As I study radical feminism more and more, I feel increasingly detached from and disgusted with liberal feminism. Herein lies the realm where male entitlement to female bodies and the ongoing objectification of women by men are turned into affirmative acts that progressive men and women can engage in without qualms or regret. To deepen one’s awareness of the role that liberal feminism plays in upholding patriarchy, consider the fact that this “movement” gave rise to the ideology and praxis of self-objectification. Although understood and defined broadly, self-objectification is essentially about women consciously, “independently” deciding to represent their bodies as a site of erotic titillation through corporeal styling or the positioning of the physical form in a manner that draws attention to specific parts (typically the breasts and/or vagina). While many liberal “feminists” have argued that self-objectification is empowering, what the ideology and praxis really demonstrates is that the necrotic project of patriarchy (turning a thinking subject into an inanimate, imitative object) has been completed successfully.
Yet the object-not-subject ideology advanced by liberal feminism is not the only problematic component of this system of thought. Another issue is “body positivity.” In many cases, body positivity is self-objectification and sexualization. Radical feminists can see this when we are exposed to images of women with their legs splayed only to hear “feminists” comment that the visual representation is about a woman “taking control of her sexuality” or “feeling good about her body.” This is clearly nonsense and there appears to be general consensus about it amongst radical feminists. Yet liberal feminism’s ongoing obsession with “body positivity” seems to have gained legitimacy and acceptance as an integral component of the Women’s Movement within dominant discourse. It shouldn’t, and the reason is fairly simple. There is a sometimes subtle, sometimes salient difference between the body-affirming ideas promoted by strong Second Wave Era feminists and the (more often than not) vapid, commercialized, image-based versions of body positivity that are continually linked to liberal feminism. As noted by Double XX Howl in her important essay “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” it was during the feminist revolution of the 1970s that “women learned to say these tabooed words out loud: vagina, clitoris, and cervix” (445). Articulating the reality of the materiality of the female body was an act of liberation and defiance in a patriarchal world centered around reverence for the phallus in conjunction with the demonization of a woman’s physical form. Evidence of this demonization abounds, but I’ll cite one example to legitimate my claim here. In “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created Female,” Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor point out that “In one not-too-ancient dictionary, “clitoris” was defined as a “rudimentary organ,” while “masculinity” equaled “the Cosmic generative force”…!” (7, 8). They go on to point out that “Freud dismissed the clitoris as an undeveloped masculine organ and defined original libido as male” (8). Second wave feminists (and the radical feminists of today) rejected this male-centered, woman-demonizing ideology by affirming all aspects of the female body as important and desirable while also promoting the development of an autonomous female sexuality in which the phallus has no place.
The body positivity movement advanced by liberal feminism seems less substantive. The dominant discourse within this realm appears to be about affirming the existence and beauty of multiple distinct body types such that neither a “thin” nor “full” frame is ridiculed or condemned. Yet the conversation doesn’t seem to get any deeper. Thus as noted by Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian, “Liberal feminism as practiced today seems to focus largely on issues of your right not to wear makeup or your right to wear a bikini whatever your size.” I agree with Mahdawi and would go on to argue that if liberal feminists want to claim that their ideology and modality is substantive, the focus needs to shift. Radical, body-affirming feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have already done an exemplary job of demonstrating that the female corporeal form is a political site through which the oppression of women is perpetuated. In their essay “The International Crime of Genital Mutilation,” the writers demonstrate the ongoing attack on female bodies by stating that “Not only have American and European women experienced the psychic clitoridectomy that was legitimized by Freud, but Western nineteenth-century medical texts also proclaim genital mutilation as an accepted treatment for “nymphomania,” “hysteria,” masturbation, and other nonconforming behavior” (318). They globalize the issue of mutilating female bodies by noting that “…international health authorities find the most extensive evidence of such customs on the African continent and the Arabian peninsula. The majority of mutilations take place without anesthetic at home (in the city or village), but many are now performed in hospitals as approved procedures…” (318). Why aren’t body positive liberal feminists discussing the reality of women all over the world having their clitorises removed? I have my own theory: liberal feminism is not feminism but rather women accepting patriarchal edicts regarding male entitlement to objectify, control, and mutilate female bodies. Thus for liberal feminists to move beyond the “playful,” “fun” rhetoric of self-objectification and into a substantive analysis of how a clitoridectomy reifies male power by keeping female bodies under the control of men would be heresy.
With all of this in mind, I think it’s time for women who fight for women to stop calling liberal feminists feminists. Women who fight for self-objectification while eliding serious issues of the female body such as the erasure or annihilation of the clitoris are not fighting for women. They are fighting for the phallus, or “doing the work of the patriarchy.”
Howl, Double XX. “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” Female Erasure, ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time Publishing, 2016, pp. 443-448.
Mahdawi, Arwa. “Kellyanne Conway and liberal feminists: two sides of the same coin.” The Guardian. 9 December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/09/kellyanne-conway-liberal- feminism-shortfalls-politics-amy-schumer-lena-dunham. Accessed 20 March 2017.
Sjoo, Monica and Barbara Mor. “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created Female.” Female Erasure, ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time Publishing, 2016, pp. 5-17.
Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions. New York: 1995.