Friday, 31 July 2009

Equality, choice and Barbie the feminist hero

In this Guardian op-ed, writer Ellie Levenson defends her book, The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, from some fairly trenchant criticism, delivered in a previous Guardian review. Using Barbie as an example, Levenson hails freedom of choice as a goal of feminism, rejecting the 'self-appointed moral arbiters' of feminism who want to tell all the other ladies what to do and think.

Frankly, I think choice is over-rated - and Levenson shows pretty clearly why. There are aspects over a woman's life over which she absolutely must have individual choice - her sexual and reproductive life, and her right to live free from violence, for example. But Levenson seems to believe that a thing is inherently feminist if a woman happens to choose it, and she seems to not fully understand the fact that women can and do make choices which are harmful to other women. By my definition at least, the choice which harms other women is not a feminist one.

Here's a fairly dumb example. In a moment of utter tactless stupidity, I made a remark about my being fat.* It's my choice to buy into the culture of skinny if I want to. I can impose whatever standards on my own body that I please. Thanks to freedom of speech, I can choose to mouth off about my beliefs if I feel like it. A woman nearby me when I made this remark (and who was a lot fatter than me) was visibly hurt. Good one, Anna. I'd just used my right to choose to contribute to a cultural climate that makes overweight people feel stink about themselves. Feministic? I don't think so.

I'm not talking about abolishing choice of course, but I don't think feminists ought to be advocating a free-for-all. Levenson argues that feminism would attract more women if it didn't really have principles, and while she's probably right, there's clearly something wrong with this picture. My ideal world is one in which we can choose, but in which we have good analystic tools, based in a collective consciousness, to weigh up the value of the options we have to choose from.

* There was a context to my idiotic remark. I was about to go to a job interview, and was pregnant at the time. I was actually hoping to pass for fat rather than pregnant, since I thought I'd be less likely to face discrimination that way ... a whole other feminist issue I'll blather about some other time.


Boganette said...

I'm not a big fan of Ellie Levenson but I read the op-ed anyway. And it was what I expected. I haven't read the book but I can see it as being another dumbed-down feminism book aimed at young women.

And it all seems a bit sad and desperate to me.

I wanted to stop reading at "feminisn't" and probably should have because then I wouldn't have read this bit:

"My feminism is about realism, looking at the issues and choices that face us every day – what to wear, whether to put on make-up, who cooks dinner, whether the route home is safe, whether to apply for promotion at work, and so on."

Now I might be reading this wrong (?) but isn't feminism about A BIT MORE THAN THAT?

I mean make-up? Who cooks dinner? Seriously?

In trying to make feminism seem "less scary" the just make it all so shallow.

I'll take Ariel Levy over Ellie Levenson thanks.

Oh and one more thing - Feminist Barbie? No. Just No.

Anna said...

Boganette, I think your handle is fantastic. I'm going to listen to my Metallica CD this afternoon in honour of it!

I wonder who the market is for the sort of pop feminism that doesn't have much depth. Young women having a slightly unusual rebellious phase? I think there is absolutely a place for beginner feminists text - but beginner shouldn't mean vacuous.

Boganette said...

Thanks Anna :)

And yeah I totally agree. I think if you're beginning your journey into feminism in your 20s (I'm 24) the best place to find information and like-minded people is on the net and maybe womens groups if you go to uni.

Books like Levenson's seem to be aimed at making feminism "sexy" for young women. It's quite insulting really. It's like saying the attention-span of my generation is so short that we need slogan feminism. All the important principles are replaced with catchy and ultimately empty one-liners.

Pisses me right off.

Also books that are controversy for the sake of controversy. I hope I don't offend anyone but I stick Katie Roiphe squarely in that category. I can't stand fem-literature that seems to be just out to create crazy-stupid headlines. It does the movement a disservice.

A Nonny Moose said...

Thanks peeps for adding another argument to my repertoire "Your choice is a choice, unless it harms other women's choices".

And it's not just young women struggling with the feminist role - I've come across men in my generation who are calling feminism "dead" or are under the illusion that it's an "angry" position to take - it's not very feminine at all.