[This article previously appeared on the other blog I contribute to, I Fry Mine in Butter]
Lately, the definition of the word “feminist” has become somewhat vague. With so many women fleeing from the term, whether because they don’t feel represented by it or because they fear its perceived negative connotations, the relevance of referring to yourself as such is in dispute. Perhaps because the meaning of feminist — and in turn, the meaning of feminism — is in flux, a disturbing slant towards a kind of “selective feminism” has emerged.
For example, many women seem to feel that because another woman is privileged in some way, or because her lifestyle is different, or her actions distasteful, she is not deserving of the basic rights we as feminists demand all women have — namely, control over our bodies and the way in which our bodies are discussed. Celebrities are routinely slammed with decidedly non-feminist language when they exercise their right to alter their bodies, especially when said alteration is of a body part which is perceived as sexual in nature, like say, a boob job. They’re referred to as “plastic”, their choices derided as superficial and detrimental to women, called “bimbo”, “Barbie”, “slut”, “whore”. Do female celebrities exempt themselves from the protections of feminism because they have money and fame? Is it true that when a woman becomes famous, she’s traded in her right to not have her body denigrated and her choices regarding her body respected? I understand that being in the public eye puts you in the line of fire for snarky comments, but should we as feminists be the ones shooting? As I understand feminism, it applies to all women, and an attack on one subgroup of women puts the larger group equally open to attack. A woman should not be “Othered” because she’s overly privileged.
If it’s okay for people to comment negatively on say, Kate Hudson’s surgically altered body, then it follows that it’s fair game for people to comment negatively on Gabourey Sidibe’s body size. Most self-described feminists, or feminist refugees, would object to that comparison. But the fact remains that both women deserve the right to have agency over their bodies without judgment or condemnation. You can’t have your Kate and Gabby too. Either all women have that right or none do, if we believe in the basic tenets of feminism. Express your disappointment that women feel they need to alter their bodies to succeed in an appearance-obsessed industry, but don’t attack the woman’s choice to alter her body.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the example of Tina Fey’s classist, sexist attack on Bombshell McGee is a pertinent one because those kinds of feelings are expressed by many women on a regular basis, not just famous comedic writers/performers. In situations where an affair has taken place, the default is to eviscerate the mistress and not the cheating husband. Whether it happens to a woman in the public eye or to the woman down the street, wives are cast as the long-suffering madonnas and the mistresses as the home-wrecking whores. Why do so many women blame not their husband for cheating on them, but the woman he cheated with for “luring” him into that situation? One might answer that men are expected to be unable to control their sexual desires, but the other woman should “know better” or have some kind of sisterhood with the wife. Breaking that perceived bond of sisterhood means the other woman is no longer welcome to benefit from the protections of feminism — she is fair game. Her body, her morals, her values are all legitimate topics for public discourse. Once again, the woman is Othered by her distasteful-to-some actions.
I would think it would be fairly clear why selective feminism is a slippery slope. However, many women will fight tooth and nail for their right to body snark, or blame other women for a man’s actions, or look down on women who make choices they don’t agree with. Only when the tables are turned on them do they understand why we need to support even straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered, rich, white women’s choices in regards to their bodies. Yes, these same women have been responsible for the erasure of many marginalized groups’ lived experiences in the past (and unfortunately, sometimes in the present). But it’s a testament to the success of feminism and vocal, visible marginalized feminists that most of us now recognize and support the rights of women of color, trans women, queer women, and many other truly oppressed groups of women. However, it appears we need to again have the backs of those who feminism, in its nascent form, was designed for — the privileged. Because if we don’t, we’re all back at square one.