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Ms. Opinionated: All the Advice You Asked For, and Some You Didn't

image of Megan Carpentier

Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

As a feminist I am always trying to stay up to date on news, research and blogs like Bitch. Lately, though, I have been feeling very muddled. I vocally criticize objectification of women in TV and movies, yet I am a huge fan of artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna who are marketed as sex symbols. I go on about the lack of coverage and opportunities for female athletes but I rarely watch women's sports myself. I tell my friends not to worry about their weight, but I get upset when I put on a few pounds. I confront sexual harassers on the street yet my sexual fantasies often involve domination by men. I tell myself that everyone is feminist in their own way, but it also seems that most activists and websites espouse a "right" way to be feminist. I can't help feeling that I am doing it wrong or not enough. How do I (and other women reading) reconcile all of these contradictions?

The first thing you need to do is to take a deep breath, and accept that you will be flawed, and that being flawed is okay. We are all flawed, in myriad ways, and the best thing you can do it forgive yourself for being imperfect, attempt to correct the things that hurt other people (and, when possible, try to make right or apologize when they already have) and then let the rest go.

You are going to be flawed because no one can be perfectly self-aware (Plato covered this pretty well) and no one can perfectly excise a large part of the social forces that shaped them no matter how aware they become that those forces exist. And when someone tells you that she (or he) is a perfect feminist and you can be one too if only you do X, the healthiest thing you can do is file that away in your brain somewhere so that when that person fucks up utterly despite being a "perfect feminist," you can either be a good-natured person and recall how I said no one can be perfect -- or you can be like me and enjoy the spectacle (because I am imperfect and a lover of Schadenfreude).

In other words: you might know that you are living in a kyriarchy and knowing might help shape some of your actions and help center your thoughts about inequity, but you're still a participant in it. The best you can do is attempt to counter those influences, acknowledge your privileges in that system, gracefully allow other people to point out when you fuck up (like my friend did to me here), try not to hurt other people when you act imperfectly, make amends when you do and still try to enjoy your life.

And when you get through that project, try to see the world on a spectrum, rather than as either purple or orange. For instance, yes, the kyriarchy rewards physical attractiveness and perceived sexual availability in women and particularly women in the entertainment industry, and, yes, the physical attractiveness of Beyoncé and Rihanna -- and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and everyone else, let's remember -- is part of the total package into which we are buying. But is physical attractiveness and the celebration thereof an inherently bad thing (i.e., are only physically unattractive people worthwhile, or is the end goal really that physical attractiveness not be the only determining factor in our successes or perceived value as women)? Are you only listening to their music because they are pretty (a thesis that seems laughable)? Does the fact that Beyoncé's power in the industry gives her a great deal of control over that image and its packaging -- though mediated through the kyriarchy, which still punishes her for being female and being African-American and exercising agency (just look at the backlash against her the last couple weeks) while rewarding her for being attractive -- complicate the picture of agency, objectification and power? What about the fact that she uses that power to support and promote other women musicians, particularly African-American women musicians? If you supposedly can't love their music or their personae because of the tensions inherent in participating in a sexist industry, what's the solution? Only liking male artists, or unattractive female artists, or artists that make a certain kind of music not privileged by the current music industry (which might result in your music consumption skewing towards white artists, depending on the kind of music)?

I think when you walk yourself down the oversimplified road of what you think you are "doing wrong" as a feminist, you can actually end up running in circles: it becomes tautological really quickly because, too often, the "opposite" of something is the other side of the same coin. For instance, take your discomfort with your own sexual fantasies (which you don't even say you want in real life) -- if you aren't "supposed" to fantasize about a certain type of sex, then what you're really saying is that there is only one type of sex women are supposed to want and like, which is actually the fucked-up place women started from before feminism got a toehold in society. Instead, throw out the idea that there's a right and a wrong way to like sex, and focus on what you want out of sex that pleases you, is consensual and doesn't harm other people.

(And, to point out, there is a huge difference between unwanted sexual talk and/or contact and what you like and consent to in your own sexual encounters. Comparing the two is actually accepting of the rape culture frame that conflates sex and rape, punishes women for liking sex, or liking certain sex, and offers that as an excuse to victimize them. So it's actually a more vicious circle than you think.)

When you find yourself struggling with these (supposed) conundrums, ask yourself: where does this line of thought ultimately lead? If this is a legitimate criticism of the things I like, what is the solution or the opposite and does that somehow out me in a place that seems worse than where I started? Do you really think a movement or a philosophy that encourages women to have and utilize the right to choose things for themselves can require you to attend an WNBA game if you hate basketball and would rather see an opera, even if it's written by a man?

Which is not to say that feminism is all I-choose-my-choice-and-that's-feminist-so-I'm-getting-a-feminist-Brazilian-wax sort of thing. Our choices are influenced by our participation in the kyriarchy, and it's important to differentiate between the fact that feminism allows us to make choices for ourselves, and the determination of whether the choices we make are actually self- and context-aware, good for ourselves and others and/or really choices at all or just the perception thereof. And then rather than try to make lipstick and engagement rings and Brazilian waxes and an unabashed love of "Diamonds" a Feminist Choice or a Bad Feminist Choice, let's just say (when applicable) that they're all choices by feminists, and leave it up to each feminist to think about why that choice got made, how it got influenced, who it hurt (if anyone) and give her- or himself the space to not be a mythological Ideal Feminist every single moment of every single day.

Or: criticize the system at least twice as much as the people affected by it.

Have a question? Email us with "advice" in the subject line. Anonymity guaranteed.

Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com

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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Perfecting Feminism

You rock! I don't see enough posts that get to the root of feminism. Feminism is about women having choices in life. Increasing the choices women have is ALL about providing women with more avenues to happiness and improving their quality of life. When we talk about feminism, if we don't mention "happiness" we're selling it short. You hit the nail on the head; feminism is inclusive and is good for women.

"Good Feminists"

1. People are naturally lazy. If you tell them it's okay to let certain things slide, more and more problems start to take the back burner.
There's no such thing as a "perfect feminist", because FEMINISM ISN'T IN DEGREES.
You either believe that woman should have equal rights, or you don't.

It's grey areas (like what you just spoke about) that make rape cases so damn aggravating in court! (Remember the whole "Illegitimate Rape" crap going on last year?) Things arent grey. They're either Black or White. Right or Wrong.
Believing Females are equal in every way is right.
Believing women are inferior to men is wrong.
Done.

Ladies, upkeeping your bikini area and liking a pop artist for their (shitty) music has nothing to do with "what is/isnt a 'good' feminist". Feminists don't fit in boxes.
(I personally think Rhianna is the biggest fucking moron to ever crawl out of a womb, but that's my opinion.)
You have to know WHY you like the things you like.
Is it even in your choice?
Do you choose anything in your life for yourself?
Think about it.

Shades of grey

First of all, thank you for this exceptional and thought provoking article and a big thanks to the author of the question who inspired it.

@Kitty, I respectfully disagree. Most of life is not black and white; it is not clear cut. Life is multicolored, many shades of grey and terribly messy. Now on the subject of equality, we agree. Gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, and other similar categories are not justification for discrimination. As for rape, no means no and yes means yes. Lack of consent= rape. However, on many of the other points raised here, I don't see how they are black and white.

You ask if what we like is even our choice in such a way that you seem to presume that we don't apply critical thinking skills to our lives. Forgive me if I've misunderstood but it sounds as though you are suggesting that choosing to listen to Beyonce or wax means that someone is not making their own choice because that choice is inline with mainstream gender role choices. If so, the relevant question should be: what makes your choice-the opposite-more valid? Rejecting something simply because it fits into traditional gender roles is no different from blind acceptance. The author of the question was questioning her choices and this post answers in a way that is empowering rather than demeaning. All feminists are not alike because all people are not alike. We have different life experiences and we don't necessarily only identify as feminist. Feminism is not a panacea; it is not a monument that we genuflect to or a holy text that we obey. So, while you may believe that there is only one way to be a feminist, that feminism is not in degrees, I'd say that there are a hell of a lot of feminists out there who would beg to differ.

Shades of grey

First of all, thank you for this exceptional and thought provoking article and a big thanks to the author of the question who inspired it.

@Kitty, I respectfully disagree. Most of life is not black and white; it is not clear cut. Life is multicolored, many shades of grey and terribly messy. Now on the subject of equality, we agree. Gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, and other similar categories are not justification for discrimination. As for rape, no means no and yes means yes. Lack of consent= rape. However, on many of the other points raised here, I don't see how they are black and white.

You ask if what we like is even our choice in such a way that you seem to presume that we don't apply critical thinking skills to our lives. Forgive me if I've misunderstood but it sounds as though you are suggesting that choosing to listen to Beyonce or wax means that someone is not making their own choice because that choice is inline with mainstream gender role choices. If so, the relevant question should be: what makes your choice-the opposite-more valid? Rejecting something simply because it fits into traditional gender roles is no different from blind acceptance. The author of the question was questioning her choices and this post answers in a way that is empowering rather than demeaning. All feminists are not alike because all people are not alike. We have different life experiences and we don't necessarily only identify as feminist. Feminism is not a panacea; it is not a monument that we genuflect to or a holy text that we obey. So, while you may believe that there is only one way to be a feminist, that feminism is not in degrees, I'd say that there are a hell of a lot of feminists out there who would beg to differ.

<3 !

Deep breath taken.

I've just been feeling this exact way lately. Great advice.

I try to remind myself and the people around me all the time that its about choices and awareness of them. Not too long ago I had a bunch of friends view me as a "lingerie hater" (to my suprise) because once I went off on a rant about how I hate thongs (and all lingerie). Really I have no problem with thongs, my problem is my little sisters thinking they have to wear one or boys won't think they are hot. I just want them to be aware of their own choices and that they really are their own.

feminist dichotomies

Where do we draw lines, then? I mean this in a totally non-confrontational and genuinely curious way, but when do we call someone out for simultaneously calling themselves a feminist and then having really anti-feminist views and opinions?

I went to high school with a girl who called herself a feminist while being staunchly pro-life (wore this hoodie all the time, went to all these rallies, handed out pamphlets, occasionally picked fights with pro-choice people, etc.). There was a Jezebel article published somewhat recently in which the author asserted that you cannot be both pro-life and a feminist, which of course resulted in a lot of heated and not all that insightful conversation. Some users were going on about, "Wahh, I can choose what to do with my body and I wouldn't have an abortion and I'm a feminist so THERE!" These people did not seem to understand the difference between not wishing to do something yourself but allowing others to do with their bodies as they please and trying to legislatively force their choice not to abort on others, particularly those who are in different socioeconomic and/or geographic positions than they. I happen to agree with the Jezebel author based on my belief that no one, least of all men, should be telling women what to do with their bodies and that anyone- male, female, trans*, intersex, whatever- who tries to impose their opinions to the contrary is fundamentally not a feminist.

No doubt this is a pretty tedious subject within feminist circles, but I brought it up anyway because it's relevant here. How should I have thought of that girl when I was in high school, and beyond that, who decides what's feminist and what's not? Personally I think most things in life exist as grey areas while a small, select group of others exist as absolutes. For me, trying to legislate women's rights to dominion over their bodies is a black/white area while liking Beyonce is not.

Having control over your body

Having control over your body is an absolute, but not every so called "feminist issue" is.

A law legislating your reproductive rights is an affront to your personal sovereignty; making the personal choice that you would never have an abortion is not. Objectifying women is; choosing to wear revealing clothes is not. The objectification of women gives political meaning to our clothing choices, but if women were not forced into the role of sex object, clothing would not be a feminist question. The common view is that if you dress too modestly, you are oppressed, usually by a patriarchal religious group, and if you dress too provocatively, you are objectifying yourself for the attention of men.

(And now I'm thinking about the politicization of fashion and the way that sexual objectification complicates a feminist perspective of sexual attraction. I'm going to be up all night now.)

Thank you, Megan. I enjoy

Thank you, Megan. I enjoy your column very much (especially "some you didn't" part). Many of your words empower my (more or less) feminist decisions in everyday life and provoke me to be more critical - both to society and my own assumptions. So thank you again!