Printer Friendly

To choose or not to choose: a politics of choice.

Postmodernism, at its best, stands for multiculturalism, decentralization of power, and the emergence of new foci of power other than the white heterosexual male paradigm. At its worst, postmodernism degenerates into a New Age naivete and shallowness that tells us "don't worry, be happy," "we create our own reality," and that promotes notions of "free choice" and "liberty" stripped of any analysis of power imbalances or historical context.

A shallow "politics of choice" has crept its way into gender politics, acting as a wedge to slowly pry apart the integrity of the feminist analysis of society. It threatens to turn feminism upside down, transforming it from a liberation movement into one that caters to a libertine sensibility pursuing simply the cause of liberty--the ability to do as one wishes. Bestselling authors like Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia, as well as MTV feminists and sexual liberals like Madonna and Suzie Bright, have elevated the cant of free choice and individual liberty to a new plateau, issuing a challenge to the perceived "prudery" of traditional feminists.

Yet these two movements--one for liberation, the other for liberty--are very different, aiming for very divergent outcomes. Oddly enough, this liberal/libertine feminist philosophy of free choice has more in common with the laissez-faire, free-market economics of the Bush and Reagan administrations than any civil libertarian or sexual liberal would care to admit. In curious ways, left meets right.

What's wrong with liberty, an inquiring mind might ask? What's wrong with the "freedom to do as one wishes"? Isn't that one of the great philosophical underpinnings of democracy racy in the United States? Of course it is, which should be enough to alarm any person seeking justice and equality. In the name of liberty--free choice and free enterprise--slaves were shipped from Africa, Native Americans were massacred and their land stolen, and women and children were held as the property of the male head of household. In the name of liberty, as late as 1868, a North Carolina court upheld the "rule of thumb" standard, which said that a switch used for beating one's wife must be no wider than one's thumb. ("The violence complained of would, without question, have constituted a battery, if the subject had not been the defendant's wife:' ruled the court.) White male liberty has almost always come at the expense of women, children, and ethnic minorities; white male Iiberty has usually been the antithesis of womenss liberation.

Despite the passage of more than a century--as well as the sweat, tears, and triumphs of grass-roots feminist activism--nineteenth-century modalities of liberty still linger into our modern age. A good portion of our contemporary constructs of liberty and free choice springs from the nineteenth century and its tradition of classical liberalism. Central to this tradition was the view that "that government governs best that governs least' " We can see the descendants of classical liberalism today in two disparate groups: free-traders and private-property-rightist like George Bush and Dan Quayle, columnist George Will, and Ron Arnold of the Wise Use Movement on the one hand; and civil libertarians, pro-pornography advocates, and sexual liberals like Madonna, Camille Paglia, Hugh Hefner, Bob Gucccione, and the American Civil Liberties Union on the other.

The First Amendment tradition of the latter group builds on the classical liberal view which equates free speech with maximum individual liberty and defines liberty as the absence of government interference. Their paradigm of free speech is that of the street-corner radical, inveighing from his or her soap-box unhindered by police authorities. This paradigm is also obsolete and increasingly conservative, since the impact of such individuals on the arena of public discourse has been totally eclipsed by the corporate media, cable television, and the fetishized privacy of the VCR generation. Practically speaking, most people today cannot produce the kind of media that impacts public discourse. The free speech--the "liberty"--of corporations like NBC and the New York Times is hardly equal, either in frequency or quantity, to the free speech of most individuals, whether the latter yell at the top of their lungs from a street corner or not.

If history is any indicator, a milieu in which pure liberty reigns results in the strong prevailing over the weak and the wealthy overpowering the poor; men are privileged over women and small, underdeveloped countries are at the mercy of larger, industrial powers. Large newspapers gobble up smaller ones, and strong corporations raid the weak. Pure liberty is "survival of the fittest" and the "law of the jungle" wrapped in a kinder and gentler bow. Today, philosophies of liberty and free choice--shorn of any analysis of or remedies for power imbalances-lead to such travesties as international free-trade agreements where corporations have the "free choice" to pick up and move at will to the Third World, pitting the workers and the health and environmental standards of one country against another. They also give a potent, undeserved weapon to the language of discrimination and backlash in the debate over political correctness, as hate speech is defended as simply another choice of free expression. They allow property rightists to claim as their "free economic choice" the right to blacktop a wetlands or clear-cut a mountainside which they own. They accord corporations the same legal status as private individuals in the areas of speech, press, and property rights, despite the great inequalities between corporations and most individuals. And they lead to the shrill claims of reverse discrimination by white men and the melting away of affirmative-action programs, as the privileged watch with horror the loss of their "liberty," their ability to do as they wish."

Into this milieu enters the feminist politics of choice. The pro-choice movement illustrates the tensions between liberty and liberation, and oddly enough may have paved the way for much of the current feminist balkanization. In the defense of abortion, there have been two explicit rationales: one recognizing the sovereignty of a woman over her own body, and the other defending abortion as a womans civil right to economic and political equality, which unwanted pregnancies and forced motherhood infringe upon. The alliance of these two rationales represents a genuine overlap of interest between womens liberty and liberation--so rare for women in a male-dominated society--since the right to control one's body is the most fundamental liberty and the most liberating of all rights.

But the legal right codified in Roe v. Wade was simply a civil-libertarian right to privacy without any mention of equality. Since Roe v. Wade, the defense of abortion has been popularized as a civil-libertarian right to choice, and civil-libertarian organizations like the ACLU and the Playboy Foundation have been highly visible in promoting this aspect of the women's liberation agenda. Paradoxically, this right is the same one that men cite as the basis of their right to buy pornography and even to hang it in the workplace (a right recently defended by the ACLU); it was also the basis of the husband's earlier right to rule his home, wife, and children as his private fiefdom.

Feminist activist Nikki Craft was rudely reminded in 1987 of the difference between liberty and liberation when she was the plaintiff in a Cape Cod lawsuit defending her and other women's right to go shirt-free like men at a public beach. A host of civil libertarians-including ACLU lawyers, the Naturist Society, and other members of the nudist-naturist movement--joined and substantially funded the lawsuit until Craft insisted that the legal defense be based upon a woman's equal right to go shirt-free rather than a civil-libertarian right to First Amendment expression. The civil-libertarian funders balked and attempted strong-arm tactics; finally, only hours before a high court ruling, Graft and 11 other feminists withdrew from the lawsuit rather than let themselves be party to setting a legal precedent based upon values that, in their view, were so often misused by the likes of pornographers and naturist pedophiles against women and children.

At no time in recent memory has the philosophy of choice and liberty divided women and their allies so much as in that brand currently espoused by women like Madonna, Camille Paglia, and even feminist author Naomi Wolf. After brilliantly dissecting and slaying the "beauty myth' in her groundbreaking book of the same name, Wolf goes on to envision a new way forward--indeed, a "third wave" of feminism. But this third wave incorporates a curious concept of choice. According to Wolf:

The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don't, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is our lack of choice.... A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission ... to do whatever we choose in following--or ignoring--our own aesthetic.

In her book, and even more so on the college-lecture and talk-show circuit, Wolf speaks in favor of (and even demonstrates with her own fashionable appearance) a new feminist ethic in which women reclaim a self-defined glamor "as merely a demonstration of the human capacity for being enchanted." In other words, even as she slays the old "beauty myth," Wolf offers a newer, improved version to her audience, with the following condition: if women freely choose to dress and paint themselves like the old "beauty myth," then that's okay. The obvious corollary to this confusing distinction is that, if a woman freely chooses to maintain a fashionably thin body or to have breast-enhancing surgery or to wear back-breaking and semi-crippling high heels or to spend her time and hard-earned money remaking her clothes, face, and body into a "self-defined" work of art that hews to the standards imposed by the old "beauty myth," then that is a feminist position, a part of the new third wave. Sadly, these third-wave feminists are role models for girls and young women, and the spectacle of these emaciated females--now as young as eight years old, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders--purging, binging, and starving themselves seems not to affect Wolfs celebration of glamor and choice" Third-wave feminism never addresses the issue of how much free choice is actually involved in the imitation, whether of adults, one's peers, or the fashions found in People, Teen, or Cosmopolitan. Are we really to believe that eight-year-old girls might be acting out a carefully considered feminist choice?

Wolf s convoluted notion of choice as it is applied to the beauty myth makes a feminist critique of bodily appearance and discrimination against those who fail to "measure up" virtually impossible, which is odd since that is ostensibly what much of Wolfs thesis is all about. In the feminist third wave, according to Wolf, any beauty-myth behavior may be defended and any critique or analysis of it may be countered by simply waving aloft the banner of free choice. From a feminist standpoint, her superficial--shall we say cosmetic?--politics of choice is ultimately disempowering.

Camille Paglia takes this shallow politics of choice to even greater heights of absurdity. Inveighing against all those feminist things that annoy her, like the "battered woman motif," Paglia makes the case that battered women freely choose to stay with their batterers due to their fondness for "hot sex" Everyone knows, says Paglia, that "many of these working-class relationships where women get beat up have hot sex. They ask, |Why won't she leave him?' Maybe she won't leave him because the sex is very hot.... How come we won't show that a lot of wives like the kind of sex they are getting in these battered-wife relationships?" With such a superficial politics of choice as her standard, Paglia brazenly proclaims what most closet sexists fear to say lest they be accused of bigotry and reaction. She assigns free choice to the battered, targeted prey, caustically tossing aside economic considerations, threats of retaliation and even possible murder by the batterer, and the general lack of support networks that 20 years of domestic-violence activism have shown is necessary for most women to leave their batterer. This conservative wolf in liberal sheepskin-complete with her resurrection of Freudian pop psychology and her passion for stinging personal philippics against those with whom she disagrees as a way of distorting the debate (odd behavior for a civil libertarian) --would have fit in nicely at the 1992 Republican National Convention alongside Marilyn Quayle, Phyllis Schlafly, and Pat Buchanan. But because Paglia couches her message in the liberal lexicon--free choice, personal liberty, and maximum autonomy--she is given undue attention by the liberal establishment, including some liberal feminists.

Similarly, Madonna's Sex has partially turned the feminist analysis of pornography on its head. Here is a woman who has chosen to be her own pornographer; no economic coercion or physical intimidation compels her, as in the notorious case of Linda Marchiano in Deep Throat and countless other sex-industry performers. Madonna is her own exploiter, endlessly flouting her brand of MTV feminism, and the chief product that she peddles for millions of dollars is increasingly explicit and sadomasochistic depictions of her own body. For Madonna, as well as female pornographers Suzie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, posing for and producing pornography is simply another life-style choice. Prostitution is defended as a viable career path; On Our Backs merely the flip side of Off Our Backs. Sadomasochistic porn is simply another form of free expression, as is a man's right to hang pornography in the workplace.

Recently, pedophilia encroached into the men's pro-feminist movement when the ostensibly pro-feminist magazine Changing Men ran a feature story called "First Loves" in which gay therapist Jeff Beane, a founder and prominent organizer of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, romanticized and glorified a past sexual encounter (when he was 17 years old) with a 12-year-old boy. In the ensuing controversy, the defense of the article offered was that gay men--due to their confused sexual development in a homophobic, heterosexual world--need to be able to "experiment" in order to find their true homosexual selves, including sex between adults and children. That very same issue of Changing Men carried an ad by NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association), an organization dedicated to a philosophy of sex between "consenting" children and adults, and an article entitled "An Invitation to Transgressive Sex," in which author Duane Allen invited readers to "violate playfully the current genres of sexuality" and endorsed sadomasochistic pornography. In all of the above cases and more, the sexual libertine philosophy nipping at the heels of feminism focuses on individual choice and pleasure without any analysis of the power dynamics in sexual behavior. In short, virtually any type of pleasure and "transgression" may be defended as simply one more life-style choice.

"But you don't understand. Our newly won liberty is our liberation," insists the feminist libertine philosopy. "This isn't the nineteenth century; this is the postmodern age, with new opportunities for women. We can use the old rules of liberty to our advantage. Who are you to say that my liberty is not also my liberation? Who knows my liberation better than myself.?" End of subject, end of debate. Yet such a solipsistic brand of postmodernism replaces deeper understanding and rigorous analysis with the unconditional acceptance of personal truth--virtually any truth. If it's imaginable, it is expressible; if it's expressible, then it is also personal, sacred, and inscrutable. Here again, left meets right as postmodern stridency shuts off debate.

To its credit, postmodernism breaks the overbearing and unwieldy weight of "the truth' into a thousand truths. But this does not mean that all truths are equal or valid; nor does this mean that there is not a consensus to be reached about what the shape of liberation looks like. We may not be able to pinpoint it, but we can certainly point in a general direction. And while it is hardly possible, nor desirable, to crawl inside each persons head and proclaim this one liberated, this one not, and so on, we can certainly point to specific puzzling behaviors or qualities and ask if they are liberating or not. And to do this, we don't always need to buttress our conclusions with complex social theory; sometimes just common sense will do.

Common sense suggests that there is something disingenuous about the slayer of the old beauty myth now modeling and celebrating a new beauty myth; something fraudulent about tying up, handcuffing, and causing pain to one's lover and hailing that as liberation; something dishonest about Madonna the profiteer pushing the old beauty myth (or is it the new beauty myth?) with a vengeance for her own considerable profit, dig, ging up and reincarnating past sex symbols like the orphaned and abused self-immolator Norma Jean Baker, also known as Marilyn Monroe. (One wonders: didn't her sacrifice serve as a warning to anyone? Will she ever be allowed to rest in peace?) Common sense also suggests that there is something unscrupulous about a free-speech fundamentalist like Camille Paglia who makes her career by hurling invective and denigrating almost everyone else. The cosmetically superficial "free choice" philosophy of these libertarians, libertines, and liberal feminists, shorn of any analysis of power imbalances or their remedies, can hardly represent feminist liberation, much less a true third wave.

It is deeply ironic that liberal feminists and sexual libertines have denounced radical feminists as lying in the same bed as fundamentalist Christians and the Moral Majoritarians because of a similar focus against pornography--albeit for completely different reasons and relying on very different tactics. Yet every time Madonna, Paglia, Bright, Sprinkle, Wolf, the ACLU et al. crow about the benefits of liberty and free choice, they implicitly endorse the other half of that antiquated nineteenth-century tradition of classical liberalism-namely, that espoused by George Bush, Dan Quayle, and their fellow freemarketeers and property-rights ideologues.

In the prologue to Pornography and Silence, acclaimed feminist author Susan Griffin, writing of the pornographer as libertine, makes this distinction between a politics of liberty and one of liberation:

Though in history the movement to restore eros to our idea of human nature and the movement for political liberation are parts of the same vision, we must now make a distinction between the libertine's idea of liberty "to do as one likes" and a vision of human "liberation." . . .If we are to move toward human liberation, we must begin to see that pornography and the small idea of "liberty" are opposed to that liberation.

These are strange and confusing times, a mixture of progress and setbacks, and it is not always easy to sort out which is which. The larger question to guide our deliberations must be: is the work of feminism done? Have women and men achieved equality? If the answer is no--as it most certainly seems to be--then a feminist politics of choice will continue to include Susan Griffin's distinction between liberation and liberty. And a feminism with such an ethic will continue to be a movement of liberation, rather than a passing fad or fashion statement. Granted, some women and men will selfishly exploit the gains of feminism and achieve fame, fortune, and notoriety by pandering to the libertine sensibility. But that must be recognized, named, and fought against for what it is: backlash.

Steven Hill is a writer, feminist activist, youth counselor, and coeditor of the national pro-feminist publication. Activist Men's Journal. His articles, commentaries, poems, and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as several anthologies. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:two feminist movements and their stands on abortion rights
Author:Hill, Steven
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Liberty and its limits.
Next Article:Faith, science, and the soul: on the pragmatic virtues of naturalism.

Related Articles
A battle not yet won.
Linking arms and movements.
Feminism Is `Hurtful To Women,' Charges Dobson's Focus On The Family.
World March for Women IV: Was it worth it?
People are fundamental: promoting human rights. (Human rights: unfinished business).
Sexual and Reproductive Rights: exercising citizenship. (Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights).
Mincing words, not actions.
A cautionary tale: has progressive religion moved far enough away from patriarchy to do women and democracy much good?
On the unstable marriage of reproductive and sexual rights: the case for a trial separation.
American revolutionary.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters