Noah Berlatsky perseveres in his quest to become America’s Next Top Feminist

In what has become a relentless and fanatical obsession with positioning himself as an ally while simultaneously working in direct opposition to the feminist movement, Noah Berlatsky, writer and author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948,” perfectly exemplifies the trouble with male “allies.” He not only presumes to know more about what’s good for women than women themselves, but has taken it upon himself to dictate what the future of  the feminist movement should look like, using Playboy as a platform, at that.

Noah Berlatsky calls Wonder Woman "a vision of feminist bondage matriarchal utopia."
Noah Berlatsky calls Wonder Woman “a vision of feminist bondage matriarchal utopia.”

The trouble with electing Berlatsky feminist spokesman (and the clear and malicious intentions Playboy has in this endeavour) is a problem that should be obvious to most, but is, apparently, not, based on the number of “feminists” who support him. Propping up a man whose “feminist cred” consists of attacking feminists and smearing the feminist movement is as ignorant as it is dangerous. There are obvious reasons why a man who promotes the sex industry and the objectification of women, as Berlatsky does, routinely, is no ally. Here are some hints, though, for those who need it spelled out:

Men like Berlatsky are big supporters of “feminism” so long as it benefits them. Playboy Feminism works to elevate male power and privilege and supports a notion of liberation that says: “Beautiful naked women, splayed across pages for the male gaze is what freedom for women is really about.” When twisted up into objectification = “women expressing their sexuality,” we really get into trouble…

Playboy and the male gaze have absolutely nothing to do with female sexuality. To imply as much is to reinforce the notion that women exist only in relation to men and, therefore, that women’s sexuality depends on the male gaze.

Despite challenges such as a fundamental lack of understanding around what feminism is, Berlatsky has persisted in his quest to reinvent our century-old women’s movement, painting feminists as needing, simply, a little male leadership.

In his most-recent piece, “You can’t have feminist liberation without choice,” Berlatsky focuses his energy on Dr. Meagan Tyler and “choice feminism.” Tyler argues, as I and many other feminists do, that individual choices won’t liberate women from systemic oppression. We don’t say this because we think choice, in an of itself, is a bad thing, nor do we say it because we want to limit women’s choices. We say it because the idea that any choice a woman makes is a liberatory one, simply because she’s made a choice, is void of any substance. If “choice” is the key to feminism, then consumerism is the key to feminism (we can, after all, choose to purchase a myriad of beauty products, get cheap manicures, buy new body parts, and more — all in the name of “personal empowerment”). If choices that are destructive, either to individual women or women as a whole, are feminist, simply because women are choosing them, we must, then, defend things like starvation diets, cosmetic surgery, pornography, and surrogacy — because individual women choose to participate in these things. Of course, this is precisely what many women and, of course, men, are advocating…

Berlatsky quotes Feministing writer, Katherine Cross, (who promoted his Playboy piece, smearing feminists, and willfully misrepresented my and Tyler’s arguments last week) as his cover, who says:

“Most feminists who get hung up on condemning choice feminism focus less on economic and legal issues, where the mythology of individualism and choice is especially damaging, and fixate instead on sex and sexuality or anything that smacks of it.”

Of course, this statement is blatently untrue. Criticisms of “choice feminism” are rooted in a critique of neoliberalism and capitalism — that is, an ideology that favours privatization, a “laissez-faire” approach to economic development, and a focus on personal liberty over collective liberation. Feminists who challenge “choice feminism” do so from both a feminist and a socialist foundation, arguing that the personal choices of either privileged or marginalized people, particularly if said choices happen within a context of and contribute to capitalism and patriarchy, will not result in the collective liberation of marginalized groups from systemic oppression. Collective movements that address systems of power are required to combat things like poverty, racism, capitalism, sexual violence, and patriarchy.

Both Cross and Berlatsky make a common mistake in presenting critique of “choice feminism” and a neoliberal approach to liberation as “policing women in much the same way patriarchy does,” without actually addressing patriarchy’s role in shaping women’s supposedly liberatory choices. Berlatsky writes:

“Cross said the perfect sexualized woman who appears in publications such as Playboy is replaced by feminists with a perfect woman who avoids a (long) list of sexual behaviors. Either way, women are held to an impossible standard. And either way it’s often the same women who are criticized and devalued. Sex workers face stigma and persecution from mainstream society, and they’re also, Cross points out, frequently marginalized and stigmatized by radical feminists.”

But feminists aren’t asking women to avoid sexual behaviours. We’re asking women (and men) to avoid presenting certain choices and “behaviours” as “feminist,” simply because women claim to be choosing them. As I’ve said many times before, just because you like it doesn’t make it feminist. If I wear makeup or watch reality TV or eat a sandwich, that doesn’t mean that wearing makeup or watching TV or eating sandwiches is “feminist.” Beyond that, feminists do not target the particular “choices” prostituted women make, they target the choices men make to buy sex as well as the systems to funnel women into the sex industry in the first place.

Berlatsky says feminist critique often involves a critique of “femininity,” which is true… Though he doesn’t quite get why. He writes:

“Is femininity a tool to devalue women? Or is the devaluation of femininity a tool to devalue women? Wearing high heels doesn’t necessarily make you a dupe of the patriarchy. It could mean you’re a super-powerful rock star, and you want to show that femininity can be strong, too.”

He seems to see femininity as innate, here. As though, to critique social constructs is to critique something essential about females. But “femininity” is an idea — a set of characteristics (invented and reinforced by a patriarchal society). It says “woman” means “delicate,” “passive,” “pleasant,” “accommodating,” “pretty,” “nurturing,” “irrational,” and “weak.” Feminists say women are not “naturally” any of these things. So no, femininity isn’t about “strength,” despite the fact that women are “strong.” And this is because femininity and femaleness are not connected in any material way.

Berlatsky’s insistent manipulations and misunderstandings of feminist thought and critique should not be celebrated, but ignored. His pompous explanations with regard to the correct way women and feminists should think and behave should be enough to reject his attempts at positioning himself as “ally.” The fact that he has inserted himself in feminist conversation for profit, attention, and self-interest (I don’t doubt he enjoys the privilege of objectifying women) should also be regarded with skepticism. Men who demand women be silent, accuse them of being “angry” or “aggressive” (remember, women are meant to be passive and polite — to suffer quietly through abuse and oppression) and that feminists take up even less space in conversations about our own liberation are not allies.

“Liberation can’t just be choice, but it’s hard to see how sneering at the very concept of individual choice gets you to freedom,” he writes, in the pages of Playboy. Well, Noah, you might ask yourself how smearing feminists in a porn rag and promoting “femininity” as an innate part of womanhood will “get us to freedom.” You also might ask yourself why you think you have a say, considering your investment in our continued oppression.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.