Why "Choice Feminism" is an Illusion (With Bonus "Lost" Analogy)

Whatever aspects of being a “Hot Chick” work for you, enjoy them. But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will.

Oct 20, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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So I was looking at “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street,” which is so blatantly sexist I got bored trying to write about it. The site’s slogan is “The Sexy Side of Protesting Corruption,” but it might as well be “Come On Down, Boys, Some Boobs Are Here!”

If you were concerned that people at the Occupy Wall Street protests might accidentally focus more on economic inequality than on whether they’d like to bang you, well, apparently you did not have to worry about that.

On the front page currently is a note from one of the Hot Chicks. The women are not asked in advance whether they would like to be put in a Tumblr heralding their Hot Chickness -- many of them actually appear to have been photographed without their knowledge. But one of them has spoken up, and she says she doesn’t mind being considered a Hot Chick. Well, that’s cleared that up then! Sexism: over.

This got me thinking about the phenomenon of “choice feminism,” where women argue that even anti-feminist behaviors are feminist because “feminism is about choice.” If you choose to be on a Hot Chicks Tumblr -- or if you decide after the fact that, having been put on a Hot Chicks Tumblr without your knowledge, you will choose to be okay with it -- that means the Tumblr isn’t misogynistic, because anything you as a woman choose to do is feminist. In fact, the real misogynist is the feminist who’s trying to tell you that being a Hot Chick isn’t okay.

Choice feminism gets one thing right: You should be able to make the choices that are right for you. And yes, of course that should include the choice to be ogled by strangers, or have your body used as a recruitment poster to bait guys into caring about important causes. Where choice feminism falls down, though, is in assuming that any of those things are actual choices right now.

They’re not. Like the Hot Chicks founder (I’m not giving him the Google hits), patriarchy just slaps your face up on a public site with a sign saying “OGLE THIS.” You can decide to be OK with it, or you can decide to raise a stink, but the options aren’t equal -- one of them’s going to make for a much harder life, fielding a lot of hostility from people who think you shouldn’t complain. And the option to just not be treated as public property in the first place? That one’s not really live.

I feel like talking about Patriarchy turns some people off, because it’s so vague and academic-sounding and also because it’s the Matrix -- i.e., you’re soaking in it, all the time. Therefore, I have come up with a super-reductive parable based on "Lost"! And you will either like it or you will go read something else.
 
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OK, let’s say your plane crashes on a desert island, where a mysterious group of Others brings you to a temple. They give you two options: One, you can stay with them and have all your needs met, as long as you wear a little bikini and feed them grapes. If you don’t like that, you can go back out into the jungle. You’ll probably survive, but life won’t be easy; you’ll be cast out from the only society existing on the island, and you’ll miss out on a lot of comforts, and you might get eaten by a polar bear.

One castaway, Claire, has genuinely always wanted to wear a tiny bikini and feed people grapes. She’s hot, she’s maternal: it’s perfect. She still doesn’t really get to make that choice freely, because it’s the only one available that lets her stay in society -- when the options are “cake or death,” it doesn’t really matter how much you like cake. But at least she lucked out! She’s not just making the best of a bad situation; she’s actually enjoying it.

Sun, on the other hand, didn’t spend the whole first season becoming self-actualized just to take a job at Dharma Hooters. She flips the Others the bird and goes back out to the jungle, and once she’s there, she joins forces with other jungle-dwellers to destroy the Temple and its unfair restrictions.

Guys, this would be a WAY better show than "Lost" ended up being! But that’s not the point. The point is, it’s not fair for Sun to judge Claire -- the problem isn’t her, it’s a society whose main rule is “You must be decorative and servile or be cast out.” Claire's just trying to get by, and enjoy her luck at actually liking the thing she's supposed to do anyway.

But if Claire rolls her eyes at poor humorless Sun -- “I love wearing bikinis, you buzzkill” -- she’s missing the point. Wearing a bikini because you love it is great, but that choice is diminished when it’s the only one available. Making it OK to wear other kinds of clothes and do things besides serve fruit won’t keep Claire from passing out grapes in a bikini, if that’s what she likes. It’ll just mean that she gets to do it solely because she wants to.

The real world, being many times the size of the island and also not magic, is significantly more complicated. But the same basic principles pertain: If there are only a handful of options available to you, then it’s damn fortunate if you like one, but that doesn’t make it OK that there aren’t more. If your favorite pastimes are dieting, getting shiny hair, and having your legs looked at, hallelujah: You will receive plenty of support in doing the things you like best. But liking your limited options doesn’t mean your choice is free. It’s still constrained -- you just happen to be lucky.
 
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So you should go ahead and do things that are patriarchy-approved, if you want to. Buy new nail polish! Care about celebrities! Have a giant wedding! Wear a thong in your hair! Put your picture on the Internet! Look good according to particular patriarchal ideas of what looks good! Be flattered when men wolf whistle at you, literally or metaphorically! Whatever aspects of being a “Hot Chick” work for you, enjoy them. Maybe except the hair thong.

But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will. Until the woman who doesn’t want to be seen as sexually available can go out with certainty that she won’t be harassed or ogled, your choice to turn heads and revel in attention is a privileged one. Until the woman who doesn’t prioritize appearance gets taken just as seriously in just the same contexts, it’s a privileged choice to achieve certain standards of beauty. You may be doing what you love, but you’re also doing what you’re told.

There’s nothing wrong with YOU for making that choice -- you’re doing what it takes to get by, and if you like it, you’re enjoying your good luck. But there’s something wrong when other options engender so much hostility or disdain.

Feminists who want to fight for your ability to reject patriarchal standards of beauty or behavior or availability or occupation aren’t trying to constrain your choices. (Well, some probably are, but screw ‘em.) They’re trying to give you more genuine, valid, supported options. If you still like reading scratch-and-sniff wedding magazines or being on “sexy activist” Tumblrs after that, by all means do it! Just make people stop telling you that it’s the only acceptable option, so you can go back to doing it because it’s your favorite thing.