Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Postfem Core

I'm interested in attaching the articles this week to an analysis of Emma Watson and the recent controversy over her Vanity Fair shoot in which she showed some skin in a shrug that didn't totally cover her breasts (or at least enough of them according to the controversy). The question that arose is pretty straightforward: Can Emma Watson still be the uber-feminist that she is, still work with the UN, etc. etc. if she's willing to portray certain types of sexuality in the media? Banet-Weiser might argue that Watson's commitment to feminist causes, while perhaps noble in the abstract, is also a function of her status as a commercialized identity -- it is, in fact, a part of her self-branding to choose to make feminism a core part of her media work. This feminist branding is only possible because the struggles of feminism have been somewhat normalized: "the normalization of feminism has prevented it from existing as a discrete politics; rather it emerges as a kind of slogan or generalized 'brand'" (Banet-Weiser 208). While certainly Watson's work within feminism has brought her notoriety and increased her image, I find Banet-Weiser's claim that feminism has been nearly completely evacuated of meaning and turned into a commercialized shell of its former self, troubling and perhaps not quite nuanced enough.

I want to argue, using the readings for this week, that the whole reason this controversy even arose is due to a troubled relationship between postfeminism and choice - under which the mechanisms of meritocracy disguise continuing inequality and cultural misogyny.

While I disagree with McRobbie that current iterations of postfeminism construct "the new female subject" as "despite her freedom, called upon to be silent, to withhold critique, to count as a modern sophisticated girl, or indeed this withholding of critique is a condition of her freedom" (after all, we are currently seeing a swing back in which media personalities and everyday women alike are more willing to call themselves feminists and to engage in at least some form of feminist discourse), I do think McRobbie understands the relationship between postfeminism and choice. Within postfeminism, she claims, choice is:
a modality of constraint. The individual is compelled to be the kind of subject who can make the right choices. By these means new lines and demarcations are drawn between those subjects who are judged responsive to the regime of personal responsibility, and those who fail miserably (261).
So if choice itself becomes a way to restrict and police the behaviors of women, what recourse do feminists like Watson have? After all, Watson's initial response to the controversy about her semi-nakedness was to appeal to choice, to the fundamental feminist desire to allow women to maintain the choice over how or when to display their bodies. She told Reuters: "Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It's about freedom. It's about liberation. It's about equality." However, Watson's argument that choice and the freedom of choice inherent within feminist ideals authorizes her photos misunderstands the way that choice functions in postfeminist society. Let me be clear, I think Watson has the right to show whatever part of her body she wants to the media and to claim to be a representative of feminism. Like her, I don't see the two actions as mutually exclusive. However, to appeal to choice as a feminist ideal is to misunderstand the way that choice functions as an arm of patriarchal power. Watson has been judged to have made the wrong choice in her Vanity Fair photoshoot, and instead of understanding the cultural backlash as essentially misogynistic, Watson has argued she has the right to choose -- no one seems to be upset that she was allowed a choice, they're merely claiming that she made the 'wrong' one, and this is the cultural enacting of the "regime of personal responsibility" that McRobbie highlights.

In a world where choice itself is fraught with both self-determining power and the ability to severely restrict and punish, how does one form an inclusive and liberating feminist politics -- feminism that doesn't hinge on whether an individual has made the right choice (allowing punishment under the guise of meritocracy) but which actively seeks to break down the cultural policing that makes choice a dangerous game?

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