Monday, May 7, 2007

Is every choice a feminist choice?

I know I'll probably catch some shit for this one, but sometimes you just gotta put some stuff out there, critics be damned*. And the stuff I'd like to put out there today comes in the form of the One-Word Answer Woman's response to Sarah Katherine Lewis's provocatively-titled piece on AlterNet on Friday, Is Stripping a Feminist Act?.


Now, I know lots of you empowerful third-wavers out there will try to muddy the cut-and-dried waters with arguments about how complicated the issue is if I'd just stop and think about it. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the issue ain't complicated at all. Here's my line of reasoning.

We live, like it or not, under the oppressive thumb of the Patriarchy, an ideological apparatus with the main goal of elevating and keeping men in power and basically shitting on women. In order for this to work in the most squeakyclean way, handy distinctions between the sexes need to be made, amplified, and naturalized. Let's see here. Men have penises; women have vaginas. That's a pretty important difference. Probably the difference. Yes, the grand distinction between men and women is that women have icky vaginas. Thus, women are weak, mostly on accounta they're forever chained to their reproductive functions (and dysfunctions), which causes all kinds of hysteria and moodiness and makes them only really good as sperm receptacles and baby incubators. Or, of course, as professionals who reinforce this idea.

Taking your clothes off for money (or even for free) does nothing to disrupt the Patriarchal paradigm. It encourages the woman-as-sex-hole narrative and makes people think that women actually like that narrative. You know, 'cause no one pays to see a stripper with a frown on her face.

Do I think that women shouldn't be allowed to make that choice? Hell no! Women should be allowed to make whatever choices they want to make, provided those choices don't hurt other people. But I believe pretty firmly that you can't call that choice a feminist one. Why? Because it hurts other women. When non-stripper or non-sex worker or non-porn actress women are held to the same standards of beauty, sexyhotness, and behavior as the professionals, there's really no way they can win. The men who enjoy the "professional service" provided by strippers and sex workers come to expect certain things from their sexual partners. And if they don't get it, they usually get resentful and often get violent. The problem here, clearly, is the men who do this shit. But the women who participate in the sex industry are doing their fair share to prop up the Patriarchy by reinforcing one of its most very basic tenets (i.e., that women are sex objects). At the very least, they're doing nothing to undermine it, and I don't believe you can call any action feminist if it's not challenging the patriarchal system of oppression.

This doesn't mean that these women aren't feminists, just that this particular act is not a feminist one. I am an avowed radfem who often does non-feminist shit. And sometimes the shit I do is actively anti-feminist. For one particularly horrible example, I watch America's Next Top Model. And I enjoy watching it. I like competition shows, and I like makeover shows (both people and houses), and I like talent shows, and this show gives me all of that. Yet I know that the modeling and fashion industries are literally killing women and causing at least some guilt in at least 98% of the female population. For these reasons, I don't call watching ANTM a feminist act. It is personally enjoyable, but it does more to prop up than tear down the Patriarchy.

By Sarah Katherine Lewis' own admission, stripping is not inherently feminist.
"The unglamorous truth about my experience as an adult entertainer is that I felt empowered -- as a woman, as a feminist, and as a human being -- by the money I made, not by the work I did. The performances I gave didn't change anyone's ideas about women. On the contrary, I was in the business of reinforcing the same old sexist misinformation you can see in any issue of Hustler or Girls Gone Wild DVD. I wasn't "owning" or "subverting" anything other than my own working-class status. Bending over to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" didn't make me a better feminist. It just made me a feminist who could afford her own rent.

I was raised to believe that feminism means respecting the choices women make for themselves -- particularly the ones concerning their own bodies and their own lives, as full members of a fair society, whether or not I agree with their choices. And every month when I write my rent check -- subtracting the money from my checking account without the teetering, free-fall sense of dread I remember from when I worked long hours on my feet, waiting tables and making espresso, desperately trying to make ends meet -- I am thankful for the freedom I had to choose sex work, in all its polarizing complication."-emphasis mine

Which brings me to another important point: if stripping or sex work is the only available avenue out of poverty, it's not even really a choice. If you have several equally-lucrative options in front of you and you still opt for stripping, then it's a choice. But it's still not a feminist one.

The folks at The Onion lampoon the very phenomenon of female "empowerment" in the February 19, 2003 issue, which, for some reason, just showed up on my RSS feed today. Blocked tubes, I guess. Anyway, my favorite line is this:
"Whereas early feminists campaigned tirelessly for improved health care and safe, legal access to abortion, often against a backdrop of public indifference or hostility, today's feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word "Hoochie" spelled in glitter."
They're mostly talking about the tendency in today's consumer culture to champion the most mundane of actions as feminist and empowering, not specifically about stripping and sex work. But their last satirical line makes fun of the point I'm trying to argue against here: "Only by lauding every single thing a woman does, no matter how ordinary, can you truly go, girls."

So, what I want to put out there today is this: A choice is not a feminist one simply because a woman, or even a feminist, makes it. It may be personally rewarding, but if the "empowerment" it delivers does more to strengthen the Patriarchy's narrative than to subvert it, it is not feminist. Women should be allowed to make these choices, as we all have to get by in the same Patriarchy, and some of us need more coping mechanisms than others to survive. Of course, I want you to choose something else, but that's not my call to make. All I really ask is that you be real about it and don't pretend that stripping and wearing "Hoochie" t-shirts helps anyone other than the Patriarchy.

*One of the nice things about a low-traffic blog such as this one is that I only really run the risk of alienating about twelve people.


Blankety Blank said...

You haven't alienated ME, Gender Blank. I think you are quite eloquent and articulate in your explanation of how stripping may be a choice (in certain circumstances) but it should in no way be called a feminist one.

Amy said...

I support your argument.

KMTBERRY said...

*One of the nice things about a low-traffic blog such as this one is that I only really run the risk of alienating about twelve people.

Not Anymore ! I mean, not now that you are linked to Shakesville! You may alienate as many as 250 people (except I doubt any Shakesville regulars will do anything but APPLAUD your very succinct post)

NewsCat said...

Hey I just found your blog and I really like it. It's similar to mine except that I recently stripped out all my "Weight watchers" blogging so I could feel free to show mine to an employer.

I think I'm going to add it to my blogroll.

Gender Blank said...

kmtberry - no shit about my larger audience today! Oh, the irony of those words...and thanks for the applause.

Newscat, I feel privileged to be among your chosen few and will try my best not to embarrass any of the others on the list.

Theriomorph said...

Heh, yeah, low traffic until Melissa links.

Well said, concise and true. Thanks for the essay.

Twisty has a fierce/funny one up about a similar story here.