I wanted to respond to Jadey, but the word count got all long again so I ended up with a post instead of a comment.
Jadey writes, ” If instead the discussion is being broken down to agency vs. determinism, then I think that’s pretty reductionist and silly, as many commenters (at least on the Feministe thread) have pointed out.”
So A) Like Maia, I’m a structural person.
B) This comment is written from the perspective of someone in the US which is part of the colonial western hegemony, and is written as addressing other people in that situation.
So, I think the general “free will vs. determinism” argument is silly. Not because it’s offensive to imply that someone doesn’t have free choice, but because someone has both free choice and is acting within a culturally mandated matrix at all times. Both are always true. Culture is ubiquitous and largely invisible; constructs of gender are greatly, if not completely, culturally influenced; cultural influence is an enormous effect. We exist within a culture. We make free decisions within that cultural matrix, but we’re still within a cultural matrix. It is essentially–though not entirely, I suppose–impossible for a human to be outside a cultural matrix, the “wild children” aside, and those cases aren’t sociologically simple.
From what I see, the radical feminist argument that people’s participation in culturally influenced oppression is common and not entirely conscious is fully consistent with social science.
It’s not a condemnation of people who make those choices. It’s also not a suggestion that the individual making the observation is free of cultural influences. But if you look from culture to culture, especially where you try to avoid globalization effects, which is super difficult at this point obviously, you can see that we’re making basic assumptions, etc.
Obviously, we all make culturally influenced decisions constantly, and that’s a generally neutral thing, and as I said totally ubiquitous. I’m sitting on a couch right now—a rather culturally default thing for me to be doing with a laptop. Whatever.
The issue comes in when there are intersections between places where people want to influence culture and places where people are making culturally influenced choices, right? So, we all agree, I expect, that being racist is a culturally influenced choice—people aren’t choosing in a vacuum to be racist; even if they choose to be racist, they are choosing a racism that’s defined by our culture in specific ways with specific meanings.
OK, so I can make the choice to wear makeup. It is fun to apply shiny powders to my face. Of course, the fact that it’s fun is culturally mitigated, but whatever, so is the fact that I eat sweet things instead of sour ones when I want a dessert.
But femininity and culture are at a particularly important crux in feminist politics. Makeup is located there. (I keep choosing makeup as my example because it’s something I do and am ambivalent about.) So if we’re talking about modifying cultural influences around femininity and culture—to reduce stigma of femininity, to increase women’s equality—then we have to take the invisible, ubiquitous thing that is culture and make it manifest and discuss it.
If we look at class politics, there’s a crux where cultural influence and goods come into play. It is culturally influenced that we increase in status by accumulating rather than distributing goods. People can choose to do this. People can gain pleasure from this. I personally enjoy the fuck out of owning this laptop on which I am currently typing. But if we want to come at this from a communist perspective, we also have to acknowledge that there *is* a cultural effect here, that I enjoy holding a new dress that is MINE at least partially because that’s something our culture says is enjoyable, and that even if I want to opt out of the gaining of status by accumulating goods, there are significant penalties for that. In a culture without a good safety net, I (in my neuroses and in my priviilege) count on my financial security to know that, in most emergency situations, my husband and I will be able to cope fairly easily. We pay a price for that security; we live somewhere we don’t like, where we don’t know anyone, and I have no doubt that it increases my unhappiness. But since I have the privilege of being able to conform to the cultural mandate of accumulating goods (from which there are, in addition to many privileges, also things that give me real pleasure, you know? We have the werewithal to travel, which I *love*)… and even if we did opt out of some of them, which we do hope to do, we’d still be in a privileged position because we had the *choice* to opt out. Some people don’t have that choice. And they’re coming at the subject of class privilege from a different perspective, with a different—and frankly, probably clearer—eye.
If you are a beautiful woman capable of performing heteronormative femininity, I certainly don’t begrudge you that. Many of my loved ones are beautiful women who perform—and enjoy performing—heteronormative femininity. (And while there are penalties for this, I am personally firm in the position that they don’t counterbalance the penalties for not complying. I agree that women can’t win, but I do not believe it’s an equally weighted scale. If you can get four poker chips and have to pay two poker chips, but I can’t get any poker chips, then you’re still getting an advantage over me even if neither of us can get the jackpot.) They get benefits from this and it’s pleasurable. And culturally mitigated. They choose to do those things because they are pleasurable, and because they get benefits—but also, dude, pleasurable. Owning a new laptop is pleasurable. Making yourself beautiful is pleasurable. One is choosing to do both of those things because they are pleasurable. But the choice is part of a system which increases the pleasure of the choice and which penalizes making different choices.
But some people can’t buy a new laptop. And some people can’t don the feminine gear and go into mainstream porn. And that does give you a different perspective on both systems.
And there are lots of things we can’t do, right? I also can’t throw a phenomenal baseball. But these two things—the purchase of expensive items, the performance of femininity—are located at political cruxes where class and feminist activism want to change things.
After things are changed, these acts may have totally different meanings. In a society where people have enough resources to cover their needs, plus at least some for recreation, where everyone can afford a laptop even if they have to make a choice between laptops and other recreational items—buying a laptop would have a different meaning. In a culture where the expectation is not that all women must be able to give a good performance of femininity, performing femininity will have a different meaning.
That doesn’t mean people choosing to perform femininity aren’t making a choice, aren’t gaining pleasure, aren’t having fun. But here’s where the term “choice” gets slippery (because language is like that, being all an imperfect tool), because that choice is culturally influenced because it’s made under duress, since choosing not to carries heavy penalties. LOTS of choices are made under duress or cultural influence and many of them are not controversial, or are controversial only at points—what I eat for dinner, for example, and whether it includes governmentally subsidized corn syrup, or beef, or chicken eggs, or (undigestable for large portions of the world population) cow’s milk. I don’t eat cat meat; there would probably be some cultural penalties if I did. Etc.
But where the culturally influenced choices intersect with the loci of political activism, then it becomes necessary to discuss what’s going on in more detail.
I think it would be helpful if people were willing to read the word “choice” as being the contingent, context-specific term it is, and let it be determined by the context of the writer. It’s a deceptively complicated concept. (If you live in a locked room, but you never try to leave so the lock never affects you, did you have free choice to leave? Etc.) And I think there’s a weird push and pull where the feminist dialogues around choice get pushed and pulled into different shapes and no one notices that anything’s changed because the word itself has stayed the same.