My feminism will be capitalist, appropriative and bullshit merchandise
EDIT: I am sincerely grateful and moved by all the responses and offers of support. Since there were too many to respond individually (and because I am a woman of many words), I wrote something to address the comments in one place (with a PayPal link).
This is about the difficulty of writing about difficulties. The things we do not say because they are not polite or because they are embarrassing. The things we do not talk about because of how they would reflect on those we care. Writing as a woman on the internet is also writing for public scrutiny, to be evaluated in one’s “moral character”. Is this woman embarrassing herself and, by proxy the people in her life? Is this woman bringing “shame” to her family? Unlike men on the internet, we write not only as a reflection of ourselves but of our entire community. When a woman “goes mad” on the internet, she doesn’t just go mad (whatever that means) on her own, she calls into question the patriarchal structures that should have kept her in her place. When Lindsay Lohan became news, pleading for a “Britney’s dad” figure that would reign her “madness” in became a common trope. When Amanda Bynes had a public meltdown, gossip blogs were filled with tales of her family’s failures, first towards Ms. Bynes but later on their failure to “bring her back to sanity”. Being a public woman does not merely reflect on one’s character, achievements or shortcomings; it is also taken as a reflection of the men in one’s lives.
I stopped being a “public woman” a couple of years ago. I was severely ill and could no longer deal with the constant harassment, scrutiny and polemics. I was never famous or a public figure in the sense of being a celebrity but I had opinions… strong opinions more often than not. The last drop that led me away was when, upon being diagnosed with a serious condition, I had to deal with some people who were so outraged by my work that they tracked my family’s details and threatened to write to my brother’s employer to do what? Report his sister for seditious feminist thought? Embarrass him? Cast doubt about his moral standing through his genetic association to me? Demand that he reigns me in? I never really knew what they were supposed to do with that information but I was terrified. Because my brother had a high position at an international company, they sought to undermine his and my achievements with the oldest patriarchal tool in the box: discipline your sister or else. I was in constant pain and dealing with these threats was more than I could bear. That these threats came, on more than one occasion from supposed feminists who were incensed about my writings regarding “white feminism” was beyond everything I had experienced. If anyone is bored enough, all of these are still on my twitter timeline. It was a constant barrage of ridiculous arguments to the point that I stopped writing and went away to deal with my health issues and to try and regain some degree of control on my healing.
All of this is an oblique way of saying: I’ve always known that whatever I put out there could be used to attack not only me but also those I love fiercely. My writing, no matter how small or inconsequential could be weaponized to reflect poorly on the men in my life. This is at the core of why I have never written about money, my financial situation or being broke. I always knew that it would reflect, for better or worse, on people that in the patriarchal world we live in, were supposed to “provide” or, I don’t know… put me in my place so that I, too, can be a “productive member of society”? But yes, I struggle with money. Dealing with chronic pain and sickness means I make do with little. My teeth are rotting and I cannot visit a dentist. I do not smile in public because people would see my teeth and make assumptions about me. I cannot go pretty much anywhere that requires funds. I rarely buy anything. I am not poor in the structural sense of the word (I have a roof over my head, at least now; I have food and clothing, etc) but I barely get by on a month to month basis. This is embarrassing. This, my life, is what people of more means would call “being a loser”.
Five years ago I wrote something that became kind of popular. The text itself was quickly forgotten but its title acquired a life of its own. I would contend that most people that repeat the title probably do not even know that I wrote it or that it was part of a piece about something specific that, later on, became popularly known as “white feminism”. People carried placards reading “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. They used the words in their own pieces, they discussed it. I was happy with that. I always felt that we owe it to the Black women who had paved the way for other women of color to have words to discuss this, our reality. Migrant women, poor women, women with disabilities, queer women, gender variant women, trans women, non binary people, etc etc… we can explain our lives better because a Black woman gave intersectionality to us. As a Latina, migrant woman in Northern Europe, I finally had a way to make sense of the world and that’s all I attempted to do with that piece and with the vast majority of my work.
Now, imagine for a second, my face when I recently found out that there is a vast array of merchandise that bears those words and my name for sale on the internet. T-Shirts (more than one model actually), pins, tote bags (you, too, can go to the market sporting a durable canvas bag with a slogan!), posters (hello #wokebae whose image was poorly photoshopped with my name on a poster!), coffee mugs, cross stitched frames (I cringed when I saw my name listed on a “graduation present” listicle on Bustle on par with women I only dream of ever emulating). The most egregious of these items is probably this cutesy little pin with a blond little girl picking flowers (I mean, really?! have you seen a photo of me with my very curly, thick black hair?!). Sometimes they do not even spell my name right.
And here we go back to talking about the difficult things. Because this merchandise exists within the context of my own life: in all the years I have been “writing on the internet”, I have made a grand total of a bit over 1000 euros. That’s right. In almost a decade of constant output, I have made I’d say an average of 140 euros per year. I am painfully aware that part of it is my own responsibility. In my defense I will say this: I don’t know how I could do it differently. I always trusted that if I write, if I share my work, if I prove myself, people would notice and those who were interested would let me know. I genuinely do not know how to “sell myself”. To be brutally honest, I have probably never seen much value in my work either. At least not in the capitalist sense. I always felt I had to say these things or else they would eat me inside. And to be fair, I have never considered myself a good writer either. Someone with opinions, yes, but not particularly good at the craft. I do not have the credentials, the institutional support of an organization or even the wide range public that would validate me as an author. And yet, other people thought it was fair to profit from my work, my name and these clumsy words I string together out of desperation. These people thought it was acceptable to try to make the money that I do not even have. Not a single one of them thought of my material conditions and wondered if this was OK, if I had enough to get by or if I was profiting out of my work.
It was bizarre to see my name in pink fonts, being sold as a commodity when the entirety of my work has been against the commodification of feminist ideas and the misuse, appropriation and subsequent lack of credit of feminism of color. There is irony in the fact that I have written thousands of words about capitalism and its role appropriating emancipatory movements while simultaneously realizing that someone is trying to sell a coffee mug with my name on it. Now, I do not believe anyone made a significant amount of money out of these items or that these items were ever popular purchases. That said, multiple people on this here internet thought that the words I put out there, fighting precisely these notions, were fair game to try and make money while sparing not a single afterthought to the realities of the woman who wrote those words. While I am too embarrassed to smile in public, someone thought it was OK to make a quick cent glueing my words to a stereotypical representation of the kind of pretty blond girl I never was.
We are supposed to be ashamed of our financial shortcomings. The public discourse around poverty or broke people is one of morality. If you do not make money, you are a moral failure. You don’t work hard enough; you are lazy, something is wrong with you. I never bought into these notions but I was always painfully aware that they would be leveled against the people I care about. Seeing my name in all this merchandise, I realize I shouldn’t be protecting anyone when there are people out there who would not hesitate to use my unpaid work for their own profit. I am not the one who should be embarrassed. I did work hard. I was not lazy. It’s just that I wrote about feminism and I did not even get the lousy t-shirt.