use to make oppression more comfortable.

In this series’ first post, I briefly touched on the third wave’s holy grail “choice” while deconstructing SWERF, a term used to silence feminist analysis of prostitution, pornography and other sexual exploitation industries. I’m still fired up by the sharp and courageous feminism I witnessed on Saturday, so this time I’ll look more closely at the idea of choice, and how liberal feminists use it to feel good and feministy without actually doing feminism

How It’s Used

Liberal feminists stop debate by crying “choice” when radical feminists unpack the context and impacts around choices – especially choices that reinforce male supremacy. This usually happens in conversations about prostitution, pornography, or other industries and activities that objectify women or encourage women to objectify themselves, like, say, stripping.

A radical feminist looks at stripping as catering to male supremacy since the woman involved is presenting herself as a sexualized object for the male gaze. Those gazing, objectifying men don’t care about that woman as a person. They’re not thinking about her as a complete human being – their focus is simply examining and appraising her body for their sexual gratification.

In keeping with the feminist belief that feminism is the fight to liberate all women, a radical feminist would recognize that an individual woman’s choice to strip reinforces the broadly held view that women’s bodies – all women’s bodies – exist for men and for male approval.

Going further still, a radical feminist would also look at the choice’s context. In the case of stripping, that would include considering how, in patriarchy, females are socialized from birth to objectify ourselves. She’d look at the constant drip-drip-drip of subtle and overt messages we absorb throughout our lives that teach us to strive to be pretty and sexually desirable to men.

She’d also look at the ways patriarchy restricts the range of economic opportunities available to women, how trafficking plays a role in supplying men with female bodies to ogle, and how encouraging men to dehumanize women is connected to male violence against women. After all that analysis, she’d conclude that stripping is problematic and anti-feminist.

Not surprisingly, a liberal feminist’s take on stripping looks very different, in that it begins and ends with one point: because that individual woman chose to strip, stripping is by default a feminist choice that should be honoured and not “shamed” (third wave speak for “analyzed”). There may be a little discussion about how stripping is connected to catcalls or street harassment (I haven’t seen this discussion happen but I’m going to be generous and say it’s possible), but that’s largely it: choice. Full stop.

Why It’s Wrong

Considering that liberal feminism’s goal differs from radical feminism’s, in that third wavers want women to have the same benefits as men, while radical feminists fight to liberate all women from patriarchal structures of oppression, it makes sense that liberal feminists focus on choice. Viewed through a libfem lens, women choosing something, anything, is a victory; regardless of the impact, or what other choice they might have made if a broader range of choices was available.

There are cold, hard truths that need to be accepted before women can join a meaningful movement for liberation. It sucks to realize that much of our behaviour is influenced by socialization that, by design, encourages us to put the interests of others before our own. It’s painful to consider how male supremacy limits the range of choices we get to choose from in the first place. These crucial, light bulb moments begin a long and difficult process of questioning and changing our behaviour, and demanding that men do the same.

This is the work of feminism, the mostly thankless, often dangerous work that must be done – work that women can’t begin until they stop denying the conditions of our oppression. We can’t break out of a cage we’re trying desperately not to see.

What It Does

This idea of unquestioningly celebrated choices helps women feel good about themselves while they continue to behave in ways that reinforce patriarchy. It allows them to earn the benefits society gives women who don’t challenge male supremacy while comforting themselves that their behaviour – no matter how problematic – is feminist.

There are real and dangerous consequences when women do misogyny while thinking they’re doing feminism. Convinced they’re on the side of women without critically examining their behaviour and beginning the real work of feminism, they lash out in anger at radical feminists who ask them to consider that they might actually not be. Similarly, men who are drawn to this feel-good fauxmenism, that doesn’t ask them to do anything differently, claim feminism without taking a hard look at their privilege and behaviour and asking feminists how they can help. Instead of directing their anger at male supremacy and entitlement, third wavers pile on radical feminists who dare ask the difficult questions that need to be answered to bring about actual change.

Meanwhile, women and girls report increasing rates of mental illness, sexual coercion, and, depending on our class, race or where we live, rising or tragically consistent rates of sexual assault.

What It Reveals

Looking closely at choice feminism shows that it isn’t feminism at all. It doesn’t challenge the material conditions of women’s oppression or take courageous action towards liberation. It is capitulation in a feel-good package, complete with empty mantras and buzzwords so women can play at feminism while avoiding the sanctions that accompany challenges to entrenched systems of power.

Women who choose liberal feminism aren’t choosing to lift all women out of oppression – they’re making a cowardly choice to help themselves.

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