On December 5th, feminists gathered at the Vancouver Public Library to commemorate a tragedy that’s become known as the Montreal Massacre. On December 6th, 1989, Marc Lépine, a poster boy for aggrieved entitlement, walked into an engineering class at École Polytechnique at the University of Montréal and opened fire on female engineering students after yelling, “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” He killed 14 women that day.
Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter organized the Montreal Massacre Memorial event, a day jam-packed with films, roundtable discussions, and talks by preeminent feminists, front-line workers, and activists. Throughout the event, several women pointed to liberal feminism’s failure to confront the interlocking systems that oppress women, criticizing the creative tricks third wave and liberal feminists use to make oppression more comfortable.
In the first post of this series, I briefly touched on the third wave’s holy grail — “choice” — while deconstructing “SWERF,” a term used to silence feminist analysis of prostitution, pornography, and other sexual exploitation industries. I’m still fired up by the sharp and courageous feminism I witnessed at the memorial, so this time I’ll look more closely at the idea of choice, and how liberal feminists use it to feel good and feministy without actually doing feminism.
How it’s used:
Liberal feminists stop debate by crying “choice” when radical feminists unpack the context and impacts of choices — especially choices that reinforce male supremacy. This usually happens in conversations about prostitution, pornography, or other industries and activities that objectify women or encourage women to objectify ourselves, like, say, stripping.
A radical feminist sees stripping as something that upholds male supremacy as the woman involved is expected to present herself as a sexualized object for the male gaze. Those gazing, objectifying men don’t care about that woman as a person. They’re not thinking about her as a complete human being — their focus is simply examining and appraising her body for their sexual gratification.
In keeping with the feminist belief that feminism is the fight to liberate all women, a radical feminist would recognize that an individual woman’s “choice” to strip is deeply connected to the broadly-held view that women’s bodies — all women’s bodies — exist for men and for male approval.
Going further, a radical feminist would also look at the context for this choice. In the case of stripping, that would include considering how, in patriarchy, females are socialized from birth to objectify ourselves. She’d look at the constant drip-drip-drip of subtle and overt messages we absorb throughout our lives that teach us to strive to be pretty and sexually desirable to men.
She’d also look at the ways patriarchy restricts the range of economic opportunities available to women, how trafficking helps supply men with female bodies to ogle, and how objectification is connected to male violence against women. After all that analysis, she’d conclude that, if not for patriarchy, women would have a broader range of well-paying occupations from which to choose, and, in all likelihood, fewer women would strip.
Not surprisingly, a liberal feminist’s take on stripping looks very different, in that it begins and ends with one point: because an individual woman chose to strip, stripping is, by default, a feminist choice that should be honoured as empowering and not “shamed” (third wave speak for “analyzed”). That’s it: choice. Full stop.
Why it’s wrong:
Considering that the goals of liberal feminism are different from the goals of radical feminism, in that liberals want women to have the same benefits as men, while radical feminists fight to liberate all women from patriarchal structures of oppression, the liberal focus on choice makes sense. Viewed through a libfem lens, women choosing something — anything — is a victory; regardless of the impact, or what other choices they might have made if a broader range of choices was available.
There are cold, hard truths that need to be accepted before women can join a meaningful movement for liberation. It sucks to realize that much of our behaviour is influenced by socialization that is designed to keep us nice, complacent, and focused on how attractive we are to men. It’s painful to consider how racism, poverty, class, and male supremacy limit the variety and quality of choices we get to choose from. No matter how uncomfortable, these crucial, light bulb moments begin a long and difficult process of questioning and changing our behaviour, and demanding that men do the same.
This is the work of feminism, the mostly thankless, often dangerous work that must be done — work that women can’t begin while denying the conditions of our oppression. We cannot break out of a cage we’re trying desperately not to see.
What it does:
Unquestioningly celebrating “choice” helps women feel good about themselves while they avoid confronting the system of patriarchy and even, in some cases, uphold it. It allows them to earn the benefits society gives women who don’t challenge male supremacy while comforting themselves with the idea that their behavior – no matter how problematic — is feminist.
There are real and dangerous consequences when women do misogyny while thinking they’re doing feminism. Convinced they’re on the side of women without critically examining the behaviour they are supporting and beginning the real work of feminism, they lash out in anger at radical feminists who ask them to consider that they might actually not be on women’s side. Similarly, men who are drawn to this feel-good fauxmenism that doesn’t ask them to do anything differently, claim feminism without taking a hard look at their privilege and behaviour and asking feminists how they can help. Instead of directing their anger at patriarchy and male entitlement, third wavers pile on radical feminists who dare ask the difficult questions that need to be answered if we are to bring about actual change.
What it reveals:
A close look at choice feminism reveals that it isn’t feminism at all. Feminism demands that women challenge the material conditions of our oppression and take courageous action towards liberation, understanding full well that we will be scapegoated, attacked and, in many cases, isolated from the people we care about who are unwilling or unable to stand with us.
Liberal feminism demands nothing of women. Instead, it replaces painful self-reflection and bold action with mantras and buzzwords that allow women to avoid the sanctions that inevitably follow challenges to entrenched systems of power. Women who choose liberal feminism aren’t choosing to fight patriarchy and break all women out of oppression’s cage — they’re choosing to make that cage more comfortable for themselves.