The flip side of “choice feminism”

At the end of Susan Brownmiller’s brilliant deconstruction of femininity (in her book Femininity), she has an “I’m only human” moment in which she says she knows all that’s problematic about femininity and still puts on make-up and conforms to some norms of femininity. Third-wave feminism and beyond has constantly struggled with this, since many women who want some of the benefits of feminism do not want to be “liberated” in other ways. Or even many of the women who do want to be liberated still admit to their guilty pleasures of desires to be a sex object, desires for traditionally masculine men, or fulfillment in domesticity and motherhood.

In Sex and the City, Charlotte defends her choice of quitting her job to be a housewife (not yet a mother, so not a stay-at-home parent) with the repeated “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!” This line of thinking comes up often in defense of stripping or pornography (“Yes, men objectify me, but I feel empowered by it”) or stay-at-home motherhood (“I love the fact I can have a career, but it’s important that I can choose to stay at home if I want to”).

Some fringe radical feminists (mainly ones I see on extreme feminist blogs—almost never in published and reputable radical feminist books) think “choice feminists” are deluded or brainwashed and not yet liberated. There is some truth to that. It’s nevertheless a simplistic assessment of what’s going on. Aren’t we all brainwashed? Aren’t we all unliberated? Who really has an objective experience of reality in a total cultural vacuum? If a woman is genuinely finds a richer, older, and taller man attractive, can you force her to find something else attractive? I happen to believe attraction is malleable to a degree, but only to a degree.

What I think we have to do is point out what’s problematic (and why it is), and then just live our lives accepting whom we’ve already become while slowly working to make the world a better place. I find both “You are not acceptable the way you are and need to pretend to be something purer” as equally depressing and troubling as “I am what I am and just can’t be better than that.” It’s only in living in that tension that we can get to real progress.

More importantly, there is a flip side to “choice feminism,” which is usually framed with the assumption that whatever a woman chooses is a legitimately feminist choice simply because she is a woman. What right do feminists have to demand men change to be less sexist if women’s own actions serve to reinforce that sexism with impunity?

You can see this played out in a very interesting blog entry and its comments: how to draw female comic characters (according to Wizard)…

Some commenters are infuriated, as the original blogger is, at the sexism in viewing women heroes as only sex objects (and then in ridiculous poses) whereas men can be actually powerful in a useful way and then sexual only accidentally or secondarily, if at all. Other commenters are angry at the sexism outrage, claiming that comics are only fantasy and not meant to be realistic and that feminists should lighten up. Then you get the “see what a thick skin I have, guys?” women who say they are strong (i.e., not complaining victims) women who aren’t easily offended and see no problem here (“Can’t we all just get along? See I’m one of you guys… I have a sense of humor”). Frankly, all of these extreme responses trouble me.

I understand the illustrations (and the illustrators’ approaches in general) are sexist. I get the critiques. I also don’t think it’s the end of the world. It is, in fact, heterosexual men who drive the comic book industry, and so that type of sexism is unsurprising. So if het men do, in fact, find skinny women with big breasts bent into impossible poses attractive in their fantasies, are their fantasies not also legitimate? If women do not have established ways to free other women from their “unliberated” fantasies and turn-ons, how can they tell unliberated men not to be turned on by what they’re genuinely turned on by?

I don’t subscribe to the whole “boys will be boys” philosophy. I’m a firm believer in personal change, in the freedom to transcend gender boundaries. Nevertheless, you don’t change desire as easily as you change your clock during daylight losing time.

More importantly, what are het men supposed to change their fantasies to? Are there healthy (non-sexist) ways to lust after women? Is lust fantasy in comic books not allowed? Instead of taking away, castigating, or censuring the lopsided women-as-sex-objects, men-as-actors motif in comic books, maybe we should just round out the balance a little more. It’s okay to have the sultry superheroine, the sexy superheroine, the skinny superheroine. And let’s also add in the non-sultry, the non-sexy, the non-skinny. Let’s throw in some more diversity of poses. Let’s start representing more superhero men as sexy in some way.

The funny thing, too, is that at least for two of the artists featured, I actually think they’re kind of classy (Kevin Maguire, Adam Hughes) cheesecake compared to what’s popular now (balloon breasts twice the size of the woman’s head) in comic books. I would, of course, love to see more appreciation for Terry Moore, Colleen Doran, Jaime Hernandez, Dave Sim, Milo Manara, and others who portray women in a variety of body types and personalities (and those are not even necessarily feminist artists).

But if some het guys are honestly turned on by cheesecake comic books, either constructively work to help them develop what you consider more healthy but equally lustful fantasies, or start putting more of your own fantasies in there. Criticism is only the first step.

P.S. If comments show a total ignorance about feminism, they will be deleted immediately. You’ve got the rest of the internet to bash feminism on. Read Feminism 101 for more details.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Leslie Bennetts – Betty Friedan for a new generation

Two books that changed my life were recommended to me by a good friend during senior year of high school. One was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the other was The Feminine Mystique. Recently, I picked up Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake from the library, and I think it’s a life-changing book that everyone—both male and female—should read. It’s kind of an unofficial sequel to Friedan’s groundbreaking book of a similar name.

Yes, Bennetts is a self-proclaimed feminist. But she doesn’t spend most of her energy on ideological battles (she does shove a few into the last chapter of the book, which may anger some conservatives). She looks at working while having children from a pragmatic point of view. Her main point is that women who decide to quit their jobs for full-time motherhood are putting themselves (and their children) at economic risk, because they can’t anticipate the likelihood that their husbands will leave them, suddenly lose their jobs, or become extremely disabled or dead. Coupling those unfortunate possible future circumstances with the unlikelihood that someone 15 years out of the workforce will be able to find a job on par with the one she left makes it a no-brainer that simply for economic reasons, women should keep their jobs while having kids, or at least not leave the workforce for too long.

Added to that, Bennetts notes that the burden of being the sole breadwinner also adversely affects men and traps them in jobs they may not like or feel fulfilled in. More importantly, she debunks the idea that women have to “have it all” or “be perfect.” You don’t have to put 110% attention into your job and 110% attention into your children. Both men and women have various aspects of their life that need to have attention paid to—personal relationships, hobbies, achievement, community involvement, etc. And sharing work, children, and household chores ends up benefitting the whole family.

Even though Bennetts does repeat herself a lot, the book doesn’t feel as repetitive as some other one-idea books, mainly because Bennetts (who is a journalist by trade) goes so in-depth into her topic (using the full breadth of sociological studies, books, magazine articles, interviews, and personal anecdotes to flesh out her point).