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Posts Tagged ‘choice’

by Julia

I’ve been dealing a lot this summer with a not-uncommon state of conflict within myself (and with my elders) since graduation from college. A lot of me feels like the woman I write about on my résumé – a woman with a fabulously enriching college experience (in an academic and social sense) who is taking the next >2 months to relax in preparation for law school. A major part of this relaxation involves enjoying my independence. I’m grateful to have relative freedom in terms of how and with whom I spend my time during this transition.

Yet it would be disingenuous to paint this summer (and time in my life) as wholly independent of the opinions and pressures of those around me (in both a concrete and abstract sense). As a feminist in my early 20s, I have an indelible internal drive for achievement in every conceivable sense of the word. A major part of this quest centers on surrounding myself with the experiences, resources, people, and places who can both challenge and fulfill me. When I’m on this drive (which is almost always), I want little to stand in my way. I’m autonomous, god damn it!

This indignation, I’m sure, comes from a place of defense against attack. It is no surprise that woman today – even those of us standing in the wake of the second wave feminists – still face daily obstacles towards achieving autonomy. I’ve recently focused my feminism not so much on the idea of equality (with whom?…I don’t want to be like this), but on that of autonomy, which to me seems like I much more difficult, but ultimately more liberating, goal.

All of this is to say that,despite certainly sensing autonomous adulthood at times, I seem to crumble at the slightest sense of a challenge to my expression of choice. Am I aware that my emotional reaction might be a product of my youth? Sure. But I’m exasperated by constantly being told by those older than me (again, abstraction) that I’m incapable of making a choice – about my body, my relationships, my career – without outside input. At what point do young women cross over from being objects of others’s influence to subjects of our own choices?

As you can imagine, it was with great delight that I stumbled across Nancy Bauer’s new article on the New York Times’s feature, The Stone. This feature highlights modern day issues in a philosophical light, so clearly I’d be following it. But philosophy + feminism + dialectics + generational differences in understanding + Lady Gaga? Yea, I’m there, and then some.

I can’t think of a single category in modern society who wouldn’t benefit from reading this piece (maybe if you never interact with young women and never will…), so seriously, click through. Parents should read this. Partners and friends of young women should read this. Most of all, young women: read this.

In summary, Bauer uses the example of Lady Gaga to explain the phenomenon of post-second wave women. Lady Gaga is fabulously independent, seemingly impervious to outside criticism and speculation, and talented in her own right – not to mention progressive on issues of sexuality. At the same time, Gaga is often scantily dressed, pushing boundaries of “acceptable” entertainment, quite thin, and ultimately highly sexualized. What might seem like another analysis of a pop star’s antics quickly becomes entirely relevant to young women through political theory.

Bauer uses both Hegelian dialectics and Sartre’s philosophy on being-in-itself to explain that human beings at once experience themselves as subjects of their own desires and objects of society’s control. Explaining Sartre, Bauer writes:

On occasion we find ourselves pretending that we’re pure subjects, with no fixed nature, no past, no constraints, no limits.  And at other times we fool ourselves into believing that we’re pure objects, the helpless victims of others’ assessments, our own questionable proclivities, our material circumstances, our biology.

de Beauvoir takes this further by asserting that women experience this split more so than men, and often experience subjectivity in a sexual sense. Simone de Beauvoir also realized, however, that women are able to experience subjectivity without sexual objectification, but it is necessary to “re-describe how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.” This redefinition of the world in which we live requires struggle. Simone “warned that you can’t just will yourself to be free, that is, to abjure relentlessly the temptations to want only what the world wants you to want.”

Bauer stumbles when she asserts that Gaga’s autonomy centers solely on her sexuality. I disagree with Bauer (and others) that young women use solely sexual tactics to advance themselves – there are plenty of other choices that parents and elders do not understand that do not involve oral sex or fishnet stockings. What people of previous generations (and perhaps, all those outside of the experiences of young women) fail to realize is this: the choices that we make – even our mistakes – are self-interpreted as a type of power. Bauer admits:

What’s mind-boggling is how girls are able to understand engaging in it [read: deviance], especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power.

Until self-expression – sexual or not – is understood by others not as “mind-boggling” but rather natural behavior for female human beings, young women will continue to struggle against the divide between subjectivity and objectivity, until a separation no longer exists.

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by Julia

This is a paper I recently wrote for my Sociology of Gender class here at Maryland. Limited to 5 or so pages, I had to cut out a ton of elaborations on some of these concepts, but this topic is something in which I’m super interested (and probably would have written my thesis on, had I not been applying to law school last fall). I thought it was pertinent to the topics on this blog, so yea!  (Also, it’s so much more fun to write papers with links.) I encourage comments/questions!

In the decades since the second wave feminists rallied Washington for equal rights, American women have certainly achieved great bounds in education and professional advancement relative to men. While many in society cite these measures as sufficient for deeming feminism irrelevant and unnecessary in an age of such “equality,” these economic measures of women’s equality are, in fact, continuations of patriarchal controls. The gendered institution of capitalism – which through clever marketing purports to be a liberating product of sexual revolution and empowerment – is just another means of reinforcing female subordination through social, political, and economic means. The increased position of women in the labor force is not a sign of liberation, but rather a reproduction of masculine hegemony under the guise of economic choice. The marketing of particular fashion and beauty products to women “appears to displace traditional modes of patriarchal authority” (McRobbie 2007:718), in that, through their increased earnings and prominence in the work force, women can buy products which supposedly liberate them. Capitalism in general works to subordinate one class of people to another through limited access to means of advancement. Capitalism as a gendered institution allows women to advance only to the point at which they believe they have real choice – in their spending patterns, their job options, their life plans. In reality, capitalism serves to reinforce the patriarchal ownership and control structures of society all within the false discourse of women’s liberation and economic choice.

Gendered institutions are established and advanced through a variety of social regulations. Capitalism is no different from other gendered institutions like religion, education, the media, or families. It is both constructed and regulated by formal laws, cultural practices, and discourses. This paper will focus on the latter two categories as a means of reinforcing capitalism as a gendered institution. As mentioned previously, the wide dissemination of discourses surrounding of women’s liberation and putative equality (through both job opportunities and consumerism) is, paradoxically, a means of securing gender retrenchment (McRobbie 2007). One need only look to the myriad products marketed towards women in a way which pretends to be liberating, but is really reinforcing gender stereotypes surrounding behavior, appearance, and (perhaps most important) proper roles in society.

Philosopher Nina Power writes that in this 21st century interpretation of feminism as consumerism, “the desire for emancipation starts to look like something wholly interchangeable with the desire to simply buy more things” (2009: 27-28). She continues that, “stripped of any political quality [to, perhaps, challenge or overturn the patriarchal economy], feminism becomes about as radical as a diamanté phone cover” (2009: 30). Indeed, many of the products recently marketed to women all carry the mantra of liberation – freedom from under-arm hair (Dove deodorant), menstrual cycles (Seasonale), or even pesky stomach aches (probiotic yogurt)– yet they all serve to reinforce the patriarchal domination over women’s bodies and tendencies through compulsory femininity. [1]

Consumerism for modern women is centered not only around the myth of liberation, but also is deeply intertwined with the sexualization of female consumers. McRobbie discusses the myth in great detail, but the discourse can be summarized as follows: “to secure a post-feminist gender settlement, [women must sign] a new sexual contract” (2007: 721). What McRobbie means by this is that the “supposed liberation of women comes in the form of sexualized products [while] wrapped in discourses of individualism, consumerism, and empowerment[2]” (Evans, Riley, Shankar 2010: 115). The recent trends of young girls with Playboy icons on their school supplies, middle-aged women taking pole-dancing aerobics classes, vajazzling, the compulsion to get Brazilian bikini waxes – all of these appear to be means of self-liberation, and the realization of the goals of second-wave feminism. However, these specific purchases are merely the “choices” which capitalism as a gendered institution designs for women to keep them slightly subordinated, while female consumers believe these purchases are either signs of achieving equality or means of advancing towards it. These sexualized products used by women “employ the signifiers of patriarchal and objectifying practices to produce the signified meaning of liberation, assertiveness, and power” (Evans et al. 2010: 120). These dominant consumerist discourses support the theory of social constructionism. Women’s sexuality is not fixed – it is a site of struggle – but capitalism works as a gendered institution to perpetuate the myth that a certain, hyper-sexualized type of woman is the paradigm to which all other women should aspire.

Since the 1960s and the “sexual revolution,” companies have had to work harder to convince “liberated” and working women that their products are still necessary to women’s advancement and happiness. The cultural practices of buying products are further purported to be individual choices, but they actually align with a very specific narrative of capitalist society. Women are so conditioned “to think that [their] behaviors are individual (a degree is an ‘investment,’ starting a family is a ‘personal choice’), that [they] miss the collective and historical dimensions of [their] current situation” (Power 2009: 34). Capitalism works only when certain groups (workers) are subordinated to other groups (owners). Applying an intersectional analysis, Evans et al. realize that gender discrimination is evident in capitalism, but so is racism and classism (and it has been that way since the industrialized period). Capitalist owners subordinate lower classes through their monetary prowess and alienate workers from each other through manufactured compulsions towards competition amongst themselves. It is also pertinent to recognize the power of the patriarchy in shaping how capitalism works to not only subordinate women but also to alienate them from each other and their collective voice.

In this way, capitalist corporations have created a subtle discourse within society that there is no longer any place for feminism – that women can simply work to buy themselves freedom. This is particularly dangerous because it also supports the narrative that critical thinking about one’s condition is no longer necessary. McRobbie writes that “the attribution of apparently post-feminist freedoms to women most manifest within the cultural realm […] becomes, in fact, the occasion for the undoing of feminism” (2007: 719). What goes often unconsidered in this narrative is that waged work is required for this consumed emancipation. Women have always been laborers – only recently has a percentage of their work been recognized as worthy of pay – but now, this waged labor is even less of a choice because of capitalism’s pressures to consume certain products as well as the lack of sufficient social services to allow women real choices, like parental leave. With the dominant narrative that women’s freedoms are intrinsically tied to products comes the inevitable commodification of women’s bodies.

This dangerous narrative has catastrophic consequences for the subordination of women within the economy: “The particular commodity, with whose bodily form [women] the equivalent form [the product] is thus socially identified, now becomes the money commodity, or serves as money” (Marx 1867: 80). This compulsion to consume products in this particularly “post-feminist” and highly sexualized sense is especially challenging for those with fewer resources. There exists a feeling that one must consume in order to fit the feminine – nay, American – ideal (Hong 2006).  Those who feel that they must work just to consume these products of subordination are experiencing patriarchal capitalism on multiple levels – by purchasing sexualized products, lower-class women are experiencing a false sense of empowerment, but because they are working just to consume, they are essentially becoming the aforementioned Marxist commodities.

Post-feminist consumerism exists in a manner which creates an entire commodity culture (Jameson 1991). In this way, “culture” precludes any possibility for true gender equality – it is so saturated with the importance of capital that individual attributes are intentionally ignored. The myth of individualism and liberation intertwined with the consumption of products reinforces the power of capitalism as a gendered institution – designed by men, it is no wonder that capitalism works tirelessly to continually appease women with fun products so they will not truly question the structure of the economy which continually pays them less for equal work and which allows few choices for women outside of the household. It is difficult to tell what products capitalism will develop next to perpetuate its constructed myth of gender equality. What is certain is that, as long as capitalism exists as a major institution of the patriarchy, it will work tirelessly not only for class stratification, but also gender stratification – these are the processes through which the system survives. Touting the recent advancements of women in education and the work force is not sufficient – until sexist capitalism is no longer consumed and supported by financially successful women, it will continue to construct and reinforce a commodity culture which relies upon the subordination of the class of women.

Bibliography:

Evans, Adrienne, Sarah Riley, and Avi Shankar. 2010. “Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture.Feminism Psychology. 20:114-133.

Hong, Grace Kyungwon. 2006. The Rupture of American Capital: Women of Color, Feminism, and the Culture of Immigrant Labor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Random House, Inc.

McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Social Contract.” Cultural Studies. 21:718-737.

Power, Nina. 2009. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester UK: O Books.


[1] It should also be noted that men also suffer under the gendered institution of capitalism. Nor are they immune to the sexualized consumerism of late. This paper, however, focuses on the group most targeted and damaged by gendered consumerism.

[2] And “often excluding those who are not white, heterosexual, and slim.”

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by Elizabeth

Planned Parenthood has released a fabulous video response to the notorious Tim Tebow Focus on the Family advertisement that is slated to air during the Superbowl. The Planned Parenthood ad features former college and professional football player Sean James and gold medalist Al Joyner delivering a beautifully feminist message:

“Only women can make the best decisions about their health and future…We celebrate families by supporting our mothers. By supporting our daughters. By trusting women.”

This message of choices– and the acknowledgment that Mrs. Tebow’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy was a choice itself- is clearly a direct response to the criticism the Tebow ad received.  Sure, Focus on the Family is anti-choice, but the push to pull the ad is counter-productive. What both Focus on the Family and  Planned Parenthood are expressing is the need to “protect the right of women like Pam Tebow to make their private reproductive choices.” And hurrah to Planned Parenthood for doing so in a positive, pro-choice manner!

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by Elizabeth

As Julia mentioned, today is the Fifth Annual Blog For Choice Day and we’ve been given the task of answering “What does ‘Trust Women’ mean to you?”

Here’s my go at it-

As I reflect on the meaning of Dr. Tiller’s favorite slogan on this 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it occurs to me that this is not about abortion. It was never was about abortion. It never will be about abortion. What we are fighting for– and what Dr. Tiller simply, silently, and courageously requested through the pin on his lapel–was choice,  freedom, autonomy, equality,  trust.

Our nation, one made by and for adult citizens, has become one imagined only for fetuses and children, where a mass cultural fixation has turned women into children and babies into citizens. All citizens are not created equal and our rights are not freely granted. This is evident in the legislation that forces women to view ultrasound images, get consent from a parent or spouse, or wait twenty-four hours after having traveled hundreds of miles before they may terminate their pregnancy.   This can be seen in the ability of pharmacists to deny a woman her birth control. This is obvious in the literature of Crisis Pregnancy Centers and pro-life organizations which falsely and frighteningly suggests that women are more likely to contemplate suicide after having an abortion.  It is clear in the prevailing attitudes, practices, and policies make clear that women are not, and should not be, responsible for themselves.

But to trust women and their ability to decide what they want with their bodies is not a simple matter if more choices do not exist. Beyond abortion, we need the opportunity to educate, to provide safe homes and communities, to access health care, to have affordable childcare, to see  family planning or STD clinics, and to receive equal pay for equal work.

We must not only trust women to make decisions but we must also afford them with the opportunities to do so. I trust women to make the decision that they feel is best for themselves, their families, and their lives, but that decision can only be a real decision when choices exist.

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by Julia

A Massachusetts mother, thirty-five-year-old Tessa Savicki, is suing a hospital for forced sterilization. Savicki went into the hospital in 2006 to give birth to her ninth child via Cesarean section. She brought an IUD with her and asked the doctors and nurses present to insert it for her. Instead, Savicki claims, the doctors performed a tubal ligation, an irreversible form of sterilization.

While the hospital is claiming that Savicki signed a now-missing consent form at the time of the procedure, she denies any consent. The Boston Herald adds:

Savicki has nine children from several men, is unemployed and relies on public assistance for two of the four children who live with her. She receives supplemental security income, or SSI, for a disability, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she said. Her mother has custody of three of her children. Two of her children are no longer minors.

Additionally, “Savicki previously sued CVS and the manufacturers of a spermicide that failed because, she claims, she was sold an expired product.”

While the courts figure out the details of the case, the public has been quick to judge the hell out of Tessa Savicki. They point to a number of reasons that would somehow negate Savicki’s right to control her reproductive choices:

  • She already has nine children – she doesn’t need any more!
  • She is poor and relying on the government for assistance – I don’t want to pay for her kids!
  • She’s disabled…obviously, unfit!
  • She’s unemployed! (read: lazy)
  • She isn’t married! Horror!
  • She has slept with more than one man!
  • She’s litigious and just looking for $$!

I’ve spoken to a few feminist friends today about this and have had some surprising reactions to the story. Many of them, when confronted with my statement, “no matter the circumstances, someone else shouldn’t be able to sterilize you without your consent…” get a little iffy, pointing to the reasons above for fodder. How can these women who so staunchly defend a woman’s right to choice in NOT having a child suddenly contradict themselves when faced with a less-than-ideal (meaning not middle-class) mother figure? We’ve seen this kind of mother-shaming before, with both disabled women and women with many children. This article, written in February 2009 about Nadya “Octomom” Suleman, is completely applicable to Savicki’s case:

“Choice does not only involve abortion, it also extends to actively seeking to reproduce. While we may feel dismay at the number of children [a woman] has conceived, the moment we begin to question whether she had the right to make this decision, we invalidate the argument that reproduction is a private issue and that a woman’s body should at all times be under her control.”

Kate Harding points out that Tessa Savicki makes perhaps one of the least sympathetic plaintiffs. It’d be one thing, she writes, if this woman had not had any children – then this would be a true tragedy. But the facts of Savicki’s case should make her the perfect rallying cry for feminists everywhere. Savicki’s case forces us to “set aside classism, ableism, disdain for women who have sex with more men than we might think appropriate, and scorn for “bad mommies” to declare unequivocally” that sterilization of anyone without their consent is wrong.

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