Today the downturn of women’s rights is smacking us upside the face. Femicide is reaching such epidemic proportions that nations like Brazil are introducing special legislation against it. Australia’s rate of sexual violence has jumped 20% in a year, statistics that are reflected in a host of other countries. The global scourge of trafficking continues to reach record highs.
A whole raft of issues are affecting women now more than ever before. Yet, as the events to mark International Women’s Day in Australia showed, most of these issues are eschewed entirely by a feminist dialogue that refuses to look beyond personal choice.
On International Women’s Day the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) hosted an all woman line up to discuss feminism. Yet, in line with downplaying the crisis surrounding women’s rights, the special episode took to dividing audience members based on whether they identified as ‘bad feminists’ or not. This is a category that neither theoretically nor pragmatically exists, more in line with high school buzzwords than progressive politics.
Feminism, broadly speaking, offers a political lens within which gendered issues can be better understood, analysed and contextualised. In the past, feminism has proven to be successful in confronting a number of these issues.
Yet today, for a large part, feminism is entirely liberalized. It is less about global political issues with their gendered contexts, and more about personal choices in the pursuit of individual happiness.
Feminism has been gutted by an individualistic drive to validate lifestyles. ‘Can I wear heels and aprons and be feminist?’ ‘Is this lippy feminist?’ ‘I’m a bad feminist, aren’t I?’
Such questions opened the feminist Q&A session, a fitting reflection of the broader liberal feminist dialogue. At times, there appeared little distinction between feminism and the Cosmo fashion police.
Feminism was not designed as a personal quick fix cure all. It is not going to choose careers, fix relationships or overhaul wardrobes. It’s not going to endorse any choices, make us feel good about our new splurge or tuck us in at night. In fact for the most part, feminism will challenge, trouble and confront.
But it was meant to do just that. Feminism emerged from the consciousness of women of the liberation era, the very women that fought for women’s right to work, our right to vote, our right to not be legally raped in marriage, our right to escape violence in the home and seek refuge. Yet this consciousness is now denied as old and deemed too prudish, wrong or just blatantly ignored.
Taking its place is the shiny new liberal feminism that is far sexier, more ‘feminine’ and ultimately reinforcing of the status quo. Taking up the ‘bad feminist’ label is just one of a myriad of ways liberal feminism misses the point.
Our intensely westernized instinct to ask ‘what’s in it for me’ means feminism has been depoliticised to the point that feminism is purely about ‘personal choice’ and any ‘choice’ being justified regardless of how much harm it might cause to other women around the world.
Cosmetics that rely on sexist and racist stereotypes to sell their product? Feminism. Making pornography where women are slapped, choked and spat on? It’s been called feminism. Promoting the sex industry that is responsible for the exploitation of millions of girls around the world? That’s economic opportunism, or rather, feminism.
Activist Julie Bindel is labelled ‘dangerously irresponsible’ by feminist colleagues for criticizing pornography. As if the multibillion-dollar global porn industry will collapse under one woman’s words. The liberal version of feminism goes to lengths to deny the evidence that shows harm done to girls, women and men under these industries – to the point that feminism now defends the sources of sexism and vilifies women who speak against it.
In its bid to shake the ‘old’ ‘prudish’ and ‘man hating’ stereotypes of past, feminism has had the ultimate makeover. Like a good celebrity, feminism now brings heat rather than light to women’s issues.
Ironically, as feminism has reached its most liberal and least potent form, there is a swelling movement of young people that argue feminism ‘has gone too far’. For young women who are more likely to deal with sexual coercions that eclipse anything we have seen before this is undeniable evidence that any notion of gender equality could not be farther from a reality today.
When the question of young women sexting naked images came up in Q&A, the entire context of socialisation and sexual pressures were ignored. We were reminded it was a ‘choice’ and rebellion. This was no surprise given liberal feminism asserts that pop stars, feminist porn and ‘free choice’ for all of the above will save us.
If we acknowledge there is a war on women, then sexual objectification is it’s propaganda and both sides are selling it. While claiming to promote ‘choice’, liberal feminism has actually reinforced the sexual pressure that sees girl’s choices more constrained than ever before.
This contradictory soup of individualistic choice feminism may make bearable entertainment for women who’ve cut their teeth on feminist literature, but what message is this sending to young women on how seriously we take women’s rights?
The focus needs to shift away from what kind of dresses women like to wear, or what kind of label women like to identify with. The issue is not simply a matter of individual choices or identities.
So, are you a good feminist or a bad feminist? Is it really about you?