Feminism isn’t just what you want it to be
We don’t live in an ideal world, and our actions have consequences, argues ALBI STANLEY.
Over the last few days there has been an uproar in response to Morwenna Jones’s article for the Daily Mail: ‘Why do my fellow female students join The Harlots, and dress in tiny pink hot pants?’. With an impassioned polemic from The Tab’s editor Josh Simons, and comments both here and on Facebook running wild, she’s been called everything from ‘patronising and malign’ to ‘ a sell-out’ and even a ‘misogynist’.
The topic was supremely mishandled; as Josh argued, it denied female undergraduates’ autonomy, and added a healthy dose of slut-shaming for good measure. Jones’s tone is so problematic precisely because women here do choose to be involved in drinking societies. Some may be ‘lured’ in or heavily pressured, but many participate under their own volition and actively enjoy it to boot.
And yet, beneath the unappealing patina of pop psychology and blame-games, Jones was attempting to ask a bigger question about female complicity with sexism. This is a question well worth asking. Simons, among others, cannot rest assured that just because women are choosing to be involved in sexist drinking societies, it validates the existence of these practices (because no one ever chose to collude in their own oppression, right?!).
Women should, of course, be allowed to do whatever they want. But, as the New Statesman journalist, Sarah Ditum, puts it: ‘The ultimate goal of feminism is not choice, however often people claim that it is: feminism shouldn’t need to laud you for making a decision while being a woman. Feminism is not your mum, here to take pride in everything you do and gently mop up your accidents.
No, feminism is a political movement for the safety and equality of women. And just because a woman chooses to do something, and enjoys doing it, it does not mean she is helping to achieve this end. In other words, she has not necessarily made a feminist choice, nor is that practice she participates in beyond feminist critique.
Of course, criticising the existence of drinking societies should not have to involve blaming women who chose to participate. Instead, it should focus on the motivating ideologies behind rules like ‘the King’ on drinking soc swaps (where you have to do whatever the designated king says, including kiss etc.) and ‘no muffing’ after rugby team dinners (where members of a male group are not allowed to talk to a woman in a college bar, even if directly addressed). I have personally experienced the first, and seen the aftermath of the second. But, nor does the fact that a woman makes a particular choice necessarily mean we best respect her autonomy by ignoring the wider effects of her decision.
If we buy into one Tab commenter’s argument, that there is no difference between ‘going out and getting drunk’ and ‘sitting inside and reading the female eunuch, as long as it’s what that individual wants to spend their time doing’, then feminism is reduced to no more than a celebration of choice. Understanding liberation simply as the capacity to make choices would mean that here in the UK we are now living in a post-feminist age. According to this strain, every time a woman chooses to do anything – make some toast, dressed as a ‘naughty nurse’ for a swap when the men will be ‘dirty doctors’, masturbate over rape porn – it is seen as an equally feminist expression of liberation, which cannot be critically assessed.
It is misleading to suggest that since choices are individual, they have no social consequences. We are not yet at the point where anyone can act with no wider implications for their social category. This is meaningful in relation to all disadvantaged groups. Sure, I can choose to go to a garden party where white people are asked to dress in ‘Blazers and shorts’ and black people in ‘Bikinis and Shades’ à la the Wyverns, but in our current society, that individual choice would be sending out a message about how I understood the role of black people. In the short term, it might be fun and make everyone laugh. But in the long term is would perpetuate the idea that it is ok to have different standards for different races. That cannot be denied. It’s the same with sexism. Being a ‘choice feminist’ relieves men and women of the responsibility of considering the broader impacts of their decisions. It is radically de-politicising.
As Michaele Ferguson writes in ‘Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics’, if we want to change society, we must take seriously the premise that the personal is political. We should also stop naming those who assess women’s choices with the loaded term ‘judgmental’ or even stronger, ‘Feminazi’. We wouldn’t say newspapers evaluating Gove’s education policy are ‘judgmental’ or ‘Nazis’. In the same vein, critically analysing the politics of the personal is not harsh. No, it is as important as national legislation. Here in Cambridge, feminists need to see personal matters as public decisions – from drinking society antics to power in intimate relationships – because restructuring our personal lives is essential to achieving a feminist restructuring of the world we share.
Stating that is the easy part. The hard part is becoming critics of our own lives and those of the women we love. It’s oppressive to have to represent a whole sex in everything you do. We can’t watch every move we make, and I know I’m certainly far from perfect. For this reason, a very important aim of feminism should be to help women’s choices become less loaded. But in the imperfect world of now, this will not be achieved by privileging our ease or enjoyment over a consideration of the messages we are perpetuating. One day, I hope, it will not mean that much when I might choose to lick cream of a dirty doctor’s chest in a room full of chanting, be-gowned youths, while dressed as a naughty nurse.
I just do not think that day is today.