Opinion: Is this really what a feminist looks like?


Image courtesy of Elle

In October, it was reported that Elle UK, in partnership with the Fawcett Society, had commissioned its “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts from a factory that paid its women workers well below minimum wage. Although the sweatshop allegations were later proven false, Elle UK was subject to criticism for supposedly demeaning the message it was intending to promote. That incident opened up an interesting conversation about feminist marketing and products, and “feminist businesses” that appropriate feminism for a salable product.

The commodification of feminism takes feminist ideals and turns them into a product for individual consumption (a “fashion statement”) or a marketing tool, instead of a collective movement.

Feminist apparel companies sell shirts with catchy pro-feminist slogans. Although some companies, such as Feminist Apparel, sometimes collaborate with feminist groups, which receive the proceeds, they still operate as businesses and use phrases coined by other feminists and marginalized groups (women, specifically women of colour) to make a profit.

“Pizza rolls not gender roles”.

“Riots not diets.”

Turning feminism into something cutesy and gimmicky doesn’t do anything to help the movement. And, often times, the brands that spout feminist ideals don’t actually support feminism in any meaningful way.

Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld recently had his models walk the runway while staging a mock feminist protest. They held signs that said, “History is her story” and “Women’s rights are more than alright!” It’s hard to believe that the man who said, “No one wants to see curvy women,” and that Coco Chanel was not a feminist because she “wasn’t ugly enough for that,” wanted to make a progressive statement rather than using feminism to help sell clothing.

FCKH8, a for-profit T-shirt company, sells “anti-sexism gear.” Recently, one of its advertising campaigns, which features little girls cussing in the name of feminism, has gone viral. Once again, it’s nothing more than a gimmick to sell clothing, and feminists and activists have criticized the company for appropriating social movements to make money. Synergy Media Ltd., a marketing company, owns FCKH8. While it may donate some of its proceeds to feminist causes, it is a business first and foremost.

The commodification of feminism isn’t limited to T-shirts, however. Dove’s “redefine beauty” advertisements and viral campaigns are seemingly pro-feminist. Their goal, however, isn’t to empower, but to entice women to buy soap and shampoo. It’s ironic, too, that Dove is owned by Unilever, which owns Axe, a brand known for its sexist marketing. And in non-western countries, the brand that preaches self-esteem and female empowerment is selling skin-lightening creams.

Hypocrisies aside, it seems that the main problem with the commodification of feminism is that it oversimplifies its intended message. People can purchase “feminist products” without having to think about what it means to be a feminist. When feminism becomes a fashion statement instead of a collective struggle, you have stripped it of its meaning.

It’s great that feminism has made its way into the mainstream, and it’s fine if people want to express themselves by wearing “feminist” clothing. It would be nice, though, if we could think critically about the ideals we are laying claim to, and recognize that change will not come from making feminism salable, but from liberation. That’s something that can only come from women, and not from companies.

Feminism is so much more than what can fit onto a T-shirt.


I'm a Journalism student that likes politics and pop culture.

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