These days, feminism is on fleek. Touted by everyone from Dove to Barbie to Taylor Swift, consumer capitalism has made feminism sexy, fun, cool—and remarkably easy to claim as your own. But the price tag has been the meaning of the movement itself.
Bitch magazine cofounder Andi Zeisler describes this phenomenon as “marketplace feminism.” “Marketplace feminism is in many ways about just branding feminism as an identity that everyone can and should consume,” she writes in her new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Tarnished by conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s who equated feminism with misandry and bra-burning, the movement has undergone an ideological shift to make it more palatable to the mainstream. This brand of feminism lite has been called a variety of things over the years, from “pop feminism” to “white feminism,” to my personal favorite (and coinage), “cupcake feminism.” Because the ideal feminist is the image of a woman double-fisting cupcakes. “Riots not diets!”
Browse through Etsy, and you’ll find any number of items that allow you to showcase your feminism in the form of what Zeisler calls “empowertising.” But, she asserts,“Feminism has nothing to do with your underwear, and anyone telling you it does probably wants to sell you something ($45 underwear, most likely).”
It’s easy to understand the appeal of T-shirts emblazoned with images of Rosie the Riveter and slogans like “This is what a feminist looks like.” Visibility is the first step in any civil rights effort, and feminists should be able to buy clothing that they are proud to wear. But visibility filtered through capitalism does the not necessarily further the cause.
“Rather than strengthening feminism from the inside,” Zeisler explains, “a rebrand is outward-focused, a recruitment effort to make feminism appeal to as broad an audience as possible by distilling it down to an image and a few words.” Refined by the Mad Men advertising age and then mass-produced by the Digital Age, political goals have been reduced to sugary sound bites.
This is capitalist economics 101. “Feminism’s recently skyrocketing profile is a reminder that the best way to constrain the power of a social movement is to commodify it,” Zeisler wrote in an essay about her book for Time. “Just ask Dove, or Verizon or Always, brands that in the past few years have seemed to suddenly realize that flattering women with overtures to and images of female empowerment could offer a better return than classic ad tactics of appealing to feminine shame and insecurity.” Marketplace feminism, Zeisler contends, is “a way to promise potential detractors that feminism can exist in fundamentally unequal spaces without posing any foundational changes to them.”
Feminism in this capacity has come to mean everything, and, consequently, nothing. Getting rid of the word “feminist” itself is case in point. Last month, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams was celebrated by the media for telling Entertainment Weekly that “we should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist’—and then everyone else is just a human.” Everybody wins, right? “I sometimes really worry about speaking up about feminist subjects out of fear of being bashed by women on social media,” she continued.
Williams’s intention is to help ease societal tensions around feminism, which is understandable given the pervasive misunderstanding of what feminism means. Yet her comments reflect feminism’s shift from an ideological movement to a trending hashtag. We don’t even need to call ourselves feminists anymore.
And yet, with all this talk of empowerment, women still cannot escape being objects for sale. Indeed, the cultural consumption of feminism can end up reinforcing sexist tropes of objectification. We are selling ourselves in order to sell our message.
Williams’s opinion, to note, is not unique—remember when TIME argued in 2014 that the word “feminist” had become overused and should be banned? “Quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade,” the magazine wrote. For some feminists, the gesture was an oblique attack on the political movement itself. The desire to eliminate the word is tantamount to an erasure of the movement. Instead of throwing up our hands and abandoning the label, we need to restore its potency.
“The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun,” Zeisler declares. “It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues that feminism confronts—wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism, structural violence and, of course, bodily autonomy—are deeply unsexy.”
So, no, we shouldn’t stop calling feminists “feminists.” To appropriate Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, a feminist. It is a deliberate political undertaking. It is an ethics of daily living, of fighting for gender equality under the law, of fighting for women’s agency and autonomy, of fighting for political power and representation for women. To be a feminist is to fight structural inequality and upend the patriarchal power structure. In this regard, it is inherently discomforting. But feminists are not here to make anyone comfortable—that’s the damn point. And no amount of clever, screen-printed tank tops will change that.