In the movie "The Devil Wears Prada", which is otherwise a pretty uninspiring non-exposé of the underbelly of the fashion magazine industry, there is one scene of transcendent importance that has stuck with me through the years, and that I am often reminded of when people tell me that some subject of philosophical, political, scientific or sociological inquiry is "academic", "ivory tower", "has no relevance to people's lives" and so on.
I think of it as "the blue sweater speech":
In context of course, the scene give us a glimpse (not enough of a glimpse, and it;s a shame the film didn't explore that subject further) into how what we think of as our personal choices are really determined by executives, advertisers, buyers, magazine editors and so on. The relationship between fashion designers - the creative people who actually conceive the patterns and shapes of the clothes that we by necessity must choose among - is mediated by an enormous chain of other, often extraneous relationships that mean that at the point of purchase (or even closer to home, at the point of dressing), we can't really be said to make an informed choice between neutral options.
This is true everywhere in the consumer society; in food, in literature, in leisure activities and holiday destinations, in the jobs we go for and the degrees we choose etc. it's not really the amorphous concept of "society" that shapes the limits of our choice, it's groups of specific individuals whose job it is to do that, in various forms. On a side note, the vagueness of "society" and "culture" is a deliberate neoliberal ruse, and no wonder that it was set up for Thatcher to attack - of course there is no such independent, sentient agent called society. Making it sound ridiculous made it easier to nudge the choices people - individuals - to disengage from it and stop believing in it.
So much for Miranda Priestly and her unintentional critique of capitalism; but how is the blue sweater relevant to feminism? Well, the blue sweater is "lived experience".
I've been seeing that term about much more lately, almost always juxtaposed with, and opposed to, the idea of "theory". Feminism, the critique goes, is too detached, too academic, too theoretical. what it needs to be relevant to women's lives is an injection of lived experience. And example would be a woman who says "I have a basic belief that my (any) theories aren't as compelling as lived experiences." the implication is that "theories", lower case T
it is now seen as an insult, as an affront to intersectionality, for example, to talk of queer theory. Transgender, the riposte invariably goes, is not a theory. It is real, and by claiming that it's "only a theory" you are insulting and erasing transwomen's experience. The saying goes: "your analysis doesn't trump our existence." This attitude often crops up in other controversies within feminism, such as the fight for sex workers' rights, in which the lived experience of individual sex workers is often advanced as a rebuttal to policy suggestions or research findings: theory is impersonal, obtuse, out of touch, and at its worst a deliberate bad-faith attempt to avoid taking the lived experience of women into account when it doesn't agree with the desired outcome.
Clearly, that is sometimes the case - "don't confuse me with facts" is a mental attitude that a lot of people wedded to their ideologies adopt rather than rethink their actions (see: Osborne, George). but that is not in and of itself a condemnation of theory, and more importantly it is in no wise a reason to suppose that there isn't a long, varied "supply chain" of sorts, mediating between what we think of as our independent agency and the theorizing of some feminist philosopher somewhere.
I remember sitting on a bench on the island of Santorini once, having a discussion with my best friend about the Spice Girls (yes I am that old!). Her position was that Girl Power was a real force that could be harnessed for women's liberation; mine was that it's a shallow flash in the pan. The conversation stuck in my mind because it was the first time that I heard this argument advanced: that what philosopher and feminists do in their ivory towers is so disconnected from the lives of ordinary women as to be entirely separate from and useless to them.
At the time I instinctively felt that this can't be right, and tried to rebut it with a fairly hand-wavy conception of a "trickle up" effect from academia to the privileged realms of Real Life(tm). I don't know that I did a very good job, because I didn't really know how things like Parliamentary Committees, policy think tanks, UN research reports, charity lobbying campaigns, popular science/politics/psychology/self help book commissions and so on interact with the world of academia and mediate between it and the seemingly independent everyday world of jobs, traffic jams and childcare dilemmas. Possibly even more importantly, I didn't know how very porous that connective tissue between "theory" and "lived experience" is - how directly, in some cases, academic conceptions are imported into the conditions that govern seemingly trivial parts of our lives (if you don't believe me, Google "jamology").
What Miranda Priestly is saying, in her inimitably blood-chilling style, isn't just that the Anne Hathaway character is being stupid and naive to think "this stuff" doesn't have anything to do with her; she is also hinting at the fact that without "this stuff", she'd simply have nothing to wear. If it were not for the temper tantrums and drug habits (sorry) over highly strung creatives in the Fashion World, we might not have all those "choices" we like to defend from encroachment, in the first place. We might all still be wearing petticoats.
Now, we might also not - we might discover a hidden wealth of creativity and variety within each of us. That is a somewhat Utopian view, but I don't discount it entirely. Certainly, to come back to feminism, the conception of an ideal post-gender society includes the complete freedom from external influences on individuals' socio-sexual identities. I mist say though, history is against us: one of the things we definitely had less of, before the age of universities (and fashion designers), is variety. People more or less all wore the same thing, even though they had full control of the production process, from flax to handkerchief; and they quite often more or less thought the same, too.
However that future might turn out though, that hypothetical world in which everybody can simply be free to have their own individual theory of identity is still to come; in this world, we're all the products of the same sausage factory, and that sausage factory is built on blueprints that have a lot of theory in them. To imagine that any one individual's lived experience is entirely above or beyond engagement with theory is like thinking that you really did "choose" that blue sweater. And, when we identify beneficial changes that have filtered into women's lives through decades of feminist work, to fail to acknowledge the important contribution of theory to that would be short-sighted and ungrateful.
 I'm sorry for the lack of proper attribution; I did think about and decided that depersonalizing the discussion is probably the better choice here.
 I'm not advocating being that nasty to anyone (ever!), but isn't it kind of marvelous how Meryl Streep manages to portray absolute power without an ounce, a breath of male patterns of aggression? Masterful! And a bit of a template for would-be non-violent dictators. Er. Don't quote me on that.