Okey-dokey. This is a pretty hotly contested theory, in both Marxism (where it originated) and in feminism. It seems to me as though it is a concept that needs some discussion. Beware: academic jargon/lingo awaits. Keep Wikipedia open in another tab (they have a great series on Marxist thought).
The basic theory of false consciousness arises in Marxism. The idea is that the capitalist system controls the proletariat (and perhaps other classes) by misleading him/her about the very nature of the capitalist system itself through institutional processes. The proletariat does not know the true manipulation of the capitalist system over his/her life, but is lulled into a false consciousness. People believe they know what’s going on, but they really don’t, and so people do things to support the system – the very system that oppresses them – without having that intention in mind. This is a theory linked to other Marxist theories about the value of social relatinoships, alienation of labour, class struggles, dominant ideology and cultural hegemony (another favourite of mine, the theory that one class can rule a diverse society). Feminists have latched onto this theory and attempted an unsure union between Marxism and feminism that didn’t really seem to completely come together. In jumped radical feminism, for whom false consciousness is not simply about labour-power and commodification of labour. It is about the traditional category of “woman” constructed by society to control and subjugate individuals by prescribing and proscribing behaviours that reinforce the domination of the hegemonic patriarchy.
Now, I am officially coming out as a big-time fan of Marx. I think he’s brilliant. I wish I had a tenth of the brilliance of this man. However, he’s been heavily criticized, and so especially has his theory of false consciousness, mainly on the point that it paints the general masses as gullible and unthinking and easily manipulated, removing individual agency and autonomy. Personally, I think this is a mistake on the part of Marx’s critics. I do not believe Marx’s theory to be incorrect just because it failed to be presecriptive. I think Marx’s true value comes through the descriptive nature of his work.
Now, I happen to think that Marx is right about false consciousness. I think that people are easily manipulated as a group – group-think, mob mentality, etc. from first-year psychology, all of this seems like points in favour of Marx. It seems like when people are in groups, and being addressed as a group – particularly a group that is not in a position of social power, they do lose segments of identity. Especially when individual members of groups are treated by the hegemonic ruling class as simply members of social group X rather than taking into account the complex and multi-dimensional nature of identity. Yet, this is how it happens. Based on membership in a group, many people think they know everything of significance there is to know about a person. I think that’s part of why I’m a feminist – I don’t want my identity, as I know it (very complex!), to be lumped in under the heading “woman.” This struggle is, for me and many other women, a battle for self-determination and personal identity. And so, in my opinion, false consciousness is something that compromises these things. The argument shouldn’t be whether or not false consciousness exists, as critics hold. It should be about how to overcome this obstacle to greater personal empowerment and individual identity. False consciousness is something we are prone to as members of oppressed social groups, and it is something that needs to be paid special attention if we individuals are to break free from labels that hedge us in.
so, in terms of feminism, feminists have labelled pretty much everything to do with femininity and traditional feminine roles as behaviours subject to false consciousness. I agree. Where I think radical feminists have gone wrong, however, is by labelling EVERY woman who participates in these activities a femme-bot of patriarchy. Here’s the catch: behaviours that support patriarchy… well, they support patriarchy. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around that. If I think really hard about why it is I participate in a particular practice, and I decide that I happen to really enjoy doing that particular thing, then I have to accept that this thing I enjoy doing is marking me in a certain way. It is marking me, under our unequal society, as an unequal member of an oppressed group.
I am a woman. It is not my fault I was born with specific physical characteristics to which society attaches the label “woman”. I do not like being associated with negative things just because I have been assigned the name “woman”. Yet, I am what I am, I am embodied in the way I am embodied, and I do not have any reason to change the way I am embodied. I am comfortable with my embodiment. I may not like the way my embodiment marks me to others, but that is not sufficient reason for me to surgically alter my embodiment.
As women, I think it is important to recognize the ways our behaviours support patriarchy. It is important so that we can decide what to do about that. Once again – till I’m blue in the face! – feminism is not about making women into men. Feminism is about taking away the negative associations with being female. I think there are some behaviours that should be abandoned, like female genital cutting for instance. But primarily, feminism isn’t a struggle against a set of behavioural dictates handed out by patriarchy. I would hope that feminism is more than that. I would hope that feminism is about breaking down ideologies that divide people into distinctive groups and oppress them.
Do I believe that some women are under the spell of false consciousness? Hell yes. Do I believe all women are? No I don’t. Do I believe all women who participate in traditional feminine patriarchy-supporting behaviours are experiencing false consciousness? Again, NO! Are they nevertheless supporting patriarchy? Yes, they are… Is it better to not do anything that supports patriarchy? Not necessarily… and I’d like to see you try. Make money? you support patriarchy. Own a house? you support patriarchy. Own a car? yep, again, supporting patriarchy. Do you put down other women for their more blatant participation in patriarchy-supporting behaviour? guess what – you support patriarchy.
Under an equal society, I would be free to wear whatever I wanted to wear, because there would be nothing negative attached to the wearing of lipstick of high heels or pencil skirts or corsets. I would be free to have children or not without any snide remarks about my womanhood. I would be free to do whatever I wanted to do without negative attachments placed on me for either being too feminine or not feminine enough. That is what my feminism is about.
have at it!