Every issue of Bitch magazine features intersectional feminist perspectives on a specific theme. For 21 years, we’ve taken deep dives into everything from Love and Lust to Maps & Legends to Family Values. But limiting ourselves to just four themes each year—which were themselves limited by the print format—felt like a disservice to our community, especially since many of our readers consume media solely in digital form (no shade…). Enter the Fragility series.
This feature, on marketplace feminism, is the first of our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. In May, we’ll explore the fragility of gaming culture. In June? The illusion of urban fragility. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.
For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part one: No Dior, you don’t get points for a $710 feminist t-shirt.
“Jennifer Lawrence’s New Dior Campaign Has a Feminist Message,” read the headline on VanityFair.com. In smaller type, it clarified: “It’s on her shirt.”
Nice one, Vanity Fair. Pointing out that the slogans espoused by celebrites trying on feminism as part of their personal brands are often backed up by little substance? Well played!
But this was not a joke, or satire, or even shade.
“[Maria Grazia] Chiuri’s first collection with Dior last year… paved the way for more political fashion on the runway during this past Fashion Week, specifically by using the simple-yet-bold conduit of the graphic tee. Models at Christian Siriano wore silk skirts with shirts reading “People Are People,” and Prabal Gurung included tops with sayings like “The Future Is Female” and “Revolution Has No Borders”…. It’s hard to deny Chiuri’s role as the bold leader who helped ignite that spark within the industry. And now, she has Jennifer Lawrence to help pass along the message.”
The designers did not coin the slogans on their t-shirts, and do not acknowledge their provenance as they co-opt them for high fashion. (The original “The Future is Female” was made by women’s bookstore Labyris Books in 1975 and became iconic in a photo of lesbian folkie Alix Dobkin; “We Should All Be Feminists,” of course, was the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 polemic.) And they apparently see no disconnect in charging a frankly perverted amount for such garments—the Dior tee costs $710, while Gurung’s is $195—and no irony in artificially inflating the value of them to reflect the price of entry into high fashion’s rarified circles.
Closer to the other end of the fashion spectrum is a new ad campaign from discount-shoe mainstay DSW, one of which features a young woman also wearing a t-shirt that reads “The Future Is Female” (presumably not Gurung’s pricy version) alongside the slogan #MarchOn. Nasty Woman necklaces, feminist lipsticks, and even an “eyepowerment” campaign to raise awareness of Chronic Dry Eye (sponsored by pharma corporation Allergan): 2017 could be the year that marketplace feminism—the process whereby corporations, celebrities, and other commercial entities leverage the language of liberation in the service of shilling—finally goes full caricature.
It’s certainly turning out to be one in which marketplace feminism’s high-gloss façade is cracking open to reveal the gears of status-quo capitalism grinding away just behind. The past few months alone have brought the highly publicized fall from grace of Miki Agrawal, the founder of Thinx, whose period-abosorbing undies and suggestive subway ads have been hailed as a feminist success story since the brand launched in 2010. Indeed, Thinx was one of the companies that, in comparison to the likes of Dove or Always, was considered a “real” feminist enterprise thanks to its female leadership, inclusive marketing, and dedication to combating the shame peddled by the tampon-industrial complex.
By her own account, Agrawal hadn’t considered feminism necessary until she founded Thinx, saying that she’d always associated the word with “angry, ranty” girls with a fondness for spoken-word poetry. And a damning account that broke on the fashion-business site Racked in March revealed that the company’s former head of PR, Chelsea Leibow, had filed an official complaint of sexual harassment against Agrawal. Along with a handful of anonymous former Thinx employees, Leibow—who had in the past popped up in online comment sections to defend her boss—unspooled tales of an erratic workplace culture, substandard pay, shitty labor policies, and a boundary-free leader who touched and talked to employees inappropriately under the guise of openness.
Then there’s the downfall of Nasty Gal, the fast-fashion site that mushroomed out of an eBay vintage-clothing shop on the strength of “#Girlboss” Sophia Amoruso’s marketing and coolhunting savvy. Amoruso, in her early twenties when Nasty Gal set up shop in 2008, had by 2016 become the second-youngest woman on Forbes’s “Richest Self-Made Woman” list—just below Taylor Swift—and was well on her way to building a Nasty empire. But the young women who flocked to Nasty Gal to work side-by-side with Amoruso found that her up-with-women enthusiasm waned as her business boomed. In interviews with Jezebel’s Anna Merlan in 2015, a number of ex-Nastys revealed that the company had fired “multiple pregnant employees either before or during their parental leave,” as well as one man on the verge of taking paternity leave and a woman who was waiting on crucial transplant surgery. Nasty Gal declared bankruptcy in 2016.
And just last week, it was announced that Modcloth, the web retailer beloved for its size-inclusive fashion and retro styling, had been bought by Jet, which is owned by Walmart. As with Nasty Gal, the company’s outsized success was the beginning of the end: Once the company moved to San Francisco and attracted venture capital, its culture of body positivity began to change; and its CEO and cofounder was replaced by a former Urban Outfitters exec whose obvious discomfort with Modcloth’s success in the plus-size market rattled longtime employees.
To observers and fans of these companies, their transformations look like hypocrisy. What they are is much more mundane. Brands have long focused on capturing the dollars of consumers who think of themselves as savvy, progressive, skeptical—brand-proof. That their attempts are often tone-deaf is only one part of the problem (just ask Pepsi). The other is simply that, for all their talk about disruption and paradigm-shifting, corporations do not exist to change collective minds, normalize diverse bodies, or promote real-life equality. They exist to profit, to satisfy investors and stockholders, to cut costs to maximize efficiency, to skirt labor laws where they can. The recent elevation of feminism from political movement to brand ideology doesn’t change those goals. But here we are, still eager to believe that canny corporate lip service—a commercial mentioning equal pay, Wall Street’s “Fearless Girl” statue that offers free advertising for the global investment firm that paid for it—is a forecast for investment in real-world equality.
REI and DSW take marketplace feminism to the streets—and the rocks.
Last weekend, I was tagged into a Facebook debate by a Bitch reader who had shared an ad from REI’s new “Force Of Nature” campaign, whose stated goal is to “Make the outdoors the world’s biggest largest level playing field.” The debate was largely between two points of view. One held that the company is simply the latest to co-opt feminism as a way to bolster both its relevance and its profits. The other protested that consumer outreach to people who don’t consider themselves feminists is the bridge that allows for safe passage over scary stereotypes, a path to personal empowerment and, eventually, to active feminist consciousness.
This argument, perhaps more than anything else, has characterized the new age of marketplace feminism. From Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham to Pantene shampoo and Secret deodorant, to Ghostbusters and Game of Thrones, this question—commercial opportunism or well-meaning conscious consumerism?—has been volleyed and mulled and contested. Is it feminist? Like, really feminist? Is it a gateway, or a dead end? I need deodorant anyway, so isn’t it better to patronize the brand that’s at least trying to make a statement?
REI’s “Force Of Nature” ads feature women—old and young, Black and white, smiling and pensive—engaged with the outdoors, with copy that emphasizes the elemental female connection to nature’s wonders. (“A Woman’s Place is in the Wild.”) Classes and retreats for women (“a ready-made group of girlfriends”) and a Force of Nature bandana whose sales fund nonprofits that “help women and girls get outside” round out the initiative. The company’s director of public affairs, Laura Swapp, stated that “Women’s leadership has been part of what we do here for a long time.”
But if women’s leadership has been so integral to REI, it seems fair to ask why the company waited so long to center them in its marketing. Institutional sexism? Could be. Disinterest? Possibly. But most likely, it’s the same unthinking adherence to status quo and risk aversion that’s been baked into cultural production for decades, from Madison Avenue to Hollywood. Well-meaning or not (and despite the female cofounder that the company is quick to mention), REI waited until marketplace feminism had established a foothold in corporate America to “discover” the power of its female customers, sidling into a niche that other brands have proven successful. Does that mean REI’s campaign is simply a craven bandwagon effort? Or is it just as valuable to social-change outreach as any women’s march or fiery op-ed? And is it possible that it can be both at once?
Marketplace feminism is admittedly alluring in a time when more than half the population is still fighting to be valued equally, to be paid like their male counterparts, to control their bodies, to simply exist in public. Marketplace feminism can yield powerful optics, like pussy hats photographed from above like a topographic map in shades of pink. It can bring virtual strangers together via enthusiasm for cool tote bags or enamel pins that spell out “FEMINIST” in bubble letters. It can offer a voice to those who can’t yet speak their minds or those who can’t speak at all.
But marketplace feminism is also fragile. It’s fragile because it requires the buy-in of those who, for the most part, see feminism only in the abstract. These forces—CEOs, venture capitalists, media executives, and more—will argue that business is apolitical, and for them it is. As a commodity, feminism is no different than any other trend, whether it’s crop tops or environmentalism. The fact that on the ground, gender equality may be a matter of life or death, is unimportant. Marketplace feminism is fragile, too, because, for all its potential, its reach and its influence demands a construction of feminism as individual success, privileging personal “empowerment” over harder-to-attain change—and, perhaps more distressing, suggesting that such empowerment can be available to all.
So do I have a better idea?
I don’t know. Even those of us who believe that collective, collaborative change is possible tend to blame not the actual framework of oppression—capitalism, white supremacy, entrenched sexism—but ourselves, as individuals, for our inability to secure that change. And, as feminists, we can be overinvested in the idea of authenticity and expend considerable energy debating what is truly feminist versus what is suspect. But maybe—and I know this is a big maybe—we can reckon with the pat, easy allure of marketplace feminism by, well, liberating it from the messy, constant, unsellable work of feminism as a living ethic. In a Venn diagram, marketplace feminism overlaps with that ethic in the place where we value representation and visibility, where our causes rise to the sightline of the larger world, where it’s really fun to debate the merits of a new Netflix series with our friends. But maybe we can think of ways to consider the work of sustaining a multifacted movement as separate from a corporate charm offensive. It’s risky to advocate for separate and unequal, but what if it helps us consider a feminist world that’s not at the mercy of capital?
Almost as soon as the news about Thinx broke, a press release from another period-underpants concern popped into my inbox, pitching an interview with the founder of a “real feminist brand” that makes a line of “fashion-forward absorbent lingerie designed to empower women who deal with bladder leakage.” I didn’t bite, but another site did, and the result was a piece called “The Thinx Debacle Doesn’t Have to Ruin Feminist Panties.” The question of whether “feminist panties” are, or should be, a thing that must be saved from potential ruination is elided. The question of why we imbue panties with ideological weight is bypassed in the rush to establish a newer, better, truly-feminist-this-time product. But these are questions worth engaging.
When marketplace feminism follows predictable capitalist scripts—competing to be the best, “realest” feminist brand of underpants, or most empowering lipsticks, or most lady-uplifting outdoor gear—what do we gain besides products that we can, maybe, feel better about consuming? When we’re told that a company’s passion is to “empower women” or “build a feminist brand” or even “level the playing field,” can we ask whether that passion is reflected in its business practices and internal values? When a brand takes that brave leap into publicly advocating for the autonomy and equality of non-men, are those who critique it “being unfair” or “asking for too much”? When their efforts cross over into what seems like farce—as with those three-figure designer t-shirts boasting recycled slogans—exactly how much can we roll our eyes in exasperation?
And, finally: If we treat capitalist structures as fragile entities whose social conscience is contingent upon how many units they move—and if we protect their fragility because “at least they’re trying”—in whose interests are we really working?
Check in next month for the next piece in our fragility series.