Against “Choice Feminism”: four new suggested topics

Feminism is not about an individual’s choices, and not all choices are feminist just because a woman makes them. Furthermore, “choices” don’t happen in a vacuum: they are shaped by the world around us. Many widely-shared articles on feminism make these points, and yet they typically seem strangely limited in terms of which “choices” are up for discussion. The choices discussed are generally “what amount of makeup to wear, whether to go ‘natural’ or buy mascara that makes your eyelashes look like false eyelashes … whether or not to make a first move with a man”, or choices as regards to “the sex industry, … marriage and makeup” – or (yes, this again) the ‘choice to participate in the sex industry’, or to wear makeup. You get the idea! It seems that some issues – makeup, sex work – come up repeatedly in these ‘did-you-know-not-every-choice-is-feminist’ articles.

These issues are up for ‘discussion’ in only the loosest sense: the authors generally get no deeper into the topic than name-checking them, and then telling us “yes, we make choices, but these are shaped and constrained by the unequal conditions in which we live”, or “[it is not] the case that by definition any choice a woman makes must be feminist simply because she is a woman”. Often feminists adopt a slightly confessional tone in relating that they wax or wear makeup themselves, in the spirit of demonstrating that it’s not just ‘other women’ whose choices they are ‘interrogating’: we’re all in this together, sisters!

For a while now, I’ve been struck by the repetitive nature of the of ‘choices’ cited as up for examination. As such, I’d like to suggest some new choices to examine – some choices that mostly seem to remain “invisible choices” within mainstream feminism.

  • The choice to talk about beauty and makeup as if everyone experiences these issues the same way – which erases women of colour, trans women, disabled, fat, working class and queer women (and women who experience oppression on several of these axes at once). The choice to leave these women out of the conversation glosses over the fact that ‘beauty ideals’ are policed with more aggression for some women (for example: for trans women and women of colour, using makeup might be a strategy to attempt to avoid violence or harassment, and therefore not something they can simply opt out of having read a ‘not-all-choices-are-feminist!’ article). The choice to present the argument in this way also obscures the extent to which women who have been excluded from white supremacist, cissexist, queerphobic and disablist beauty standards use makeup and other modes of femininity as tools of creativity, self-care, and resistance – in ways which aren’t accounted for by a simple “not all choices are feminist!” analysis. Whose perspective is being privileged by the choice to gloss over the experiences of women who experience intersecting oppressions? How does choosing to gloss over those women’s experiences reify existing structures that govern whose experiences are centred as default, and whose are ‘other’, and marginalised?

The choice to present complex conversations and decisions as simple “choice feminism” flattens womens’ lives (and the lives of femmes of other genders) into simple binaries, and seems designed to enable columnists to then patronisingly explain, “no, not every choice is feminist” (again and again and again). It also functions as a derail: sex workers often have conversations about our rights and safety dominated by people saying “choicy choice McFeminism”, or arguing over whether our “choice” is “feminist” (who cares?). The fiction that marginalised women invariably seek to focus on “choice” (rather than survival, rights, resistance) is used to as a bludgeon to caricature conversations that mainstream feminists can’t be bothered to listen to – or don’t want to happen, because those conversations might de-centre their concerns.

We’re used to being told that ‘choice feminism’ serves power by facilitating the co-option of feminism into neoliberalism, but I’m struck by how ‘choice discourse’ often seems to be used by women with more power writing about women with less power (non-sex working women writing about sex workers, a white cis woman writing about a black trans woman). How might the choice of feminists with relative privilege to caricature other womens’ politics into “choice feminism” serve power? (It’s certainly been a successful tactic so far in helping to prevent sex workers from gaining labour rights.) Feminists who write critically about ‘choice feminism’ are mostly at pains to emphasise that all choices are made in a context shaped by patriarchy, and yet only some choices seem to crop up over and over, and it’s not the choice of a journalist to write about the ‘success’ of sex work legislation, and only bother to talk to the police. Let’s interrogate some choices! Let’s talk about that choice.