The problem with “choice feminism”

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Columnist

In 1968, women flung girdles, Playboy magazines and bras into a trash can, symbolically freeing themselves from the instruments of their oppression. In the coming decades, scores of women declined to take their husbands’ surnames after marriage, renouncing the tradition and its roots in female coverture. Now in the twenty-first century, young women all over social media proudly tout the aforementioned items as empowering, and only 20 percent of women opt to keep their last names. What happened?

This is not a judgment of these women, nor is it an undiscerning endorsement of late twentieth-century feminism. Second-wave feminism, a movement that broadened the scope of feminism from foundational legal rights, had many problems: it catered chiefly to middle- and upper-class white women, ignoring the plight of women of color and working-class women. Its blatant and unapologetic rejection of the markers of patriarchy was not among these problems, though the prevailing voices of modern feminism might disagree.

The wave of feminism under which I came of age seems to concede to the (mostly male) pushback received during second-wave feminism. We recede into the safety of individual choice, distancing ourselves from the brash, homely bra-burners of the ‘70s. Now, it seems that any action, choice or product can be a feminist one as long as it is labeled as such. “Choice feminism,” which emerged alongside post-feminist ideology, tells us that all individual choices made by women are inherently feminist. This effectively takes the bite out of feminism, making it palatable to the mainstream and also arguably ineffectual.

Choice feminism argues, for instance, that a woman’s decision to stay at home is equally as feminist as another woman’s decision to work because they are both exercising their right to choose. I unequivocally support the rights and dignity of stay-at-home moms and housewives, but their choices were not formed in a vacuum; like all of ours, they were shaped by years of socialization under patriarchy. It isn’t productive to uncritically laud each choice a woman makes while ignoring the factors that led up to it. 

Illustration by Hannah Paul.

Admittedly, actual third-wave feminist theory, sprouting from Black feminist scholars and punk subcultures, is radical and plenty subversive. The main culprit of this move to defanged, marketable feminism seems to be social media. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr have allowed for the wide dissemination of feminist thought, making feminism more mainstream than ever.

At first glance, this may seem like a cause for celebration — seemingly more women and girls are identifying with the label of “feminist” than ever, and social media has made feminist ideology far more accessible and readily available to the public. However, social media has presented us with a somewhat lackluster cousin of feminism, due both to its bite-sized format and the drive to make things marketable, palatable and aesthetically pleasing.

It’s been a convenient trajectory for companies, who have readily slapped “feminist” on their products, sat back and profited. Feminism, like many other social movements, has been completely commodified. The same products that women tossed into the “Freedom Can” in 1968 are now marketed as inherently empowering, and for the most part, they’ve succeeded. We’ve internalized it. 

These days, mainstream feminism feels more like an aesthetic or an identifier than a commitment to radical change. While social media plays a vital role in spreading information and fueling activism, it has certainly taken a toll on the foundation of feminism, diluting it for mainstream appeal and commodification. A massive reframing of the word and the movement are in order — after all, “feminist” isn’t a dirty word, but who cares if it is?