There are many examples of feminist art which make use of what they are being critical of and work within commercial paradigms. Vanessa Beecroft collaborating with Tom Ford and Helmut Lang, and Orlan’s use of plastic surgery are powerful examples of this. But when does it stop being critique and instead promotion of a certain industry?
In a society where women now argue that plastic surgery (or other forms of bodily modification for aesthetic purposes) is a personal choice and a method of individual self-expression, how can this be a genuine choice if it is the only choice offered? Fashion and advertising remain tautological. Youth and beauty are being pushed in fashion to adolescence and perfection. Products offered are to be used with the intention of acquiring a singular aspiration of beauty and it has deliberately been made singular and unachievable.
Yet most of us are becoming increasingly media literate and still continue to make these choices; the fact that this is complicit with what the mass media visually bullies, is extremely telling. Of course, it’s a personal decision, and surely more the case of an individual exercising free agency? But how much free agency there was in the first place becomes ambiguous. This is the ambiguity present in much contemporary feminist art, but more importantly, it is reflective of a current feminism, which pervades modern society and where ultimately there is no interest in gender equality.
Choice feminism or the right to choose presents the illusion of free will under the assumption that our actions can not be detrimental to gender equality provided we consent to them. Yet this implies we are actually provided with choices, neglecting the repetitive nature of the mass media and society and its narrow definitions of gender and sexuality. It is your individual choice and it will empower you. You have a choice as to whether you assimilate yourself to normative gender structures, or not, as if these choices are equally supported and celebrated and not made within the larger existing patriarchal context.
There is also a clear shift to individual rather than collective female power. People are individualising their choices, without paying attention to wider societal needs. The highly paid model is not coerced into being objectified for money; it is entirely her decision, but how does her perpetuation of objectification affect the rest of us? If I then choose to follow her image (obviously, because I find it attractive and not because I’m told it is attractive), how do I know the choices I make to cultivate this way of living are not at the expense of another? How is my privileged position in having the freedom to make this choice in the first place not linked with others’ lack of freedom to in numerous ways (whether they be regarding class or western countries’ relations with developing countries)?
This is the kind of feminism which is successful in depoliticising the personal, removing critique and becoming non-threatening. Feminism used to be about questioning gender and women in society. Now it is anti-feminist to judge someone else’s decisions within society. This kind of individual female empowerment is also entirely small scale and further marginalises others, not only regarding gender oppression but also in a myriad of other ways. With feminism now a commodity, your empowerment is reliant on consumer action. Ultimately, it does nothing to challenge dominant attitudes towards women, but only normalise them.