Guest post: Our choices are not made in a cultural vacuum

While I was writing that last post, Elsa Roberts was writing this one which she posted on Facebook. She gave me permission to republish it here.

Somewhere, somehow, responses in any community start to short circuit and we begin to rely too heavily on coded phrases as stand-ins for conversation and complexity, and reason and evidence. For example, because feminism is about enabling equity and with that comes the ability to choose sometimes that gets boiled down to “any choice a woman makes is feminist and can’t be criticized (or theoretically it could be but just try it and see how that works out in some circles).

That is fundamentally flawed and thoughtless way of examining something. When we boil things down to catch phrases and jargon we lose the ability to analyze thoughtfully and to consider all the evidence and context on the table.

One of the most pernicious and irritating examples of this for me is the one alluded to above, that if a woman chooses something that is “her choice” and critiquing it or judging it or thinking critically about it is almost automatically shaming or un-feminist. That is a really misguided supposition because our choices are influenced by many things and many of our choices are not going to be feminist or they will just have very little to do with feminism.

Our choices are not made in a cultural vacuum, how I choose to dress, what I watch on TV, etc. is all influenced by the company I keep and the culture I live in. If we want to make this world more equitable and question and change our practices, we must be able to evaluate them critically and admit when a given practice or choice isn’t feminist or when it is simply irrelevant as to whether it is or not.

Feminists fight endlessly about whether, for example, lipstick is feminist or heels are feminist. This, to me, misses the point. Those objects are not fundamentally feminist or not feminist, but as objects they do serve as signifiers in our culture and they fit into broader social norms and regulations and expectations. That is why if a man wears lipstick or heels he is at risk of violence – because those are symbolic of femininity that is supposed to be pleasing to men. Men wearing such things threatens those norms and confuses what those objects “mean” in our world.

Boiling these topics down to “choice” is to ignore the complexity of our world and social dynamics and to deny the reality of how choice functions.


  1. johnthedrunkard says

    The choice to end a pregnancy is feminist in a culture where vast numbers of women do NOT have any choice about beginning one.

    BUT. Sex selection by abortion isn’t really her choice. The social pressure, from a culture so toxicly misogynist, makes the ‘choice’ language a mockery.

    All the tosh about women ‘choosing’ to go veiled—miraculously linked to the religious enthusiasms of their MALE supervisors—or have squads of Xian Warrior children?

  2. freemage says

    I would only want to add that the counter-complaint can be valid. It’s important to distinguish between the choice, the chooser and the culture; it gets problematic when the critic blurs the lines between these categories. Take the lipstick example; it’s straightforward enough to criticize a culture that declares lipstick to be a feminine virtue (or, for that matter, a feminine vice–fundamentalist religions often view any sort of make-up as a form of immodesty, after all).

    It’s trickier to criticize the choice itself, though. Motives matter, here–a woman who likes the way lipstick makes her lips look has made a good personal choice, possibly even a feminist one if her subculture would seek to restrain that option (say, a dark red shade being worn by a Duggar daughter). A woman who dons that same lipstick because she believes it’s necessary to ‘look good for her man’ is clearly not doing the same thing; one who wears lipstick to the office every day may even be perpetuating a different, anti-feminist stereotype, especially if she is in a position of authority in the office (to-wit, highlighting her appearance over her accomplishments).

    And going beyond that, and criticizing the woman herself for that choice, is even dicier, doubly so when it’s coming from a privileged ally. Men telling women that they are doing feminism “wrong’ gets seriously problematic, even when the core criticism may be considered valid.

  3. Beth says

    You discussed “A woman who dons that same lipstick because she believes it’s necessary to ‘look good for her man’” as a counterpoint to a feminist wearing lipstick because she likes the way it makes her look. Are women not allowed to be both feminist and also want to ‘look good for her man’? Doesn’t that attitude feed into the negative stereotype of feminism?

  4. luzclara says

    Thank you for this clear statement, Elsa Roberts and Ophelia for posting it. Here is my favorite part about choice and choosing and it HER CHOICE so shut up.

    “That is fundamentally flawed and thoughtless way of examining something.”

    Also analytically lazy and superficial.

    Thank you again.

  5. Morgan says

    Beth, you’re responding to a distortion of what freemage actually said.

    You discussed “A woman…” as a counterpoint to a feminist…

    No, they discussed two women, not “a woman” and “a feminist”. Nothing in the comment said that either woman was not-a-feminist.

    Are women not allowed to be both feminist and also want to ‘look good for her man’?

    Sure, but nonetheless one who arranges their appearance for the sake of another “is clearly not doing the same thing” as one who arranges their appearance to please themselves, which is what freemage actually said.

    Besides which, there’s a difference between “I want to make myself attractive to my partner” and “I have to wear lipstick because it’s necessary to look good for my man” – the former is personal, the latter is laden with societal expectations.

    Doesn’t that attitude feed into the negative stereotype of feminism?

    The attitude you describe might, since you appear to be projecting it on to what was actually said, based on a negative stereotype of feminism of your own.

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