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Contending With The Buzzfeed Bildungsroman
Internet Libertarian Feminism, Economic Policy, The Teenage Girl
When I was coming of age, the popular liberatory gender politic was the byproduct of Tumblr, you-go-girl-ism, and Buzzfeed videos of women manspreading on their local public transportation systems. Anything that confronted puritanical American middle-class sensibilities was lauded, one of the most radical things a woman could do was to be “unapologetic”. In the last half a decade, we have inched away from this moment, but the usage of libertarian rhetoric to frame “empowerment” has yet to be seriously contended with. In the age where words like “intersectionality” and “microagression” have been largely stripped of their radical origins to become HR jargon, how do we contend with the legacy of third wave feminism?
I can’t remember the first time I was called a dyke. It must have been some time in elementary school, where I was cursed with a terrible haircut (given to me by my father), 9” Bermuda shorts and clunky Keen shoes (given to me by my mother), and an inability to connect with women in that effortless, natural way that it seemed everyone else could (a problem wholly my own). I liked snakes, mud, tidepools, and frogs. I wasn’t allowed to watch princess movies. My parents—NPR-afficianados, upper-middle-class, both born in 1955—had one rule when it came to my future: “You can be anything you want. Just not a cheerleader.”
Naturally, I found my sense of self on the internet. I wasn’t cut out for the suburbs. I have always been terrible at sports. I was ageing out of playing Warrior Cats on the playground and hissing at my classmates. Instead, in 2012, I opened up my very first Tumblr blog (which, for the record, is still live to this day). I was interested in BBC’s Sherlock, the Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, Dan & Phil, and feeling like I wasn’t such an outcast. I found fandom culture, softcorn porn, and discourse beyond my wildest imagination. Whoever thinks that TikTok is the source of the most mind-boggling internet drama must’ve missed the HIVLIVING scandal, in which it was revealed that a woman pretending to be an HIV Positive Chinese-Pakistani human trafficking survivor was actually just a white American college student trying to add credibility to their Hamilton fanfiction.
And, of course, there was Tumblr social justice culture. The pejorative terms have fallen largely out of use, phrases like keyboard warrior and SJW. The vision of the Tumblr SJW was one of hairy-armed women with blue pixie cuts and too many cats, a timely update to the perpetual stereotype of feminists as unlovabley ugly1. Pop feminism—notably different from the academic and critical practice of philosophical feminism—worked on one principle: the highest form of empowerment was being able to do whatever you want without guilt or shame. Stay-at-home mom or married to the job, bare faced or caked in makeup, celibate or sexually open, so long as it was something you did because you wanted to, it was empowering. Not only empowering, but radical. These choices were seen as the most powerful when in the face of opposition: sticking it to the man meant countering middle-class purity politics and angering Fox News commentators.
Many of these sentiments came from honesty and vulnerability. When target groups are denied the ability to make choices for themselves, oftentimes just being offered the ability to choose feels like an escape from injustice. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think that a lot of these discourses were without merit. Choosing to dedicate your life to your family rather than a wage economy can be a powerful thing to do, and so can deciding to forgo the nuclear family to pursue your ambitions. There is nothing inherently wrong with having lots of sex with lots of people and there is nothing wrong with not having sex at all. Rather, it was how these things were framed, the language and rhetoric employed, that evidenced an insidious toxicity in popular feminist discourses.
The fundamental fault with choice feminism is that it presupposes that all of our choices, especially the seemingly emancipatory or radical ones, come from a place of natural desire that is wholly our own.
When I think about coming to terms with my own sexuality, I felt like there was one dominating narrative coming from the world of popular feminism. It felt like every discourse boiled down to: it is fine to not want to have sex. And it’s fine to have lots of sex. But also for the record, patriarchy built puritanical cultures and men don’t want you to freely express your sexuality. Having lots of casual sex with men is radical because men do slut shaming, so if you are proud to have lots of casual sex you are liberating yourself. Also, the same oppressive patriarchal forces don’t want you to enjoy the sex you do have and instead want you to have boring vanilla missionary sex for a man’s pleasure. Engage in kink culture! It is very fun to be sexually degraded, choked, slapped, and hit. 2
There’s something quite silly about that line of thinking: the idea that having one-night stands with men, allowing them to enact violence against you for sexual gratification, and expecting nothing in return except to feel what you have been told is political and personal emancipation is some sort of radical act. I feel this dissonance is amplified when considering the framing of so much of this “sex positive” language comes through the gaze of the oppressor. Do this because these people don’t want you to. Even in our supposed liberation we must allow ourselves to be watched by our oppressors, still performing, still performing for them, trapped in a dialectical voyeuristic exchange framed as freedom.
But when you’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… you don’t think like that. At least, I didn’t. I was stubborn, contrarian, always with something to say, always looking to be both provocative and politically correct. I think a lot of teenage girls are like that. When you’re young, you’re so used to being told what to do and how to do it that when someone comes along and says that you can upset whole systems by doing something as simple as sleeping around… well, at least I know I was eager to believe it3. I don’t feel the need to detail my sexual life as a teenager, but I will say that the choices I made concerning my sexuality never made me feel the empowerment I was promised. I just see a girl who wanted to feel in control making choices that would leave her with the wrong ideas about sex, love, and intimacy and many older men who got exactly what they wanted.
The same arguments surround so many discourses, many of which feel beyond tired and worn out to me. If it makes someone feel good, what’s the issue? fills the comment sections of all posts concerning makeup and plastic surgery, audiences jump to the defence of women taking on imperial roles in state departments as “just securing their bag”. The same ideas even make their way to the classroom, in high schools, colleges, and even postgraduate academic spaces. But there’s never an examination of why these things make people feel good. The shortest answer is often that these things make people feel “confident”, but what is confidence? There is confidence in conformity. If a woman is to erase her acne with high-strength foundation, shave off the cartilage in her face in search of a thinner, smaller nose, wax her vagina raw, she will be treated better than others as she moves through the world. Validation feels good, it can be labeled as confidence, but if social validation is predicated on the same standards of patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism that it always has, it can never be truly radical.
Of course, we do things that aren’t empowering all the time. You can understand that the things you do are based in harmful structures and do them anyways—it would be exhausting to live with a perfect, round-the-clock politic. Sometimes I would like strangers to think that I am pretty, and I know that is more likely if I contour my face, hide my big round chipmunk cheeks, wear the tall shoes that make my legs look longer and slimmer. It doesn’t make me (or anyone) a bad person to want to be accepted, it makes you human. But it’s also irresponsible to refuse to understand where our desires comes from, refuse to believe we can be subject to whims in line with the structures we despise, refuse to acknowledge that each and every choice we make is not the most radical or most progressive one it can be.
I took a class on the 1960s in American Culture my junior year in college, and I remember watching a video about the nascent sexual revolution. The invention of the birth control pill was genuinely transformative—pregnancy, then a career-stopping condition for women, could be avoided. But while the pill allowed for sexual exploration previously dangerous to women’s’ ambitions, it also allowed for the expectation of casual sex for girls to be imposed. In a documentary shown to my class (whose name I wish I could remember but fails to come to me), a woman talked about being a student activist against the Vietnam War. She talked about the sidelined roles of women and the conflation of politics with sexual action and said (a line which has stuck with me in the three years since watching) “at that time, men would ask ‘Are you liberated?’ And what that really meant was ‘Do you have sex?’ and oftentimes, ‘Will you have sex with me?’”.
With the sexual revolution came a transformation of what it meant to be a well-rounded, progressive woman. For the earlier half of the twentieth century, the job of a woman was to provide childcare, domestic labor, and sexual labor for a husband in exchange for economic security. By the end of the twentieth century, married women were still expected to perform the same domestic and sexual duties while also engaging in the wage-labor marketplace. Unmarried women were expected to perform the same sexual labor without the material security. This is, of course, not to say that things were better for women before the sexual revolution. Rather, that we cannot see the acceptance of premarital and casual sex as a unilaterally forward and wholly positive for women—though it seems like it certainly was for men4.
It is no coincidence that liberal feminism arose at the same time as neoliberalism. In fact, I think that liberal feminism is better labeled libertarian feminism. This school of thought arose in direct opposition to Marxist Feminism and Black Feminism, who favoured radical restructurings of political and economic institutions. The key to effective, honest organising fundamentally lies in empathy, manifested in the development of communities. Building community is both a material process but also an emotional one, requiring not only the redistribution of resources and labor but also the transformation of minds outside of individualist, capitalist modes of thought into politics of love. It is no coincidence that some of the most celebrated liberal feminist heroes are women who proactively instituted pain and suffering on others: Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, and Hillary Clinton were all lauded as celebratory examples of female empowerment in the 1980s and 1990s. Their political actions were not the focus of liberal feminist thought, but rather their semiotic value as individuals who, through that great capitalist myth called hard work, overcame sexism to hold power over others. In the last twenty years it seems little has changed—the outward war criminal may have fallen out of favour, but the rallying cry remains for more female CEOs, more women in the U.S. military, more cisgendered millennials with social anxiety in the CIA.
I can’t help but see the emptiness of representation, the continued finacialization and deregulation of the economy, and the push for unexamined sex positivity as inextricably related. When we are told that empowerment comes from doing whatever we, as individuals, want and that forming emotional attachments is a disadvantage, how are we supposed to see each other as members of the same community? “Catching feelings” has become as taboo for women as it has for men and emulating patriarchal distance from sexual intimacy is seen as unilaterally progressive. Of course casual sex can be fun and rewarding. Of course not everyone wants to be in a relationship with everyone they sleep with. But intimacy is just as radical— when we are expected to do nothing other than work, making time to practice love is a fundamentally emancipatory act. Instead, our emotional and sexual lives are relegated to the same impotency as our economic lives: just as it becomes standard to deliver for Doordash, drive for Uber, rent out your spare room for AirBnb, we must also engage in multiple shallow interpersonal relationships found on Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge.
While we’ve swapped Lena Dunham for Call Her Daddy, it doesn’t seem to be all bad. Popular feminism has at least tried to make itself less white, less middle class, less American in focus. There are many, many prominent voices who seek to genuinely challenge political structures and liberal ideas of progress. But still persists this idea that personal choice—that individualism—will be the saving grace for anyone under systemic oppression. In part because it is easier to adapt to an ideology that allows you to continue doing the things you do rather than accepting that political transformation always comes with the transformation of the self or understanding that shame can be an expression of humanity.
I’ve said before that I think the most radical change comes from the intersection of historical materialism and radical love politics. Even within our sex lives, this is true. We must ask ourselves: how are our desires informed by the power structures around us? How are our actions informed by our roles within those power structures? How can we connect with the people around us? How can we find fulfilment beyond validation? It is difficult work, to be certain. It can be uncomfortable. But it is a journey of love, of care, of community and one that is wholly worth it.
Recommended further reading:
The Right To Sex, Amia Srinivasan, 2021
“On Sexuality As Work”, Silvia Federici, 1975
Uses of the Erotic: The erotic as power, Audre Lorde, 1981
For what it’s worth— I think that fighting too hard against the ‘feminists are ugly’ stereotype eventually falls into the idea that being ugly is an inherently bad thing that makes your opinions invalid. I disagree! But I digress.
I am really hoping that readers will not be intentionally dense and assume that by criticising this narrative I am saying that it is bad to have casual sex or engage in kinky sex. I would hope it goes without saying, but in preemptive self defence I will write it down anyways: any person is welcome to do whatever they like. There is no shame in how much (or little) sex you have! Rather, I hope to encourage people to think critically about where these desires come from and how things that may make you feel good in the moment can be traced back to preexisting power structures instead of genuine radical fulfilment.
I use the term “women” and “girls” throughout this essay, but of course women are just some of the people effected by misogyny. In particular, I’ve found in speaking with many of my gay and bisexual male friends, that this embrace of conflating casual sex with political liberation had a strong negative impact on their sexual development as well.
There is no better writing on this subject (of which I have done little more than attempt to recapitulate) than Silvia Federici’s 1975 essay “On Sexuality As Work”. I recommend it to everyone I can— it’s short and not bogged down with academic language— and can be found here: https://we.riseup.net/assets/163175/05-federici.pdf.