Inherent in this this paradigm is an illusion of choice. Human beings are considered the primary unit of analysis in an neoliberal system and so in political culture, our personal sovereignty is considered of the most paramount importance. Do you want to buy that house? Who can stop you! Do you want to get a boob job? Who can stop you! Do you want to drink a lot of alcohol? Who can stop you! No one can tell me what to do with my body - so the story goes - so stay out of my life, big government and pushy activists!!!!!!
The problem with this of course is that choice is an illusion. Our choices in life are incredibly limited under the system we live. I remember when I was little, and people would tell me how in the SOVIET UNION you could only buy things at six or seven stores. Driving down any main high street in America will show you very quickly the choice reality in today's system. Likewise, I was told I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, unlike the SOVIET UNION where people were forced into professions. Now looking at the job market, at the programs that get funding in universities, even the cost of attending university, we can see that this choice too is an illusion.
There is another set of choices that I am focusing on right now, and that is "choice" feminism.
One of the most stressed issues for women raised in the United States is a "pro-choice" issue. The right to abortion. Obviously I am in favor of safe and affordable abortion on demand, but this is not a right-to-abortion, rather framed as a right-to-choice or a right-to-keep-your-laws-off-my-body. Millions of women every year undergo abortion for their own reasons and it is a basic issue of human safety that abortion remains safe, affordable, and legal. Yet this "pro-choice" feminism is not necessarily about chioice, as we will see.
Abortion means one thing and one thing only: women can choose if and when they want to carry a pregnancy to term. The ramifications of this are nearly as important as the act itself. Women are free to pursue other avenues of their lives, work, meet a new man, not have to be pregnant and inconvenienced, and so on. Bearing children is such a serious and life changing decision that it is Good women are not locked into their biology, so the story goes.
Yet the ramifications are also negative in their scope. If women want to pursue a career, the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave and high cost of childcare means that the "choice" to have an abortion is now an option. Now that women are able to "choose" to postpone or avoid childrearing, it becomes an option that is subject to the market. Sure you might want a child, but you also probably want a job. Anti-abortion activists holler on about ethnic cleansing of black babies as minority populations are more represented in abortion statistics and feminists roll their eyes but it is a fact. We as feminists need to admit that vulnerable women are more likely to get abortions than women who are in secure positions either by having a stable home life or economic support. This "choice" we fight for is not a choice for everyone. It becomes an option for capital.
Another example of this is sex work. Some sex work is legal and some is illegal. A sizable portion of feminists would argue it should all be legal. Women, they argue, should have choice in their employment and we should as a society support those choices through regulation and exposing the seedier sides of the industry to public view. I agree that sex work should be decriminalized for women, but I disagree wholeheartedly that it should be decriminalized for men, much less legitimized as an acceptable way for women to make a living.
There are so many arguments against legalization of sex work that I could write a book on it, but I will focus again on this illusion of choice. If sex work is exposed to the market and legitimized in public society, it once again becomes not just a choice, but an option. A woman can make more money engaging in sex work than in a variety of other professions, especially if she is in a vulnerable position. As M-L-M blog so candidly wrote:
By-and-large, those who argue for the essential liberating aspects of sex work––and thus that sex work is not part of patriarchy––are either people who have never experienced sex work, or people who possess the class agency to dabble in sex work without any of the repercussions experienced by the vast majority of global sex workers.
Or, as People of Color Organize! says,
On one hand there seems to be a distinct lack of class analysis – we forget that there are reasons that some women are prostituted while others are not, that some women have a ‘choice’ while others do not. On the other, because decriminalization has, in part, been framed as a labour issue (i.e. that this is a job like any other and, therefore, should be treated in the same way any other service sector job is, in terms of laws), the gender and race factors fall to the wayside and we forget that prostitution impacts women and, in particular, racialized women in an inordinate way.
Race, class, gender… all of these factors are pushed aside in favor of “choice” and most importantly, looking at women as case-by-case actors. As mentioned earlier, neoliberalism demands that the human individual (in this case, a woman) is the primary unit of analysis. It also does not study societal outcomes for legalizing sex work. A man cannot imagine driving down a road past billboard after billboard, strip club after strip club that reminds him he is a sexual commodity and his body is meat that can be sold for cash. The normalization and legalization of sex work affects how a society looks at women and how women view themselves. A choice becomes an option, becomes a lucrative option and an acceptable option. To the free market, some women’s labor is worth more by virtue of their orifices being able to be fucked. Women who are engaged in sex work are not making a free choice in this system we live in.
Issues of Beautification
Women are compelled to spend an incredible amount of their wealth on beautification of their bodies. This can be as simple as wearing a nice sweater or getting plastic surgery. Some feminists have claimed that it is a woman’s right to wear makeup and high heels - even if it is bad for her health - if they so choose to do so. But the idea that women have a choice to not beautify their bodies in most societies without serious repercussions is patently ridiculous. Women who do not spend time beautifying themselves experience violence and depravation as a result. Even if you want to make the argument that in more blessed and privileged sectors of womenhood (here we are back to class and race) we are more than able to forgo shaving our legs and still find employment, there are too many studies published on how breast implants will raise your earning potential, how wearing makeup will ensure you are hired at a job interview, etc etc. There are even sites out there like http://myfreeimplants.com/about-us which offer breast implants free of charge (so long as well-meaning men think you are worth the investment) so that the quality of women’s lives will improve.
So you should go ahead and do things that are patriarchy-approved, if you want to. Buy new nail polish! Care about celebrities! Have a giant wedding! Wear a thong in your hair! Put your picture on the Internet! Look good according to particular patriarchal ideas of what looks good! Be flattered when men wolf whistle at you, literally or metaphorically! Whatever aspects of being a “Hot Chick” work for you, enjoy them. Maybe except the hair thong. But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will.
If your favorite pastimes are dieting, getting shiny hair, and having your legs looked at, hallelujah: You will receive plenty of support in doing the things you like best. But liking your limited options doesn’t mean your choice is free. It’s still constrained -- you just happen to be lucky.
I can’t tell you how many dear friends I grew up with have confessed it’s just “easier” to go through life being a pretty fool. A good comparison of this kind of “choice” is (of course my favorite subject) hijab. Seen as a marker of your otherness, a beacon for abuse, “male oppression”- or on the other end - as a mark of your chastity, religiousness, piety, marriageability, etc, hijab is a great example of how politics might say that women have a choice to wear what they want but how society + patriarchy is quick to correct your choice in case it is the wrong one. I personally believe that women should be allowed to wear what they want, whether a bikini or hijab, but as it stands I do not have any illusions that what we wear is not a choice of our own free will.
I only mentioned a few examples here, but I think the overall idea is clear. While our society prides itself in being “the best” for women by virtue of women being able to make “choices” regarding their personal agency, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps our means of coercion have become more innocuous, more subtle and shy, but that does not mean that the coercion has disappeared. Convincing women believe that they have a free choice to do what they want with their bodies when they do not impedes actual women's progress. This is my major criticism of the first world feminist’s camp. Choice is held in the highest regard, personal freedom as the paragon of virtue and end goal of the movement, while social justice is left by the wayside, gobbled up by the market and its “choices” that we were never truly free to choose ourselves.