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May 15, 2017 | by  | in Opinion |
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We Were Feminists Once

Dear Cole (VicUFO Column, Issue 06),

I agree with Pam (Letters, Issue 07) that your statement, “As long as it is consenting and feels empowering to you, then it is feminist” seems more like neoliberal individualism than feminism. Your lecturer might be asking some uncomfortable questions, but they’re important and worth discussing.

For example, as feminists, while we’re “posing semi-nude and advertising accessories” we could consider the role the fashion industry plays in promoting beauty as a key standard by which young women continue to be judged (and self-judge) in our society, and the links that has to mental health issues, anorexia, and a sense of self worth. Emma Watson argued after her recent Vanity Fair shoot that “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women” — but it is also not a free pass to label whatever you happen to do as feminist.

While we’re advocating “sucking dick for cash” as a potential feminist choice, we could consider the 68% of sex workers who qualify as suffering from PTSD (Anklesaria & Gentile, 2012), or the young women who are slapped around and physically damaged by the male-dominated gonzo porn industry which continues to promote pain and humiliation as the preferred female sexual experience. If this is feminism, then who needs patriarchy? The industries that profit from the buying and selling of female bodies will applaud you. I agree with you that women should be able to be sexual beings, and still be successful and respected. But the fashion, sex, and porn industries are still not overly inclined to give women that option, so let’s not assume that women participating in those industries is equivalent to women having the power to self-determination in those industries. Perhaps there are better ways we can engage than advocating more women volunteer as canon fodder.

I’m not criticising your feminist intentions Cole, but I genuinely believe feminism needs to find its way back to a more rigorous collective politics, as problematic as that may be. Can we advocate for systemic change over individual experience? We need to be more demanding of feminism and what it can be, rather than settling for what Andi Zeisler describes in We Were Feminists Once as “…marketplace feminism… decoupled from politics [and] staunchly focused on individual experience and actualisation.” Or as Jessa Crispin (2016) argues: “If feminism is nothing more than personal gain disguised as political progress, then it is not for me.” If our “empowering” feminist choices have negative implications for other women, to what extent are they feminist? It’s an uncomfortable question, but one we need to discuss.

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