For a few years now I’ve been in the market for a plain gray sweatshirt with big block letters announcing that I am a “feminist.” I have yet to buy one, however. You see, I’m picky.
If I’m going to be emblazoning my chest with my political views, then I want the company that I’m supporting to be equally as concerned with furthering the rights of women, children, and gender-nonconforming folks. While conscious consumerism may be largely ineffective, I still want to endorse companies that are putting my money where their mouth is.
Which is why every time I see a new beauty or clothing campaign crying "feminist", I'm forced to give pause.
In Andi Zeisler's book We Were Feminists Once, she discusses the commodification of feminism in today's media landscape and coins the term "marketplace feminism" in which what was once a thriving political movement fighting for institutional change has been "decontextualized" and "depoliticized," reducing any potential discussion of the complexity of gender issues to a marketing ploy to sell t-shirts.
"The Personal is Political", Except When it's Profitable
Now I'll be the first one to scream "girl power;" as the proud student of a women's college, I am unabashedly supportive of all efforts to empower women. I have seen first hand at my school the incredible things women can accomplish when they are made to believe they can.
But at the end of the day, what can a cheeky slogan tee actually accomplish?
Over the years, and even more so in recent months, feminism has become trendy and companies are taking notice. But trends fade, and unlike flare leg jeans, or platform sneakers, gender inequality will still exist come next season, regardless of whether or not Chanel stages another faux-test.
One could argue that these shirts are no different than buying apparel to support your favorite politician, but in that case, you are doing something; you're directly contributing to a campaign. Through your financial contribution, you are supporting those who are working towards the issue(s) you deem most worthy of your time and money.
But where does the money go when you buy a sweatshirt or graphic tee from H&M that urges girls to unite? Straight into the pockets of a company that has come under fire (literally) for unsafe work conditions and unfair wages in their Bangladeshi factories.
In truth, it's not easy to find a company that does put its profits to good use. Many companies have come under fire for not giving enough of their profits to the causes they champion.
The most notable example is apparel company FckH8, most famous for creating viral videos on social justice issues while advertising their own profits. Since 2010, they have donated over $280,000 to "the equality cause" in addition to over $6,000 raised from their products for racial inequality for organizations like the NAACP and the Michael Brown Memorial Fund. (To put that into perspective, Samantha Bee has raised over $1 million for Planned Parenthood through her "nasty woman" tees in just nine months.) That's not to say they're doing nothing, but are they a company I'd 100% want to support? No.
That’s not to say that there aren't worthy companies and businesses that you can (and should) support. Etsy is an incredible tool because it allows you to support small businesses directly. Another great seller is Feminist Apparel, a website which, aside from boasting designs that “follow a set of guidelines to ensure originality, inclusivity, and positivity,” employs countless independent artists who receive their fair share of profits with the remainder going towards outreach, activism, and education projects.
All Press is Good Press
There are those who, when confronted with marketplace feminism, would shrug and say, “Hey, at least people are talking about gender issues! At least feminism is a part of the public's consciousness.” But I think we deserve more than a week as a trending hashtag when we are talking about a movement that not only includes decades of past activism, but still has so much ground to cover.
The real question is: what do we lose when we attempt to sell a political movement?
Feminism can (and should) be a radical, life- and law-changing effort to eliminate the pressures of gender expectations and allow individuals to live freely and equally.
It goes without saying that today's media landscape is a barrage of conflicting messages about gender roles and what women should and should not say/do/wear/whatever. It would be hypocritical of me to then urge you all to abandon all retailers who sport what I personally see as faux-feminism; instead, I only ask that you keep a questioning mind when it comes to retailers who may attempt to pander towards Millennials in this era of "protest is the new brunch."
For me, commercialized feminism makes me feel uncomfortable and taken advantage of. It feels exploitative of a political movement that is intended to enact radical and lasting change. I want to wear my politics on my sleeve, but I'm hesitant to support a company that has no real motive to help make these changes a reality.
Fashion is our most obvious form of self-expression. Why shouldn’t it be used to further my voice?
So it's been difficult to find that perfect "feminist" sweatshirt to buy, for all the reasons above. There is something else that holds me back, though, and it is far more personal.
By wearing a political slogan tee, I am inviting the world to pass judgments on me. I am asserting who I am and what I believe, despite the fact that nearly every person I encounter will not have a chance to let me explain my views. I want to be brave enough to bear my beliefs and show that I am a person who believes in radical, intersectional feminism, but I am not there yet. I can only hope that by the time I am, the fashion industry has caught up to me, and creates pieces that celebrate, not exploit, the virtues and successes of feminism.
What do you think?
How do you feel about the constantly evolving face of feminism in today's modern media? Do you share my trepidations about buying fast-fashion feminist pieces? Or, better yet, do you know of any retailers we should all be supporting? Let me know in the comments everything and anything you're thinking!