Within feminist or, what some might call “post-feminist” discourse today, “choice” is front and center — it makes up the framework within which so many debates begin and end. And indeed, ‘choice’ is often used as a way to end the conversation. “Well, it’s my choice.” or “No one was ‘forced’ they just ‘chose’ to take off their shirts.” or “These women aren’t victims, they have ‘choice.” are commonly thrown about as ways to defend women’s choices and actions as being representative of freedom and to present every female choice as, in fact, a feminist act.
This kind of ‘anything-goes-so-long-as-we-call-it-a-choice’ discourse often, rather than signaling collective female power and freedom, is a co-optation feminist language used for individual means. Often this version of ‘choice’ is used in order to frame sexist imagery and actions as something that empowers women, when in fact, it is often doing nothing of the sort. While certainly ‘choice’ is one of the founding concepts of the feminist movement, and of primary importance, I can’t help but feel as though it has been taken from us; that the word ‘choice’ continues to represent feminism but is more often used in an entirely ‘unfeminist’ way. I believe we are beginning to forget where ‘choice’ came from and what it means. And I think it’s time we started paying attention.
Choice became a key part of feminist language and action as an integral aspect and rallying call within the fight for reproductive rights – the right to choose whether or not we wanted to get pregnant and to choose what we wanted for our bodies and lives. This choice was, and is, a fundamental aspect of the feminist movement because it impacts our ability to be empowered and autonomous in, not only the home and as individuals , but in other, more public, aspects of life and society. Having reproductive rights means we get to make real choices about what happens to our bodies, real choices about education, work, marriage, and family.
As of late, though, it has become standard to talk about ‘choice’ in terms of individual choice rather than collective choice (and collective freedom). As though ‘MY CHOICE’ could not possibly affect anyone in the world except for the individual who is making it. And, as though ‘HER CHOICE’ can somehow negate any justifiable criticism or questioning of said choice or the context within which said choice was made. Used in this context, it is a way a shutting down the conversation. And where would feminism be (and where will it go) without conversation and critique?
Many older feminists and critics of the movement do see this ‘anything goes’ mantra as being one the more significant weaknesses of the 3rd Wave and of postfeminist discourse; and while this attitude is not universally applicable to the entire wave, it certainly seems to be building momentum. Does anything and everything count as ‘feminist’ just because we choose it?
The trouble with a perception of ‘choice’ that is all about individual choice without a foundation in theory, activism, a movement and a larger context of the still dominant systems of patriarchy, is that really, your choice doesn’t necessarily empower anyone. First of all, ‘choice’ and ‘choices’ are much more readily available and accessible to white middle and upper class women living in the West, so the conversation is instantly limited to those with privilege and is completely offensive and irrelevant to those whose ‘choices’ are limited not only because of gender, but because of factors like race, class, education, ability, etc. Simply, your ‘freedom’ to make ‘choices’ may well represent your feelings of personal empowerment in your own life, but in no way does this liberate anyone but you and, in fact, your ‘choice’ may exist at the expense of another woman’s oppression in a myriad of complex ways that begin with the Western world’s interactions with developing countries as well as issues of class and privilege right here at home, wherein your choice to represent stripping as ‘just for fun!’ may well not be ‘fun’ for other women. 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. And we need to stop using it as a way to shut down criticisms and conversations. Your desire to make a choice does not mean we all have to shut up.
Of course, the media is an important player here. They would have us believe that yes, indeed, choose whatever you like! That’s empowerment! Whether it’s hair dye or stilettos, pole dancing classes or birth control pills, it’s ALL the same – it’s all your choice and its all feminism.
For example, Let’s look at the way in which choice is presented around the famed, reality-porn-show-of-sorts – Girls Gone Wild; discussed at length by both Ariel Levy and Karen C. Pitcher. The underlying (and overarching) interpretation presented to us by producers and by the subjects of the videos is that a) this is fun, b) everyone is participating through their own free will and c) (the most depressing and confusing justification of all) that it’s going to happen regardless so, you know, just make the best of it: “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.”(Levy 12)
Thanks, in part, to capitalism, media, and neo-liberal ideology, female empowerment would appear to rest on the idea that, if we are getting paid, well, that’s feminism! Dita von Teese is quoted as saying, in defense of critics who call her act ‘disempowering’: “How can it be disempowering when I’m up there for seven minutes and I’ve just made $20,000? I feel pretty powerful.” I don’t imagine I’m the only one out there who sees a few gaps in that logic. Not only are we ignoring the fact that most women out there who get paid to take their clothes off or perform sexual acts are not making nearly that amount of money, but then there is also the fact that, simply because you are paid to objectify yourself and perpetuate an image of woman as sexual object, it does not, in and of itself, equal empowerment.
When girls and women flash the camera for Girls Gone Wild and this action is presented to us as representing freedom or empowerment, because those girls and women ‘chose’ out of their own ‘free will’ to participate, well, it signals to me that we need to revisit this word, ‘choice’ and revisit the context within which we use the word. While yes, choice IS the power of feminism, and I am immeasurably grateful for all the choices I have today thanks to the feminists who came before me and fought tooth and nail for my right to vote, have reproductive freedoms, go to University, etc etc, what I also realize is that simply because I have certain freedoms it does not mean that a) all women share these freedoms or that b) every goddamned choice I make is a win for feminism simply because I made a choice.
‘Choice’, and the feminist context within which it was born, has been co-opted by dominant systems and ideology and they have made it their own. We are now being told what choice and freedom looks like by those who have no particular interest in feminism or in ending gendered oppression. Those systems are the ones who tell us that being radical, or revolutionary or feminist even, is bad. That we will be picked on and attacked if we want too much or the wrong kind of freedom and empowerment. They offer us their version of choice, and tell us that empowerment is easily available to us – it’s just got to be pleasant. And you’ve got to look sexy doing it. And, hey guess what! We don’t even need the feminist movement anymore! We can ‘choose’ to objectify ourselves now because we are free – and so long as it is labeled as ‘empowering’ then it is. And everyone else needs to shut up because IT’S A CHOICE.
It just isn’t as simple as that. “Feminism has been the proactive opposition to patriarchy and sexist oppression.” The goal should not be to just join in. We don’t ‘win’ because we can act in oppressive ways just as men do. So when we argue either that sexism will happen with or without us, so we may as well participate and make the best of it OR that if women can profit financially, this will somehow erase sexism, I think there is something really big missing from the conversation. Presenting a radical challenge to patriarchy is not just going along with it, it is not being told by GGW producers what free will looks like or that because one woman is getting rich off fancy strip shows we are all emancipated.
Choice without politics or theory behind it doesn’t hold power. ‘Choosing’ to objectify ourselves, for example, is not, what our second wave sisters meant when they fought for the ‘right to choose.’ And empowerment, through choice, was never intended to be about individual women, but rather about empowerment on a large scale, and freedom from oppression for all marginalized people.
Who is it that gets to ‘choose’ to be consumers, ‘choose’ to flash the GGW cameras, ‘choose’ to play around with the idea of sexual objectification? Who feels safe enough and privileged enough to take this word ‘choice’ and to throw it around wherever and whenever they see fit.? What kind of ‘movement’ are we left with when it is only privileged women who get to make ‘choices’?
Even contraceptives have been fraught with issues of access and have never been universally empowering for all women (look towards the Yaz controversy and the fact that drugs were tested on marginalized women before being sold to white women , as well as many other factors which led towards unequal access in the history of reproductive technologies, including eugenics). My point is not to disparage reproductive rights and contraceptives for women, but rather to point out that ‘choice’ for some may equal repression of others, and that this can manifest itself in various ways. And while we and the powers that be like to throw the word around in order paint our world as a post-feministic heaven, this is far from true and, without rigorous interrogation we risk losing sight of what real choice and empowerment means and how it relates to feminism.
This talk by Australian journalist, Gay Alcorn, provides a great argument around the way in which pop culture, though it often pretends to, lacks any real feminist framework, arguing that “sexism is so embedded we barely notice it”:
So. Does your personal choice negate any conversation? When did we get to a place where ‘choice’ is the end to the conversation? Where your choice no longer must include context and mustn’t include political and theoretical foundation? Where there is no room for debate around the discourse of choice?
When we frame choice as something that is solely about individuals and as something which is isolated from any larger context, it becomes much easier to present any and every ‘choice’ as feminist or as empowering. It also becomes dangerously easy to manipulate this rhetoric into something that actually limits choice for women. We have begun to fixate on ‘choice’ rather than on imagery or context, and have begun to use the word as a way to cloud inequity and a way to discourage questioning and criticism. The ‘choice’ pushers want us to believe that feminism is irrelevant and lull us into apathetic complacency.
When Pitcher wrote about neo-liberalism and rhetoric around choice, looking at Girls Gone Wild, she pointed out:
“..a majority of the women featured on the videos and interviewed in the popular press describe their experience with GGW as ‘freeing’ (Navarro, 2004), inconsequential (‘I just don’t see what the problem is,’ qtd in Grigoriadis, 2002, p. 53), pleasurable, and ‘just having fun’ and even ‘empowering’(201).”
Aaaaand so what – is this good? Within our wide array of ‘choices’, I suppose we are now to applaud out ‘freedom’ to ‘choose’ pornography or prostitution? And thank the feminist movement for this? Our ‘choice’ to exist within the, still, very narrow framework provided to us by patriarchy does nothing to change dominant perspectives of women as sex objects. I would argue that, rather, this ‘choice’ framework placed around anything and everything simply normalizes sexism, erases feminism and works to remove the still dire need for radical activism. So I choose my choice. But will choose it consciously. And with my pants on.