Laverne Cox nude

Choice feminism: Time to ‘choose’ another argument

There’s much ado about “choice feminism” lately and some of it surely a bit of healthy autocriticism. If feminism means anything, after all, then it means nothing. 

“Choice feminism” — the idea that feminism means women can individually choose whatever they wish and consider it an inherently feminist act — is certainly an insidious outgrowth of the commodification of empowerment. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” has come a long way, branching out into various manifestations of neo-”girl power” and pseudo-feminism promulgated by corporations like Unilever in its many Dove commercials, as well as adverts for makeup and shampoo that seem to subtly sell empowerment as well as a greasy bit of beauty product.

Feminist criticism of choice rhetoric could focus on how it has a profoundly deleterious impact on women’s economic status (consider the widespread argument that women choose occupational segregation that just happens to shunt us into lower paying fields) or in areas of discrimination (she chose to step down from her job after getting pregnant). Instead, many anti-“choice feminism” critiques lately, typified by this recent article by Meagan Tyler, exemplify an unfortunate tendency in feminism to upbraid individual women for how we try to survive or accommodate ourselves in patriarchy. This genre of feminist criticism fixates squarely on women’s sex and sexuality in ways that are more than a little alarming


Our choices in this society are all mediated. Every single one. We find it easier to make certain personal choices because of how the panoply of possibilities are constrained for us. A woman who quits her job after bearing a child, for example, may be “making her own choice,” but a society where there is no guarantee of parental leave, where workplaces remain hostile to pregnant women and new mothers, and where our conception of the ideal worker is still inherited from a 1950’s male breadwinner model all make that choice considerably easier for her to make.

As a sociologist I cut my teeth as Dr. Pamela Stone’s research assistant, helping her with a follow up to her pathbreaking study Opting Out, which sought to understand a supposed “trend” identified by media outlets of women in high flying careers that quit their jobs after having children. It puts the lie to the idea that this was a simple choice that these women made without any outside influences or pressures; instead there were a variety of “push/pull” factors that made these choices easier for them, more attractive, and, indeed sometimes the only viable choice they could make. When we valorize these women’s choices as entirely their own and inherently feminist, we stop asking why women make them and why there are large visible trends in income, occupational stratification and segmentation, and the “work/family balance” issue. Put simply, these women’s “choices” were not entirely theirs.

While there is much to criticize in a beauty culture that markets its effluence as empowerment, it is no less subject to this mediation. We feel beautiful when we adhere to its tenets because society rewards that self-conception. Swimming against that current, particularly if you have a body that is ontologically unfit by beauty culture’s standards, requires a good deal more gumption and self-assurance. Certain choices about how we adorn ourselves are made easier or more painless by society’s circumscriptions.

But if we are all stuck in that system, then surely picking on women making a very particular set of mediated choices therein begins to look suspect. Even the most radically minded feminist is making choices about her body, her adornment, her life that are socially mediated and not entirely her own. Even if she recognizes this — as she surely must — she also doubtlessly acts and comports in a way incompatible with an imaginary feminist utopia, or the ideal typical form of true feminism. Why punish other women for trying to make the compromises their own? Or for finding ways to be joyous in the midst of these narrowed choices even as we fight?


Radical feminists who fixate on hegemonic beauty culture and how some women celebrate their participation in it are committing a cardinal sin that is endemic not just to radical feminism, but all forms of political radicalism: assigning mortal political meaning to our performance of self. Getting your breasts done is not necessarily a feminist act; but then again, neither is wearing your hair short or adopting a “butch” style for one’s self.

This is one of the things that puts radical feminists in the ironic company of queer and postmodern feminists who live and breathe the idea that every bit of our sartorial and sexual performance constitutes a politically significant and impactful act. This is also why some transphobic queer feminists and radical feminists come together on attacking trans women as grotesque mannequins of patriarchal performance. They see our sartorial choices, our gender, and any surgeries we may get as a form of mutilation and compromise that is politically unsound. We inherently fail to perform feminism properly in this reckoning because of how we dress, how we identify, and who we are. Meanwhile, other queer folk — like, say, masculine-presenting genderqueer people — are assigned a more radical political valence; their existence is seen as an inherent strike against patriarchy.

Both perspectives are dehumanizing. On the same token, it is equally dehumanizing to see a woman (cis or trans) who gets breast surgery or who gets married as a traitor to feminist ideals who is setting back the cause. Society is certainly the multiplicative product of our actions, but at the level some feminists like Tyler criticize women it becomes just another kind of pointillist politics hopelessly focused on a narrow range of personal affectations. Such acts may indeed not be inherently feminist, but nor are they inherently anti-feminist.

It’s also worth noting how many, mostly white, radical feminists seem to obsess over Black women in particular. Witness all the debates about Beyonce, for instance, that hand-wring over what she does with her body and how many women of color admire her for her “flawlessness.” Consider also the way that others, like Megan Murphy, have outright attacked Laverne Cox for the same thing, going so far as to suggest that she is not a real woman because she posed naked. And thus we come to the terrible logical endpoint of this fixation; women who appear to make certain sexual choices are patriarchal dolls who fall out of the realm of “true womanhood” — funny how this seems to befall Black women, cis and trans, with especial frequency.

Yes, it’s racist. It also stems from this same fixation on “choices” that can be perceived as sexual or sartorial in nature. Yes, that we find Laverne Cox’s nude to be beautiful says a lot about what our standards of beauty are; but it is equally true that for a Black trans woman to be regarded as beautiful is also something that is uniformly positive for a lot of women like her. Or me, as a Latina trans woman. I did not think I would see a trans woman of color become an icon the way she has; regarding politics, however, I judge her by her activism, not by how she poses, and that substance leaves little to be desired. She has drawn attention to those most marginalized in our horrendously oppressive prison system, the plight of trans women of color brutalized by the police and murdered in the streets, and more. Is that not more meaningfully radical than the fact that she can be regarded as beautiful in our present day society?

I know it is for someone like me. I wear lipstick because I am afraid that if I do not pass for cis I will get beaten or worse. My makeup is armour; and yes, that says a lot about the oppressive nature of patriarchy. I am not free to make choices about my appearance where I do not consider how cisgender men will react to it. That’s real. But it also does not make me a complicit collaborator in patriarchy. Nor does the fact that, frankly, I do like lipstick and might wear it often even without the threat of “not passing.”


I am certainly not fond of the idea that we should consider every choice a woman makes “feminist” — it puts us well on the road to completely devaluing any affirmative meaning feminism may have. But the real problem with “choice feminism” is its fixation on individual choices, and so the answer to this is not feminist criticism that tries to assign those same choices a negative political value. That’s merely buying into the same binarist, neoliberal logic you criticize.

Conversely, the individual fixation which, as Tyler correctly suggests, renders women invisible as a class is a real issue. But the ideological roots of this, in classical liberalism, capitalist ideologies and so on, are found not in beauty culture or heterosexual marriages but in an antipathy to regarding classes of persons as political subjects unto themselves. The Supreme Court case Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes which ruled that female employees of Wal-Mart could not sue for discrimination as a class, and therefore precluded the possibility of a class-action suit, is typical of this tendency that is now pervasive in our society. This was in spite of overwhelming evidence of a structural problem at the retailer that needed to be addressed by a legal case that pitted a collective against a collective, rather than one woman at a time against the nation’s largest corporation.

This fetish for individualism uber alles is indeed a problem, but it is not best explained — or combated — by attacking women who, say, get married or really enjoy wearing makeup.

The real death of a collective feminist politics lies there, surely, fiddling the same piddling few notes while our society burns.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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