As you may know my day job involves, amongst other things, discussing philosophy with teenagers. One of my Year 13 students commented recently that it must be a wonderful job, sitting around having conversations all day about the great mysteries of the universe, and for the most part, it is. We’ll ignore the marking for a moment, and the data crunching and the occasionally stroppy teenagers and the running around doing last-minute photocopying thirty seconds before the lesson starts because there is no time to do literally anything, and we’ll concentrate on the philosophical discussions. Hear me out. Bear with me, for it is about to get technical.
One of the things that my students find difficult (because it is) is the concept of freedom or, as we say in philosophical circles, lack thereof. The trouble is, we take freedom as a given, and the students find it difficult to get their heads around the possibility of it not being there. Of course I was free to choose what to have for breakfast this morning, they say; only I wasn’t, because my parents made me eat something healthy, and I was in a rush, and there was no avocado toast in the house so I had to have cornflakes. But freedom, or lack of it-goes deeper than this. Suppose I was bound to choose the cornflakes; not just because they were there and I eat them every morning, but because my doing so had been so ingrained in my psyche that to choose otherwise had become a psychological and-by extension-literal impossibility. Every decision I had ever made in my life prior to this morning’s breakfast had led up to this point, and rendered it impossible that I should choose anything other than the cornflakes.
This philosophical standpoint is called hard determinism, and it is a compelling, albeit sometimes unpalatable, option on the philosophical menu (that isn’t really a menu, if there are indeed no truly free choices). If I am not free, then how can I be held responsible for my actions? If I am not free, then my moral decisions too are predetermined by the invisible force of my biology and psychology, and the criminal justice system is nothing but a charade, where we punish people for things they couldn’t help but do. Of course, very few ordinary people hold such an idea, which is why my students find it so difficult to grasp as a concept. Most ordinary people, were they to familiarise themselves with the terms, would label themselves soft determinists; those who believe that our choices are limited by experience and circumstance, but that a degree of freedom still exists, at least enough to make us personally responsible for most-if not all-our choices. Last year, I had one particularly gifted Year 13 student who argued precisely this; that the existence of people with manifestly awful lives who nevertheless manage to overcome their trauma and live happily is evidence that nothing is ever set in stone. There is always the possibility of change.
It is an appealing and optimistic view, but a hard determinist would simply argue that these people were bound to change. Their personalities were wired in such a way that meant that positive change was not only an option for them, it was inevitable, whereas others were on a different path, simply because of who they are and the unique character of their experience.
I say all this not to waffle, but to throw my hat in with those who talk of grid girls. As you may have heard if you have been following the news recently, Formula One have banned the use of grid girls. Good riddance and all that, although a hard determinist would of course say that the Powers That Be in Formula One have been inevitably led down this path by the force of uncontrollable fate and circumstance, and so praising them for what may at first glance seem like an unlikely flash of sudden woke-ness is of course redundant.
Also redundant, as some self-styled bleeding-heart liberals have cried out in an excess of emotive hand-wringing over people unknown to them personally the likes of which has not seen in this country since the death of Princess Diana, are the grid girls themselves.
Oh those poor grid girls, just trying to earn an honest crust! Oh, those poor girls, paying their way through university by hanging around a race track being ogled! What will they do now? Leaving aside the fact that none of these people who are suddenly so worried about young women forced into the dole queue by the Evil Feminists who presumably forced Formula One to take this decision were remotely concerned about the introduction of tuition fees (presumably what led these girls to be forced to pay their way through university in the first place), or the gender pay gap, or zero hours contracts, or any of the other far more widespread workplace problems faced by much larger numbers of the population than the few glamour models who suddenly find themselves with one less employment opportunity than they had previously.
But it’s all about CHOICE, they wail. Feminism is about CHOICE. How dare you dictate to a woman and say she cannot choose her career. Feminism is for all women, even the ones you do not like and whose choices are different to yours! If some women CHOOSE to stand around a race track being ogled or whatever it is these grid girls actually used to do, then that is her CHOICE and how dare you take that away from her you do-gooding, man-hating harpy who has FORCED Formula One to make all these people lose their cherished jobs!
Well, I have news for you. Feminism is not about choice. Choice, as we have already discussed, is a funny thing. A chimera, if you will. Leaving aside hard determinism for a second, even if we take the soft determinist viewpoint that almost everyone eventually agrees with, then these women’s choices were not truly free. Choices are not made in a vacuum. Firstly, one can only choose from the choices that are open to you. The choices for women in this country are-in theory-equal to those of men, but we know that in practice it is harder for women to choose certain options. I do not claim to know the life histories and stories of the women who work as grid girls, but I know that we live in a society where women are told almost from the moment they are born that their principal value lies in the way they look, so who can blame a young woman for “choosing” a role where she is valued first and foremost for her looks, since this is what our culture tells women is aspirational? Secondly, feminism is not about choice, it is about creating a society that is equal, and in practice that may well mean dismantling the structures which keep inequality in its place. In an ideal feminist world, women would be valued on equal terms with men, not seen as decorative objects to provide visual stimulation while the men do the real work (whatever that may be) and take centre stage. In an ideal world women and men would make their choices-to the extent that they exist-on an equal footing. Just as many men as women would stay home to look after children (and this would be valued as having equal status with paid work), and just as many women would have the opportunities to actually participate in sport and be paid equally for it, rather than just standing on the sidelines looking pretty.
So no, I don’t worry about the grid girls in the dole queue. I don’t think they’ve been robbed of their agency any more than anyone else who loses a job for any reason. When a role becomes obsolete and people lose their jobs, there are always reasons for disappointment, especially if it’s your job that’s gone. But to use an analogy, when a factory closes, although people may try to keep it open for various reasons, it never seems to be on the grounds that it was the workers’ “free choice” to work there, and that choice has been unfairly taken away. And they don’t blame it on so-called “do-gooders” or “the PC brigade” (both of which are names that I would find personally complimentary. If you’re railing against someone who you are calling a “do-gooder,” ergo, someone who is doing good, doesn’t that really say more about you than them?)
So please don’t tell me feminism is about choice, and if women are choosing to be objectified then it must be OK. Choice is never truly free, and we all grew up in a sexist society, and absorbed its ideals. If we want to create a world that really is equal, things have to change. Sorry about that, grid girls.
3 Comments Add yours
Ooo I’ve often partnered choice with an idea of feminism. Just one idea. As you say we don’t live in a vacuum. This is really thought provoking.
Thanks! I think choice does have a part to play in feminism, in the sense that moving towards equality expands the choices that are open to women. The fewer barriers there are, the more choices women have, e.g. to have certain careers, etc, but I do think the idea of choice as a thing is problematic-I’ve probably spent too much time doing philosophy!
Can you ever spend too much time doing philosophy? A thought for another day perhaps!