The Rhetoric of Choice

choiceAs a feminist writer, I understand the significance of the word choice for women.  I believe pro-choice and anti-choice are the right words to describe the positions supporting and opposing abortion because abortion is the controversial epicenter of a debate about the relationship between a woman and her womb.  However, because abortion became the flashpoint of American conversation about patriarchy and female empowerment, choice has become a loaded word:  one which can block empowerment as well as facilitate it.  As Susan Faludi asserts in her introduction to the 15th anniversary edition of Backlash, when pondering the question of a current backlash in the media:  “…there are still the periodic reprimands, though generally they are presented as the products of a woman’s ‘choice.’  The backlash is now said to be a strictly self-inflicted affair.”

Faludi’s statement highlights the danger that exists when choice, like freedom, becomes a trump card of a buzzword, a conversation killer.  The most glaring example of the conversation-stopper around choice centers on objectification.  Very different people use the word choice to defend a woman’s participation in her own (and, by association via cultural messages, every woman’s) objectification—and herein lies the crux of the problem.  For if both internet trolls (trying to shut down a conversation that might lead to systemic cultural change) and feminists (supporting a woman’s right to be her full self) are using the same word for different purposes, it is time to examine our rhetoric.

To demonstrate, here are two examples:

  1. The Internet Troll:  I recently commented on a Huffington Post news story about a shoe-shine company in New York that only hires scantily-clad, attractive young women.  Star Shine NYC, it seems, is out to become the Hooters of shoe shining.  My comment was about male objectification—how, since advertisers are increasingly objectifying men, perhaps it won’t be long before guys in Speedos are shining stilettos.  One of the responses I got seemed to be hotly defending the young women who work for Star Shine NYC:  “What is it that we always say about abortion? Her body, her choice? Same applies here.”  Notice how the commenter linked the choice a woman might make to objectify herself to the choice she might make to control her fertility, as if the two actions, because they both require individual autonomy, are equivalent.  Ah, but this guy wasn’t really defending women—he was defending objectification.  He responded similarly to anyone who commented on the demeaning qualities of Star Shine’s employment practices, and employed personal attacks while doing so, accusing women of unattractiveness, jealousy, and lackluster sex lives.   In the internet troll’s lexicon, “choice” becomes a boomerang—a word feminists send out in the name of autonomy that swoops back upon us, reinforcing patriarchy.
  2. The Feminist:  As a professor of gender and women’s studies, my husband has often heard young women defend a woman’s right to participate in her own objectification.  It is her body, and if she chooses to profit from our culture’s use of the female body in advertising and media, that is her choice.  In this case, the woman is sincerely defending the right of another woman to be free with her own body.  I certainly understand this reasoning, and I believe we need to tread carefully when discussing objectification, recognizing that the women who participate in it are also harmed by it.  It is also important to acknowledge the difference between an image of a woman that does not objectify her and one that does—not all modeling or advertising presents women as sexual objects.  That said, much of it does—and when a woman encourages female objectification (as Danica Patrick did in GoDaddy’s 2011 SuperBowl commercial) she contributes to a culture that is harmful to us all.

Why can two people with such disparate motivations—an internet troll and a feminist—use the same word to defend a woman who objectifies herself?

Because the word “choice” has become shorthand for a long conversation.  And to really have that conversation, we need to engage with choice’s linguistic counterpart—consequence.

Ah, but we must do so carefully, keeping the following in mind:

  1. Body Ownership:  Are we, by criticizing a woman’s choice to shine shoes or serve fries while presenting her body as an object for the male gaze, also saying that she shouldn’t have autonomy over her own body in these cases?  Of course not.  Women should be able to dress how they please; but we, as a culture, need to discern the difference between what is sexually empowering and what is disempowering.  And to do that, we have to recognize objectification when we see it—whether it is someone’s choice or not.
  2. Unraveling the Argument:  In tugging at the thread of the word choice upon which a woman’s reproductive health and freedom rest, will we give those who oppose equality the means to unravel the whole ball of yarn?  In other words, is the internet troll right—does choice back us into a corner in which all choices (and their consequences) are equally empowering, and therefore culturally valid?  Again, of course not.  But to get at why, we have to have a long discussion about choices and consequence—the difference, both for the individual woman and for society, between a woman choosing to regulate her fertility or end a pregnancy and a woman choosing to shine shoes in a skimpy outfit.
  3. The Tabloid Effect:  It might seem that, in criticizing a woman’s choice to objectify herself, we are tearing her down—playing a cultural game of “mean girls,” just as the tabloids instruct us to do.  But this need not be the case.  We can examine her choice within the society in which we all live, considering a host of complicated issues—how and why our cultural messages of beauty are internalized, the profitability of objectification and the pressure to conform to it within the entertainment industry.

When the complexities of sexual equality are reduced to one word—choice—the problems we face go way beyond rhetoric.  For we then practice isolation—of choice, consequence, and the individual woman.  This isolation lets society off the hook:  objectification, desire, reproduction all happen in a vacuum surrounding a woman’s disconnected autonomy.  In this vacuum, the backlash can be perceived as a “self-inflicted affair,” rather than what it truly is:  a socially constructed paradigm that serves to keep the status quo in place, thereby limiting all women—and our choices.

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