Feminist t-shirts, call-outs and commodification

Sunday, 2 November 2014

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution of sorts, to distance myself from the sort of feminism that only actually mentions a feminist campaign or organisation when it's tearing it down. There's nothing wrong with critique and highlighting issues within reason, but by the end of last year I'd become thoroughly bored with performative call-outs as a primary form of engagement. This has had its plus points: for one thing I haven't had to spend most of my precious little free time telling everyone how I'm not here for this sort of feminism and not here for her brand of feminism, thanks very much. And one debate I haven't had to wade into recently has been the one surrounding ELLE's next step on its mission to bring a reinvigorated feminism to the readers of glossy magazines. 

It is definitely a good few years since I first wrote about my discomfort with the commodified 'trendy feminism' campaigns that women's magazines have run, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in the last five years or so. Here's one disclaimer: I do appreciate ELLE's commitment to focusing on women's issues in recent years; they've managed to do it better than other women's magazines (putting aside that whole thing with the 'rebrand' of feminism. But I get it. I know they can't exactly take a crap on consumerism; I'm just not going to say I'm comfortable with it). But I haven't been able to force myself to care all that much about the magazine's new partnership with Whistles and the Fawcett Society and, it seems, various attractive famous men (another disclaimer: I own an original Fawcett Society 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as I've supported its work for the last eight years). 

It's nothing we haven't been through before. Feminist merchandise at £45 a time (£85 if you want a sweatshirt), unavailable any bigger than a size 16. The publicity opportunities for politicians and celebrities and the 'outrage' that David Cameron wouldn't wear one. We know that there are some redeeming factors - well-known public figures at least claiming to support gender equality; exposure to people who might not otherwise think very much about feminism or think it's something they can be a part of. If it changes anyone's life and makes them a feminist or somewhere, somehow, improves a woman's life, then, I will concede, fair enough. In the spirit of the times, online news outlets have shown us image galleries of people wearing these t-shirts and proclaimed that Benedict Cumberbatch being our ally 'is everything'. So far, so predictable.

Things took an interesting turn on Saturday night, when Twitter got wind of the Mail on Sunday's front-page exposé of exploitative conditions in the factory where the t-shirts have been made. One worker is quoted as saying: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism? These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’ The Fawcett Society was absolutely on the ball with crisis management and quick to issue a statement saying it had been assured by Whistles that the factory producing the t-shirts complied with the highest ethical, sustainable and environmental standards possible. I don't doubt that this was a key consideration for Fawcett, and as we've seen, Whistles and ELLE have subsequently issued statements to the same effect. Ensuring standards are met isn't always easy and the garment industry is a minefield in this respect.

Much has been said about the credentials of all involved in the campaign and in the Mail on Sunday's exposé. Politicians taking part in publicity stunts - how much do they know about how their clothes are made? The investigative journalism tearing down a very public feminist campaign, published by a newspaper with absolutely no previous form for supporting gender equality or migrant workers. What I haven't been able to get behind, though, is the smug trashing of Fawcett, ELLE, and anyone who's supported their campaign and bought a t-shirt. It's a sad state of affairs when the first sign of interest in either ethical working conditions or marginalised women from the Mail comes at the expense of feminism, and the glee with which the whole thing has been reported needs nothing but contempt. What it doesn't need is to be held up, alongside the screengrabbed tweets of Fawcett supporters and well-known names, as 'everything that is wrong with feminism', a stick to beat the same old women about the same old things in the same tedious fashion. Nobody wins.

ELLE and Whistles have received a trashing, despite their best intentions. The Fawcett Society has, as far as I've seen, gained some support for its professional handling of the situation - yet has clearly still received a trashing. The Mail on Sunday has jumped at the opportunity to take part in the same tedious progressive/left/feminism-bashing they've been doing for years. And I'm betting it won't devote much time to covering exploitation of women and migrant workers overseas in the future, because clickbait misogyny and xenophobia will always be much higher on its agenda. Women working in factories in Mauritius are still working in the same conditions. The garment industry won't get an overhaul any time soon - and certainly not thanks to the sort of people on Twitter who, as ever, will keep on posting screenshots of Things Well-Known Feminist Campaigners Have Said and devoting hours at a time to sneering at them. Politicians will continue to display a dubious grasp of what 'improving women's lives' means. No-one will ever mistake David Cameron for a feminist.

So: no victories. Feminism got commodified, celebrities got column inches, activists got called out, and the majority of women in the UK remained completely untouched by whatever it was trying to achieve. Good job, everyone. I'm continuing to support the Fawcett Society because I believe it is a real force for good. I genuinely hope that this whole situation is resolved for the best and that all involved are able to make it clear that they did their utmost to ensure ethical production. But if awareness-raising initiatives can't make a break with consumerism and celebrity PR opportunities, then I can't help thinking that we'll see something similar happen again. The co-option of feminist activism into profits for t-shirt manufacturers has been much discussed in the wake of #YesAllWomen and more recently, FCKH8's 'Potty-mouthed princesses' video. Women in the movement can't prevent this sort of thing from happening, but campaigners can be smarter about how they hope to engage women with feminism.

1 comment:

Search2 said...

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