Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
As a feminist I am always trying to stay up to date on news, research and blogs like Bitch. Lately, though, I have been feeling very muddled. I vocally criticize objectification of women in TV and movies, yet I am a huge fan of artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna who are marketed as sex symbols. I go on about the lack of coverage and opportunities for female athletes but I rarely watch women's sports myself. I tell my friends not to worry about their weight, but I get upset when I put on a few pounds. I confront sexual harassers on the street yet my sexual fantasies often involve domination by men. I tell myself that everyone is feminist in their own way, but it also seems that most activists and websites espouse a "right" way to be feminist. I can't help feeling that I am doing it wrong or not enough. How do I (and other women reading) reconcile all of these contradictions?
The first thing you need to do is to take a deep breath, and accept that you will be flawed, and that being flawed is okay. We are all flawed, in myriad ways, and the best thing you can do it forgive yourself for being imperfect, attempt to correct the things that hurt other people (and, when possible, try to make right or apologize when they already have) and then let the rest go.
You are going to be flawed because no one can be perfectly self-aware (Plato covered this pretty well) and no one can perfectly excise a large part of the social forces that shaped them no matter how aware they become that those forces exist. And when someone tells you that she (or he) is a perfect feminist and you can be one too if only you do X, the healthiest thing you can do is file that away in your brain somewhere so that when that person fucks up utterly despite being a "perfect feminist," you can either be a good-natured person and recall how I said no one can be perfect -- or you can be like me and enjoy the spectacle (because I am imperfect and a lover of Schadenfreude).
In other words: you might know that you are living in a kyriarchy and knowing might help shape some of your actions and help center your thoughts about inequity, but you're still a participant in it. The best you can do is attempt to counter those influences, acknowledge your privileges in that system, gracefully allow other people to point out when you fuck up (like my friend did to me here), try not to hurt other people when you act imperfectly, make amends when you do and still try to enjoy your life.
And when you get through that project, try to see the world on a spectrum, rather than as either purple or orange. For instance, yes, the kyriarchy rewards physical attractiveness and perceived sexual availability in women and particularly women in the entertainment industry, and, yes, the physical attractiveness of Beyoncé and Rihanna -- and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and everyone else, let's remember -- is part of the total package into which we are buying. But is physical attractiveness and the celebration thereof an inherently bad thing (i.e., are only physically unattractive people worthwhile, or is the end goal really that physical attractiveness not be the only determining factor in our successes or perceived value as women)? Are you only listening to their music because they are pretty (a thesis that seems laughable)? Does the fact that Beyoncé's power in the industry gives her a great deal of control over that image and its packaging -- though mediated through the kyriarchy, which still punishes her for being female and being African-American and exercising agency (just look at the backlash against her the last couple weeks) while rewarding her for being attractive -- complicate the picture of agency, objectification and power? What about the fact that she uses that power to support and promote other women musicians, particularly African-American women musicians? If you supposedly can't love their music or their personae because of the tensions inherent in participating in a sexist industry, what's the solution? Only liking male artists, or unattractive female artists, or artists that make a certain kind of music not privileged by the current music industry (which might result in your music consumption skewing towards white artists, depending on the kind of music)?
I think when you walk yourself down the oversimplified road of what you think you are "doing wrong" as a feminist, you can actually end up running in circles: it becomes tautological really quickly because, too often, the "opposite" of something is the other side of the same coin. For instance, take your discomfort with your own sexual fantasies (which you don't even say you want in real life) -- if you aren't "supposed" to fantasize about a certain type of sex, then what you're really saying is that there is only one type of sex women are supposed to want and like, which is actually the fucked-up place women started from before feminism got a toehold in society. Instead, throw out the idea that there's a right and a wrong way to like sex, and focus on what you want out of sex that pleases you, is consensual and doesn't harm other people.
(And, to point out, there is a huge difference between unwanted sexual talk and/or contact and what you like and consent to in your own sexual encounters. Comparing the two is actually accepting of the rape culture frame that conflates sex and rape, punishes women for liking sex, or liking certain sex, and offers that as an excuse to victimize them. So it's actually a more vicious circle than you think.)
When you find yourself struggling with these (supposed) conundrums, ask yourself: where does this line of thought ultimately lead? If this is a legitimate criticism of the things I like, what is the solution or the opposite and does that somehow out me in a place that seems worse than where I started? Do you really think a movement or a philosophy that encourages women to have and utilize the right to choose things for themselves can require you to attend an WNBA game if you hate basketball and would rather see an opera, even if it's written by a man?
Which is not to say that feminism is all I-choose-my-choice-and-that's-feminist-so-I'm-getting-a-feminist-Brazilian-wax sort of thing. Our choices are influenced by our participation in the kyriarchy, and it's important to differentiate between the fact that feminism allows us to make choices for ourselves, and the determination of whether the choices we make are actually self- and context-aware, good for ourselves and others and/or really choices at all or just the perception thereof. And then rather than try to make lipstick and engagement rings and Brazilian waxes and an unabashed love of "Diamonds" a Feminist Choice or a Bad Feminist Choice, let's just say (when applicable) that they're all choices by feminists, and leave it up to each feminist to think about why that choice got made, how it got influenced, who it hurt (if anyone) and give her- or himself the space to not be a mythological Ideal Feminist every single moment of every single day.
Or: criticize the system at least twice as much as the people affected by it.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com