The Corporatisation of Feminism

Graphic by Mariam Rizvi

It’s not an extraordinary moment when I see a Covergirl #girlscan image on the Internet, or when a Dove #realbeauty advertisement bursts before my buffering Youtube video. But, I’ve always been sceptical of companies using feminism for profit.

At first, I made concessions for this kind of advertising – it’s okay if the company has gender equality measures for employees, or if they run an ethical supply chain. But even so, should we support corporations that treat human rights as a trend? I wonder if the ‘feminist’ t-shirts of mainstream fashion chains only exist because it’s currently fashionable. If the conversation around #metoo stops grabbing the headlines, will the slogans say something else next season?

Heather Arnet of the Women and Girls Foundation, at a panel on the corporatization of feminism, said these t-shirts were a win: “We’ve taught companies that it’s better to sell us stuff that empowers us, than stuff that’s demeaning”.

However, feminism should be more than just fleeting, individual empowerment, or the move away from explicit oppression. Nonetheless, a whole industry of individuals now sells ‘empowerment’ to thousands of well-meaning feminists. The individuals and movements in this industry put the onus back on the disenfranchised – to work harder, do more, and ignore structural inequalities.

Andi Zeisler articulately echoes my more cynical thoughts: “This new corporatized feminism is now about what one buys, what one wears, and overall how an individual or corporation can appear more “feminist” without actually doing anything to engender change.” After all, a multinational company can label themselves as feminist all they like, but they don’t have to run the gauntlet of impassioned, irreconcilable conversations with those who disagree with its use and cause.

At my all-girls high school, we didn’t talk about feminism – we talked about empowerment. In 2014, my principal latched on to ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s biography discusses ways in which women can advance their careers and become leaders. At first, I was ecstatic. My principal would mention statistics about how many more criteria women thought they needed to meet before they’d apply to jobs. “Lean in!” she’d cry. Often, she’d offer real life examples of success from her own life, or tie the phrase in with student’s achievements.

She neglected to mention that, at the time, Australia had similar proportions of women in government as Albania, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. At that time in the US, women in the legal industry made on average 55% of what men did, and boys consistently outnumbered girls in high school maths courses. What she never said was the word ‘patriarchy’.

The hollow notion of empowerment as feminism, often implied by adverts and celebrity ‘feminist’ endorsements, ignores the structural inequalities that inhibit boundary-pushing. These ideas of feminism ultimately fail those for whom structural inequality prevents their ability to lean in. Empowerment implies that we’re all on an even playing field – completely ignoring the intersectional nature of privilege and gender inequality.

This is not to say that empowerment isn’t important; my ‘Fuck Trump’ t-shirt does more for my mood than Ben & Jerry’s ever could. But feminism requires more than just pep talks and slogans – it requires hard conversations and unanswerable questions. Empowerment, for me, can never replace the genuine discussions that need to occur.

Jenna Crispin’s thesis in her book, ‘I am not a Feminist’, is summarized by Vox’s Sean Illing as follows: “Feminism lost its political moorings; it became vapid and toothless in its quest for universality.”

However, my outlook is not quite so bleak. While the 2016 US Presidential election seemed to make ‘feminism’ and ‘empowerment’ key buzzwords for anyone with a millennial target audience, feminism has only increased its position in mainstream media and commercial enterprises. It was Merriam Webster’s word of the year last year.

Further, the image of the feminist woman has been turned on its head – we progressed from the reserved Hillary Clinton of 2016, to the rage of Hannah Gadsby, Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer on SNL, and democratic-socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We are challenging assumptions about what it means to have a conversation about feminism, and on what terms these difficult discussions will occur.

I still worry that the feminism exhibited in fashion and marketing simplifies how society explores and understands feminism every day. I look back, almost resentfully, at the success of the ‘Lean In’ motto at my high school. Are we being told what kind of feminists to be? Are we being sold a particular, profitable brand of feminism? I wonder whether it stigmatises grassroots activists, feminist theorists with anti-capitalist ties, and all those who can’t ‘lean in’ due to the structural issues they face in society.

I feel lucky that in this moment, we have such robust debate about how to protect and advance gender equality in many places around the world. However, though H&M currently sells t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Feminist’, a similarly large company, Peter Alexander, also sold tops for boys with the slogan ‘Boys will be boys’. The proliferation of these clashing ideals by the fashion industry makes me concerned for the future of feminism, beyond empowerment. I suppose for now, feminist fashion is better than the alternative.