Feminist Failures and Feminist Bargaining: Negotiating Hetero-patriarchal Culture while being Feminist

I’m reflecting on ‘s piece in The Guardian yesterday about how she experiences serious self-loathing about her body and has a disordered relationship with food while simultaneously being feminist and promoting body love amongst her peers. Cosslett talks to Susie Orbach, who of course points out how incredibly pervasive distorted representations of women’s bodies are within patriarchal culture that feeds huge industries aimed at changing women’s bodies. Orbach questions Cosslett about whether she’ll continue to put up with it. Cosslett writes:

This question stuns me. I wasn’t aware that not putting up with it was even an option. “Become a refusenik!” she says, and I want to: I really want to.

Part of the complexity of Cosslett’s issue is that it feels shaming amongst her feminist, educated peers to admit that that eating is so problematic for her.  She says:

I was embarrassed, and furious, that I couldn’t seem to escape the cycle of self-loathing that I have railed against so often as a writer and editor.

The complexity of striving to adopt a feminist positionality in a context of both a subculture of feminist peers and pervasive messaging within hetero-patriarchial culture stuck a chord with me. There are a multitude of behaviours and heavily compromised “choices’ that we negotiate everyday in-between the poles of patriarchal subjectivity and what might be an idealised feminist subjectivity. All of which do not contain actual, equal, possible choices, because the social terrain we fight them on is so uneven. Should we have children? If so, can we raise them with pro-feminist consciousness but still have them invited to birthday parties? Should we ‘choose’ to be married, de facto, monogamous, same-sex monogamous, polyamorous or single? Should you shave your legs or not shave your legs? Can you ‘choose’ whether to lead in a male-dominated profession or fiercely advocate in a feminised profession; or stay-at-home doing hard nurturing labour with your pro-feminist genderqueer child; or not work within the capitalist system? Do you only fuck feminist-identified women; or only fuck feminist-identified men; or try to change the misogynist ideas of the man you end up fucking? I mean, none of these are really, in practice, experienced as “choices” because often our decision-making is so compromised by the plethora of intervening factors. And yet, they can induce self-judgment. There are many, many times when I’ve felt like I have failed at being a ‘good’ feminist.

Feminism is probably at it’s least useful when it becomes another means for women to police their own behaviour or other women’s behaviour in relation to a group ‘ideal’.

To draw on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) well-known paradigm of ‘doing gender’, it’s worth pointing out that the heteropatriarchial gender system works in part through ‘accountability’. The concept of ‘accountability’ is that when we make decisions about how we ‘do’ gender we know we are being held accountable to gender norms. There are privileges or ‘rewards’ for doing gender in a normative way. There are punishments when we don’t. Wanting to be ‘a good girl’ – or be valued in our culture – goes to right to the heart of ‘being’ a girl. Our early gender ‘interpellations‘ where we take on what it means to be gendered are often really about a desire to be good or loved.

So what happens if Cosslett takes on Orbach’s advise and becomes a ‘body image’ refusnik? It might mean she loses the some of the rewards she currently experiences for being thin. She might not experience the same level of praise, attention, desirability, be invited to the same parties, be able to wear the same clothes, or have the same sexual and romantic relationship options. She is likely to experience social policing and punishment for being fat. She might have friends, family and even strangers commenting on her body. She might be seen as less professional, not be promoted or not be employed. None of these outcomes are fair. All of these possible outcomes are misogynist. But they are realistic outcomes of not being compliant with body norms.

When I was in my early twenties I had disordered eating. Not because of adopting normative body ideas, but because the impact of non-consensual sexual acts in my teenage years made putting anything inside my mouth feel physically repulsive. I struggled with self-loathing, but I experienced an ongoing stream of praise from friends and family members and lovers about how good I looked. Thin meant beautiful. As I went through recovery and my body finally settled on being about a size 14 instead of a size 10, I stopped getting praised for my attractiveness. In my case, being on the other side of the terror I felt around eating was worth it but there was still a social cost for me.

There’s an interesting, complicated, old-fashioned feminist idea called ‘patriarchal bargaining‘ that seems useful to play with here. Patriarchal bargaining was a term coined by Kandiyoti (1988) when women fit in with a patriarchal norm – accepting a norm that disadvantages women overall – in order to increase their own individual power. So in this case, women might adopt beauty practices that continue to promote the hierarchialisation of women based on their bodies, because in reality it gives them more access to wealth or desirability on an individual basis.

It’s a useful idea, but it seems a little harsh when we consider what our options are. Isn’t that really what we are all having to do most of the time? Sometimes gaining status through privileged femininity might feel like ‘any means necessary’ when you are still socially devalued because of your gender, class and race.

So I propose the concept of ‘feminist bargaining‘. Feminist bargaining could be when you have feminist beliefs but also know you have to survive in hetero-patriarchal culture. So you make decisions about where you can live your feminist beliefs, and make decisions about how to survive when you can’t. And really this looks like a series of compromising negotiations with hetero-patriarchy, where most of the time hetero-patriarchy wins because it’s a powerful system of meaning-making supported by global capitalism, not just your high-school dean or your mother. In fact, some of the feminist bargaining you do in some areas of your life probably make it possible to fly the feminist flag in others.

You have to think about whether you are adopting particular practices to survive hetero-patriarchy, or whether you are adopting them to keep thriving while others experience violence or extreme marginalisation on the same scale. I think wealth is a good example here. Are female CEO’s of multinational corporations good feminists? I would say no. Even though they might be using masculinist tactics to swim within the corporate system; it is still too abhorrently unethical. They cause too much harm towards poor, working women, the environment, and other marginalised people.

If nothing else this issue reveals how limited the terrain of individual feminist decision-making is. When we think of feminist actions as the decisions we make in our individual lives, we are clearly facing an impossible tide. We need to move beyond neoliberal versions of feminism focused on the transformation of the ‘self’ – where feminism becomes just another way to govern your own body – to collective actions and goals.

8 thoughts on “Feminist Failures and Feminist Bargaining: Negotiating Hetero-patriarchal Culture while being Feminist

  1. This is an excellent piece on the ‘paradox of choice’. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this as well, particularly how I’ve internalised second-wave feminist ideals which are currently presenting an unhelpful yet simultaneous ‘real’ barrier to me taking testosterone as a gender variant person. Is it male privilege I seek, or a liveable life? Ultimately, I know the ‘choice’ is mine, yet I can’t help but feel I’d be some kind of traitor, which highlights just how harmful feminist morality/policing can be (against an already oppressive patriarchal / capitalist regime).

    1. yes, I know some amazing transguys who have struggled with feeling like a feminist ‘traitor’. With my own experience of genderqueer feelings, I think it’s incredibly difficult to separate out feelings about male embodiment, and what might have been early gendered ideas about positive attributes, i.e an easy pathway to soul-searching about whether my feelings about embodiment are actually about not being able to be a ‘brave girl’ in a world where boys were the brave ones. It sucks! If I can offer you a feminist lifeline around this stuff it would be that embodying different ways of doing masculinity and being male is absolutely what needs to happen to transform masculinist hegemony. Feminism needs both masculine-identified and feminine-identified people to support it. How you feel about your body is only structured as a ‘choice’ bc we are in a neoliberal culture where choices equal different options for consumption (and cis people have the luxury of not needing to make a ‘choice’), it’s not really anything like ‘free choice’, it’s “live as one or other gender in a binary culture where one gender is devalued, where the appearance of gender has different symbolic worth, and where your decision-making about your body is constrained by the medical system and global capitalism”. Really you only have the most limited of choices, to medically alter your body with testosterone so that it feels “closer” to the rollicking, complexity of your being, or to stay female-embodied if that feels “closer” to the rollicking, complexity of your being. If there is a feminist ethical choice here it is only about being a feminist [man or genderqueer person] not about “being” a man or a woman.

      1. Thanks for this. It’s difficult (impossible, really) to ascertain from where the proclivity toward the queering of gender derives – if my feelings of tension/constraint are less to do with my physical body and more with the symbolic-worth of materiality, as you say. Even beyond the ‘feminist dilemma’, and the grating argument that I’d be ‘reinforcing the binary’ were I to medically transition (despite knowing I’d retain a queer identity), I also struggle to think I’d be supporting big pharma and the proliferation of testosterone for ‘andropause’, etc. which gets at the point you made about decisions being constrained by global capitalism. Add to this the confrontation with the queer-than-thou position in the ‘queer community’ – that those who somehow find a way to live ‘outside’ the binary, and disengage from medical discourse, are more radical/virtuous. Who benefits from these discursive clashes? Certainly not the little ole’ subject. What way forward, other than out? In these circular questions I am astutely empathic to Foucault’s hallucinatory wanderings in his latter years. And yet …

  2. yes, discursive clashes. I am empathetic/ aligned with non-binaryness, but (theoretically, politically) ambivalent about embodied/ self-fashioned non-binaryness being radical or virtuous on the basis of “transgression of the binary” alone. Queer theorising has been so focused on transgression as the site of change, that I think sometimes the focus on transgression is a red herring bc ethically, transgressions can be empty unless they are moving from a state that is harm-producing to a state that is less harm-producing [I should really write something on this!]. For instance, in the late 90s early 2000s I was young and queer and out in the queer dance party scene, where the site of power and beauty briefly resided with bodies that were androgynous. Androgyny was ridiculously hip. And I even wrote stuff about androgynous bodies transgressing gender norms at the time, and imagined a radical potentiality around it. But what then happened was that dance party/ rave culture became madly commodified, and there really was no political or social expansiveness that followed from those bodies or sites (in fact if anything it was probably harmful given how androgyny played out in fashion around thinness). In a way I see it as a precursor to the current moment in trans politics. The thing about whether you are supporting big pharma by taking T kind of cracks me up, because big pharma is winning whether you transition or not. And whether you transition or not makes no difference to big pharma. You could end up being hit by a bus and needing heaps of medical procedures! The only things that could make changes with big pharma stem from collective action. Because none of us are able to opt out of global capitalism, you don’t really have a choice about accessing T without relying on big pharma. That is ethically wrong; you are the one being wronged. But there isn’t an ethical pathway through being a consumer, or a particular type of consumer. At the heart of your comment there seems to be a question about how to lead a good life/ how to be good/ how to be a good political/ ethical subject in relation to transitioning. I can make myself entirely consumed with trying to figure out what the ‘right’ pathway would be for me about all manner of things so I empathise, but I think that you need to let yourself off the hook and accept that there is no “right”, perfect, ethical/ political or virtuous answer. There is only making yourself happier by being however feels best for you. When I spin myself out about such things, I am consoled by the following lines from the poem ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver:
    “You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves”.

  3. I love Mary Oliver! I have this exact quote on my wall. 🙂 Also, I would be really interested to read more of your thoughts on the relationship between ‘transgression’ and harm – specifically in relation to androgyny. I can attest that I experience androgynous representation as both liberating and oppressive. Not so long ago I was speaking to a fellow non-binary identified person about how we each, in our own ways, used androgynous images to inspire our own aspirations for gender non-conformity, but which also became ‘thinspiration’ linked to restrictive dieting practices.

    1. Amazing 🙂 yes, my thinking re:the relationship between the transgression of social logics and harm isn’t that harm necessarily comes about, but that because we (theoretically in queer theory) are so attuned to ‘transgression’ as being the moment we are interested in exploring or as being liberatory we aren’t so attuned to noticing harms. I think we can lose sight of the idea that the problem with binary or relational gender is the hierarchialisation of one gender over the other that leads to a range of harms, not difference in itself. Braidotti talks about how within Western capitalist society difference is colonised to hierarchical. The harm of seeing androgynousness as ‘transgressive’ in a capitalist culture is that
      androgynousness became commodified, and then was able to be used as an ideal to further self-discipline marginal bodies. So let’s say ‘androgyny’ probably began developing discursive momentum in the West during post-punk culture, the new romantics etc, and it was countercultural in the sense that it borrowed from lesbian culture and gay cultures at the time, and was about a body that transgressed the gender binary, and said fuck you to the imperatives of the establishment. But then in the 1990s it was taken up within fashion, and there was the reign of Kate Moss as the ‘it’ girl, and the CK1 ad and various jeans commercials that played with blurring gender boundaries. In this iteration, it created more gendered consumption —>wealth creation for corporations without any countercultural or radical effects. In terms of bodies, it intermeshed with discourses about desirable thinness. And even stepping back a bit to the moment in the late 90s early 2000s when I was first out on the “queer scene” I can remember how my then-girlfriend was Pakeha and petite and could ‘do’ androgyny because of not having large breasts and wide hips. And the queer/ dance party scene was very Pakeha, so I think there is an issue there as well about how ‘androgynous’ bodies are more achievable by white people. The construction of an ‘androgynous’ body has very much meant a small, thin body that “fits between” the white feminine female body and the white masculine male body. If you have a Pacific body (as I do) for example, your musculature/breasts/ hips are then “read” as excessively feminine or excessively masculine. To get theoretical, because androgyny depends on poles of masculinity and femininity to be meaningful it almost reinscribes their significance. For example, the symbolic association between femininity and prettiness and masculinity and toughness. The androgynous body might take a middle-road of wearing pretty ties or vests, or colours along with their masculine/ universal ‘neutral’ clothing. And it signifies “my body is both of these things”, which is good. But it doesn’t untie the symbolic relationship between femininity/prettiness or masculinity/ toughness, because those clothing markers are only significant/ meaningful if ‘pretty’ also signals ‘feminine’ (wah sorry this has turned into an essay ;-)).

  4. I agree that popular androgynous representation is ultimately commodification and innately harmful in the sense that its intelligibility depends on and therefore reiterates normative signifiers of gender presentation and the gendering of objects (ie new ‘androgynous clothing labels’ which market themselves as providing ‘masculine clothes for a variety of body types’,). Add class and race dimensions, and yes, this image becomes virtually inaccessible and harmful. What we need are more cultural contexts that normalise and honour third, fourth, etc genders. I’ve just been watching a documentary about two-spirit people and questioning what life would be like to live in a culture which didn’t tell me I have ‘gender dysphoria’ or that I can ‘express myself with confidence in boyfriend jeans.’

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