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.
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.