Op-Ed: Capitalism has embraced feminist iconography at a huge cost

Can capitalism truly create a new market for feminism, or is this the beginning of feminism’s decline?

A hat is placed on the statue titled “Fearless Girl” donated by a passerby, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
A hat is placed on the statue titled “Fearless Girl” donated by a passerby, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

On a recent trip to the mall, I found myself surrounded by a variety of products that seemed to cater to feminism. “Girl Power” t-shirts, pink cat-earred beanies that were made to emulate the now-notorious “pink p*ssy” hats of the Women’s March in January, and other forms of clothing and accessories that loudly proclaimed “femme,” “womanhood,” or “girl” to the world.

Seeing these blatantly feminist products gave me a sense of pride at first. As a Black feminist, I had hope that the visibility of feminism in mainstream merchandise would create some much-needed momentum to the movement, particularly for causes that centered on marginalized communities. But as time went on, and the popularity of feminist-labeled items grew in fashion and consumerism as a whole, I began to wonder what role capitalism would play for the movement.

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The momentum of the Women’s March has cooled, leaving behind more questions than answers. For many of us, the Women’s March and other mainstream feminist actions have risen the question of who is allowed to be involved — cis, able-bodied, white womanhood is still centered above all others and has the most social capital. And these are the same people who gain the most by allowing capitalism to enter feminism.

The shift from social justice movement to a capitalist marketing strategy has gained traction in the last few years. Many major retailers — like Forever 21, H&M, and Topshop — have embraced placing feminism front and center on their retail items, with no noticeable changes of implementing it into their business structure.

For feminism to remain relevant to the ways that it interacts with people in their ordinary lives, it’s necessary for it to evolve from relying solely on marches and grassroots organizing. But, with the feminism movement becoming so intricately linked to capitalism, and gaining popularity because of how profitable it is, the question of its true intentions arises. Can capitalism truly create a new market for feminism, or is this the beginning of feminism’s decline?

What’s interesting is that the most visible corporations that embrace feminism to sell their products are ones that also pride themselves on centering feminist principles within their business practices to begin with. NastyGal and Thinx are the most notorious in this regard, using feminism as a rooted business practice in how they both market and run their respective businesses — only to fall under more scrutiny once their successes dwindled or allegations of misbehavior arose.

A movement that began with the intrinsic goal of women’s liberation has connected that end goal to capitalism, a system that oppresses already marginalized communities the most.

Much of the dissent that comes against companies that center feminism as both a workplace model and a central selling point of their products is due to well-deserved skepticism that these companies can truly succeed both within a capitalist market and as part of the feminist movement at large. When these companies fail or hit business roadblocks, their actions then become a reflection of how valuable feminism as a whole is to capitalism. Though these businesses may experience many of the same ebbs and flows (NastyGal’s filing for bankruptcy, and being acquired by retailer Boohoo; Thinx co-founder Miki Agrawal being alleged of sexual harassment) that other businesses do, the fact that their failures will be heavier scrutinized is a reflection of capitalism’s reluctance to fully embrace feminism. It clearly reveals how capitalism perceives feminism as a marketing ploy, rather than a social justice movement worth taking seriously.

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In her article for BuzzFeed, writer Doree Shafrir writes about this new wave of “fempowerment” and its shortcomings:

“The disconnect between brand and reality can feel like a particularly painful betrayal for employees, many of whom are young and took their jobs because they were interested in working for a company whose ideals seemed to align with theirs. (A Thinx employee told me that Agrawal regularly received missives from young women begging to work for her.) Conditions in startups like this are ripe for impressionable young women, who often have little if any full-time job experience, to get taken advantage of. If you don’t know what a normal workplace looks like, how are you going to sound the alarm when something isn’t right with yours? It’s hard not to assume that some founders prefer to hire a young, inexperienced workforce in part because they’re cheap, but also because they’re less likely to challenge the founder’s authority.”

A movement that began with the intrinsic goal of women’s liberation has connected that end goal to capitalism, a system that oppresses already marginalized communities the most. A capitalist-focused feminism embraces the exploitation of women of color and poor women, relying on the fact that they are disproportionately vulnerable because they don’t have access to the same educational or class privileges that many of these “fempreneur” leaders have. In the United States, women of color make lower wages on average than white women, though mainstream feminism continues to center white women’s struggle for equality when discussing the wage gap. Women of color face higher rates of unemployment or underemployment, despite their rates of education increasing, particularly for Black women. And I can’t begin to get into the irony in the number of feminist empowerment t-shirts made in exploitative sweatshops in other parts of the world.

A capitalist-focused feminism needs women and femme-identified people to keep the system moving; it relies on people to create the product that a core part of the function relies on. In a system like that — one that keeps specific communities oppressed — can we truly be free? Can we still have a feminism that seeks the liberation of everyone, regardless of how they benefit from the creation of products?

Of course, this cycle is nothing new. In the Guardian article “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden — And How We Can Reclaim It,” Nancy Frasher explains how capitalism has hurt women before by embracing feminism in name only. When women critiqued capitalism’s “family wage” model, the idea of a male income earner and female homemakers are crucial to upholding a “state-organized capitalism.” As more women have become income earners themselves, capitalism-focused feminism has simply adapted to include this. She writes:

“Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift — now often a triple or quadruple shift — and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households… Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women’s emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.”

This latest embrace of feminism sparks similar concerns. Without a doubt, the greater awareness of feminism is something that should be celebrated. But failing to acknowledge the ways that its rebranding in a capitalist society oppresses and ostracizes communities that it should be uplifting is a serious cause for concern. We need to reevaluate the reshaping of our feminism and ensure that our society is working to positively impact social justice movements — and not just to sell some t-shirts.