Good feminist, bad feminist… Is it really about you?

Today the downturn of women’s rights is smacking us upside the face. Femicide is reaching such epidemic proportions that nations like Brazil are introducing special legislation against it. Australia’s rate of sexual violence has jumped 20 per cent in a year, statistics that are reflected in a host of other countries. The global scourge of trafficking continues to reach record highs.

A whole raft of issues are affecting women now more than ever before. Yet, as the event to mark International Women’s Day in Australia showed, most of these issues are eschewed entirely by a feminist dialogue that refuses to look beyond personal choice.

On International Women’s Day, the Australian Broadcasting Network hosted an all-woman line up to discuss feminism. Yet, in line with downplaying the crisis surrounding women’s rights, the special episode took to dividing audience members based on whether they identified as “bad feminists” or not. This is a category that neither theoretically nor pragmatically exists, more in line with high school buzzwords than progressive politics.

Feminism, broadly speaking, offers a political lens within which gendered issues can be better understood, analyzed and contextualized. In the past, feminism has proven to be successful in confronting a number of these issues.

Yet today, for a large part, feminism is entirely liberalized. It is less about global political issues and their gendered contexts, and more about personal choices in the pursuit of individual happiness and “empowerment.”

Feminism has been gutted by an individualistic drive to validate lifestyles: “Can I wear heels and aprons and be feminist?” “Is this lippy feminist?” “I’m a bad feminist, aren’t I?” Such questions opened the feminist Q&A session, a fitting reflection of the broader liberal feminist dialogue. At times, there appeared little distinction between feminism and the Cosmo fashion police.

Feminism was not designed as a personal quick fix cure all. It is not going to choose careers, fix relationships or overhaul wardrobes. It’s not going to endorse any choices, make us feel good about our new splurge or tuck us in at night. In fact for the most part, feminism will challenge, trouble, and confront.

Feminism emerged from the consciousness of the women’s liberation movement, the very women that fought for women’s right to work, our right to vote, our right to not be legally raped in marriage, our right to escape violence in the home and seek refuge. Yet this consciousness is now dismissed as old and prudish, or as simply wrong and behind the times. That work and ideology is now ignored in favour of a shiny new liberal feminism that is sexier, more “feminine,” and uncritical of the status quo. Taking up the “bad feminist” label is just one of a myriad of ways liberal feminism misses the point.

Our intensely westernized instinct to ask, “what’s in it for me?” means feminism has been depoliticized in a way that focused too much on personal choice, regardless of how much harm those choices might cause to other women around the world.

Cosmetics that rely on sexist and racist stereotypes to sell their product? Feminism. Making pornography where women are slapped, choked and spat on? It’s been called feminism. Promoting the sex industry that is responsible for the exploitation of millions of girls around the world? That’s economic opportunism, or rather, feminism.

Activist Julie Bindel was branded “dangerously irresponsible” by feminist colleagues on twitter after criticizing pornography… As if the multibillion-dollar global porn industry will collapse under one woman’s words. The liberal version of feminism goes to lengths to deny the harm done to girls, women and men in these industries – to the point that feminism now defends the sources of sexism and vilifies women who speak against it.

In its bid to shake the “old,” “prudish,” and “man hating” stereotypes of past, feminism has had the ultimate makeover.

Ironically, as feminism has reached its most liberal and least potent form, there is a swelling movement of young people who argue feminism has “gone too far,” a position exemplified by “Women Against Feminism” on tumblr. Despite these women’s claims that they don’t need feminism because they “have voices,” are “strong people,” “can stand up for themselves,” are “not victims” or “oppressed,” there is undeniable evidence that gender equality is still a long way away.

Nearly half of teen girls now report being coerced into sex as a normal part of life. Instead of challenging this, liberal feminism reminds us not to “slut-shame” girls for being sexual.

When the question of young women sexting naked images came up in Q&A, the entire context of socialization and sexual pressures were ignored. We were reminded it was a “choice” and rebellion. This was no surprise given liberal feminism posits that “women having choices ” is what will liberate us.

Perhaps brief redemption for Q&A came when Greer briefly interrupted to point out that the majority of the world’s female workers are unpaid laborers in developing economies, to which she was applauded. Julie Bishop fittingly reminded viewers of her work on gender inequality in surrounding countries. Yet this brief intermission did not manage to bring oppression to the table and conversation swiftly turned to cheap gags, including Julie Bishop being asked if she’d expose herself for political points.

If we acknowledge there is a war on women, then sexual objectification is it’s propaganda and both sides are selling it. While claiming to promote “choice,” liberal feminism has actually reinforced the sexual pressure that sees girl’s choices more constrained than ever before.

This contradictory soup of individualistic choice feminism may make bearable entertainment for women who’ve cut their teeth on feminist literature, but what message is this sending to young women with regard to women’s human rights?

The focus needs to shift away from what kind of dresses we like to wear, or what kind of label women like to identify with. The issue is not as simple as individual choices or identities.

So, are you a good feminist or a bad feminist? Is it really about you?

Laura McNally is a psychologist, consultant, author and PhD candidate. Her current research examines the political and social implications of global corporate social responsibility. Find more of her work at lauramcnally.com.

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  • Orryia

    Very true.

  • Great essay. I love your writing and analysis. Thank you.

  • Anna

    Thanks for articulating some of the confusion I have in my head. All this talk about “free choice” sounds liberating but in fact it means ANYTHING is ok… and I personally don’t think that should be the case. I think the question “What role models do young girls have?” is a relevant one. There isn’t that much variety out there when you think of role models. Also, I think we do have to think about what Pierre Bourdieu defines as “symbolic violence”, i.e. be aware of the fact of our range of choices is inevitably, at least in part, defined by traditional categories established by patriarchy.

  • DefenderofThemyscira

    The time has come for a fourth wave of feminism. One that is honest. One that stops focusing on the non issues and focuses on what’s important. We need to stop thinking that the movement revolves around our lives and make our lives revolve around the movement. The future of feminism and by extension, the future of women and girls relies heavily on this. We need to return feminism into a the bold, confrontational, and cataclysmic entity that it was and is meant to be, instead of the simpering, whimpering, weak abomination it is today that is masquerading as feminism. We need to put the armour back on and get back in the saddle and stand up, like REALLY and TRULY stand up for ourselves and for women all around the world.

    • Kathy Bowen

      Nice name! I love Wonder Woman but recently found out about the man who created it. He basically had 2 wives, one who was a sub. Very strange but true. Not quite what to think about that.
      I think you are right. More honesty would be a good thing. Too many feminists argue with each other and not enough gets done. We need to recognize our privilege of living in a 1st world country, there are many women around the world who need to be focused on instead of whether or not so and so is a “real feminist”. My friend from Ghana told me she’d rather be a woman in America than a man in Ghana. Let’s take the rights we have and use them to help women around the world.

      • Dana

        We’re arguing because some people want to go out and do some damned stupid and antifeminist things in the name of feminism. Like go to other countries and tell them how to live instead of letting them work it out for themselves. No one came here to this country and forced the men to give women the vote. That was something we worked out for ourselves. Ditto for Roe vs Wade. The rest of the world and especially developing countries have had quite enough of us dictating to them. The women would be the first to suffer if we didn’t let them take the lead.

        Kind of like when we “liberated Afghanistan,” which really meant we bombed the hell out of thousands of women, and then we turned over their control to someone besides the Taliban. They’re not much better off.

      • Priscila

        Hi, troll!