Review of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism by

Book cover for Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

I don’t remember how Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism came on my radar. Someone somewhere must have mentioned it; it looks like I bought it from Book Depository four years ago. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it last summer. I was hoping to dig deeper into some of the essays, but honestly things like breaking my elbow took up most of my time, and now I just don’t have the inclination or the heart, really. I do like to try books that I suspect I’m going to disagree with—and to be fair, Freedom Fallacy has some tantalizing critiques of neoliberalism I do agree with.

Let’s talk about the wizard behind the curtain: if I drank, I would have made a game where I took a drink every time someone mentions Catharine MacKinnon. Two pages in to the introduction and the editors have already cited her, and nearly every essay in this collection references her at least once, if not extensively. It’s official: every contributor loves MacKinnon! (Andrea Dworkin also gets an epigraph and lots of love too.) Look, I’m not going to claim a huge familiarity with MacKinnon’s writing, and other people have written far better rebuttals of MacKinnon’s work. So rather than get into that, let me broadly summarize the approach these essays take to critiquing “liberal feminism.”

The thesis that runs throughout these essays concerns the debilitating nature of liberal feminism, aka third-wave feminism, popular feminism, or choice feminism. The editors and contributors contend, with focus on various topics and tactics, that liberal feminism is a neoliberalist corruption, an individualist betrayal of “true” feminist ideologies, which are collectivist. Its popularity has been driven by media and corporate attempts to co-opt feminism as a branding strategy, to position it as “women’s choice” instead of “women’s liberation.” Kiraly and Tyler say in their introduction:

What unites our contributors in this book is not a single perspective — there is a range of different feminist positions included — but rather, a unified belief that liberation cannot be found at a purely individual level, nor can it be forged from adapting to, or simply accepting, existing conditions of oppression.

On the one hand, I don’t actively disagree with the denotative meaning of this statement. Indeed, this is perhaps what intrigued me by this book—at the time, I was probably looking for academic writing that would sharpen my understanding of the systemic nature of women’s oppression, and I was concerned by the notion that we should frame all feminist thought as a matter of “choice,” given the amount of internalized misogyny that society saddles us with.

Yet Kiraly and Tyler clearly mean to imply much more than that. If you go on to read the later chapters, of course, you see that the connotation of this statement means women who embrace makeup and high heels and sex appeal and call it feminist are not, actually, feminist. They’re liberal feminists. Beyoncé is mistaken when she shakes her booty in front of a huge sign that says “feminist.” No, dear reader: the ones doing the real work are these poor, radical feminists who toil in the obscurity of academia because their feminism isn’t fun enough for the mainstream, apparently.

Radical feminism is the term that many of these essays use as the counterpart to liberal feminism. It’s like second-wave feminism, but many of the contributors don’t want to use that term. Really, though, this book reads like second-wave feminism tweaked for the social media age.

The frustrating thing (from my perspective) about Freedom Fallacy is that, on some level, there is a cogent and necessary critique of neoliberalism happening here. Many of the essays make valid points about the way capitalism can co-opt feminist ideas. When I teach about gender stereotypes in media to my English classes, and I show them the “Dove Real Beauty” campaign ads, I use the videos to help them visualize the ways in which media manipulates appearances, yes. But I also ask my students to consider why Dove (owned by Unilever, which also sells Tag and Axe) would launch this campaign. So, yes, I do think that these authors are on to something when they point out that it’s not enough for us to call ourselves feminist, treat individual women equally, make sure women can have jobs and whatnot. Definitely there is more work, deeper work to be done. I agree with the radical feminist proposition that the oppression of women is structural, that no amount of “leaning in” on the part of women will ever be enough to truly achieve equity.

Nevertheless, I can’t get behind many, if any at all, of the propositions within these pages. They’re anti–sex work and gender essentialist (I don’t know how many are straight-up TERFs except that Meghan Murphy, the only name I recognize, is included in this collection, which is a huge red flag). And I’m guessing, just from the way they write at least, that most of these contributors are white women. Some of them definitely aren’t, and I’m not trying to whitewash the book—but my point is that attempts at intersectionality here are tepid at best. This is one of the features of second-wave feminism that I most strongly dislike, this idea that no matter who you are, if you are a woman, another woman is the only/best person to understand your experience.

Beyond that, there is just such a bitterness to these essays. These are academic lamentations at how astray we’ve gone, hand-wringing over the ways in which feminism has been co-opted by neoliberalism. I agree with a lot of the critiques of neoliberalism here—but the ways in which they’re applied to feminist ideas is overly-broad, overly prescriptive. I don’t like academic ruminations on what “is” or “is not” feminism. Feminism is like porn: I know it when I see it. And rather than fight you on whether yours and mine line up point-for-point like there’s supposed to be some kind of master feminist checklist, I’d rather judge your feminism based on your actions. You can tell me you think trans women are women all you like, but do you actually include them in your spaces? Are you really open to the fluidity of gender, or do you want to be just as prescriptive as patriarchy—just in a different way? Take your prescriptiveness to another door please.

But, if you really do need some kind of litmus, I hereby propose “the Lizzo test.”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Lizzo lately. I think Cuz I Love You is brilliant. Almost every single track is my jam in some way, and I’m a white asexual cis male [Editor’s note, Aug 2020: Haha, turns out those lyrics from “Like a Girl” were way more important to me than I realized]—yet here we are (I particularly love “Soulmates” for its message that jives with my aromantic identity…). Lizzo’s music celebrates, unapologetically, self-love situated within her identity as a fat, queer Black woman. It is also very sex-positive in terms of women expressing their sexuality—“Tempo” and “Juice” obviously come to mind, but there is a couplet from “Like a Girl” that sticks out in this case: “I work my femininity / I make these boys get on their knees.” Is this freedom of sexual expression and embrace of femininity a sign of empowerment? Or is Lizzo merely internalizing the media-promulgated feminine idea of sexiness to make money in our capitalist world? Your response is probably a sign of whether or not your feminism and mine are going to get along.

Freedom Fallacy identifies a real problem in our modern society (neoliberalist co-option of anti-oppressive moments). Yet I have no interest in its solutions. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t think the feminisms described herein have any place for feminists like Lizzo, or the indescribably brilliant Janelle Monáe. Their definitions don’t stretch that far, aren’t inclusive enough, are not beautiful enough to recognize that feminism has to be more than a stark and academically-defined struggle against oppression. It has to be lived, taught, shared—in this case, sung. It has to be built from the ground-up by the people who are, indeed, struggling. Academic essays can describe but should not prescribe.

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