I really, really do. Because a huge part of feminism, for me, is about being trusted to weigh available information, to consider the facts, and to come up with your own opinion. To be able to decide, for yourself, what is right and wrong. In fact, to reject the idea that people can tell you what to do and how to do it. Which is why prescriptive feminism is incredibly frustrating for me; it’s people using the master’s tools to take down the master’s house.
As soon as someone makes a blanket statement like “doing X is not a feminist act” or “anyone who does Y is not really a feminist,” I turn off. Because the thing about judgments and blanket statements is that they do not consider context, nuance, and the human factor. So what I hear when people say things like that is “there’s only one way to do feminism, and it’s this way, and everyone who disagrees is obviously not feminist.” Prescriptive feminism is “my way or the highway,” it’s crude, it’s brutal, it has no respect for context, and it’s offensive as all getout.
Prescriptivists like to throw the “feminism is about choice” argument back in our faces by saying “choices don’t occur in a vacuum.” And, you know what? They are absolutely right. Choices occur in a complex social, cultural, and political context. They don’t occur in a vacuum of black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. Which is, oddly enough, what prescriptivists seem to think. They’re created their own vacuum. Everyone inside it is a feminist, everyone outside it isn’t.
I was thinking about this recently because of yet another blowup about wearing heels.
So, here’s the thing. Heels are viewed, rightly so, as symbols of oppression. Heels, one might say, are problematic in a social and cultural context. When a lawyer wears heels to court because she knows that she will not be taken seriously or respected if she wears flats, that’s not a feminist act. That’s a capitulation to a system which says that lady lawyers who wear flats are less likely to have cases decided in their favour. And it sucks that lady lawyers who would prefer to wear flats must have their values compromised by the system, must decide between “comfortable” and “winning the case.”
But, for me, wearing heels is a feminist act. And here’s why: Heels are more comfortable for me to wear than flats. They are more comfortable, they feel better with my body, they provide my feet with the support they need. If the “feminist act” is supposed to be about wearing shoes which fit you, which feel practical and comfortable, ignoring public opinion, than, for me, wearing heels is feminist. Not in every setting, of course; when I’m traipsing in the woods, I don’t wear heels, because they are not practical.
But I get seething mad when I hear people judging me for my choice of footwear. It’s a blanket judgment which says “all experiences are the same, and flats are more comfortable for me, therefore everyone who is wearing heels is bowing to the patriarchy.” Uhm, no. I wear heels because they are comfortable, for me, because they are practical. I don’t really care if anyone notices, I am definitely not wearing them to impress some man. And I am definitely not impressed by people who claim that I am lying when I say that heels are more comfortable, to justify giving in to the patriarchy. Yes, that’s a good way to approach feminism, let’s tell women who experience things differently that they are lying about their own experiences and feelings.
I wear heels to the grocery store for the same reason that lots of women like to wear tennis shoes to the grocery store: Because they are comfortable. I am aware that other people may read my action differently, and that’s fine, but I am not going to wear flats and hurt my feet just to be a “good feminist,” because that’s pretty darn antifeminist, if you ask me, letting someone else’s judgment about your motivations influence what you do. I am, in fact, choosing to wear heels because they are the right choice for me. I’m not forcing that choice on anyone else. I’m not forcing my experience on anyone else. I’m acting as an individual, and I am allowed to do that.
I feel like a lot of prescriptivists are very bound up in image policing (which inevitably leads me to ask “don’t you have something more important to do?”). “Shaving is an antifeminist act.” What if you’re a feminist competitive swimmer? Should you not shave so that you can be a good feminist, and give up an edge to the competition? What if you’re a feminist actress in a period drama, wearing tights? Should you not shave to be a good feminist, even though it’s going to make your tights look really weird? “Wearing makeup is an antifeminist act.” So, again, if you’re an actress, you should go on stage bare, even though it will look out of place? If you prefer to cover a birthmark with makeup rather than attracting attention, you’re committing an antifeminist act?
Everything happens in context. This means that you can’t judge someone for doing something until you know the nuances of the situation. Maybe for you, personally, who you are, wearing heels is not a feminist act. But don’t tell me I can’t wear heels. Don’t tell me that wearing skirts is antifeminist when it’s extremely hot and I’m wearing a knee length skirt because the thought of being swathed in trousers makes me feel faint. Don’t tell Dara Torres or Natalie Coughlin they shouldn’t shave their legs. Don’t tell feminist actresses not to wear makeup. Don’t tell women they shouldn’t change their names at marriage when you have no idea about the context.
Yeah, choices don’t occur in a vacuum. That means that there are a lot of things that are socially and culturally complicated. Which means that it’s not as simple as “doing this is feminist” or “doing that is not feminist.” Especially once you throw other cultures into the mix. You there, white person, do you really want to tell a woman of colour that something she’s doing, something which is a part of her culture, is not feminist? You there, American, are you really sure that you know everything about the world and that you are therefor entitled to judge women from somewhere else?
Being a prescriptivist involves making a lot of assumptions. And you know what they say about assumptions.