Let me tell you something. My feminism doesn’t much care about Beyoncé. My heart may beat to the beat of “Partition,” but debates about the potential feminism of Yoncé’s lyrics, ass, or marriage leave me cold. Bey’s choice to make her body and sexuality central to her persona is held up against the fact that such displays are always filtered through white supremacist patriarchy. We can only ever think of her as fully in control of her performance, image and body, or totally and abjectly victim of a system that uses women’s bodies against each other. Her self-determination is always besieged by the fear that she might have been working for the male gaze all along. But no, we shudder, the male gaze is foiled and frustrated just so long as we can convince ourselves that this was Bey’s choice.
Choice, we pant fiercely. Choice will keep Beyoncé safe — choice will save us all.
What can choice even mean under capitalism? It doesn’t seem coincidental to me that choice-focused feminism arose with neoliberalism, or that the logic of consumer activism seems to pervade so much popular social justice work. If Beyoncé’s choices are informed by the imperative to market her image as a commodity, the choice we normals face is usually nothing more than the choice between buying product A and product B. The use of choice in political debates bears a suspicious resemblance to the way capitalism constructs us as consumers who function as rational agents within the marketplace. Our choices are legible as choices only insofar as they function within a system that limits what can be chosen, and by whom.
And for this reason I am not interested in what you do with your pubic hair, what footwear you buy, your willingness to make your hubby a sandwich, the scope or frequency of your beauty routine, or how many Tinder dates you’ve hooked up with. The validity of your choice to do any of these things is not the fight I want to have. Instead, I want to think more about how the range of choices we have access to is limited by what bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” and what kinds of collective discourse and action can work to widen that range.
I want to be clear. I believe in the expressive potential of fashion and performance. I believe that feeling comfortable inside your own skin can be effected through a careful and self-conscious consideration of what you put on it, and that, moreover, such comfort should not be dismissed as superficial or insignificant. I believe that attempting to control how people inhabit their bodies is an aggressive violation. I even believe that choice matters, that personal responsibility is necessary to any kind of political community I want to belong to. But I do not, for all that, believe that we can rest our politics on a bifurcation between choice and coercion.
My point is that there is no easy choice between choice and social determination — that choice itself is not the solution to the oppressive pressures of racism and patriarchy because the choices we have (and the fact of choice at all) are constructed by the very systems we wish to use them to undermine.
In many ways, I sympathize with the motive to make choice central to the feminist struggle. For folks who have historically had their bodies and wills violently co-opted only to be told not only that this is the natural way of things, but also that they actually like it, self-determination becomes a vital rallying cry and a place to wage battle against institutional oppression. There is power in asserting your own will in the face of structures that would seek to use it against you. Refusing to allow others to determine which choices you make or what those choices mean is potent and compelling.
And yet. And yet, the narrative of choice tends to supplant collective work toward political and community good with an act of personal agency. Under this paradigm, Beyoncé’s choice to, say, strategically reveal her body in a music video is effectively the same as something that looks closer to traditional political organizing. But it’s not simply that personal choice becomes the privileged site of political action, but that any personal choice, regardless of its ideological or practical content, can be celebrated as good political agency. The cry of “it’s my choice” (to wax my legs, to wear makeup, to become a stay-at-home mother, etc.) is meant to challenge community responsibility-based critiques of those choices, with the unspoken assumption that as long as I have chosen it, it cannot possibly be harmful.
On one hand, I don’t much care about the kinds of lifestyle choices that are often justified by “choice,” but on the other citing “choice” as a defense for them does not shield them from political critique.
The tension between choice as self-determination and choice as apolitical individualism is precisely why I’m so perplexed by the rhetoric of choice surrounding abortion access. While I am, of course, always in support of giving all people the resources and support to make informed decisions about their bodies, the problem of abortion is not with women’s capacity to choose, but with women’s access to the resources that make such a choice meaningful. Put another way, women’s choices are besieged from the very beginning by legal and economic roadblocks that overdetermine what their choices could even be.
Meanwhile, the boogieman of “choice” is haunting the debate in the form of anti-abortion rhetoric that frames the choice to abort as somehow coerced through threat, political pressure, or misinformation. From the perspective of anti-abortion politicians and activists, women are being forced to have abortions by doctors and activists who are lying about health risks and inevitable regret. But my point is that this preoccupation with choice is a diversionary tactic — framing the debate in terms of the relative agency behind women’s choices to have abortions directs attention away from the legal and economic structures that actually determine how and which choices can be made. The choice for abortion is already partially made for women by systems that cannot hope to help them support their child after birth, just as the choice against abortion is determined by the failure of safe and legal access in many states.
Something that is often overlooked in this rhetoric of choice is the fiction of undetermined agency. Whenever we cite choice as the definitive ground of political action, we presuppose the existence of a coherent and fully self-conscious individual who is both totally rational and totally free from social pressure. We imagine first that choices are only meaningful in a context of radically free agency, and second that any person could inhabit such a position. We pretend, that is, that we are not dependent creatures whose very capacity for action is born from the social interdependence that also limits us. Is there not a world we could imagine in which self-determination can be preserved while also asking individuals to think of their choices socially as actions that must be held accountable to their communities?
Written by Eva Latterner