For many women, especially those who are not white or middle class, the debate over whether individual choices are empowering or not is stale and distracting
For every selfie taken or pair of high-heeled shoes bought, lying in wait is someone quick to tell you that your photographs or footwear have not empowered you. Those clothes? Not empowering. Your TV choices? No way.
It all goes hand in hand with the seemingly endless “are you a feminist if ...?” discourse. Are you a feminist if you watch the World Cup? Is it feminist to shave your armpits, but not your legs? Can you call yourself feminist if you like rap music or violent films, or once bought a glossy overpriced celebrity magazine at the airport because you missed your flight and had nothing else to read? Who knows? I don’t. What I do know is that the feminist discussion that often comes with it is a distraction – a distraction that I, for one, cannot wait to be rid of.
Last week, the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman argued that “empowerment” had lost its meaning, citing selfies and Spanx as just two examples in which women have had empowerment marketed to them. But I think this perpetuates a stale conversation. Sometimes, it’s just not that deep; whether it’s narcissistic or not, people can simply like taking photos of themselves. Women aren’t saying that all selfies, all the time, are always feminist.
For a lot of women, especially those of us who aren’t white and middle class, the endless back-and-forth analysis of whether every individual choice is or isn’t feminist is something we don’t have the time for. Class is a big part of this. Many of the things that women are told can never be empowering – clothes, makeup, messy nights out on the town – are easily affordable to middle-class women. If you’ve never felt disempowered because of the money you don’t have, how can you understand why so many working-class women feel powerful accessing a lifestyle that capitalism has dangled in front of them for so long?
Women’s politics should not – and, in my opinion, does not – revolve around defending the snaps women take of themselves on nights out. Yes, as a black woman, it can feel political to love my appearance in a world that constantly tells me to hate the way I look. However, the implication that my politics end there perpetuates the sexist idea that my appearance, and how much I care about it, can be a basis for dismissing the rest of what I have to say.
Take the discussion about sex work. Feminists who say sex work is not empowering should be challenged – and they often are, but not by the sex-worker-rights movement. Sex worker-led organisations aren’t talking about empowerment, and many actively resist attempts by the media to push them into that frame. Instead, they tend to focus on criminalisation, poverty and survival. But when these conversations are misrepresented, they paint sex workers and their allies as merely battling for fluffy empowerment.
“Choice feminism” seems to be a phrase mainly used to caricature young women’s thoughtful feminist organising. I agree that we shouldn’t unthinkingly celebrate each other for the choices we make, but, rather than attacking selfies and sex workers, it would be good to see some self-reflection from more established feminists. From Sisters Uncut to the Sex Worker Open University, Gal Dem zine to Action for Trans Health, fourth-wave feminists are hard at work. Yes, the selfies we do or don’t take can be great – sometimes, they’re empowering, other times not – but they don’t define our politics.
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