Part 1a: When "Choice Feminism" Really Means "Don't Question The Status Quo, Ever"
Turning Inside Out Upside Down

In response to my post Actually, Inside Out’s Gender Norms Are A Real Problem, I received a comment on reddit that encapsulates a huge part of the frustration I have with the defensiveness of “choice feminism.” Quite simply, this is a prime example of taking the idea of supporting women’s choices to the absurd and shark-jumping extreme of reflexively lashing out at anything that even criticizes the game rather than the player, let alone suggests the patriarchy-approved choice might be patriarchy-approved for a reason.

As opposed to this kind of shark jumping, which is awesome.

Anyway, the comment is quoted in full and in its original sequence, with my response interspersed.

You know why gender norms like these exist in fiction?

Because that's what a typical family looks like.

Actually, no. Not at all. According to the bureau of labor statistics, in 2014 only 19.9 percent of married families had a sole male breadwinner.

Moreover, the fact that this is what's considered "typical" is HUGELY affected by centuries of economic, social, religious, and educational oppression against women.

The movie still reinforces that social norm: Dad is portrayed as the one having the big ideas for the family, being the central provider, and Mom has no job that I could make out, and seems to do the majority of the child-rearing and home-and-hearth stuff.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

There is one hell of a lot wrong with that being THE NORM, though. We're not talking about one individual family, we're talking about a mass media empire shaping our culture's perception of what "typical" (to use your word) looks like.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with not doing that. It is, and should be, perfectly acceptable for a woman to be the main provider of a family and for the man to be the homemaker. Or for each parent to do half and half, or a quarter and three-quarters, or whatever ratio of responsibilities works out best for them.

Then why are you jumping down my throat for my suggestion that it would have been nice to have the film show one of these other employment arrangements rather than the one we see over and over again in media?!

But if, as in the majority of cases, it works out the way it does in the film, that's fine too.

No, actually it isn't. The reason it so often works out that the woman is unemployed or underemployed has a lot to do with social pressures, glass ceilings, the absurdly expensive cost of childcare, mommy-tracking, and many more factors that constrain women's choices and provide them with systemically fewer opportunities than men.

Being a care-giver to your family is a perfectly valid life choice for a woman to make

Firstly, it's one that systemically disadvantages her. If we had a world where staying home got you retirement benefits, health insurance, no penalty to your seniority or salary if you ever wanted to go back to work, etc., etc. I would feel differently. But it's a problem that society encourages women to take a path that has serious social and economic risks in a way the "typical" male path does not. Let's not pretend we're "validating" individual women when we're actually ignoring norms that disproportionately encourage and/or coerce women as a group to have less opportunity, less money, and less power.

Secondly, this isn't a criticism of one individual family. It's a criticism of how we see this same pattern of family over, and over, and over again in our media to the point that it limits our expectations for what women can or should do.

 and don't you dare try and shit on the women who made that decision,

I'm criticizing a major entertainment corporation run predominantly by men for adding to the overwhelming underrepresentation of professional women in media. For you to judo-flip that into a criticism of individual women is impressively disingenuous.

because that's all this crap is; you trying to force your own political views into other people's lives. Even if those live are just fiction.

You do understand that fictional characters can't actually make choices, don't you? That the choices fictional characters make are the choices their creators make, and are therefore inherently political statements? Asking for more representation of working women, of family dynamics slightly more diverse than Leave It To Beaver, and asking for more professional role models for young girls is not "forcing [my] own political views into other people's lives." For one thing, because these aren't real people, so their creators "forced" them to have the life they did even more than I am "forcing" them. For another, a variety of role models makes our society less coercive than seeing the same homogenized family dynamics over and over again.

But, hey, let's consider all social progress as "forcing" fictional characters to bow to our every whim:

  • Did feminists "force" Belle to be a brainy bookworm?
  • Did we "force" Jasmine and Pocahontas to make their own choices?
  • Did we "force" Mulan to be a warrior?
  • Did we "force" Tiana to have an entrepreneurial spirit?
  • Did we "force" Merida and Elsa not to have love interests?

Each of these characters reflect changing social norms compared to the Disney princesses of the 30s and 50s, after all--I would argue that the people who criticized the Damsel in Distress trope all through the 20th Century and encouraged Disney (and other creators) to make much more proactive, empowered female characters throughout the 90s-10s made our media much richer and more interesting. I happen to think Inside Out missed a major opportunity to push the envelope even more.

Continue on to the next part in this sub-series. Part 2 of the Inside Out review resumes here.

This piece was originally titled "So, I got this reply on reddit and I think it shows a problem we need to talk about:"

1 comment:

  1. "The reason it so often works out that the woman is unemployed or underemployed has a lot to do with social pressures, glass ceilings, the absurdly expensive cost of childcare, mommy-tracking, and many more factors that constrain women's choices and provide them with systemically fewer opportunities than men."

    I think this has been most accurately labeled as 'bounded choices' - systematic manipulation of opportunity and ramifications, deliberately obstructing and harshly penalizing 'undesirable' avenues, combined with complex social pressures to ensure that the 'correct' decision (the one which most benefits the system) is made. Only the illusion of choice exists because the system is actually in control of which option (out of a lot of shitty options) is realistically attainable. The only 'acceptable' actions are those which occur within narrow constraints approved of by the system because those actions support the system. Even though all options are presented to appear superficially equal and respectable, they are not. The 'right' choice - the one that upholds and reinforces social structure - is the only one that can realistically be made without additional negative social and emotional consequences. Painful sacrifices which can outweigh any benefit will have to be endured in order to 'choose' an option other than the system-approved one. It is a double-bind used as a form of control. When an adult is given the options to make a choice, only to suffer manipulative ramifications as a result of selecting any but the system-approved option, then they have not truly freely chosen - Conditional choice is not free.

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About the Author

Satiricalifragilistic grew up during the Disney Renaissance, and The Little Mermaid was the first movie she ever saw in theaters at age 3. Her mother flatly refused to let her leave the theater when Ursula got huge and terrifying, and maybe that explains her troubled psyche.

While she'll admit to being an inveterate nitpicker, she firmly believes in loving a piece of art even while criticizing it, and in the importance of engaging critically with what she loves. She has special contempt for anyone who tries to claim the politics in Disney films don't matter because "they're just movies," because she knows exactly how much the Disney Canon influenced her little gradeschool self—for good and for ill!

She loves art, design, music, dancing, movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and British comedy...expect a lot of these to turn up in her reviews and mashups!