A repost/update of Reproductive Rights & the Macroeconomics of Pussy, or, Why Is Feminism’s Image So Unpretty? from August 22, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
The recent passing of Helen Gurley Brown (well, recent when this was originally posted back in Aug) created an unusually apt occasion for both mainstream media and feminist media to verbiate on the relationship between feminism and sexualized culture, even though it’s far from clear what those actually refer to.
Similarly, not long before that, the appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo prompted talk of what to make of Mayer’s declining to wear a feminist button in the same breath she voices feminist views, and is a beneficiary of feminist influence. Marissa Mayer’s management of her fertility made some news even more recently in her short tenure as Yahoo’s CEO lady, though to be honest I don’t know the details because attention to that episode seemed decidedly optional, and I decided to opt out.
The point is, as in so many feminist matters, a common theme in both these episodes is the feminist public image: What is it? Why? What can or should it be? How might it be improved? What values are upturned, reinforced, or betrayed by any given representation of feminism and feminists, and of women generally?
The Feminist Public Image has gone from debate to pastime. But it takes on urgency when seen in connection to current attacks on reproductive rights in the United States, and to the way these transparently anti-women, anti-family, anti-sex, and anti-intelligence moves have not been met with greater public outrage.
To be sure, these attacks are not being taken lying down. But the unprecedented intensity and confidence behind these attacks, and the innovative methods used (e.g., localized TRAP laws, patient obstacles, stunt legislation), point to a long-running feminist failure of influence when it comes to gender, sexuality, and the whole cluster of feminism’s defining concerns.
Looking at the history, I believe the feminist influence deficit, and also the current status of reproductive rights, are traceable to a problematic analysis of objectification and sexualized culture that has left feminism with a conflicted relationship to pop sexuality.
The status of reproductive rights in the US directly reflects feminism’s brand image, its vitality and perceived relevance in the cultural marketplace. Unraveling these issues can shed light on why the feminist public image is so damn unpretty.
Being burdened for decades with a crappy public image is itself a feminist failure. Worse, this public relations failure led US feminism to fumble reproductive rights in its 40-year journey from Roe to TRAP laws & personhood amendments & the looming possibility of a right wing theocratic frontman installed in the White House.
Beauty myth is only skin deep
The everyday world is flooded with sexual imagery some of which can at least arguably be read as feminist, and for that reason alone the feminist public image is not totally lacking sex appeal.
At the same time, in that same world, the dominant image of feminism and of feminist women as a type is angry, militant, humorless, judgmental, hypocritically non-sexual alternating with hypocritically sexual, and so on, and so on, and so on.
The fairness of this is not my concern here.
For better and for worse, the defining ingredient of feminism’s public image has been the objectification and “images of women” theories of the late-2nd and early-3rd waves, which today remain institutionalized as core feminist building blocks, almost like DNA.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that, operating under a theory of commodified objectification as a mechanism for women’s oppression, feminists would look skeptically on pop sexuality. And a certain skepticism is always good policy. As it is, one consequence has been feminism’s compromised influence in sexualized consumerist culture (which is where activism must succeed.)
By hanging onto a simplified “vulgar” objectification theory — call it “beauty myth feminism” — it became increasingly difficult for feminism to engage pop sexuality and gender imagery without getting its hands dirty, its makeup smeared, and its principles tied in knots, while remaining at constant war with itself.
Having been analytically blinkered and led astray by its own rhetoric — and despite an appropriately heightened sensitivity to backlash — Unitedstatesean feminism was eventually outmaneuvered on repro rights through failure to make credible connections between sexualization and the very reproductive rights such sexualization demands and, in a way, presupposes. (More on this in a sec.)
During this period, reproductive rights became over-identified specifically and narrowly with abortion, whilethe “Abortion Issue” was branded a matter of “Choice,” an intentionally watered-down consumerist term easily dispersed and broadly applied in a marketplace where feminism is, almost as if by training or sabotage, unprepared to compete.
This is how feminism lost political control of reproductive rights, without which there can be no true gender equality, which is the only true measure of feminism’s progress.
The macroeconomics of pussy
The management of female sexuality has been a human preoccupation since before time: Just as pre-contraceptive cultures revolve around female reproductivity, modern contraception shifts that center of gravity towards non-reproductivity, with non-reproductive sexuality superseding reproductive capacity as an organizing principle. I think of this as the difference between reproductive and post-reproductive societies, cultures, economies, eras, values, etc.
The ongoing failure to adequately recognize, theorize, articulate, and exploit these shifts in the macroeconomic function of women’s bodies keeps feminism’s political potential unrealized, its meaning & branding incoherent, and its successes vulnerable to reversal. This is a formula for irrelevance.
Feminism has now spent decades working an analysis that has left it popularly identified as opposed in principle to the very cultural sexualization it could have and should have been seen embracing and taking credit for, shaping the meaning of, and promoting outright.
How fucked is this?
Feminist interest in sexualization
Everyday activist and blogospheric feminism is not shy in championing women’s sexuality: The right & freedom of women to our sexuality sans stigma is one of feminism’s great themes. But as the muted popular response to current assaults on reproductive freedom make plain, when it comes to evangelical sex-positivity,the girldon’t go far enough.
And just to be clear, this is not another call for feminism to sex-up its image but to re-conceive its understanding of sexualization itself.
Proposition: Feminism has a positive interest in cultural sexualization because sexualized culture, and the sexual and gender identities it supports, will seek to manifest non-reproductively, which normalizes non-reproductive sex and sexualities, which de-essentializes gender, which is a necessary condition for gender equality. (That’s why this shit’s so dangerous.)
Accordingly, the problem is not objectification and sexual imagery but the essentialization of sexualized gender and its representations.
Repro rights: Reclaim. Reframe. Rebrand. Relaunch.
The way I see it, as a movement, to the extent that’s what it is or should be or can be, whatever else it does, feminism’s got to do two things:
1) reclaim, reframe, rebrand, and relaunch repro rights awareness with the immediate goal of getting everyday people to recognize and value their own reproductive rights and to stop taking reproductive rights for granted. (Doesn’t that sound like fun?)
2) establish itself and claim full credit as the Defender of reproductive rights and freedom, broadly defined, as fundamental to human rights and freedom, rather than a matter of personal “choice.” (Try to imagine the NRA campaigning for “the choice to bear arms.” Try to imagine bible thumpers fighting to protect “religious choice.” Try to imagine “civil choice activists” pushing congress to pass the Voting Choice Act.)
This would be a populist sex-positivity that could stand in full frontal contrast to the regressive sexuality and gender profiling of right wing social conservatism.
This work is long overdue. It has been a costly delay.
Now I might think that selling repro rights and freedom in a highly sexualized culture would be a simple thing: Reproductive rights are so much more than abortion. Reproductive rights underwrite the modern sex life. Reproductive rights underwrite and lubricate a throbbing consumer economy predicated on and dedicated to the servicing of sexual ideation, from genesis to satisfaction. Reproductive rights include the right to consensual sex itself.
Modern sexuality is itself a reproductive right.
What social conservatives seek is to, in effect, abolish modern sexuality: If you impede access to contraception and family planning, you impede sexual expression, especially for women, thus reinforcing essentialized gender roles. This ancient agenda, never too well concealed, has over the last two years been exposed for what it is. New evidence accumulates daily.
For this reason alone, I might also think that people generally and women in particular would be in revolt against a cultural coup by reproductive Luddites, but I probably overestimate my fellow Americans: Given US history, a progressive vision of repro rights wouldn’t have been a simple sell even if feminism hadn’t run out of batteries.
On the other hand, falling behind on reproductive rights goes against the interests of advanced capitalism, whose most enthusiastic cheerleaders typically align with the enemies of repro rights. But why should that be?
Being against reproductive rights is economically incoherent: If you impede modern sexuality, you impede modern economy. There’s nothing “free market” about the denial of reproductive rights. There’s nothing “entrepreneurial” about it. There’s nothing “American” about it. Certainly nothing “pro-life” or forward looking. But then there’s nothing in feminism’s historically “lefty” orientation that prepares it to engage productively with sexualized capitalism.
Feminism could turn the current repro rights emergency (which happened on its watch) into a move for new relevance. I grasp at evidence of that happening. But to really matter, feminism’s got to occupy a cultural space where repro rights, sex-positivity, and sexualized economy intersect and make nice with each other in a modern, progressive, “post-reproductive” context.
As it stands today, feminism’s dysfunctional relationship with commodified sexuality has dulled its analytical edge and undercut its influence, blocking its creative political engagement with consumer culture & economy. No wonder the feminist public image is what it is, and the status of reproductive rights is approaching a 50-year low.
Some hand picked related posts:
Reproductive Rights & the Macroeconomics of Pussy, or, Why Is Feminism’s Image So Unpretty?
Waking up the Pro-Choice Public
Choice & the Neon Elephant
Limply fungible ‘choice’
The problem with ‘choice’
Is feminism afraid of something?
Since when are Coke & Pepsi pro-choice?
Paul Ryan on Reproductive Rights: “You’re not going to have a truce.”