I want to introduce two concepts in this post that I think are missing from the social justice conversation. My labeling for them is a little tongue in cheek, but my suggestion that we adopt these concepts in the discourse is serious. First, let me define the somewhat clunky term “microproblematic”. If an action or attitude is “microproblematic”, it means that it is problematic for any individual to hold or to do regardless of the cultural context that this individual finds themselves in. For example, even if our culture were a paragon of gender equality and diversity in every single way, it would still be problematic for an individual heterosexual man to say that “No doesn’t always mean no” because it’s rapey. Pressuring anyone for sex, no matter how subtly you (mistakenly) think you are doing it, is microproblematic. Another example: even if our culture celebrated and respected all body sizes and shapes, it would still be problematic for an individual to suggest that another individual change their body shape or size. Most of the basic issues that any 101-level activist would call out are microproblematic (whether or not broader society thinks so).
By contrast, an attitude or action is “macroproblematic” if it is not problematic for an individual to choose to hold or to do, but on a broad, sociocultural level it is problematic or at least symptomatic of wider problems, especially if it is an enforced social norm.This second definition, the idea of something being problematic in the aggregate only, is I think the key concept missing from our discourse around social justice. Let me give you the examples that lead me to this concept: the conversation around the burqa, and the conversation around the bikini/skimpy clothing worn by women.
First, consider an individual woman’s choice to wear a burqa (of course this applies to the niqab, the hijab etc but I am using the burqa because I think it receives more scrutiny). Clearly, there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about this choice – it is a perfectly valid choice, whether it is based on religious, cultural or purely personal reasons. There is no coherent case against any individual woman’s free choice to wear one. It is her right to choose how she dresses, and frankly, the “security risk” argument is such total crap that I’m not even addressing it (come back when you want to ban masquerade balls for similar “security concerns”). No woman’s individual choice to don a burqa should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.
However, I think there is something macroproblematic about a sociocultural situation that demands women be totally covered up, but does not demand the same from men. Any norm that considers women’s clothing to be associated with moral rectitude is inherently misogynistic and masks an attempt to control women by dictating how they may present themselves. Also, some of the justifications for the burqa as a social norm reflect a fundamental lack of respect for both men and women, often reinforcing rape culture, painting men as base creatures with no self control, and calling on women to do everything they can to avoid exciting men and thus causing their own rapes. Clearly, to the extent that it remains a moralised sociocultural norm that applies only to women, the burqa is highly macroproblematic. However, it is not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to wear it.
Interestingly, the exact same situation arises when women appear in the public sphere wearing very revealing, highly “sexy” clothing and presenting themselves in an overtly sexual manner. It should be perfectly obvious that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual woman choosing to do this. It is every woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses, and if she wants to go out with her breasts or thighs or any other “socially-coded sexual” part of her body uncovered, that is a valid choice. It certainly does not reflect any personal issues or “deep seated insecurities” or any other armchair psychologist bullshit. Some women feel comfortable dressing up really sexily in public, and there is nothing microproblematic about this choice. No woman’s individual choice to wear a bikini or sexy lingerie out in public at any time of day in any location should ever, ever be up for debate or scrutiny from anyone.
Yet again, on a sociocultural level, it clearly is problematic that women are consistently presented in all forms of media in an overtly heterosexy way, wearing very revealing clothing and posed in such a manner as to bring pleasure to heterosexual men. Men are almost never presented posing sexily to gratify heterosexual women (and when they are, panic and confusion ensue!). Consider this: there is no male equivalent of lingerie in mainstream culture. Furthermore, merely in observing the dearth of so-called “unattractive” or “unsexy” women in media, women are implicitly taught that their primary value is their capacity to provide a pleasing image and/or sexual gratification to heterosexual men whether they like it or not. They are of course also slutshamed if they provide sexual gratification to men and/or like it! (In misogynistic societies, women can never win.) The depiction of women as being heteromale lust objects before they are people is a symptom of deep misogyny in our culture. It is one reason why many American girls self-report that they would rather win ANTM than a Nobel Prize and nobody even asked American boys that question. It is highly macroproblematic. However, sexy women are not at all microproblematic, and nobody has the right to interrogate or judge any woman who chooses to present sexily.
I think the fact that we don’t have terms for these two separate things is at the root of many confusing arguments – especially between second and third wave feminists, many of whom fail to grasp the difference. Many second wave feminists, noting that the dominant sociocultural representation of women in heterosexy poses and outfits for heteromale viewing is macroproblematic, then claim that NO WOMEN ANYWHERE should ever choose to behave or dress in this way, because even if it makes her happy, SHE’S A DELUDED TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY. Meanwhile third wave feminists, noting that there is absolutely nothing microproblematic about women wearing sexy clothes and presenting in an overtly sexual manner, go on to claim that there is NO MACROPROBLEM AT ALL, EMBRACE IT LADIES, WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING PRIMARILY CONSIDERED A LUST OBJECT?
If we employ these concepts, it can be coherently argued that women presenting overtly sexually is not microproblematic in any way, but the broader social norms that treat women as sex objects for heteromale consumption is indeed macroproblematic. A lack of clarity around what it means for something to be “problematic” and the extent to which people’s personal decisions should be scrutinised causes real harm, especially to people who find themselves personally bearing the brunt of someone else’s genuine complaint about broader culture. We must attack macroproblematic practices on a sociocultural level without hurting individuals who may, intentionally or unintentionally, conform to these ideas and practices. When we seek to destroy the kyriarchy, we have to be careful we don’t create collateral damage. I think these concepts can help us achieve that.