OK, let’s say your plane crashes on a desert island, where a mysterious group of Others brings you to a temple. They give you two options: One, you can stay with them and have all your needs met, as long as you wear a little bikini and feed them grapes. If you don’t like that, you can go back out into the jungle. You’ll probably survive, but life won’t be easy; you’ll be cast out from the only society existing on the island, and you’ll miss out on a lot of comforts, and you might get eaten by a polar bear.
One castaway, Claire, has genuinely always wanted to wear a tiny bikini and feed people grapes. She’s hot, she’s maternal: it’s perfect. She still doesn’t really get to make that choice freely, because it’s the only one available that lets her stay in society — when the options are “cake or death,” it doesn’t really matter how much you like cake. But at least she lucked out! She’s not just making the best of a bad situation; she’s actually enjoying it.
Sun, on the other hand, didn’t spend the whole first season becoming self-actualized just to take a job at Dharma Hooters. She flips the Others the bird and goes back out to the jungle, and once she’s there, she joins forces with other jungle-dwellers to destroy the Temple and its unfair restrictions.
Guys, this would be a WAY better show than “Lost” ended up being! But that’s not the point. The point is, it’s not fair for Sun to judge Claire — the problem isn’t her, it’s a society whose main rule is “You must be decorative and servile or be cast out.” Claire’s just trying to get by, and enjoy her luck at actually liking the thing she’s supposed to do anyway.
But if Claire rolls her eyes at poor humorless Sun — “I love wearing bikinis, you buzzkill” — she’s missing the point. Wearing a bikini because you love it is great, but that choice is diminished when it’s the only one available. Making it OK to wear other kinds of clothes and do things besides serve fruit won’t keep Claire from passing out grapes in a bikini, if that’s what she likes. It’ll just mean that she gets to do it solely because she wants to.
The real world, being many times the size of the island and also not magic, is significantly more complicated. But the same basic principles pertain: If there are only a handful of options available to you, then it’s damn fortunate if you like one, but that doesn’t make it OK that there aren’t more. If your favorite pastimes are dieting, getting shiny hair, and having your legs looked at, hallelujah: You will receive plenty of support in doing the things you like best. But liking your limited options doesn’t mean your choice is free. It’s still constrained — you just happen to be lucky.
So you should go ahead and do things that are patriarchy-approved, if you want to.
But don’t fool yourself that you’re doing so of your own unconstrained free will. Until the woman who doesn’t want to be seen as sexually available can go out with certainty that she won’t be harassed or ogled, your choice to turn heads and revel in attention is a privileged one. Until the woman who doesn’t prioritize appearance gets taken just as seriously in just the same contexts, it’s a privileged choice to achieve certain standards of beauty. You may be doing what you love, but you’re also doing what you’re told.”
Stop congratulating yourself as “brave” and “powerful” for performing femininity. End this bullshit idea that any choice a woman makes is a freely made choice, much less a feminist one.