When I went out last Saturday, sporting that mini skirt I really like, feeling pretty and confident in myself, I ended up at a gay bar in central Minneapolis. The bartenders were pretty handsome shirtless men, and the DJ was playing this weird mix of EDM and I don’t even know what. There was a pretty even mix of men and women there, and many of the women were queer like myself. And we all rolled our eyes when a bachelorette party rolled in, but it was mercifully short-lived.
At one point, there was a woman obviously drunk in the middle of the dance floor. She bumped into my friends and me multiple times and was that loud, obnoxious drunk who thinks she’s fun but everyone’s actually just tolerating. After one particular rude bump, I leaned over to my friend and said, “Support women, whether you agree with their choices or not.”
This statement was less a reminder to my friend and more a reminder to myself, as I could feel my judgmental, purity culture self rearing its head to scoff at this lady. I was raised in a culture where it was okay to judge the person who went out to get drunk on the weekends, who twerked at the bar, and who flirted openly and unabashedly.
“The culture sends these people the message that this is okay,” I was told. “Those of us who choose Christ are choosing to fight those messages, to live counter-culturally, to see things other people cannot see because they are so hoodwinked by The World.”
I’ve left that thinking behind as I’ve grown up. I’ve realized that the girl drunk-dancing next to me in the bar has her own story and her own choices for how she ended up there, just as I have my own life and my own stories for why I showed up at that same bar in a bright red mini-skirt and make up on. I realized as I got older, and as I explored feminism, that the choices people make do not come simply from an inability to distinguish peer pressure from the self, but from vast life stories I will never know fully.
But it seems I cannot fully escape the “people are empty vessels for cultural messaging” idea. As I’ve grown in my understanding of the feminist project in the 21st century, I’ve become acquainted with a particular brand of feminism that views people in the same way that my evangelical church did.
Radical Feminists, or “RadFems” as they’re known online, are a particular sect of feminism that is frequently characterized by transphobia of the worst kind. “Woman,” for them, is a very narrow category, consisting of those who have vaginas who identify as female and have been socially conditioned to live as women. The “proper” way to be a woman, then, for the RadFem, is to reject the narrow, culturally defined characteristics and stereotypes of gender – to reject that which is traditionally feminine and therefore objectifying.
Some RadFems even go so far as to say heterosexuality is a response to social conditioning to prize men, and that women should actively choose to become lesbians in order to prioritize and center women. They argue, simultaneously, that ANY sex wherein a penis enters a vagina is automatically rape according to the power differentials between men and women – women with vaginas cannot actively and autonomously choose to like sex with men with penises because we are supposedly socially conditioned to defer to a man’s preference and domination.
For the Radical Feminist, a woman’s choice to present herself in a traditional feminine and sometimes sexual manner is always and forever problematic, because women are socially conditioned – pressured by culture – to act in ways that objectify themselves. Therefore, no choice that may result in objectification by a man’s eyes can ever be seen as empowering.
In claiming a radical space in which to center womanhood, Radical Feminism treats women as empty vessels for cultural conditioning, unable to break out of the cultural constraints which culture puts on it. Defeating the patriarchy, then, consists of being counter-cultural, of refusing to present oneself in ways traditionally read as objectifying, sexy, or for consumption.
What this means in practice, then, is commenting that a woman’s choice to wear a niqab “should be challenged as a threat to the freedom of women, not celebrated as a harmless aspect of multi-culturalism.”
It means that white middle class women with gender studies degrees somehow know exactly what choices a black transgender woman should make when it comes to her own body.
A woman’s individual choice doesn’t exist in the world of radical feminism – not fully. We women are not necessarily complex people who have survived and lived and contribute in fascinating and multifarious ways to a messy world. No, instead, each and every one of our individual choices must be held up as a referendum about womanhood as a whole, picked apart for analysis about whether or not it’s truly empowering to all women everywhere. We don’t exist as individuals with gray areas and gray hairs and desires and feelings all our own. No, we are each representatives of our gender and it is our duty to carry that burden, to not act as traitors to some arbitrary standard of womanhood lest male violence be unleashed upon us.
I forget sometimes, when I am discussing Radical Feminism, if I’m really talking about feminism or the fundamentalist thought I internalized for so many years. The thinking is much the same, when it comes down to it. A woman’s choices are never their own – we are unable to choose for ourselves because we will be vetted constantly, either as representatives of Church of Biblical Womanhood or representatives of the Good Church of Radical Womanhood. Both offer harsh punishment if I fail to perform my femininity correctly; both use male violence as an unstoppable force to keep women from making the “wrong choices.”
And both fail to treat all people as autonomous beings capable of understanding cultural conditioning and thus making nuanced, interesting, empowered choices about their own lives.
For the conservative Christian, a woman dressed sexily is violating God’s commands and doesn’t truly know what she’s doing because she’s been hoodwinked by the culture.
For the RadFem, a woman dressed sexily is offering herself up as an object for male consumption and doesn’t truly know what she’s doing because she’s been hoodwinked by the culture.
In both world views, a woman cannot possibly choose to dress, behave, or exist in certain ways because it buys too much into a negative structure within the world. For one its sin; for the other, it’s patriarchy.
And in both, I have no choices. I do not exist as an entity unto myself, despite constant reassurances that I am an individual with freedom. What freedom? The freedom to follow a previously inscribed path determined by my gender? The freedom to perform my gender and hope it passes the inevitable vetting by some authorities unknown to me? The freedom to feel guilt and shame and disgrace every time I do something that doesn’t measure up to the ridiculous standards of womanhood set by people who are not me?
Nah. I don’t need any of that. What I need is some red lipstick, a short skirt, and a good soundtrack. I’m my own person and I’m not listening to you.