Popular Feminism and the Problem of Choice
One of the persisting challenges that the feminist discourse has faced over the years is the translation of pioneering theoretical work within the academy into meaningful and sustainable socio-cultural change at the ground level. This equation of reality with the metaphor of ‘ground level’ rightly suggests that the academic sphere is situated someplace above it, as if suspended in a bubble. It has been long understood that, cut off thus from its human subject, feminist discourse is piling on ideas and formulations to which the bubble seems impermeable, even when it comes to the very foundational ideals, enshrined at the core of this discourse, about which there is broad based agreement. While critiquing a particular amalgam of radical, third wave and abstruse academic feminism, Martha Nussbaum points out in her lecture on “The Feminist Critique of Liberalism” that one of the persistent allegations labeled against feminism is that “its ideals of equality are too abstract and formal, that it errs through lack of immersion in the concrete realities of power in different social situations” (5). Even though her statement is made in a narrower context, we can pick up the problem of seemingly incomprehensible abstraction to be rooted in the want of a suitable medium through which the conversations within the feminist discourse community can be presented to those outside the bubble in a manner which demystifies them while maintaining that intersectionality often is the site for oppression and that feminist issues can not be seen in isolation. For lack of a better choice, this role has been played by popular culture, the veracity of which leaves a lot to be desired, as can be easily deduced from the state of affairs. Furthermore, consumerism often manages to piggyback on popular media to distort that transmission by inoculating it with its own ulterior agendas, sometimes to the extent where consumerist liberation manages to delude people into believing that the need for feminism is passe. What happens as a result is that even the limited transmission which is afforded by these ill suited mediums, more often than not, ends up doing more harm than good to the cause of reclaiming feminism, from being an exclusively academic phenomenon, to its origins as a grassroots resistance movement and finally establishing it as a universal benchmark.
In short, there are two major problems which today hinder the widespread dissemination of feminism – the trickle down and the distortions introduced into the already inadequate flow. The challenges and our inability to deal with them are better explained by Angela McRobbie in her essay “Young Women and Consumer Culture” where she writes, “This [celebration of commodity feminism by feminist scholars] left unconsidered the great yawning gap between the status of feminist scholarship within the academy, and its translation [not to say its distortions] into the social and cultural world.” (539). Assuming that this gap can be bridged, the question which arises is how and by whom? A major response to this issue can be seen in the rise of what Linda Horseman first referred to as “choice feminism” but this approach is not only riddled with internal contradictions but is also, in some ways, counterproductive to the objectives of the movement. Choice feminism, a school of thought which believes that any choice made by a woman, of her own accord, is inherently a feminist choice and that one should be accepting of others, their choices and not judge them. This is based on the idea that we live in a post feminist world and to make the movement broadband, it should follow a sort of a common minimum program. This is one of the internal contradictions that choice feminism entails. If the need for feminism as a movement to liberate women from oppression and patriarchy is over (it is not), then why stick to a common minimum programme and not take a bolder stance? If the world now is post feminist then, why be so timid and circumspect so as to not question choices antithetical to feminist ethos made by people in earnest and without any coercion. Availability of choices does not equal emancipation and even emancipation is not the be all and end all of feminism. More importantly, choice based feminism ignores the fact that patriarchy is a system that co-opts both men and women thus leading women to internalise and perpetuate patriarchal norms. This deliberate ignorance is a price that this strand of feminism pays to achieve other motives.
Michaele Ferguson points out that choice feminism is very conscious about bringing all the disadvantaged and marginalised groups of women under that banner of feminism so as to dispel the long standing criticism it is only concerned with a certain category of women- white, heterosexual, western educated, middle class etc. In order to bring together the subaltern within the mainstream of feminism, the move which was made was to suspend all judgement and prevent disagreements. In order to not disaffect potential allies, choice feminism, “hopes to defuse these criticisms by representing feminism as a nonthreatening, capacious movement that welcomes all supporters, however discordant their views while demanding only the thinnest of political commitments” (248). The basic lacunae that grips choice based feminism is its trigger happy nature to visualise feminist discourse as a monolith. Pointing at Gloria Steinem as the source of this ideological stance, Ferguson goes on to say that, “Under her uncritically accepting eye, feminism expanded to embrace every oppressed group” (248). The problem with this approach is apparent for all to see. Not only is uncritical acceptance a very slippery slope that threatens to destabilise the radical ethos of feminism, it also goes back to not giving the target individual an opportunity to engage with the contentious ideas as critical thought is taken off the menu.
This leaves us with some tough questions to answer, which will determine the future of feminism. Popular media today has its own feminist icons (varying degrees of feminist and also varying degrees of celebrity). Among them, one whose brand of feminism seems potent enough to me in helping us find the answers to some of the above questions is Tina Fey. She is an actress, comedian, writer etc what makes her position unique is that her work (which is diverse in both its form and content) is not only very popular in terms of mass appeal but also highly acclaimed by critics. She was the head writer of Saturday Night Live where her Sarah Palin impression and its subsequent popularity forced her in front of the camera. She created and was the protagonist of 30 Rock, a television show with high viewership, multiple golden globes and critical acclaim. She also wrote the screenplay for the movie, Mean Girls, which now enjoys a cult status. Additionally, she was the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The second part of this essay will be an attempt to posit Tina Fey’s brand of feminism (or Fey-minism, if i may call it that) as an example of the potential which popular forms of media can have in serving as that desired medium if they are imbued with a political consciousness. This exercise will be carried out through a close reading of her autobiography, Bossypants, in conjunction with the works of McRobbie, Nussbaum, and Ferguson’s formulations on Choice Feminism.
Fey, Tina (2011): Bossypants, Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company.
McRobbie, Angela (2008): Young Women and Consumer Culture, Cultural Studies, 22:5, 531-550
Ferguson, Michaele (2010): Feminism and the Fear of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 247-253
Nussbaum, Martha (1997): The Feminist Critique of Liberalism, The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas.
Finished a Master's degree in English Literature and now teaches Critical Writing to an exceptionally eccentric bunch. Research interests include memes, cyber subculture and internet humour – so as to make sure to not be taken seriously. Loves trivia quizzes.