Clem Bastow
The problem with online ’choice feminism’

Many years ago, I announced that I was going to start a feminist blog. A fellow writer contacted me because she was also planning to launch a feminist site. She was concerned the market would be flooded and both our sites would suffer. I responded to the contrary, reassuring her. We were involved in a great unpaid feminist experiment, where the attitude was, as far as feminist commentary was concerned, the more the merrier.

As it turned out, neither of our blogs lasted long. We both moved on to other work. But those words floated above me like the Ghost of Feminism Past when News Corp launched their “women’s site” RendezView this month.

The field in 2015 has taken the notion of “the more the merrier” to an almost parodic place: Australia’s media landscape is now so crammed with women’s sites that any first-wave feminists who were encouraged to “want more” may now be reconsidering their wishes.

Entrepreneur and media personality Mia Freedman has just launched Debrief Daily, a more serious offshoot of her women’s site Mamamia; Private Media’s Women’s Agenda offers a “digital destination for career-minded women”; Fairfax’s Daily Life has provided “news and lifestyle content for busy Australian women” since 2012. (I am a weekly contributor to Daily Life.)

There have already been casualties: Wendy Harmer and Jane Waterhouse’s The Hoopla, which targeted women over 50, announced its closure on the same day as RendezView’s launch. As Harmer told Crikey, “When the elephants go to war, the ants get trampled. The timing has been extraordinary, but it’s just how it happened.”

But while the rapid proliferation of such sites might be thought to be expanding the forums for feminist thought, their content suggests a disturbing trend in what is considered a useful part of the Western feminist conversation.

Not that these sites are expressly feminist in their intent, despite such frequent characterisation by mostly right-wing commentators. The majority are officially “women’s sites” that also happen to run some feminist content.

This model was arguably imported from the US, where a number of women-focused sites have generated immense amounts of traffic. Some, such as Feministing, founded in 2004 by author Jessica Valenti, offer explicitly feminist content, others merely add a hint of feminist flavour to general media commentary. In the latter category, one of the most formidable is Jezebel.

Jezebel, which is one of the heads of new media hydra Gawker Media, is commonly looked upon as one of the giants of feminist commentary. Since its launch in 2007, however, the site has only billed itself as providing “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing”. Jezebel positions itself as a different slant on the mainstream media targeted at women; a piece may be a red carpet news story, but it works in discussion of “the male gaze” or mentions “internalised misogyny”.

The novelist Emily Gould argued that Jezebel, in fact, plays on the same insecurities in the reader that a “women’s magazine” such as Cosmopolitan relies upon to shift copies. Site traffic, Gould wrote, is “ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism”.

The tone I find troubling is apparent when commentary on everything from whether rap music is inherently misogynistic, to whether men should give up their seat on the train for women, to The Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco’s right to have a nose job, is commonly prefaced with “As a feminist, I think…” The phrase is common enough already that it’s in danger of becoming the new “I’m not racist, but…” It has become an incantation that somehow legitimises any opinion, lifting it above mere op-ed and into a dispatch of first-person cultural criticism.

It is typical of the rise of a kind of populist feminism, what some call “choice feminism”: the idea that any choice a feminist makes is inherently a feminist act, any opinion they hold a feminist one. And in the ever-increasing quest for traffic, choice feminism has collided with the ultra-personal, offering up first-person essays as the last word in feminist discussion.

That this brand of feminist commentary is easy clickbait is not necessarily surprising, since the popularity of personal essay has soared in this decade. When it is presented – by virtue of the absence or un-clickworthy nature of a more considered, academic feminism – as the loudest voice in feminist thought, things become problematic.

Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, a non-profit that has published feminist magazine Bitch since 1996, decried the tendency in feminist commentary to drill down to the minutiae of choice, from what clothes to wear to what media to consume as a feminist. “If everything is feminism, then nothing is,” she wrote. “And if we feel the need to disavow everything we do and everything we desire, how much easier is it to discount what we claim to really want?”

It is, as Zeisler’s essay and my comprehensive Sex and the City DVD collection should remind us, feminism as Charlotte York yelling “I CHOOSE MY CHOICE!” repeatedly into an uncaring phone receiver. The eternal search for personal fulfilment and empowerment is the cornerstone of choice feminism.

There are plenty of egregious examples of this. Jen Caron’s “It Happened to Me” article in xoJane last year, about the appearance of “a heavyset black woman” in her all-white yoga class, ham-fistedly discussed “systemic failure” by way of solipsistic memoir: “I tried to very deliberately avoid looking in her direction each time I was in downward dog.” This hyper-individualism is also there in the idea that one can criticise Jennifer Lawrence’s red carpet gown, and that criticism is a feminist act, elevating sub-Mr Blackwell commentary to the political. Feminism becomes performative and perpetually provides the “lived experience” as insurance against criticism or engagement of any depth.

Such populism, in its watered down “anything goes” state, has led to a dangerous aversion to critical thinking. The broad range of people prepared to put fingertips to keyboard and announce “As a feminist…” might initially give the impression that everyone has a voice; instead, it maintains an unhelpful focus on the individual.

It strays into troubling territory. A piece by Freedman in Mamamia, “This isn’t victim blaming. This is common sense”, argued she would tell her daughter not to get drunk in order to reduce the risk of rape. This too shapes women’s experience as a matter of choice – we can choose not to “put ourselves at risk”, and doing so displays feminist sensibilities.

Thus far, RendezView’s content also seems caught up in this false sense of choice. This week News Corp columnist Joe Hildebrand writes on the death of Melbourne teen Masa Vukotic and the ensuing debate over women’s safety. “Murderous psychopaths don’t care too much for feminist theory,” he offers. Scroll down a little further and you’ll find Susie O’Brien announcing, “I am a feminist and I think girls shouldn’t get in dodgy cabs and walk home alone at 3am.”

The clickworthiness of choice feminism threatens to swamp more deeply engaged thinking on issues facing women. While it’s obviously not necessary that anyone who identifies as feminist must read a number of core academic texts or face expulsion from the movement, a great deal of popular feminism considers academic or professional thinking to be “elitist” and no match for personal lived experience.

Even feminist thinkers who urge for a less individual, more systemic understanding of gender are themselves elevated because of their lived experience.

The Canadian-American media critic Anita Sarkeesian appeared at the recent All About Women event at the Sydney Opera House. “It is not enough to feel personally empowered or be personally successful within the oppressive framework of the current system,” she said. “In order to be a feminist … we have a responsibility to work for the collective liberation of all women.”

Sarkeesian’s position as feminist commentator has not been bolstered as much by her extensive cultural criticism about video games as it has her having endured monstrous abuse at the hands of pro-gamer trolls; her treatment is held as proof that feminism is needed. This has overtones of what academic and activist Yasmin Nair has referred to as the “imperative to reveal oneself as the wounded subject”.

Sarkeesian and countless others have made their biggest impacts when focusing on the lived experience rather than their direct challenges of systems of organisation. My own work has been much more widely “shared” when discussing my own body image “journey” or mental health, in a feminist context, than when employing cultural theory or statistics to begin dismantling frameworks of oppression and violence. This traffic-driving first-person feminism maintains a status quo through personal empowerment: “I have reached enlightenment, so the fight is over.”

This is the cul-de-sac of choice feminism: it is an expression of what women can choose to do, selecting from what is available. It is appealing because it responds to options rather than fighting to widen the choice. But feminism must be about more than choice, it must be about change. Equal pay, political representation, freedom from domestic violence – the sort of things not so palatable in an economy of clicks and mid-morning think pieces.

We can indeed make a choice to read any number of women’s sites, from choice feminism content-mongering to more considered commentary; the more the merrier, as it were. But I am reminded of feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz’s utopian vision for feminism, which includes a “five-year moratorium on speaking on the ‘self’ ”. The sooner popular feminism itself realises just how few choices we actually enjoy beyond the blogosphere, the sooner true liberation will be achieved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2015 as "I’m alright, Jill".

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Clem Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.

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