The Ethics of Feminist Swag

The news is out that those ever-so-hip “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts sported by everyone from Common to Alexa Chung were produced in a Mauritian sweatshop that pays its female workers $1 an hour. While there’s been some pushback by The Fawcett Society (the women’s rights charity behind the shirts), it seems that this terribly ironic turn of events is true. Unfortunately this is no isolated incident, and it’s certainly not the first time that feminist swag has set off a scandal and revealed larger issues at play with the culture of pop feminism.

Last month, the viral FCKH8 ad featuring swearing princesses crammed sobering facts about rape and the pay gap into an adorable video selling those “Girls Just Want To Have Fun-Damental Rights” shirts. Sometimes a spoonful of sugar makes the very real statistics about violence against women reach a larger audience, and that’s wonderful. And yes, the girls definitely made a statement which many thought was funny and cute. Unique aesthetic juxtapositions can be useful tools to make political gains, but when the main gain is profit, it gets a little gross. In a critique of the ad for Ms. Magazine, Anne Thériault writes, “while FCKH8 asserts that all of this is “for a good cause” (they’ve promised to donate $5 from each t-shirt sale to as-yet-undisclosed organizations) the only cause that’s being promoted by this video is their bank account…This is not how we empower girls. Forcing a child to ask an audience of adults if she’ll someday become a rape statistic so that your company can line its pockets with cash is definitely not the way to practice social justice.” Seriously.

Contemporary (white) feminism has been roundly accused of being capitalism’s bedfellow for decades, recently by bell hooks in a piece for The Feminist Wire against Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Feminism. “Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system,” hooks says. “From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’”

To continue this line of thinking: your equity does not determine your equality within society. If you manage to climb the ranks of the existing system you haven’t ‘achieved’ feminism. Similarly, you cannot buy your way to equal rights and your consumer habits don’t define your politics. That’s not to say that investing in outfits advocating feminist ethics is wrong. You can buy feminist swag like it’s going out of style and support artists and organizations who create funny, incisive pieces that promote what you believe in. Slutist also sells shirts, and the profits got to supporting this site and the writers that take their time to contribute. We all gotta eat, and if buying stuff you like is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

At the same time, you have to ask yourself who and what exactly are you supporting when you make that purchase, and whether you’re being an unwitting player in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy when you think you’re making a bold activist move by picking up some merch. Radical slogans can make a difference, and fashion can matter, but as feminism reaches the epitome of cool, cultural capital has translated to consumer capitalism, which ultimately advocates for the rights of no one.

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