For her Spring 2017 collection, the newly appointed creative director to Parisian fashion house Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, sent models down the runway toting a white t-shirt. In a bold black typeface, it announced ‘WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS’. The minimal design did not merely jump on the trend of the covetable fashion slogan, but also on the supposition that wokeness is a new cultural commodity. Yet, what does a t-shirt retailing at USD$710 really do, or for that matter, say about modern feminism? Largely that, along with other social movements, it is losing credibility being mired in corporatist ties and capitalist appropriation.
The image of feminism that is being marketed towards the masses is an easily digestible one – largely due to its shallow engagement with gender-related ideals. Celebrities and political figures were once too afraid to call themselves feminists are now quick to jump on board. Empowerment is having a moment. There is safety in such a statement due to the criticisms that are now levelled at those who reject such a label. Whilst a stigma still exists through a historical conflation of feminism with misandry, the dispersion of any revolutionary message wanes as it is now sold as an unattainably expensive cotton blend t-shirt. Ironically, this is itself a reflection of blind classism that has plagued the movement from its inception. Buying a t-shirt with an uninspired slogan does not reverse the harm of production. The environment will continue to suffer and the pockets of the shareholders grow fatter as they sell back to women their own mission statement. Yet, the feminist t-shirt’s incredulity is not attributable to its existence but rather its success.
Where someone like Ivanka Trump is chastised for selling out her gender, too often it is forgotten that recently lauded feminist heroes like Beyoncé Knowles and Hillary Clinton have succeeded in their push for equality through the subjugation of women alike. Perhaps, buying Knowles’ Topshop line, Ivy Park, will have you feeling ‘flawless’ and ‘so crown crown’ as the queen that you are, such messages of #feminism and empowerment!! are less digestible for the Sri Lankan workers making a mere sixty-four cents an hour in the sweatshop-like factories pumping out her activewear. The diffusion line ironically claims ‘to celebrate every woman and the body she’s in.’ Knowles deploys her thinly veiled neoliberal feminist ideology with aplomb. Selling empowerment to her avowed fans whilst profiting off, what one human rights campaigner told Broadly was “a severe case of exploitation, bordering on slavery.” Capitalist and consumerist ventures that directly exploit workers are so often forgotten in glorifying the feminist inspiration that is credited to the elite few who climb to the top of the corporate ladder. The consumer fails to realise that buying into feminism is not ethically compatible within a capitalist framework that thrives because factories producing these supposedly woke garments do not pay their workers a living wage.
Feminism should not solely be predicated upon an equality of the sexes because that largely neglects a reliance on the oppression of women for male privilege, or rather for the patriarchal fallacy under which society functions, to exist. Instead of playing the game like men, the system needs to be dismantled in order for a semblance of equality, or at least the illusion of such to be reached. Following the realisation that Obama’s election to office did not expunge America of racism, similarly Clinton’s presidency could not have been the barometer by which women’s equality and progression are measured. Her attempt to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling may have inspired and galvanised people on the path to gender equality, yet her failure to atone for questionable political inclinations were assuredly at play in Trump’s ascension. Whilst resembling American imperialism and the establishment coupled with her corporatist ties and vague sloganeering, the reality of her gender allowed a trite media (and electoral) narrative focusing on the significance of Clinton being instated as the first female president of the United States.
Feminism, as a product, fails to address the harsher realities of its cause because it is not marketable. A t-shirt stating the high murder rate of trans women will not sell. A record highlighting the lack of focus on class-based issues over identity politics will not play. And a tokenistic feminist pop star will likely never be openly critical of the way consumerist culture is a huge threat to the equality of men and women alike. When consumerism is cloaked behind a social good the cost, both in its monetary and philosophical sense, can go unchecked. The consumer buys into these products based on the understanding that they are no longer a mindless player in the capitalist game that pedals insignificant products back into the world. Yet, at the crux of the ideology behind the Dior feminist t-shirt came the succession, after public outcry no less, that a portion of the funds received for the t-shirts would go to The Clara Lionel Foundation which ‘reach[es] across borders to fight together for basic rights to education and health’.
Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek noted the uprising of consumerist guilt stating ‘we are prone to engage in frantic, obsessive activities; recycling paper, buying organic food, or whatever, just so that we can be sure that we are doing something.’ Here Žižek acknowledges that this is one of the ultimate forms of capitalist duping: companies selling consumers the idea (READ: lie) of charity through engaging directly with mass consumption. The fair-trade coffee that Starbucks markets to the consumer will still occupy landfill with millions of coffee cups and packaging. Yet, the consumer can diffuse their guilt for buying cheaper conglomerate coffee with the taste of responsibly grown beans. More recently a similar sentiment is reflected with the Airbnb rings for marriage equality. The pieces of plastic were buzzed about briefly not only in order to show support for marriage equality (which at an overwhelming approval rating in Australia is almost one of the more conservative social positions a company can take) but also to promote the company. Thus, tethering Airbnb’s ethos to a progressive cause to appeal to millennials’ sense of social justice. Yet, equality is only in because it sells. It can only sell because it is popular and what is popular is, inherently, safe. Companies are not significantly risking their profit margins by slapping a rainbow filter over their social media for Pride Month. It is not a push for equality, but rather a push for profit. Where were these companies ten years ago when feminism was still a dirty word and marriage equality seemed decades away? The implicit safety net of PC culture fails to call out the dangers behind the actions of these companies in co-opting social causes for profit due to a lack of critical thinking being swallowed by the asinine pleasantries of inclusivity.
The widely criticised PR disaster that was Pepsi’s recent apolitical commercial proved incredibly cringe-inducing as it appropriated protest imagery for the cause of selling cavity-inducing schlock. Pepsi’s ad could at least have contributed to a nuanced conversation that exposed corporations’ hollow misuse of social causes in order to market their products. The fact that no recognised issue was made evident in the ad pointed toward a deftness, not within the company, but within consumerist culture. As a multi-billion dollar company, Pepsi thought this ad would sell; and this says more about the state of consumerist gratification and green capitalism than it does about the company’s advertising deficiencies. The maelstrom that engulfed Pepsi allows them to save face by misguiding consumers with an apology. The message: consumers are stupid, just not that stupid. The campaign acts as a mirror to the rest of the consumerist landscape issuing a warning that your activism (READ: marketing strategy) is in danger of being exposed. In what has seemingly become companies’ involvement in some type of Commodification Olympics, Pepsi were merely the ones caught doping. The commercial exposed, in a way that Dior could have, the danger that corporations have placed themselves in as they shine the light on the vacuity of such ‘empowerment’ campaigns.
The easiness of opting into these corrupting ideologies that are typified by the utter banality of empowerment or equality as a marketing tool are proving vapid. Yet, surely these branded moves are becoming as conspicuous as a dog’s locked stare at their owner whilst it takes a shit on a walk. In a similar vein that people are more afraid of being called racist than actually being racist, corporations are trying to sell wokeness in the misguided hope that consumers will stay asleep.