Recently I’ve gotten into a few heated exchanges on Feministing.com over my habit of critically discussing other people’s choices – particularly, other feminist-identified people’s choices. And in doing so, I’ve run up against an odd kind of group-think that I haven’t encountered much before. It goes like this: If a feminist chooses to do something, that thing is automatically a feminist act. To question the choices of a fellow feminist is to question her dedication to feminism itself, which is utterly out of bounds for a discussion between self-identified feminists. Or something like that.
I first noticed this on a thread about makeup and choosing to wear it or not. The original post was on Feministing Community, wherein the feminist in question said that she didn’t see why she had to give up wearing makeup in order to be a feminist, and that she liked wearing makeup. I posted something to the effect of, “You don’t have to give up wearing makeup to be feminist. There are a lot of feminists who wear makeup. In general, I view the wearing of makeup as adhering to the patriarchally-defined Beauty Standard, and thus an unfeminist act. However, I understand that 1: there are multiple ways to use makeup, and not all of them are for the purposes of meeting the Beauty Standard; 2: It is often advantageous to live in compliance with the Beauty Standard (after all, if there were no social reinforcement for the behavior there’d be no reason to do it) so it can make sense to choose to do so despite one’s principles, and 3: I myself wear makeup often, usually as a compliance measure, so I’m not saying you can’t or that I judge you for doing it. However, I would say that if you choose to wear makeup in a way that seeks compliance with the Beauty Standard, you should think critically about why you’re doing it and the implications of your decision.”
…and a shitstorm ensued. You’d think I had suggested that all feminists must get breast implants in order to attract more men to feminism, or something equally outrageous! I was piled-on by commenters chastising me for “judging” the OP. My comment was misrepresented repeatedly and I was attacked for saying things I had never, in fact, said. I replied by clarifying my comments, emphasizing that I wasn’t judging the OP for her choice, and again saying that I just felt we should think about what patriarchal structures our decisions may play into, without ever saying we MUST decide one way or another based on that assessment. All I was arguing was that we should think critically about the issue and make informed decisions. Is that such a sin?
Apparently, it is. Just try to say, particularly to the crowd at Feministing, that you think a feminist *shouldn’t* do something, and watch what happens. Any attempt to critically discuss a feminist’s choices – even if you carefully say that you’re not trying to actually stop her from doing what she wants – is automatically viewed as an attack on her person and her feminism.
So what constitutes a feminist act, then? Is the only criteria that it is something done by a feminist? Can non-feminists undertake feminist acts? Can a feminist undertake an anti-feminist or un-feminist act?
A feminist act, to me, is simply an act that promotes gender equality and seeks to undermine, overthrow, or otherwise disobey the dictates of the patriarchy we struggle against. An un-feminist act is one that upholds the patriarchal status quo, and an anti-feminist act is one that actively promotes patriarchy or denigrates feminism.
My father would never call himself a feminist in a million years, but if he called out a rape joke someone made in his presence and told the person making it why that wasn’t cool, I would count that a feminist act. I am a feminist and have identified as so for years, and yet I am conscious of the fact that, when I shave my legs and put on makeup to enhance my features and dress fashionably and do my hair and show off my cleavage to advantage because it makes my life easier, I am undertaking un-feminist (though not anti-feminist) acts that indicate my acceptance of patriarchal dictates on the subject of personal appearance for women. I accept that, and own that choice.
Everyone has to make their own choices. I won’t judge a feminist for choosing to undertake un-feminist acts, or try to stop her. After all, realpolitik is the rule of the world. Purists and idealists don’t usually get very far. However, it is a dangerous kind of group-think to be unwilling to ever criticize the actions of a group member. We must take responsibility for the choices we make, and sheltering ourselves from critical analysis is no way to do that.