When I was a budding feminist in the fifth grade in the very early nineties, my Dad bought me a Rosie the Riveter shirt to match my new attitude. I loved that shirt and wore it all the time, feeling like Rosie really got me. I could express strength instead of the smiling, pleasing femininity society expected of me and to which I did not and do not relate.
So, what is the difference between my badass Rosie shirt and the trendy feminist gear that keeps popping up on my Facebook feed?
First, let’s take a look at this feminist gear to which I am referring. The Facebook page Fem Things advertises with a silver bracelet engraved with the phrase “Smash the Patriarchy” and a little hanging Venus symbol. If you actually go into the Facebook site, you will see that “The goal of Fem Things is to help shift our culture and help put an end to the everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization of women!” Which apparently is achieved through buying jewelry with catchy feminist phrases and sharing feel-good memes, many which have nothing to do with feminism and promote self-empowerment through capitalism and beauty.
Everyone who reads this probably knows what I mean, but I will go ahead and share some of these pithy memes.
“ADMIRE someone else’s beauty without questioning your own.”
“I have to be successful because I love expensive shit. Oh, the pressure is real ha ha!”
“Ask him what nail polish color you should get & then get a completely different one to establish dominance.”
“Women’s razors being less sharp, but more expensive, encapsulates the patriarchy.”
Yes, what the patriarchy really comes down to is price differences in razor blades, and he will totally respect your independence when he notices you picked a different nail polish color. And then there are the straight up beauty advertisements:
“Get 3 Premium Beauty Blenders Absolutely Free!”
And mixed in with all this feel good feminism are quotes by Janet Mock, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, declarations of wearing bikinis on beaches, and other failed attempts at actual feminism.
And there is not one article about the actual everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization of women Fem Things claims to be fighting.
I wouldn’t be so upset if the women in the comments aren’t buying this version of feminism hook, line, and sinker. And Fem Things is not the only website peddling this beautiful, superficial feminism. “Getbullish.com” also has “Smash the Patriarchy” gear. In one review a buyer stated that after she bought the necklace “I smashed the patriarchy over the last two days. This isn’t even half of it.”
Really!? Did you now?
This is how women are now learning about and understanding feminism. Ivanka Trump would be salivating over these sites.
The marginalization and discrimination of women that Fem Things describes is very, very serious and has dangerous consequences. Lives are at stake. No amount of feminist catch phrases can solve or describe the depth of these issues, and this capitalist enterprise has completely nullified the actual goals of feminism. And now, so many women are coming to their understanding of feminism not through Gloria Steinem, Audre Lordes, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Julie Bindel, etc…but through the capitalist enterprise of self-empowerment through trendy self-expression.
How is this different from my shirt? Well, for one thing, I was ten. I was not a grown woman who believes nail polish can establish dominance – which is not, by the way, what feminism is about. It is about overthrowing systems of dominance, which is why the women laughing at this meme (but not really believing it) is just as disturbing. Furthermore, there is a history behind that shirt of women breaking gender roles – which is why my Dad bought it for me and made sure I understood the meaning. That, and he is a big WWII history buff. Twenty years later he would create print outs of a photo of badass female dock firefighters in Hawaii during WWII and give them to his daughters.
Some may claim that any publicity for feminism is a good thing, similar to the widespread support for Beyonce’s commercial exploitation of the word “feminism” at a pop concert. But when a social movement is turned into a trend devoid of any true meaning or action, that movement has been rendered meaningless. As evidenced in the comments, for many women this is the ultimate feminist statement. Sure, maybe they are tuned into the issues, but I doubt it given the content of some of the comments, and the fact that feminist theory isn’t actually taught in mainstream education. These women are getting their feminist education online through liberal feminism, and it is quite lacking. This is not the way to go about spreading feminism to the masses. It is not real, effective feminism in any way.
And remember, trends don’t last. What happens when feminism goes out of style?
There is an even darker side of this capitalist feminism, most exemplified by the supposed feminist statue “Fearless Girl” standing in front of the raging bull of Wall Street. This statue is actually an advertisement for the investment firm State Street Advisors, supposedly to encourage more women to join Wall Street because it will help empower women.
It won’t. Capitalism and Wall Street thrive off social inequality, particularly of women. They love their female-dominated sweatshops. This statue of a girl – not a grown women, mind you – only symbolizes the wealth and success of the women in the top 1% – exactly the type of feminism from which the movement is trying to break free. It only benefits a few women and does nothing to address structural inequalities, racism, sexual violence, etc. Unfortunately, many, many women worship this statue, demanding it be made permanent and stating that the meaning to which women have given the statue is more important than the origin of the statue. Which is exactly what Wall Street wants. Dazzle feminism with questionable symbols and the destruction it creates, particularly towards women, is erased and ignored. Feel good feminism is taken to the extreme.
Interestingly, the two people who call bullshit publicly are men. One is Alex Gardega, a New York based artist who is “pro-feminist” and is responsible for placing a pissing put next to the girl. He did so not out of any hatred towards women (he says) but because the statue, which he states has nothing to do with actual feminism, is bullshit and ruins the composition of the bull statue; he blatantly calls the statue “corporate nonsense,” and he is right. Perhaps he could have protested in a more tasteful way, but this is New York, afterall….
The other public denouncer of the statue is the artist of the bull statue, Arturo Do Modica, who is pissed because his original bull statue was one representing optimism. Now, we can argue about the idea of optimism in free markets, but the artist has a point. His art was meant to convey a positive message and it now has been turned into a monster about to kill a little girl. Yeah, I would be pissed too – artists are sensitive about their shit.
Mayor De Blasio supports the statue, tweeting that “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” The problem is that the symbolism of the statue does nothing to actually help women “take up space” or otherwise become truly free of patriarchy. It is reprentative of a false narrative long ago decried by feminists.
Feminism once had actual meaning, and was once more than a costume worn to convey self-empoweremt. It was more than a bronze statue commissioned by Wall Street. This was the feminism I grew up around, the feminism I studied in women’s studies and anthropology, and the feminism I have applied to my work and volunteering in the nonprofit sector. Is liberal, capitalist feminism finally going to be the actual death of feminism, hammering the final nail in the coffin? I hope not. I truly hope that as women and girls realize they are actually LOSING rights despite their trendy feminist accessories (especially reproductive rights), they will finally come to their senses.