Posted on December 14 2020
FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING HAS NOT SIGNIFICANTLY PUSHED WOMEN IN THE DIRECTION OF REVOLUTIONARY POLITICS. FOR THE MOST PART, IT HAS NOT HELPED WOMEN UNDERSTAND CAPITALISM - HOW IT WORKS AS A SYSTEM THAT EXPLOITS FEMALE LABOR AND ITS INTERCONNECTIONS WITH SEXIST OPPRESSION.
- BELL HOOKS.
By Negin K
In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed an influx of bite-sized, consumable feminism all over my social media feed. You have probably seen it too: t-shirts that read “the future is female” produced by giant corporations with terrible labour rights track records; pussy hats that went from being a cutsie knitted hats to being mass produced cheaply to make those that buy them feel like they are part of something. These and countless others, are forms of commodity feminism which works to appropriate grand ideas for commercial purposes, water them down, empty them of their political significance, and throw them back at us in a nice, neat, easily consumable package.
Admittedly, maybe I see more of this stuff than others. The ungodly amount of content I have been consuming during this quarantine, at a time of social upheaval and reckoning, has been peppered with many instances of consumable feminism. From American Netflix series with white women protagonists, (with the inevitable brown/black best friend side kick), to companies on Instagram that now reach out to people like me, who doesn’t have a large following on social media, to wear their BLM themed t-shirts, or promote their “feminist” sex toys!
Little t-shirts with quirky slogans that were uncool to say out loud just 10 years ago, sell you watered down feminism, in pretty packaging. “Bad Bitches Unite”, “Pussy Power”, “Girls just wanna have fun-damental rights” and all other grand notions, reduced to a quip and written in cute fonts, for a measly $8. Flipping the tag inside it reads, “made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam” or somewhere else where underpaid women in dismal conditions pay the price for our “woke-ness”.
What gets me is how slyly the older model of advertising, that once depicted women as caretakers, has shifted to accommodate the gains of feminism; now depicting women as strong, independent decision makers, who are also *gasp* sexually driven beings.
So, this is a win, right? Isn’t more representation in media, more products geared towards more diverse gender experiences, and more visibility a sign that feminism is no longer on the fringes? That the fight is won and we can now finally stop, kick back, pour some chardonnay, and make a toast to our foremothers for giving us the opportunity to live the lives they only could dream of?
SO CAN, A MOVEMENT WHICH ORIGINATED IN A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE BY WRITERS, ARTISTS, AND THINKERS, NOW REPACKAGED AND WATERED DOWN TO BE EASILY CONSUMED, STAY RELEVANT WITH THE NEW GENERATION OF WOMEN, AND STILL TRUE TO ITS IDENTITY?
This is good shit! Even the cynic in me enjoys that high school girls shut down sexist comments in ways I still struggle to do.
What worries me is that capitalism and patriarchy are so insidiously intertwined, that as long as feminism is turned into a commodity that is sold, and stripped of its political identity, patriarchy thrives without batting an eye. This means that the structural reforms needed for feminist ideals to be realized will never occur. Slowly instead of pushing back, together, we are happy to participate in performative social justice, by buying things that make us feel good, as individuals. We are lulled into a false sense of comfort. The evil duo tells us: shhhh, we got this, we are all feminists, equality is here…and suddenly we are in the sunken place!
Advertising companies now use a different trope to make their greed more palatable to a generation of women who are more broadly aware, and are better connected than ever before. To those women they say YES! We understand that women are independent and active social actors with unique experiences and identities; but that those identities, can and should only be expressed through consumption. By buying this thing, you ARE what the product tells you to be. And no, you do not have to think about the structural and societal issues that lay behind its production. Advertisers encourage consumerism so that capitalist production remains profitable. At the same time, they equate consuming more to being more powerful.
So, can a movement which originated in a culture of defiance by writers, artists, and thinkers, now repackaged and watered down to be easily consumed, stay relevant with the new generation of women, and still true to its identity? Can a feminist ever own a feminist emblazoned t-shirt? Is it better if it’s a brand and more “ethically sourced”? Is it ok that Dior sold white shirts that read “We should all be feminists” in 2017, for the very affordable price of $710?
Silvia Federici, one of my favourite feminist writers lays out quite convincingly in her work that capitalism and feminism are fundamentally at odds due to irreconcilable differences. She believes it is impossible for capitalism to produce an equitable society because of its exploitive ideology. Patriarchy and capitalism as self-serving systems, feed into one another based on their mutual interest in upholding the status quo.
We live in an age where women’s independence and achievements are often measured through one’s ability to consume more. Making more money in a system that is rigged against women should be a cause to celebrate; but it makes me wonder if the consumer lifestyle, as the cultural logic of capitalism, is a fundamentally un-feminist thing.
Historically, the very foundation of feminist ideology has been the eradication of all forms of inequalities. Concepts such as intersectionality teach us that many forms of systemic oppression intersect to create inequalities that cannot be addressed by a one-size-fits-all solution. We know that economic status and class, directly relate to access and opportunity, as cornerstones of equality.
I think because of the urgency and the high stakes, and the precarious state of our rights and our future on this planet, speaking about equity and equality should not remain a footnote of everyday conversations. So, looking like a feminist, and enjoying the sense of belonging it gives us, doesn’t cut it anymore.
WE CELEBRATE GIRL BOSSES AND CALL RICH WOMEN "QUEENS" AS OPPOSED TO GETTING RID OF THE TOXIC CULTURE OF THE WORKPLACES AND THE IMPLICIT AND AT TIMES EXPLICIT BIASES THAT LIMIT WOMEN.
The current focus on individual achievement and choice is also a departure from what second wave feminists called “the personal as political”. This was a concept that asked women to think of their individual problems as symptoms of structural oppression. The concept is now reversed to mean that all aspects of our lives are personal, including the political. With the current co-optation of feminism, we are led to believe that personal empowerment, not social change, will end inequality.
I get excited when I see that women’s agency and pleasure are being centered more often in our media, but then disheartened when I see that our agency is being directly tied to consumerism. We celebrate girl power, as the most visible form of feminism in our pop culture. We value it above collective struggles, and an individual’s choice has now replaced the structural system as the focus of critique. Our attention is now turned away from improving society and creating a path to social justice, to improving the “self” and creating a path to personal success. Feminism becomes an accessory we can put on and take off rather than a movement, and while the visibility advances public conversations about gender, because of its co-optation and commodification, it doesn’t have the power to end injustice.
We are told that instead of fighting against existing power structures, we should celebrate a false equality that is achieved by absorbing more women into patriarchal corporate structures. We celebrate girl bosses and call rich women “queens” as opposed to getting rid of the toxic culture of the workplaces and the implicit and at times explicit biases that limit women, especially womxn of colour’s access to opportunities.
The current focus on individual success, sells us the idea that marginalized people must individually shift their attitude in order to be liberated from a system that keeps them down. When we place the responsibility of undoing centuries of prejudice on the person victimized by it, the system that took away their opportunity to begin with, thrives.
It’s an uncomfortable reminder that the bite-sized feminism we regularly consume can be at the cost of unrepresented marginalized groups, with few avenues to have their voices heard.
I sometimes get stuck in recognizing what is wrong with our systems and feeling hopeless in my search for a quick remedy. It is not enough to just identify what is not working. We must also re-imagine, propose, and bring about viable solutions to revive the spirit of activism within popular feminism. In the current state of the world, with many struggling economically, politically, and emotionally, I often think of hope, and bell hooks when she said: “Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair.”
AT THE END OF THE DAY, WEAR THE T-SHIRT, DO THE PROMOTED POST, AND BUY THAT FEMINIST SEX TOY, IF IT HELPS YOU SURVIVE IN A WORLD THAT VALUES PROFIT OVER PEOPLE. AT THE SAME TIME LET'S REMEMBER TO LOOK BEYOND THE FRONT WINDOW F THE COMPANIES WE FREQUENT.
It’s expensive to buy ethical, it’s exhausting and sometimes downright dangerous to engage in conversations that make folks uncomfortable. Our sisterhood should include all womxn, and collective action must return to our personal lives. As I see it, our power to enact change within a system as omni-present and insidious as capitalism, comes through two avenues:
Our purchasing power, and our understanding that those purchases are not enough on their own.
At the end of the day, wear the t-shirt, do the promoted post, and buy that feminist sex toy, if it helps you survive in a world that values profit over people. At the same time let’s remember to look beyond the front window of the companies we frequent. When we watch the Dove, Nike or Coke ad that makes us feel fuzzy because it shows us a young woman realizing her dreams, let’s not forget who sits on the boards of these companies and where the money ends up. Let’s never forget that their willingness to change has only occurred because activists have pushed societies to protect marginalized groups, and these corporations can no longer sell their goods without accepting and incorporating the progress.
When possible, we can buy from small, minority owned businesses. Those that are trying to run their companies ethically, and allow those that would not usually gain opportunities in society to thrive.
At the end of the day, no matter how ethical or well-intentioned our decisions are, we must never forget that the collective nature of our issues, means they will never be resolved individually.
Let’s use the visibility consumer feminism has afforded us, to engage in conversations with those who may not know the depth and philosophy of the feminist struggle.
As we push against powerful systems that seem too mighty to fall, we must strengthen our communities and seek refuge when the “disillusionment and despair” gets too much too bear. Within our communities, we can find solace in the multitude of experiences everyone will bring, and through that support find strength. As Audre Lorde said: “Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”
I have faith that young women will lead the way in beating Capitalism at its own game, one way or another. They are too smart not to. And yes, the future will be female.
Negin is an Iranian-Canadian researcher. She spends the majority of her time thinking about the social, psychological and economic implications of gender. In recent years, this "melancholic migrant" has worked in EDI, policy research and gender within international development. She recognizes, with impatience, that she has much to learn and strives daily, to live in harmony with her contradictions. Follow her on Instagram.
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Thanks so much for the link, Negin, and your thoughtful, provocative blog. This has been a challenging year, but I am grateful that it has stimulated you to share your insights and vision. Important perspective!