When It Comes to Marketing Feminism, How Much is Too Much?
“Such a nasty woman.”
Like countless others, I experienced equal parts WTF? and laughable disgust when Donald Trump huffed that insult at Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate last October. If the future sexual-assaulter-in-chief thought women would find such an accusation demeaning, however, he clearly didn’t know what it meant to be the boss of one’s own identity—to reclaim stereotypes, slanders and shaming, and repurpose them into something empowering.
Like countless others, too, I looked to declare my allegiance. When Full Frontal host Samantha Bee announced she was selling “Nasty Woman”-branded t-shirts to benefit Planned Parenthood, I rushed to buy one—because nothing says instant political gratification like a memorized credit card number and a trigger keyboard finger.
Of course, I wasn’t alone. To date, Full Frontal has sold nearly 100,000 “Nasty Woman” t-shirts with 100 percent of the $25 shirt’s net profits going to benefit Planned Parenthood Advocacy Project Los Angeles County. In the months since that infamous debate incident, other such feminist-branded products have popped up with breakneck swiftness. Some products benefit causes while others thirstily capitalize on a moment; everywhere I look, it seems like there's an ad for a "Nevertheless, She Persisted,” “Bad Hombre,” or "Feminist Liberal Snowflake” tee in a store window or on my social media feed. Given our hashtag culture, this shouldn’t be surprising. We take to Twitter, Facebook and SnapChat at the slightest provocation to vent and share. Why shouldn’t we, too, want to literally wear our hearts on our sleeves? Why shouldn’t we rejoice in sipping conservative tears from a “Fight the Patriarchy” coffee mug?
But, in a time when we all want to make a difference, socially and politically, is buying the t-shirt to prove you were there on the frontlines of the revolution really the most effective move? I’m probably not the right person to ask—after all, I plunked down $40 for a set of official Hillary Clinton “Made From 100 Percent Shattered Glass” shot glasses. I ponied up for the $20 “Feminist AF” t-shirt. I forked over $30 for a t-shirt emblazoned with a pink women’s symbol and the word “Resist”. I’m convinced that my morning coffee will taste so much better in that $12 “Fight the Patriarchy” mug. Clearly, I am the target market.
This is not the first time feminism has been co-opted and commercialized. In the ‘90s, the Spice Girls famously mainstreamed and homogenized the riot grrrl movement with its poppy, platform-heeled, money-raking brand of “girl power”. The spunky PowerPuff Girls followed suit in the early aughts and anyone who’s paying attention can see how Disney has learned to profit handsomely off its increasingly feminist princess characters.
But is all this pretty, sassy packaging watering down the message?
Bitch magazine co- founder Andi Zeisler thinks so. She cautions against such “marketplace feminism,” arguing in her book We Were Feminist Once that modern feminism is less about practical ideology—the wage gap, reproductive rights, sexual agency, et al—but instead rooted in capitalism and trendy “visual cues” such as t-shirt slogans. Then again, Zeisler must know such branding is effective—her Bitch Media site offers myriad shopping options including mugs, books, art and coasters (though no t-shirts). Moving beyond even Zeisler’s thesis, feminist critic Jessa Crispin’s recent book Why I Am Not a Feminist essentially argues that capitalism inherently runs against feminism. Yet she offers little in the way of answers, and while she’s not peddling any branded gear to promote her particular strain of feminism, she’s not cutting herself out of the capitalist loop of publishing, either. And so the question remains: Do merchandise and one’s belief system really have to be mutually exclusive? Can the feminist revolution be commodified—and still be revolutionary?
Talk to enough of your sharp feminist friends who are badasses but who also threw down for a “The Future is Female” shirt and the answer seems to be a resounding “absolutely.” The key is to not let your activism stop at wardrobe and accessories. Donate to reputable causes, show up to protest, call your senators to demand change. If you feel more empowered doing these things while outfitted in a “Nasty Woman” tee, sipping tea from that “Fight the Patriarchy” mug, then more power to you, and more power to us all.