Problematic Choices

Shit like this is why I won't go back to being a feminist any time soon.

Some feminists are complaining about how we can't criticise any concepts or institutions, like marriage or wearing make-up, because some women enjoy these things. Quelle horreur! Whatever can we do, if we can't criticise other women's choices? Explode righteously?

Their justification for criticising the choices of other women? Because they're not made in a vacuum: they're made in a repressive, kyriarchal society that has a vested interest in making women complacent and content in their own oppression.

I'm going to concede something right now: choices are definitely, definitely, definitely not made in a vacuum. They are made chained to kyriarchal standards, drowning in them even. But every single person, no matter their privilege, is bound by these chains - so no-one can claim to be uniquely liberated. And this is one main reason I don't believe you should be criticising the personal, informed and consensual choices women make: because you are not the exception. You are every bit as steeped in the kyriarchy as they are. You're just more aware of it.

Another main reason I don't like criticising women for making choices you personally find problematic is because it assumes that you, in your infinite wisdom, know so much better than them. Guess who also does that? The kyriarchy. The kyriarchy also criticises women for saying and doing certain things on the grounds that "we know better than them and they're making such problematic choices". Either way, frankly, you're assuming that those silly little women need your intellectual largesse to make proper decisions, because silly little women can't be trusted to make the right decisions (read: your preferred decisions) for themselves.

I believe I still remember enough basic feminism to call that by its proper name: a facet of misogyny. Misogynists don't believe women are capable of making informed decisions, and think that a big, strong man needs to make the decisions for them. This is not so different from assuming that a woman's "proper choice" needs your feminist approval - because either way, you don't believe that other women are capable of seriously thinking through a choice that you might disagree with.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but being a silly little girl I had this terribly misguided notion that feminism was all about the liberation of women. Telling me that certain things that don't harm anyone else are problematic and that I shouldn't do them when you know literally nothing about my life history is not liberation, it's you trying to mould me into an image of yourself. When you're trying to bring about liberation (a phrase I much prefer to calling someone a liberator - I don't need a conquering hero, I need liberation from the ground up), one of the things you have to accept is that you're flinging the door open to people disagreeing with you. Liberation invites plurality. If you want homogeneity all that much, become an authoritarian.

This feeds into something I want to say: blanket condemnation of personal choices that don't hurt anyone else ignores the differences between women.

Some people are not going to like this very much, because I have an individualist streak. While I can recognise systemic problems (institutionalised racism, sexism, ableism, etc.), there are about 3.5 billion women alive right now. 3.5 billion is a big number, so big that I have trouble visualising that many people - and I want to be a physicist, so working with big numbers should be my day job.

When you're dealing with such a huge number of people, there's going to be some individualism involved, simply because there's no way you're going to have such a huge monolithic block of women. Actually, you can't even treat them all as a monolithic block because each woman will be facing intersecting oppressions and relatively few of them will have your precise experience. This makes it pretty difficult to decide on a universally applicable set of problematic-but-not-harmful actions and behaviours (should you be into doing that rather than just, you know, live and let live...). I'll give a trivial example and a more serious one.

My trivial example of the day is makeup. Lots of feminists find makeup problematic because it encourages the kyriarchal idea that you can't actually be a worthwhile human being unless you're conventionally pretty and pleasing to men, and of course your natural face can't ever be pretty or pleasing so you need to buy stuff and support capitalism.

And you know what? I find makeup pretty problematic too. In fact, I detest wearing it to the point where I only put light makeup on for special occasions, and even then I feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable; I feel as though I'm something I'm not. I might be insecure about my looks, but I want to work on that in ways that don't involve changing my physical appearance with chemicals or surgical equipment.

So far, so good - but I haven't contextualised my opinions and reactions. This leaves them floating around in an uncomfortable vacuum and so I can't really say that my reactions should be the right ones in every situation. If I contextualise them, here's what comes out: I'm a relatively wealthy, white, conventionally attractive (according to white, heterosexual cis men - they find me attractive, I don't), cisgender, physically able-bodied woman who acts in traditionally feminine ways. I wear my hair almost down to my waist and don't go around crossdressing. I come from an educated family where both my parents went to university and placed a higher value on learning than appearance. They also encouraged me to be an academic high-achiever more than they encouraged me to be traditionally feminine. This explains why I spend much more time thinking about physics than I do thinking about makeup, which leads to me being inexperienced and uncomfortable with makeup and thus not liking it.

Now let's say we have this hypothetical woman who grows up in a very conservative, misogynistic home - yes, even more so than normal. She is told that if she wears makeup or short skirts she is a dirty, worthless slut. When she manages to move out, one of the ways in which she asserts her bodily autonomy is by wearing short skirts and striking makeup. It reminds her that she can do these things and still be worthwhile.

Knowing this woman's story, I would not challenge her on her use of makeup in a purely patriarchal context. I would not shame her for it in this purely patriarchal context, because that matters and in this particular context, makeup is her way of trying to liberate herself from a background of shaming. In fact, I would look down on anyone who did try and shame her for it because then they would be missing said context. It would probably be worth her while trying to

Now, time for the serious example - marriage! In a lot of places, marriage is problematic because it's between one man and one woman, and only that kind of relationship gets legal protection. That's hardly fair on anyone else, and I'm speaking as a bisexual here; if I were in a relationship with a woman I would be far more marginalised and less protected by society. I can recognise that much. Marriage is also problematic owing to how (particularly in Europe) it was a loveless political alliance or a property agreement, not a union of love. Those are just two of the major ones: I'm fairly sure someone's written a book on why marriage is just such an awful thing.

To be honest, I don't like marriage. And I don't like marriage for a completely irrational reason - in my family, it has a history of going badly wrong and ending up with the woman being a stay-at-home mother, which is the last thing I want to be doing because I'm not happy playing domestic goddess to a male chauvinist.

But again, the old demon of context crops up. I am white, educated, have the resources to live independently, and come from a family that will let me live on my own or cohabit. If I refuse to marry, fewer people will claim that it was because I was unmarriageable than they would do if I were a woman of colour. I will not need to marry to escape an unhappy family life, as my grandmother did at my age. And I will very probably be capable of supporting myself without the financial and social protection that marriage can afford - a veneer of respectability if you marry at the "right" time (for white, educated, middle-class people, generally in your mid-to-late twenties or thirties).

So when some feminists complain about not being able to criticise problematic things that other women do, I don't feel particularly sympathetic - nor do I see oppressed women trying to help out their sisters. Mostly, I see very privileged and well-intentioned women who think they're doing a good thing, but seem to have forgotten that choices are made in the context of a kyriarchy that affects different women in different ways, and seem to think of themselves as some super enlightened exception to this whole kyriarchal mess.

All throughout this post I've tried very hard to emphasise that it's only choices that don't harm anyone else that I'm concerned about - things like shaving one's legs. Of course anything that harms others, such as being bigoted, should be criticised and shamed. Nor do I think that critically reflecting on your actions is a bad thing - if anything, it should be encouraged. I certainly try to reflect on my actions all the time. Yes, even though there's at least 1 person on the planet who thinks they're all wrong.

The problem is, there's a pretty big difference between saying "hey, in some contexts this choice might actually support the kyriarchy and let's examine this more deeply" and "your choice isn't real, you brainwashed kyriarchal stooge". One critiques the choice itself and analyses it in context; the other one attacks and invalidates a person. I've been a witness to certain feminists attacking another woman for being a housewife. Again, being a housewife isn't something I'd personally choose - the role doesn't suit me. This person had chosen to be a housewife because severe ADHD and anxiety made it difficult for her to work. Context matters, and if you ignore that context you end up doing shitty things like attacking a neurodivergent person with disabilities for not doing what you want them to do. That is not cool, and is far worse of a thing to do than becoming a housewife, because other people get hurt and abused in that process.

I don't want to pin all of the blame on proscriptive feminisms because, again, context is very important and I think I also have internalised patriarchal bullshit somewhere in the back of my mind that I still need to find and root out, but still. If you somehow end up shaming women for who they are and you're a feminist, you've fucked up somewhere really really badly and you need to acknowledge that. I mean, I do - my whole life is basically an endless stream of fuckups with some good stuff holding it all together.

I really wish I lived in a world where I didn't have to write this post because no-one thought that shaming anyone else was acceptable. Unfortunately, I have this thing called a conscience which is strongly socially libertarian in that I support individual liberty as long as no-one gets hurt, and I don't want to pipe down and be a good little woman. I also really wish I could turn off the part of my brain that's drawing parallels between very proscriptive feminists (there aren't many) and misogynists, because it's creepy and upsetting. Just don't assume that women are too stupid to think for themselves so they must need your super-enlightenment. That is literally all you have to stop doing and it's really not that hard. Neither am I saying that things like marriage or putting on makeup are necessarily uber-feminist choices - just that while it's probably not the most feminist thing in the world, it's also not ludicrously antifeminist. Finally, please don't go jumping on this post and saying that it attacks all feminists: I have tried to make it clear that this is not something endemic within feminism. It's a group of people that is probably very small but whose opinions I happen to find pretty toxic and trying. A lot of other feminists are actually very cool and smart people I like to listen to.