Consumer Feminism: The dark side of the women’s rights struggle


I believe that the women’s rights struggle is evolving from a phase of being controlled by men within the family to being exploited by men outside the family, and feminist lingo is increasingly being used to discredit any resistance to the exploitation, while ignoring the vast majority of real exploitation. This is not women’s rights, it is simply patriarchy reloaded.

Consumer Feminism

New rabbit, same hat.

A tweet I can’t find anymore nailed it. “Fake boobs, fake hair color, fake nails, carefully cultivated images, and you want me to see the real you.”

We see no paradox here.

The idea of beauty imposed on women when the most important expectation from them was to provide comfort, bear kids and do household work was one that glorified tidiness, simplicity, soft-spokenness (when not silent), curves and a strong body. Today, the stereotype of beauty in a woman is one that catches the eye, lacks fat, looks younger and younger, dresses to accentuate sexuality and interacts freely with the opposite gender. The skinny image fed to our eyes as a standard to aspire to is so unreal that unhealthily thin models still get fixed in photoshop before gracing magazine covers. Yet we do not see the similarity in a woman chasing unattainable virtue and unattainable beauty – both of which have been defined for them by someone else.

I don’t see much of a difference in both. Both are based on the utility of the woman. Both ignore the reality of the woman. The only difference probably is the lesser violence associated with disobeying the latter, though let us not dismiss peer pressure and ridicule and the sometimes extremely cruel bullying that lightly too.

[Tweet “We do not see the similarity in chasing unattainable virtue and unattainable beauty.”]

Clothes make the woman – or don’t they?

Consumer feminism sees power in products more than community. The consumer feminism style of empowerment uses the power of projecting an image – think business suits, evening gowns, casuals, jeans, cheap and gaudy nylons, flowery prints, designer saris or traditional handlooms and so on, but blithely deny that they had anything to do with rape. We see no paradox in claiming that clothes present a personality and attract on the basis of that, but they do not attract anyone we don’t want them to. Consumer feminists seem to have lost touch with vulnerability, because all it takes to find women issuing “invitations” to all and sundry is to open your eyes and see what really goes on with young people.

They are the indiscriminate feelers for admiration of innocent growth – they are not evil, and seeking attention is not a sin, but emerging from a past without acceptance of such behavior, there is no traditional safety for this innocent growth, and girls must be taught to manage their sexuality and safety just as surely as boys need to be guided in understanding women and consent. It is reckless to provide them with a blanket approval for all actions regardless of consequences. Turning the whole subject into a no talk, blanket defense zone, consumer feminists play into the hands of patriarchy – as obstinate in endorsing the innocence of women and blaming men, as patriarchy is in endorsing the innocence of men and blaming women. In the end, it does not help the girl, who must learn to engage functionally with the world in any case, which will include office dress codes and traditional clothes and occasionally clothing to attract – whether it is jeans or a low cut blouse or a bikini. She will eventually outgrow the era of wearing cocktail dresses in educational institutions and find the balance of appropriateness and the impact she wants to make.

When a girl grows up in a world that has indoctrinated her to seeing the male as the answer to all her dreams, why wouldn’t she wish for male approval as a validation of her importance? And it isn’t necessarily young girls either. I have seen adult women who, when stepping out of the fetters of a restrictive family for the first time, dress and act in a manner that can only be construed as permissive. I know women you can’t count on for anything because they are so distracted by the need for appreciation and approval from the male sex, and women don’t qualify (unless they are sharing strategies to get the men).

I help women escape troubled circumstances as often as I can, and it is near guaranteed that the first deep breath of freedom brings with it some reckless behavior at least. It is almost a rite of passage to prove to yourself that you are free by doing something you would never be allowed before. Taking responsibility for yourself takes experience, and there will be a period when all kinds of things will be tested and a personal configuration of what we consider a good balance of safe and free emerges. Whether at teenage, or a battered woman stepping into freedom, the process is the same, as it is for men too. And it takes compassion to help people through at times. Restrictions put them in a cage again, fighting to be free. Ignoring leaves them open to severe risks that cannot be wished away regardless of what an “ideal” situation should be.

Make no mistake here. None of this still makes it okay for a rape or molestation to happen, and the girl was most certainly STILL not asking for it, but I think when we remain stuck on this one sentence and refuse to dig deeper, we are doing women finding their wings a grave disservice as well.

There is also a need to empower women by helping them see how even in “freedom” they remain caged if they live by expectations of catering to the male. There is a need to allow them a space where they can wonder why their figure needs to be visible to make a good impression, and what happens to something important they are saying, if they have a cleavage on display. In theory, nothing should happen. In practice, from being clever, they become “beautiful and clever too”. Note which comes first and what it does to the real worth they bring with their presence. Most of all, we need to help women discover the power of having personal authority that needs no approval from another.

Seeking male approval is not the same as wanting to be violated. However, a woman who is not empowered has a relatively narrow view of the world around her – it is how women are raised by default for the most part. Ignorant of the larger picture, ignorant of men and the impact of women on men. That knowledge is power. That ignorance is risk.

[Tweet “Consumer feminism appeals to the male on gender rights. Almost as if you can’t expect much from women.”]

For example, men and women see candid confessions very differently. Women are usually easy about discussing their self and emotions freely. Mostly through lack of expectations, but for what its worth, this is a healthy thing. Their gender identity provides a safe space to learn expression that men don’t have. Men are raised to be emotionally stunted with their whole identity resting on an illusion of invulnerability. Expressing emotion is seen as a sign of weakness and expressing vulnerability is something you don’t do with anyone except those you’d trust with your life.

Men, not raised to talk emotion rarely understand that speaking of personal feelings is not an indicator that the relationship is intimate in an exclusive manner. Women, with their indoctrinated avoidance of voicing anything unpleasant (and worse, refusing the male authority) rarely assert their space. There are some very real violations of personal and sexual space that happen through sheer Mars-Venus communication. While there is no doubt many men deliberately prey on women for power or entertainment, the vast majority of men are as incompetent at dealing with women as women are with men. Only they are stronger.

The idea that a man will “get” that “no means NO” or that intimate talk is not a yes is very farfetched when they are simply not raised with the skill to understand emotion. Witness the number of men talking about sex “converted to rape”. There is a genuine understanding of some things as “yes” within the male gender – not just people accused of rape – that don’t actually mean yes to the woman. This is also the space where ideas like “cocktease” or “leading men on” come from – some things simply are interpreted differently between genders.

Additionally, men not being sensitized to being aware of emotions, do not understand how a yes five minutes ago can become a no – genuinely – if the woman finds something distasteful. There is a perception of sex as a contract, that women renege on at whim and then demonize men, because they really do not see that sex is about attraction which may die for the woman if something distasteful to her happens. This is also a fundamental difference in the idea of consent. For women, it appears to be the consent every step of the way and a right to refuse if she feels violated. This is fair and it is important, but for men, consent appears to be a one time contract for the entire act – which may also be born of a need to be sure that it is consensual and it is happening rather than a wish to harm the woman. Regardless, you’ll probably recognize this at the root of a lot of debates on rape.

Is not respecting a “NO” wrong? Sure it is wrong. But can we reasonably expect criticism and laws to end it? Not without education and I’m talking of emotional education and sex education here, not just good manners inculcated in school. On the other hand, it is also possible to teach women to say no in a manner that leaves no ambiguity to men. It is an area we ignore for fear of appearing to hold the victim responsible for not refusing. She did refuse, it is clear, but the refusal was not conveyed and there is no accusation in empowering women by helping them learn to do non-negotiable “NO”s.

The gender communications divide

What is a candid expression of the state of being for a woman can imply an intimacy the woman did not mean, to a man. Women are not used to asserting themselves when things are not as they wish. Men are not used to respecting upset people. Women do not really understand how men think to understand what is harmless talk and what implies a relationship status they do not want. It is a whole mess resulting from the different ways in which we raise both men and women – not just men.

The derailment of consumer feminists

For all the good intentions, I find feminists turning women into consumers of rights that men are supposed to provide for them. This to me is not feminism at all. When we are looking at how women are treated to the exclusion of most perspectives, we are inherently acknowledging that men have the authority over women to treat them in any way, of which we are recommending a better way. This, in my view, is not useful.

I don’t know when the narrative changed, but when I first got interested in women’s rights, there was a strong sense of sisterhood. Of more empowered women helping women claim their space in the world. Somewhere down the line, this has changed to “equality with men” in a manner that focuses more on the men than the equality. So men protesters in a women’s rights protests are somehow elite. Men who are feminists are seen as some kind of ambassadors to men at large. Women protesting for their rights, on the other hand, at least among our so called “modern” classes is not so interesting unless it is a mixed gender protest and just like that, we are back at a protest with men in it being better than a protest without men in it. On the other hand, there was a male crowd protesting at the court after the verdict of the Delhi Gang Rape – in theory a woman’s rights issue. That is how bad we have abdicated our own war.

Somewhere, we have turned the women’s rights thinking into a very consumerist thinking where specific nice sounding rights must be allocated to women. We have got derailed. Even as we make big talk about equality, we fail to penetrate male bastions of authority in religion, in politics, in business, in homes, while remaining content to talk about rapes, with the blessings of men. We fail to challenge inequality where most men will be challenged, remaining content to address causes approved by a majority of men who have an interest in the minority of men committing those specific wrongs being defeated.

Which is how even when it comes to rape, we are fighting gang rapes. Assaults by strangers. Consumer feminism has yet to do anything with serious threat on the subjects of domestic abuse, economic exploitation, marital rape, unequal wages, lack of value for domestic work, rape by people known to the victim, rapes of children and of course the vast majority of rapes, which are basically sexual exploitation with the lure of marriage or a job. Because those are so common and so well established and useful in catering to the “male world”, that few men want to fight them, when it is easier to blame the woman for allowing it if something becomes public as horribly wrong.

[Tweet “So it seems women too will chase women’s rights that men find deserving rather than the ones that are the biggest threats to them.”]

I think the women’s rights movement is becoming a farce, and to come back on track, the need is to take a good hard look at women’s problems and attack them aggressively instead of whatever a male dominated media chooses to feed to us. I think it is important we empower women to understand men and use that to their advantage. It is important we help women find their own self-worth that does not depend on male approval. It is important that we teach women to understand how they lose their personal authority through reckless compromise in their pursuit of male approval.

[Tweet “It is important women don’t lose their personal authority through reckless compromise in their pursuit of male approval.”]

Similarly, women are going to need the wider awareness of the world at large that was previously denied to them to understand that when they wear the latest “sexy” fashion, it is visible to everyone who sees them, and not just the prince that they were imagining while dressing up. If a business suit delivers a message about the person, so does a strapless dress. While rape or molestation or even plain lechery is still wrong, a woman who dresses to flaunt sexuality is not entirely innocent of inviting sexual interest – however inadvertently. Courtship is a natural instinct too, but it is something that doesn’t get acknowledged enough. It is an instinct that puts girls in danger over and over simply because of a patriarchal lack of acknowledgment of their sexuality and safe and appropriate expression of it, that is also found among feminists these days.

There is a very real need for women, particularly young teenage girls (who cannot expect guidance from home about their budding instincts for flirting/courting/mating) to have guidance on the larger picture.

Feminists could make a huge dent in the rape statistics of India by simply instilling in women a sense purpose and self-worth. In helping them see that there is no need to marry to have sex, and if what you want is marriage, then there is no point using sex in order to secure it – taking them out of the desperate mentality that sees men as saviors of their otherwise purposeless lives. Vast majority of rapes are when a man convinces a woman that he really loves her and will marry her when he has the money/is able/gets a divorce/etc and convinces her that she has to “keep him happy” and interested with sex till that happens.

Most of all, it is important we understand these things ourselves, so that we do not pretend to fight for women’s rights while only doing it in a manner that won’t inconvenience powerful men.

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2 thoughts on “Consumer Feminism: The dark side of the women’s rights struggle”

  1. Thoughtful! Though I would like to point out that emotional disconnect in men cannot wholy be attributed to patriarchy and society. (with reference to your statement “Men, not raised to talk emotion..” ) There is also a biological and evolutionary reason which comes from the way male and female foetus brains are flushed with testosterone and estrogen hormones respectively, during fetal development. Female fetal brains are flushed with estrogen which enchances the emotional centers of the brain and enchances emotive perceptiveness in women, in general. While, around the same stage of fetal development, a male foetus brain is flushed with testosterone which destroys some neurons from the emotional centers of brain. How much effect does hormones have on male psyche with respect to social conditioning still needs objective study. But the point in contention remains that men cannot be made to see situations the same way women do, in day to day lives.

    1. That is pseudo-science bullshit. No study has ever shown that androgens and estrogens have those effects, and if you’re gonna make ridiculous claims like that, then you should cite some studies.

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