The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Being choosy

In last week’s Sharing The Love post, Deborah wrote this:

A post I (Deb) don’t agree with, for long and complicated reasons, but in the first instance because I think it creates a caricature to argue against. I’d be interested to hear what other people think about it. Why “Choice Feminism” is an Illusion (With Bonus “Lost” Analogy).

And I’ve been mulling it over for a week now. First of all, after that whole “birth control sucks LOl!” thing, I have a little trouble taking anything on xojane seriously.

I should point out that I have never defined my own personal brand of feminism as “choice feminism”, though people are often at pains to point out to me that’s what it is. I’m not going to go into what that means, except to say that if you try to tell me what to do/wear/shag, I will likely tell you to shut the hell up, regardless of your gender. If that’s choice feminism, then so be it. You can call it that, I’ll be over here glaring at you for taking away my right to define my own damn self.

I read this article, nodding along, letting it convince me, not putting in serious scrutiny. (It was Saturday morning, and I was reading it on my iphone, on the couch in my pyjamas.) I have a certain amount of sympathy for the argument, because I used to be one of those women. All “look, I can buy high heels because I WANT to, that makes me a feminist.” I’ve changed my thinking in the past couple of years. These days, I think calling yourself a feminist has to mean something more than “I am a woman who does things.” It doesn’t matter what it is informed by, what drives it, whether it is Camille Paglia or Buffy, but there has to be a structure to it. Feminism isn’t just “liking women”, it’s an ideology. An incredibly broad one, that means different things to different people, but nonetheless. It can be founded on a belief that you are a strong woman who does things because she wants to, but it’d be nice if some thought went into that.

So, I get what Jess Zimmerman is trying to say. Lauding your choice to wear heels and red lipstick and cleavage isn’t feminism. Oh. Except when it fucking well is.

And here’s where she falls down. Because it isn’t just about choice. It’s about informed choice. It’s about putting in the aforementioned thought. Emma and Megan know that by getting their tits out, they are, quite possibly, playing into patriarchal structures. They know that they are putting other women out in various ways. (Other women glare – I’ve seen it). They know that their boobs have apparently magical powers that turn men into slobbering predators, make other women feel shit and frighten small children. They (and I) don’t care. They do it, because it it their damn right to wear whatever the fuck they want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can go blow themselves.

What the article also fails to miss, in setting up the caricature Deborah rightly points out, is that it’s not an either/or choice. “Society” might like us to fall into a Madonna/Whore dichotomy, but that doesn’t mean we have to. Sun and Claire can have it both ways. The Patriarchy, that amorphous thing that is impossible to fight against, might like women to fulfill a certain role, whether it is homemaker or ballbreaker. But that doesn’t mean we have to. In fact, the best way to fight against it, is to make that choice constantly. Today, I feel like being quiet and dowdy and not making a fuss. Tomorrow, I may feel like donning my heels and most push-uppy bra and shouting at people who fuck me off. Both of those things are OK. It’s recognising that it’s not being a woman that gives you that choice, it’s being a person.

Or, my favourite feminist quote ever, from our very own Deborah, and I can no longer remember where she said it: “I’ll do my strumpetry my own way, thanks very much.”

12 responses to “Being choosy

  1. andie November 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Love it. My social leanings are towards social constructionism, so I always find it hard to make the ‘I choose my choice’ argument without acknowledging that my choices are, invariably, somehow informed by society around me and my own social conditioning.

    However, there’s a distint difference between “I wear short skirts because I like them” and “I wear short skirts because they make me feel sexy and although I know it’s probably because of the dominant narrative informs me that short skirts are sexy because of reasons a) b) and c) today I just want to feel good so I’m going to be okay with that. For today. Maybe tomorrow I will feel differently. Maybe not.”

  2. Isabel November 3, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices we make and the only conclusion I can come to is that it is all rather messy really. It’s not possible to make a truly free choice – everything we do is influenced by society, by our personal circumstances and by the fact that it is impossible to fight all the fights all of the time.

    Sometimes societal norms line up with what is going to work for me, sometimes I comply resentfully because I don’t have the power, skills or energy to change things, sometimes I’m influenced by stuff I’m not aware of and sometimes things are a big enough deal, either personally or philosophically, that I rebel.

    I don’t think my feminism is rooted in the choices I make nearly as much as it is in the thinking and awareness that surrounds them.

    • tallulahspankhead November 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      I don’t think my feminism is rooted in the choices I make nearly as much as it is in the thinking and awareness that surrounds them.

      This. That sentence is what I was trying to say – I just took a couple of hundred more words to say it. As is typical.

      I think the frustrating thing about the xojane article is that it assumes that Claire and Sun make their choices unthinkingly, because they like them. Of course, there’s also the implicit assumption that being ‘actualised” is inherently better than being bikini-clad.

    • Muerk November 5, 2011 at 12:42 am

      Well said.

      I’ve been trying to think about a hypothetical situation. Suppose we land on Planet Z which has hominids similar to us. Suppose for Zians the height of attractiveness in females is shaved eyebrows, no teeth and blue painted long flat breasts. Suppose 40 years ago Zian women discovered feminism and they tried to break these stereotypical beauty ideals. The let their daughters keep their teeth and wear bras so they could run about without their breasts becoming painful. They let their eyebrows grow back in.

      Then suppose 5 years ago there began a counter-culture satirization of Zian beauty ideals. There were ads with Zian women with no teeth, shaved brows and long blue breasts everywhere – all tongue in cheek of course. And Zian celebrities had never stopped conforming to beauty ideals either. In fact their biggest pop star Brittney Z was a complete sex goddess with pale blue breasts that hung nearly to her waist – an almost impossible ideal.

      Then some Zian feminists also decided to choose to dress sexy because they enjoyed looking that way.

      Now, the Zian feminists openly investigated ideals of beauty, pressures for women to conform, stereotypes etc and they made an informed choice to shave their brows etc. But… the ideals of sexy/beauty that they were agreeing too were completely culturally decided.

      Blue long breasts, no teeth and shaved eyebrows is a socially constructed norm. It gains its meaning through a social agreement that this is attractive. I mean Brittney Z looks yuk to us because we have a different cultural ideal. We like white teeth, perky breasts and trimmed eyebrows.

      Personally I find bound Chinese feet utterly unappealing. Yet men were turned on by them. Clearly people can find practically anything attractive given the social agreement on beauty even rotting deformed tortured feet.

      So… when someone dresses sexy by our standards of attractiveness I have to ask – how can anyone make a totally free choice when they have been brought up with a cultural expectation of beauty? Zian choice feminists are going to rock blue boobs, Western choice feminists are going to slip into high heels.

      It’s all so culturally determined.

      • tallulahspankhead November 7, 2011 at 6:41 am

        It’s all so culturally determined.

        So, what you’re saying is, that women aren’t smart enough to recognise that, and work with it? We’re all so steeped in false consciousness we can’t possibly know that we are operating within society’s rules and expectations?

        Of COURSE my plucking my eyebrows and shaving my legs is culturally determined. So is the fact I wear clothes at all, drive on the left, and have a job and a bank account. The fact that I am expected to find myself a husband and “settle down” is culturally determined.

        But just because we recognise that we’re being sold a myth, doesn’t mean we have to reject it entirely. Because, for most of us, we like to feel attractive. To ourselves, if to no one else. And for some people, that means conforming, and for some it means the opposite.

        So, how can anyone make a free choice? Well, if we follow your logic to its conclusion, no one ever makes a free choice about anything. But I would argue that the way we make a free choice is by knowing that “society” has deemed cleavage is attractive, and choosing to say “I could reject this. It would be entirely OK for me to do that. There’s historical feminist precedent, with sound logic to back me up. But fuck it. I actually agree that my cleavage is fucking spectacular, and I want to show it off. I’m doing that for myself, not to attract myself a mate, because I want to. Because my tits are amazing, and I like this dress. And I can recognise, that by doing that, and by being my clever, articulate, bolshy self, not a vapid whore (Thanks Joss), I am subverting the dominant paradigm. Or some such wankery.”

        Now, of course, what that means is that, as feminists, we then don’t get to question other women’s choices. Whether it’s about wearing a miniskirt, or staying at home to raise children, or choosing to be a sex worker. And I understand that that is hard, especially for those people who are absolutely certain they have it all figured out, and the world would be a much better place if everybody else would Just Listen. It’s amazing how often that kind of thinking comes across as misguided and patronising self-righteousness though. And actually, I kind of figure most of us are less sorted than we pretend to be, and all we can try to do is arm each other with as much information as we can, leave people to make their own choices, and not judge them too much when they fuck up.

  3. Deborah November 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Or, my favourite feminist quote ever, from our very own Deborah, and I can no longer remember where she said it: “I’ll do my strumpetry my own way, thanks very much.”

    Found it. On one of Emma’s threads at PAS, of course.

    I’ll do my strumpetry my own way, thank you very much.

  4. Emma November 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Yeah, I had a long think about that article too. Mostly about whether it was just lame, or lame AND offensive.

    Here’s the thing. It entirely ignores the way women who choose to “dress sexy” (whatever that means) are punished by society for doing it. I mean, if the attitude she’s talking about is so prevalent, why does she have to construct a metaphor based on a fictional situation in a fictional TV show where society has entirely collapsed to illustrate it?

    Emma and Megan know that by getting their tits out, they are, quite possibly, playing into patriarchal structures.

    Oh, it’s way more than that. Because by wearing a low-cut top and still being smart and assertive and articulate, and generally not putting out, I’m actually actively undermining that whole kyriarchal construct of what a woman who dresses like that is like. If smart women all make the “choice” not to “dress sexy”, then they’re actually __reinforcing__ that stereotype.

    And. Fuck’s sake. If the choice to wear a bikini (why is it always a bikini?) is not really a choice, then nor is any other clothing choice, because the bikini is not the choice, the choice is “What shall I wear?” And her argument is actually, “Women are structurally incapable of choosing their own clothes.”

  5. tallulahspankhead November 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    …because the bikini is not the choice, the choice is “What shall I wear?”

    Except that’s not the choice either. It’s not “what do I want to wear, it’s “who do I want to be”. And we all know that bikini = vapid bimbo.

    It’s worth noting, that in the analogy in the article, it isn’t mentioned what Sun is wearing. Because clothing only matters if it is “sending the wrong message”. The wrong message being impossible to pin down to any one thing.

  6. Hugh November 4, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    “…it isn’t just about choice. It’s about informed choice. It’s about putting in the aforementioned thought.”

    That still seems an extremely broad definition of feminism to me. I mean, very few people self-identify as acting thoughlessly.

    • tallulahspankhead November 7, 2011 at 7:17 am

      Right, because you missed the whole preceding paragraph where I talked about it having to be informed by something, some kind of theory.

      Or the part where I said I don’t define myself as a choice feminist, so it’s not actually up to me to define it.

      Or the fact that we’ve stated many times that this isn’t a 101 blog, and I therefore am not going to waste blog posts on a unified definition of feminism.

      Or the part where I said, yes, actually, feminism is an incredibly broad church that means different things to different people.

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