Do we get the marketplace feminism we deserve? It seems like a worthwhile question to ask as we close out a year that has seen feminism commodified to ever-higher peaks of inanity—and that ends, perhaps fittingly, with the announcement of a Pantsuit Nation book deal.
A formerly private, invite-only group, Pantsuit Nation formed shortly before the 2016 election as a place for Hillary Clinton supporters to post pictures of kids in adorable Hillary Halloween costumes, share drink recipes for election night, and generally psych each other up to help make history. The group’s ranks were pushing 3 million by November 8, just in time for a wealth of stories about wheeling great-grandmothers to polling places and sharing photos that prominently featured smiles and “I Voted!” stickers.
Overnight, of course, the you-go-girl spirit dissolved and hearts broke, and by the wee hours of November 9, the Facebook page had become a space for collective mourning. As the horrors of a Donald Trump ascendancy replete with racism, xenophobia, and pussy-grabbing quickly became real, PN’s numbers continued to grow. But for a shared space whose raison d’etre was inherently political, Pantsuit Nation’s interest in engaging with political resistance seemed inversely proportional to its impressive growth and reach. Within a week or two of Election Day, the posts skewed heavily toward tales of self-congratulatory kindness enacted by white women (and men) toward anyone who might be marked as “other”—Muslim neighbors, disabled classmates, gay siblings. “Look at me, doing [X] for [Y]—love Trumps hate!” became the order of the day.
But whatever your tolerance for performative wokeness might be, PN was still an online space with which millions had aligned themselves in mere weeks—the kind of numbers that PAC and advocacy organizations dream of. So the announcement earlier this week in the New York Times—and then on the page itself—that the page’s 33-year-old founder, Libby Chamberlain, had scored a book deal for a volume of stories culled from PN now has many Pantsuiters feeling sold out.
The gripe is not only that Chamberlain, who is neither an activist nor an author, is cashing in on what amounts to the labor of strangers—though that in itself is plenty worthy of griping. It’s that Chamberlain has effectively turned a community into a product, and to add insult to injury, is doing it in wildly ham-fisted fashion. Addressing now-disgruntled PN members earlier this week, she promised that no one’s stories would be used without permission. However, even the most slapdash book proposal for a project like this would include sample copy pulled from the page, and Chamberlain urging members to check their FB “other” inboxes for permission requests is the transparent refuge of the deeply disingenuous.
“When you build a community based on trusting each other because the rest of the world is too misogynistic and then spring a book deal on them, you violate that trust,” offers Bitch Media board member and PN member Veronica Arreola. But, perhaps more important, you also squander the potential for real political power by simply shrinking it into another marketplace-feminist narrative in which individual stories and achievements stand in for transformative change. Plenty of members looked askance at PN’s announcement on December 2 that the group had applied for nonprofit status and licensed its name; it went on to state that groups using the name Pantsuit Nation may not “engage in any attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates…. Furthermore, no group using ‘Pantsuit Nation’ may engage in fundraising at this point.” One member told Slate that posts advocating for action beyond storytelling were “denied or removed” from the page.
As writer Ijeoma Oluo noted ruefully on Twitter, “5 Million members…and the best they can come up with is another edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Between deodorant that claims to combat the wage gap and panties that claim to smash the patriarchy, we don’t need more products that collapse a multifaceted struggle into a cute tagline or a tale of badass womanity. More than ever—terrifyingly so—we need action, momentum, and critical mass. Pantsuit Nation, coming soon to a coffee table near you, is not going to provide it.