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.


  1. I used Ubuntu for about a year and your tutorials were a great help. I’ve recently switched to a MacBook Pro, for a number of reasons. One of them is that I found an extreme lack of mature help available in many parts of the forums, and I have a hard time swallowing “M$” and “windoze” etc. The breaking point, though, is going to an Ubuntu blog or something similar and seeing disembodied breasts as wallpapers with taglines such as “download these sexy ubuntu wallpapers” without any kind of acceptance of how sexist they are behaving. Similarly, whenever a woman posts an Ubuntu help video, the commenters largely mention her appearance, and then go on to say “if she wants to be taken seriously, she shouldn’t dress/talk/behave like that”. I can’t deal with that. I’ll return to Linux when I don’t have to rely on the internet so much for help, I think. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I see the opensource and women’s liberation movements as very parallel; apparently this is not a widespread view.

    Your tutorials and blog are a shining star amongst the rest.

  2. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I see the opensource and women’s liberation movements as very parallel; apparently this is not a widespread view.

    I feel the same way.

    Your tutorials and blog are a shining star amongst the rest.

    Thank you!

  3. “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?”

    That’s exactly what I wonder, too. I consider myself a feminist and don’t require that anyone else do or be anything else just so suit me.

    I am who I am. You are who you are. What else is there to say?

  4. I thought the point of ‘choice feminism’ was that in an unbiased society women could make as many choices as men and be accepted. So it’s sort of the sick of it NOW feminism, rather than the feminism where women just don’t make the choices that ‘reinforce sexism’ until society is unbiased – if that makes sense. I only see choice feminism as actual feminism, I believe women can be ‘sluts’ or butch or housewives if they want to. It’s all the taboo attached to it which is damaging not the choice in itself so it would make sense for the taboo to go.
    BUT I guess there’s the whole impractical thing where if choices with sexist taboo are obvious, they could ‘reinforce sexism’ through sexist people. Hmmm!! I’m not sure. I just don’t wanna be restricted thank you!
    And I totally get there’s taboo with EVERYTHING, just disproportionately with some things

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