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Buying Feminist Merch Is Not Political Action

On fashion and “capitalist investors.”

Photo: Modernwomen

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There is a very delightful corner of Instagram I lovingly refer to as the feminist merch corner. Curate your feed accordingly and you’ll get endless positive and empowering messages from inclusive and radical brands like Otherwild, Wildfang, and Modern Woman. I’ll be the first to admit I get a slight thrill when I see someone in a Womxn tee or sporting a Venus Tit shirt. They get it. They’re my tribe.

But in the aftermath of the election and the lead-up to the upcoming Women’s March, it seems that the feminist merch corner has exploded, and everyone wants in on the action. Everywhere you turn, there is an opportunity to buy more stuff, feminist stuff. Some proceeds go to Planned Parenthood or other worthy causes. Most of the slogans are unapologetically pro-woman, but some can also be very confusing.

I’ve long joked that the first step to becoming a baby feminist — well, a serious one, at least — is to read bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody. It’s an ideal point of entry for feminist politics, and if you’ve taken any kind of Feminism 101 class, chances are it was assigned reading. Professors like it for many reasons, but I suspect its very clear definition of feminism tops the list: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Sounds so simple, right? What reasonable person wouldn’t agree with that?

The first time I read the book, I was particularly struck by the phrase “lifestyle feminism,” or as hooks puts it, the “notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women.” The pop culture translation of this is that in season 4 of Sex and The City, when Charlotte says “The women's movement is supposed to be about choice and if I choose to quit my job, that is my choice,” you are supposed to roll your eyes and yell at the television “THAT’S NOT FEMINISM CHARLOTTE, FEMINISM ISN’T ABOUT CHOICE, IT’S ABOUT ENDING OPPRESSION.”

And by emphasizing the -isms (feminism, sexism) rather than the -ists (feminists, sexists), hooks cuts through the cluttered thinking that leads to absurd finger-pointing about who gets to call themselves a feminist. It’s that simple: Feminism stands opposed to oppression. If you’re not down with that, you’re against it, no matter how many times you try to rebrand the word by taking it out of context.

I encourage everyone who has and hasn’t read Feminism Is for Everybody to read or re-read it at the start of this new presidency. It challenges every aspect of our politics and asks us to question everything from our personal support of reproductive justice to, yes, the relationship between fashion, capitalism, and consumption. In one of the chapters, hooks directly addresses this:

The clothing and revolution created by feminist interventions let females know that our flesh was worthy of love and adoration in its natural state; nothing had to be added unless a woman chose further adornment. Initially, capitalist investors in the cosmetic and fashion industry feared that feminism would destroy their business. They put their money behind mass-media campaigns which trivialized women’s liberation by portraying images which suggested feminists were big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly. In reality, women involved in the feminist movement came in all shapes and sizes. We were utterly diverse. And how thrilling to be free to appreciate our differences without judgment or competition.

The incredible plot twist is that now these “capitalist investors” use feminism to sell us clothes! Because feminism is cool now! We are told that everything from “period panties” to “granny panties” to high-end couture most of us cannot afford can be feminist. Don’t let all this canny marketing distract you from the fact that wearing high-waisted underwear is not in fact liberation work.

Shopping is shopping and political action is political action, and no matter what anyone says, it’s very hard to blend the two in a sincere way that actually results in the kind of political change we so desperately need. In fact, boycotts are technically the most powerful way to make a point when it comes to the politics of shopping, and those are getting harder and harder to pull off.

I am also weary about shopping my way through the Trump years, since part of the reason we are in this mess is precisely because so many well-meaning people bought into this sort of low-lift political signaling instead of doing the actual hard work of winning elections. Knitting pink hats is great and very therapeutic and I so desperately wish I could knit, but how exactly is that going to help when the new administration starts jailing Muslims or taking away more of our civil rights? Can I trust that someone wearing a woke The Future is Female sweatshirt will speak about injustice when someone is being harassed in front of them? I guess we’ll find out soon.

There are no easy answers to any of this, and each of us will have to reevaluate our relationship with shopping in our own way — even, and perhaps especially, when the things we’re buying have positive messages that align with our politics.