As a shady eavesdropper on feminist-oriented blogs, and lurking in the back row of Gender Theory lectures, I have often been privy to the phrase ‘bad feminist’ being bandied about. It is muttered as a sheepish apology whenever the speaker feels that she (always she*) has confessed to a taste or a practice not in keeping with the feminist ideal, which itself is rarely elucidated properly but always felt as a vague guiding force. I dislike the phrase, instinctively because it sounds like disciplining a family pet – “No, Eve! Drop that apple! BAD FEMINIST, BAD!” – and intellectually because the notion of apologising, for failing to ‘meet the standards’ of a discourse that is supposed to be about choice and liberation, strikes me as inherently problematic.
The question of defining feminism as a discourse, against which the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feminist measures herself, is a thorny and difficult process. The pluralism of feminist discourse, the debates over the relative validity of ‘radical’ feminism vs ’empowering’ raunch culture, the hijacking of feminist rhetoric by so-called ‘Mama Grizzlies’, and so on, all make it virtually impossible to define feminism as a cohesive concept. And that’s before we even step outside the sphere of ‘normative’ feminism, in which the female subject is all-too-often assumed to be a white, middle-class heterosexual woman living in a Westernised/First-World society. I accept that I myself am writing from that position of privilege, and that this piece does not engage with the idea of bad feminism in the context of racial or sexual ‘otherness’, or extreme poverty/genuine oppression. It strikes me as flippant to assume that my everyday concerns, such as whether shaving my legs and wearing mascara makes me a bad feminist, could be remotely relevant or important to women for whom feminist liberation could literally mean the difference between life and death. So, given that I am in no danger of being stoned to death for kissing, and have no need to walk a six-mile round trip carrying water for my family, let me indulge in my exploration of bad feminism from the point of view of an educated Western white woman sitting near the straight end of the sexuality spectrum.
Is it possible to extrapolate a definition of bad feminism from a feminist discourse that is itself poorly defined? It may lack rigour, but I feel that there are behaviours that can give a professed feminist a sense of vague uneasiness or betrayal, and these are the things that I would classify as belonging to bad feminism. I have already mentioned cosmetics and depilation as examples – others might include taking a husband’s name upon marriage (or even the act of marriage itself), choosing to eschew paid work in favour of bringing up children, opposing abortion rights, and dieting. I’m sure all you bad feminists out there can think of others. The things on this list have two factors in common: they can be described as ‘traditional’ expressions of femininity, and they concern female bodily and social autonomy within a society that is still more or less patriarchal in its structure. Given that feminism, in all its myriad forms, has ostensibly aimed at securing female autonomy above all else, the bad feminist is clearly one who willingly abrogates her autonomy and, by default, upholds the traditional patriarchal structures that work against the autonomy of women collectively.
It would seem, then, that the simple solution is to return to the radical position of feminism’s Second Wave. Or not. The pursuit of autonomy, while in theory a noble and necessary cause, is open to manipulation. Ironically, the insistence upon certain kinds of oppositional practices in the face of oppression can result in the construction of a new conformity. Instead of ‘Women must wear mascara and wax their legs’, we have ‘Feminist women must NOT wear mascara or wax their legs’. The blind pursuit of autonomy can often undermine itself. So, is the solution to move away from this didactic position? Perhaps, but this is also problematic. The danger of genuine autonomy, from a feminist perspective, is that it validates many of the practices that undermine it. I have briefly mentioned ‘raunch culture’ as one expression of feminist autonomy, and I feel that it illustrates this point perfectly. In embracing the trappings of ‘sluttiness’ as a means of throwing off the traditional shame associated with female sexuality, ‘raunch culture’ risks playing into the very patriarchal discourse it seeks to overturn. Thus, we have a paradox – the pursuit of autonomy, if rigid, risks creating a new form of oppression; and if flexible, risks dissipating itself. Either way, feminism will eat itself.
The problem here, it seems, is the apparent gap between discourse and experience. Feminism and patriarchy, as discourses, are inherently structural – they are concerned with the ‘big story’, and the interaction(s) of people as groups. To digress for a moment, the debate between structuralists and post-structuralists is a longstanding one, and the question of whether we are subject to top-down socio-linguistic structures imposed upon us by an oppressive Authority, or whether meanings and values derive primarily from individual experience, is one that has never been satisfactorily resolved. In a broad sense, claiming to absolutely reject the determinism of structure is simplistic and unsatisfactory, as it ignores the very real influence of shared language, symbolism and social meaning upon individual decision-making. However, the good or bad feminist makes her decisions on an individual level. If I may be excused a very flippant comparison, whether I choose as a woman to shave my legs, or to have an abortion, is a question of my personal self-regard. I may be making that decision within the inescapable confines of a structure but, on an individual level, I am deciding in both cases whether or not to detach an agglomerated cellular structure from my body, whether that be a foetus or a bit of hair. At the most fundamental level, I am exercising the autonomy of anatomy.
This is an unavoidably heuristic analysis, and almost certainly lacking some key consideration. Writing from the individual perspective, I can’t help but conclude that the term ‘bad feminist’ is a redundant one, not because it seeks to corral women into a particular mode of behaviour, but because it is impossible to institute any kind of good/bad dichotomy when the field of reference is so vague. I will continue to wear make-up, for example, and I will probably continue to have sporadic pangs of feminist guilt at doing so. Caught between social structure and personal self-regard, it would seem that there is no satisfactory response to the phenomenon of the Bad Feminist.
*I use ‘she’ in reference to the fact that, within feminist and patriarchal discourse, it is the behaviour of women that tends to be scrutinised and critiqued. I fully accept that men can be feminists, insomuch as they can and do support the emancipation of women from traditional expectations and pressures. However, as a woman, I can only write accurately about how it feels to be on the receiving end of those expectations, and my response to that.