This oldie-but-goodie is a classic argument against radical feminism, which is often vilified for refusing to “listen” to oppressed women when they claim they are not oppressed. Just look at any comment thread on this blog where I’ve stated that tiny handbags, or marriage, or prostitution, or the nuclear family are tools of the patriarchy. Holy armadillo quadruplets, do otherwise sensible women ever love high heels!
But the thing is, radical feminists do listen. It’s just that what we hear is not the dulcet tones of liberated personhood, but the doth-protest-too-much keening of Stockholm Syndromettes sticking up for their captors. Unlike Campbell, radical feminists have answered the clue phone. We know that within a patriarchal paradigm, women, as an oppressed class, do not, from the git-go, possess fully human status. Our “choices,” therefore, are not real. We are manipulated by the system to embrace false constructs as truth.
This is a (rather extended) quotation from one of my all-time favourite feminist blogs, I Blame The Patriarchy. Many an evening have I spent on the couch, balancing dinner on one knee and the IBTP archives on the other, slopping curry on myself while I kick my feminist lens up a focal notch and absorb Twisty’s no-bullshit critiques of misogynist reality. She embodies many of the traits that I find lacking in the rest of the femoblogocube; she’s funny, erudite, and every time I read her, I feel like my eyes have been opened a tiny bit further, and I’m about one centimetre closer to understanding the way the world really works.
But there are two sentiments she frequently expresses that I find offensively simplistic. So simplistic and silencing, in fact, that whenever she writes something about them, I want to compose her a letter on fifty feet of cardboard, deforestation be damned, tape the cardboard to myself, go round her house, knock on the door, and stand there pointing at myself until she’s read it. I find that these two views are endemic to the radical feminist community, which makes me uncomfortable. I like radfems. Most of the time, I feel in sync with radfem politics. It’s snuggly and comfortable and, I find, reflects reality in a hammer-to-my-forehead-moment kind of way.
The first objection I have is about religion. She loves Richard Dawkins, and his dogma; I think he’s an unmitigated dickhead who wilfully ignores his own field and perpetuates harmful, bigoted, and repellently ignorant understandings of religion AND atheism. I’m not going to go into that, though, because it angries up my humours and I want to relax tonight instead of secretly plotting to put him in the Total Perspective Vortex.
The second is reflected in the preceding quotation. Lots of feminists bang on about ‘choice’, reflecting totally different understandings of the concept. The anathema of Twisty’s view was summarised a while back by Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com, whose face I want to lick (she’s not talking about Twisty in this extract, just to be clear):
So I went and read some of her work online, and she’s always careful to point out that by claiming that we’re making a choice to stay at home we are only copping out, that somehow the choice to stay at home is invalid. Wow! As a mother I’ve never heard that before! My choices are wrong! She should write a book about how she knows which choice is the best one. Oh wait! SHE HAS!
My reaction then, I guess, is that here is my middle finger and here is me waving it at Linda Hirshman. This IS my choice. It is mine. I want to be at home with my child, not because my husband said I had to want it, or because my mom said that I had to want it, or because I am blinded by society’s bias toward women and their role in the family. I had the option of going to work outside the home or staying at home with my kid and I made a choice. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more fundamentally feminist than exercising that choice.
There is some seriously monochromatic contrast between these two positions. They speak past each other in new and perplexing ways, when I think the most correct and pragmatically stable position, both personally and theoretically, is a sweet and enchanting bouillabaise of both.
I agree with Twisty’s basic premise. I jive with it, if you will. People gender-assigned ‘women’ do not have free choice, simply because society coerces us into various situations and practices that are designated ours, as a class. I don’t think ‘women’ would, were we not sorted into this category, naturally seek to perform the million and one oppressive practices associated with the feminine construct. I take a reasonably Butlerian view of sex, gender, and sexuality, and I identify strongly with her notion of performativity:
Butler says: ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ (Gender Trouble, p. 25). In other words, gender is a performance; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.
This is a little squiddly description of performativity, obviously, and if you have the time or interest, I urge you to borrow a copy of Gender Trouble from the library, or from your closest femiwonk egghead.
I also agree with Dooce, and I am, generally speaking, far more optimistic than Twisty about the capacity of most women to tell when they’re being oppressed. Dooce directly acknowledges the patriarchal structure of society. She’s not stupid, and yet she chose to stay at home with her child rather than go out to work. I believe her when she tells me that this is her choice, and I believe her when she says it makes her happy. There are moments when I think I would be happy staying at home with my progeny. Admittedly, those moments aren’t very long, but I am hyperaware of social pressures to conform to shitty gender expectations, and it’s still something I find appealing. I would probably find it even more appealing if there were less vomit involved.
Unlike both Dooce and Twisty, I do comprehensively entertain the idea that, although my preferences and behaviour have undoubtedly been moulded by coercive cultural standards, I own those preferences, and I think it’s okay for other women to own theirs, build a pink frilly tent around them, if they want. Here’s my point: society is inherently coercive. All human customs and practices are coerced, and there are probably few parts of my identity, or anyone else’s, that aren’t a result of societal pressure. Rebelling against those pressures is also a reaction to and therefore a result of them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with identifying and criticising those pressures, obviously, or I wouldn’t be a feminist. Unravelling the complex pattern of mutual contracts that constitute human interaction is crucial to the synthesis of a new, less oppressive system. IT’S ALL A RICH TAPESTRY, OK.
But the pervasive tone of condescension that Twisty, and many radfems, have towards women who make patriarchally acceptable choices, really burns my cookies (gasp! My feminine, stain-resistant apron is showing!). Twisty tends to acknowledge that women “do what they have to to get by”, characterising femininity as a survival technique. But I think it’s okay to enjoy those survival techniques, whilst acknowledging that they’re at least partially the result of societal coercion. Everything’s the result of societal coercion; it’s not a big deal to do things in accordance with it. Resisting those forces through personal behaviour works for some people, and it works for me a lot of the time. It’s cool. But if wearing marriage and eating makeup genuinely, thoroughly makes you happy, fucking go for it, for the love of god. Embrace it. Cover your hat in high heels and nuzzle all the pink shit. I’m certainly not going to judge you, and I don’t think you owe it to feminism or anyone else to do anything you don’t honestly enjoy.
Guilt is bad for you. brb, I gotta go and adjust my lacy underwear.