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Last month, businessman Alan Martofel laid off his company’s entire workforce. According to a statement he released afterward on the business’s blog, he said he did it because his former employees “do not share my views on either business or feminism,” which is an understandable concern for the founder and CEO of a company called Feminist Apparel, which is exactly the T-shirt brand it sounds like.
The only catch was that his employees hadn’t clashed with his view of feminism by, for example, covering up workplace sexual harassment or dismissing job applicants because of their gender identity (neither of which appeared to happen in this case). Instead, according to Refinery29, the freshly unemployed group of mostly women had violated Martofel’s sense of propriety and capitalism by discovering that he was an admitted serial sexual abuser of women and asking him to resign his position as a result.
Martofel did briefly resign, but then he apparently reconsidered whether the objections of multiple women should be any more of a barrier to him getting what he wants in his professional life than he’s described them being in his social life. He was back at the helm of the company in a matter of days, firing everyone via email in the wee hours of July 1 and offering no severance. Let Feminist Apparel be a cautionary tale: Brands don’t have the capacity for ideology beyond capitalism. There’s no such thing as a feminist company, and there never has been.
Feminist Apparel is also something of a case study in the cynicism with which businesses have begun to approach the real, abstract, human concerns of their potential customers that have nothing to do with individual purchase choices. At this point, the quality gap between two similarly priced consumer goods of any kind is likely to be vanishingly thin; we’ve just about mastered the basics of toothpaste or tennis shoes, so most buying choices are truly those of personal preference.
Absent a product that’s notably more compelling than its competitors, brands have instead tried their best to pivot to personhood, which allows them to sell alignment with the idea of themselves as their primary good or service. That’s why fast-food chains and makeup manufacturers roast each other on Twitter and post memes on Instagram: They want to be thought of as your friend. And if you’re a young woman, many brands specifically want to convince you that your new friend is a woke feminist.
Feminist Apparel had done everything right, up to that point, to make people feel good about being separated from their money: The company hired a staff of young women, claimed that selling its products enabled those who bought them to become “ambassadors in their communities,” characterized patronage of the for-profit company as an “invaluable service” to ward off discrimination, and promised to give partial proceeds from its products to the artists who designed them, as though only partially compensating women for the value of their labor is an act of both feminism and charity.
In the context of an admitted abuser reaping the spoils of these tactics and then firing a bunch of women when they tried to hold him accountable for his past, the whole thing looks plainly absurd, but framing for-profit commerce as an act of charity or as a meaningful resistance to evil is no less absurd when someone else does it. Any entity lining its pockets by selling only the aesthetic of political action to those whose lives depend on the results of political action is malevolent and amoral, and it’s a practice in use to varying degrees by an ever-expanding number of companies.
Take, for example, any brand that’s adopted the anesthetized aesthetic of body positivity in the past decade, decoupling it from its radical politics in order to sell you soap, or straight-size underwear, or anything made by the desperately poor foreign factory workers who manufacture most of the inventory of big-box stores. The marketing arms of these corporations have sensed changing cultural values among their customers and taken that opportunity to adopt the aesthetic of good politics, and they’ve asked shoppers to choose them based on how well they pantomime the real activities that might make a difference. They skip the part where any difference is actually made.
The politics of any company are bad. They’re not all bad in the same way — they exist on a continuum that extends roughly from “not purposely trying to make anyone’s life worse” to “defense contractor” — but the structure of capitalism means that they all need to pay their employees less than their labor is actually worth and find ways to separate consumers from more money than it actually costs to produce and distribute their product.
Companies accumulate wealth by taking it from people with less power through various means of subterfuge (that we call it marketing is, in and of itself, marketing), which, even on a small scale, is an activity necessarily uninterested in equality. If capitalism could deliver economic parity — if parity was even part of the ideology’s intent, which it’s not — then Latinx women wouldn’t still make 54 cents on a white man’s dollar several hundred years into the American capitalist experiment.
In late capitalism, though, it’s easy to get swept along by prevailing narratives and for consumer choices to feel like a legitimate, accessible way to do good. After all, if everything is a brand, and we’re all our own personal brands, then how else would we make our beliefs known besides with our disposable income, giving our dollars to brands that align with our own?
In attempting to turn into one of us, brands have also hastened our transformation into one of them, giving corporations the ability to imbue commerce with the rhetorical power of kindness, or love, or empathy. Capitalism is an apparatus that convinced a whole culture that then-worthless clear rocks were the only real way to tell a woman you wanted to marry her, so convincing us that buying a T-shirt from a creep (or from union busters, or polluters, or whoever) is the same as being politically active is comparatively light work.
Even though there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, that doesn’t mean all consumer choices are the same. Companies can’t be feminist, but their leaders can make choices that operate on feminist values, like supporting the unionization of their workforces and providing fair wages and comprehensive health care and family leave to all workers. When possible, taking your business to those companies is an ethically superior choice. Capitalism is a global economic order that’s impossible to opt out of on an individual consumer level, but it’s possible to make some of the individual choices therein with integrity, even if you understand that doing so doesn’t move the dial as political action.
That last part, though, is unfortunately the most important thing to remember. If you cut a brand, it doesn’t bleed. You can’t hurt a brand’s feelings. No brand has a photo of itself from sixth-grade picture day, looking awkward with braces and the beginnings of teenage acne. Companies aren’t people, they aren’t your friends, they don’t have your best interest at heart, and they’re certainly not feminists. You may have to work for one to earn money and buy things from them in order to live your life, but the only clear-eyed way to regard a corporation is, at best, as an adversary. No matter what they might say when trying to separate you from your money, that’s certainly how brands see you.