Andi Zeisler is the co-founder of Bitch Media. She speaks frequently on the subjects of feminism, activism and popular culture. This piece was adapted from her book “We Were Feminists Once.”
Looking around the blogosphere in the past few years, there has seemed to be a massive crisis of conscience among young, female and generally white women who consider themselves feminist . . . except. One writer wonders, “Does waxing make me a bad feminist?” Another asks, “Can a feminist wear high heels?”Another: “Can a beauty editor be a feminist?” And still another: “I’m engaged and it makes me feel like a bad feminist.”
Everywhere you turn, there’s a woman wringing her virtual hands over the prospect of not conforming to a mythical ideal, admitting to what she has self-diagnosed as feminist failure and imagining the wrath of her strident foremothers raining down hellfire (or menstrual blood, maybe).
“Sometimes I do stuff which I’m frightened Germaine Greer will find out I like doing,” muses one conflicted soul, who then goes on to confess to loving high heels and kitschy 1950s-housewife apparel. It’s become a formulaic script: Whatever the topic — push-up bras, cheesy romance novels, gonzo porn — there’s a woman out there pondering whether her interest in it somehow negates her basic belief in gender equality. There’s a performativity to it, as though public self-flagellation is equivalent to thorough analysis. Yet all of these pieces conclude with some familiar sentiments: It’s my choice. I do it for me. So it is feminist. But if that’s the case, writing 1,500 words on it for a public forum seems like an odd choice.
It’s true that, in what’s become in recent years an amplified discourse on feminism, such topics are more palatable to lay audiences than analyses of systemic feminist issues — say, violence against women or the need for paid family leave — would be. And yet, handwringing about the political dimensions of personal choices often looks less like a catalyst for change than like a somewhat pointless bid for absolution. If you like high heels, wear them. If you want to get married in a white dress, go on with your bad self. But don’t use a personal essay about it as a hair shirt.
This genre is one of the biggest triumphs of marketplace feminism, which harnesses and celebrates the language, imagery and energy of feminism while depoliticizing and decontextualizing it. Bad-feminist think pieces are almost exclusively the province of young female authors (and their editors) who act on the illusion of free choice offered by the market, and then offer themselves up for corporate media to capitalize on. Most of these essays are written for very little money, and almost all of them are published because they are guaranteed clickbait: They appear on Web sites that rely on numerous daily updates to meet the constant demand for new content. And these women answer this demand by mining their perceived failures.
In doing so, they perpetuate the idea that feminism is a deeply heteronormative, white- and middle-class-centric movement that’s become hopelessly stuck up its own behind. And, you know, sometimes it’s hard to argue against that. Someday, perhaps, we’ll start seeing essays by men with titles like “Does my back wax betray my Marxism?” But so far, we don’t, and that seems like a good enough reason to cool it with the dramatics.
These essays help drive marketplace feminism not only because they omit other topics — keeping the focus firmly in the realm of the sexy and easily sellable — but also because they invariably conclude with an invocation of choice that forecloses on the possibility of deeper exploration.
To be clear, this is not a condemnation of women for feeling confused and bombarded by mixed messages about what they need to do to be successful or desirable or happy. It’s not a condemnation of women who get Botox or style their pubic hair just so. There are countless reasons that all kinds of people enjoy dressing up, making up, pursuing styles, following trends: family and cultural traditions, rebellion from or adhesion to religion and personal expression are only a handful among them.
But what the bad-feminist genre reveals is that the personal, the individual and the appearance-centric are the most likely both to be elevated as sites for empowerment and criticized as things that betray a monolithic idea of feminism. Cultural critic Susan Bordo has pointed out that this kind of rationalization reflex acts as a “diversionary din” that shifts focus from cause — consumer culture, persistent inequality — to symptoms. We don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do our choices. The cultural ideals created and delivered by profit-driven media and corporations have a massive impact on the supposedly free choices we make about our bodies, and rationalizing that away for the length of a personal essay is much easier than trying to change it.