Commercialization of Feminism: Good or Bad?

I’ll let you in on a big secret. The ONE Campus staff has a secret feminist book club (that isn’t so secret anymore, I guess). While it’s pretty informal, we enjoy posing questions to one another via email and responding with articles, anecdotes, and additional readings that help us expand our ideas to understand a variety of perspectives on gender issues.

The other day our team received an email from Matt (Director of the ONE Campus program). He cited this article and posed the following question:

“How do we ensure international development campaigning, through the lens of feminism and/or girls and women’s empowerment, maintains its authenticity and is not just jumping on a popular trend for the sake of riding the feminism wave?”

And just like that, Jen (ONE Campus Manager) and I got into a deep discussion in response to Matt’s question.

It’s an important question that can be applied to a whole host of categories and topics, though feminism/gender issues are particularly relevant given how much of an emphasis ONE and similar partner organizations have been putting on girls and women lately. The concept of “trendiness” within cause campaigning is super important for everyone to consider, so we decided to share our internal conversation with all of you.

Jen:

I read something similar to this piece that was criticizing that t-shirt company that created the ad with little girls swearing. The ad made the point that sexism should be more offensive than swearing. The article was criticizing the fact that they jumped on the feminist bandwagon in order to make a profit.

And I came to this conclusion: I don’t care. I don’t care if companies jump on the bandwagon to make a profit. Because at the end of the day, they’re jumping on a GOOD bandwagon. And I don’t really care what their intentions are, as long as the outcome is doing good.

I’m THRILLED that feminism is slightly “trendy” right now. If fashion companies want to use it to sell stuff, fabulous. Less “sex sells” and more “feminism sells”. All of the yesses.

Brandi:

But there is an inherent problem with the “feminism sells” model.

Above all, feminists are people who advocate for the equality of all living beings. For-profit companies like FCKH8 espouse a business model that is inherently un-equal: you have the owners of the business, the big-wigs, and you have the workers. The material realities of those two groups are disparate, and no matter how many “F-bombs for Feminism” shirts they sell, that fact will remain.

In fact, the disparity between those groups will most likely increase as a result. No matter how many more people call themselves feminists and identify with the movement after a viral video, if the very real effect of said viral video is that it perpetuates inequalities, there really isn’t anything “feminist” about that.

Jen:

But at the end of the day, viral feminist content is just that — viral. Something that’s viral has the ability to reach people who wouldn’t normally have women’s issues on their radars. If the goal is deep and substantive action to change things, viral content plays a critical role in reaching that goal. Viral content is the first handshake, the conversation starter. Every exposure is a new opportunity to educate the public about feminism…to put it on their radar…to make them think about it, even just for a second.

If seeing a video like that makes those folks even 10% more likely to seek out more information about women’s issues, or to identify as a feminist, or to take action to change things, then that’s a win. A viral video about feminism is certainly not (and should never be) intended to be the game changer that solves all our feminist problems…but it does help our cause.

I’d much rather see the people who are spending their time publicly criticizing a t-shirt company for making a viral feminist video, spend their time publicly criticizing any of the millions of ubiquitous, sexist viral videos out there.

How like us as a society to question the profitability of feminism, when the profitability of sexism has been the status quo for years.

Brandi:

Amazing point, J. Another big problem with the “feminism sells” model is this: what do you do after that? Is FCKH8 supposed to lead the feminist political movement for equality? I sure hope not.

If they aren’t, how are we supposed to ensure that there are people ready to lead the frontline movement for political, social, and economic equality, when we’ve built a movement based on selling t-shirts? Producing a cause-related viral video is hard, but figuring out what do after a cause-related movement goes viral is perhaps even harder. We’ve seen this play out with other humanitarian organizations. It’s impossible to build a movement that aims to fight the most pervasive system of oppression ever known to (wo)man without a strong revolutionary sentiment — and let’s face it, in this day and age that sentiment often happens through viral, share-able Internet content. However, we need to understand that t-shirts and stickers don’t magically produce activists who are capable and prepared to fight such a system.

Jen:

Good point. Plus we know that “authenticity” is something that millennials put a premium on when deciding which brands and organizations they support.

However, I don’t think a global development campaign organization like ONE has to worry about seeming inauthentic for jumping on the women’s issues bandwagon. Here’s why:

In 2010, I was working at another non-profit advocacy organization similar to ONE. We were having a strategy session about what our big campaign would be for the following year. I suggested a women and girls focused campaign. The response I received? It was a good idea, but a targeted focus on women wouldn’t resonate with some of our members and might drive some members away.

Now, just a few years after that conversation happened, I feel like the global development community is in a space where women’s empowerment is suddenly a mainstream-enough topic that it feels “safe” for us to engage in an overt way.

I don’t think that makes it inauthentic that we’re jumping on the bandwagon now. I think it means we’re finally being honest about what it means to end poverty and injustice, because it’s an objective fact that women and girls are the face of extreme poverty, and that women and girls encounter poverty and injustice at an objectively disproportionate rate. It means we’re finally catching up to where we should have been all along.

Brandi:

Exactly. And particularly when we talk about advocacy. The question should be about how we can foster the sentiment of viral campaigns like FCKH8 and channel them into advocacy and activism that we know works.

Non-profits and NGOs that have a vested interest in the equality of women around the world (and recognize that that equality does not currently exist) have a duty to carry the movement forward. We have a duty to produce these blogs about feminism and tell people “you have a voice. You can change this”.

Jen:

Agreed. That’s where advocacy organizations like ONE come in — we have the power to capitalize on the feminist “trend” by providing folks with a platform to harness their new-found interest in gender inequality and actually do something about it.

Originally published at campus.one.org.