Saturday, March 16, 2013

On excesses of a lifestylist conception of feminism and feminist accomplices of patriarchy

What does one require to be a feminist? The expected response to this question would probably be agreeing with some central theoretical tenets - and transforming them into real world political activity. It must be noted that while one is able to individually adopt an ideology, one is not able to individually apply it to the real world. Politics is only possible through collective action.

It seems today that everything a woman does is wrong. And I am not just talking about the traditional conservative, male-chauvinist perspective which decries any behavior that doesn't harken back to the good old days when "women were raised to be good housewives" - and other ridiculous and offensive aspects of patriarchal ideology. I am referring as well to certain feminist spaces where the practice of "woman bashing" has unfortunately become not only acceptable, but common place. 

This has an unfortunate effect for women who are becoming politically aware and start perceiving the world critically. Women, who are used to suffering the constant gaze and judgment of patriarchy, will worry about scathing criticism and attacks from their feminist peers as well. "Am I aiding the Patriarchy?" While this is certainly a question everyone should ask, what this translates to in the practice of a section of the radical feminist movement today is that women have to restrain themselves, their behaviors, their morals and their options even further. Rather than freeing a woman from her chains, more chains are being added. 

This is not a flaw of the radical feminist movement as a whole. When it comes to prostitution radical feminists rightly attack the institution and the men who make use of it, but not the prostitutes themselves, as it is recognized that they are, in the vast majority of cases, forced into the profession, that it is not a choice one usually makes while having a set of reasonable alternatives, that they become alienated in their labor (like other workers) and that they are often victims of having internalized paternal and capitalistic ideology. The focus of our criticisms is always on society.

So why be so harsh on every woman who might be a critical consumer of today's cultural production, which is often necessary to their social reproduction, that is, her continued social existence within her social context? Do we emphasize more and more this apparent dichotomy, that one is either a hermit, isolated and capable of denouncing all patriarchal norms and cultural production from the outside, or one is an accomplice to it? This might be a somewhat unfair assessment, but a lot of feminists who have this outlook actually recognize that one cannot live outside of our patriarchal world. [1] So while they will harshly criticize other women for "propping up the patriarchy" and being "special snowflakes", at the same time there is a ritual of impotence and wallowing in guilt for one's own incapacity to live up to ideal feminist standards and lifestyle.

Take for instance, this image that has been making the rounds of feminist internet spaces for a while - the Female Character Flowchart [2]. This is an image that aids the viewer in finding out what is wrong with all of these women, or rather, to show the viewer why they should be considered weak, and thus not something one should identify with in any form [3]. Of course, the image doesn't outright say this or recommend this course of action, but it would be naive not to see it as the proper way to cognitively digest it. In fact, in online feminist spaces, women who express enjoyment for these characters are symptomatically morally attacked for doing so. Also symptomatic is the lack of a single image depicting the mythical "strong female character" - perhaps because no character would stand up to criticism. This line of thinking is what probably has some people in the movement saying that women should be depicted as "just women". I have to struggle a lot with this assertion because what does it mean to be "just women"? In a patriarchal society, as proposed by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, in which woman is the "other", and considering men are the standard for everything in this society, I think that there is very little left for those who do not identify as men. One really has to consider what "just women" means, since it has to at the same time escape the reality or patriarchal relations and gender roles in existing society so as to not reinforce it, and at the same time avoid being everything else, apparently. Meanwhile, male characters find every form of expression available to them - they can be two-dimensional, they can represent ideas, they can be perfect, flawed, they can die, they can be fathers, they can be evil, annoying, outcasts, nerdy, suave, sarcastic, cute, and nearly everything else imaginable and still be (mostly) enjoyed in their literary context without comparable feelings of guilt and political wrongness. The message seems clear: feminists cannot enjoy women in cultural production. Men can be everything while women are relegated to the premise of being "just women", which doesn't exist - women should be the anti-character.

The same applies to music, literature and fashion. I have seen many feminists concerned about wearing certain kinds of outfits or enjoying certain TV shows or playing videogames because that would be aiding the patriarchy. As a radical feminist woman who will engage with some online feminist spaces, I feel sometimes a growing animosity in which certain feminists seem to compete to see who is the most feminist by adopting increasingly restrictive lifestyles, and they do this while denouncing other feminists who don't live up to their personal standards for propping up patriarchy. While it is true that patriarchy warps the perception of the infinite forms of expression women have available to them, thus imposing a limit, this feminist-moralist attitude tends to add more limits of its own. Forms of expression which aren't intrinsically problematic (nor intrinsic to women), such as clothing or make-up, become problematic because they are seen by the feminists themselves as elements of patriarchal oppression - even in social contexts where women want to express themselves without the social obligation of adhering to certain norms and gender-roles. While at the same time feminists will denounce slut-shaming, certain feminists will denounce as pornified nearly all fashion and clothing available to women today. For practical purposes, both patriarchy which labels women as "sluts" for attempting to use clothing as a form of expression, and feminists who denounce them for using this "pornified" form of expression, are both acting as the super-ego, they are both recommending that a "proper woman" should always be aware of what kind of gaze she is attracting, or avoiding to attract. Both limit the range of clothing socially available to women. It is also strange to think that a woman should have to "look feminist" (as if feminism had a "look"), as feminism is not meant to be an urban-culture, but an ideology that leads to political action.

Since all of current cultural production is incapable to holding up to this kind of feminist idealism and moralism, it follows from the idealistic perspective that feminists should isolate themselves from all cultural production. This seems to be an extreme sacrifice in order to achieve an objective that is its opposite, the increased enjoyment of participation of women in cultural production. One has to approach this from a tactical perspective: is this kind of separatism an efficient tactic to get women to participate in the production of cultural material, and thus undermine its dominant patriarchal character? Is it a compelling tactic on its own, enough to beat the immediate desire that women have to enjoy culture? It is a worrying outcome if radfems, when attempting to isolate women from the world, end up isolating themselves from the women. The moral idealistic gaze that adds criticism on top of criticism directed at the common woman may turn many away from an ideology while serving no practical purpose (and thus doing nothing to take down the patriarchy). This is hardly an appeal to appease patriarchal norms and to not question them where they exist, but pointing out the fact that one should not be attacked for that which is unavoidable. We all live in this society and we are going to change it from within, and the same is to be said of cultural production. This is also not an appeal to reformism - it is the current society that can generate both reform and revolution.

Criticism and theory are tools that we use to help us change society. But they can also make things both more enjoyable and less enjoyable. They can give positive examples and negative examples. Perhaps it is time to stop focusing exclusively on the negative, and start using criticism to produce enjoyment that is already scarce for women in the society that we live in. 

It turns out that, to be a feminist, one is not necessarily required to lead an ascetic lifestyle. 

-atlol & starmeleon

[1] This outlook is represented in cultural media by characters that, choosing to reject living in a patriarchal world, solve the contradiction by rejecting to live entirely, as we can see in very interesting films (especially from the perspective of feminism and cultural criticism) such as Thelma & Louise (1991) or The Piano (1993).

[3] It should be noted that some characters criticized in this flowchart are actually pretty cool.


  1. I have been thinking about this post ever since it has been posted to /r/communism and I must admit I have certain issues with it.

    I agree with the overall argument, it's not possible for any of us - women included - to completely shun popular culture and society. And even if it were such individual action is not revolutionary and doesn't help us change anything.

    However, I do think it's very important to critique modern cultural products including fashion and make up. And this will without doubt, always offend or alienate some women even if it does not attack them directly (which it shouldn't).

    For instance, there's no escaping that most fashionable clothes and make up are in the last instance made for the male gaze. Looking at any commercial for these products will tell you as much.

    Now an individual woman should never critiised for wearing or not wearing a certain thing or certain make up. After all it is almost impossible for a woman to exist in this society without being a subject of the male gaze.

    But we as feminists should be able to to critique this without fearing that it will alienate a number of women. It might, all radical ideologies tend to alienate a number of people they're meant to help set free.

    After all we are always-already interpellated by the dominant ideology. From this vantage point we can discuss what a woman's role is in her own oppression.

    Going back to the prostitution example, you came to the right conclusion using a wrong premise. Feminists don't attack the institution because most prostitutes are forced into it (even though this is true and a good reason to be against prostitution) but because it is inherently oppressive. Even if a woman chooses of her own free will to be a prostitute she is commodifying her sex which is oppressive and alienating in itself.

    People can and do participate in their own oppression. And for radical thinkers it is important to be able to critique this.

    (Or I could have been reading your argument wrong, if so please correct me. I don't meant to attack you, just to point out a theoretical moment I feel you may have missed.)

    1. also I believe we were explicit about personal choices being informed by patriarchy: "victims of having internalized paternal and capitalistic ideology."

      When you say: "Even if a woman chooses of her own free will to be a prostitute she is commodifying her sex which is oppressive and alienating in itself."
      We completely agree, and we are even skeptical of the majority of such stories.

      Of course it is important to criticize consumer culture, its important to criticize the male-gaze that commercials put on everything, but our focus really was on those people who keep attacking women individually, as opposed to societal norms.

      >It might, all radical ideologies tend to alienate a number of people they're meant to help set free.

      We recognize this, but I think there is a difference between alienating women who think that they "should be good housewives", or implying that women should boycott all cultural production in our current society, otherwise they are the enemy. These are idealistic standards that we think cannot become revolutionary - and that was the main point we wanted to make in the post. We did not identify with sex-positive views, we did not reject second-wave feminism. We merely wanted to criticize some personal attitudes towards women.

    2. I don't mean to say that you are doing this but I found it interesting how the question of clothing, which was minor in our post, was one of the main focuses of discussion. This shows how feminism is urgently necessary, as women still suffer from several demands with regards to their public conduct, whereas men never have to bother. Young Stalin can be a classy hipster and no one will criticize him for it.

  2. I agree with what you said.

    The paragraph on prostitution was just to give a quick example, it is not meant to be an extensive critique of prostitution - atlol had already written at more length on the subject on another reddit post.

    But otherwise, I agree that people can and do participate in their own oppression, we all live under capitalism and patriarchy after all, and there is no escaping it.

    The post was meant to be a rant on how sometimes criticism will leave a woman thinking that there is absolutely nothing that she can do correctly - the feeling of being victim blamed for the totality of patriarchy. And the transition from critique to lifestyle.

    We will make note to attempt to clarify these issues better next time!

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Amazing reading, very clear insights. Thank you for taking the time to share.