How do you tell if someone is a feminist? And no, this isn’t an invitation for a misogynistic punchline. If you were to simply look at someone, would you be able to discern their opinions about gender, equity and power? Where would you look? This is a problem that corporations have been trying to solve through the commodification of feminism (although it really isn’t a problem to not have your politics emblazoned on your clothes, food and bags at all times). However, corporations don’t really operate on the basis of benevolent problem-solving: as long as there is some profit to be made, even if it means exploiting and co-opting feminist discourse to the point of meaningless slogans, corporations will be corporations.
The commodification of feminism refers to the ways in which feminist praxis and critique are appropriated for commercial purposes. The commodification of feminism includes:
the encouragement of purchasing commodities in pursuit of empowerment (like a lighter emblazoned with ‘feminist’);
leveraging feminist discourse for advertising (see Glossier);
correlating the accumulation of material goods to level of commitment to feminism;
corporations voicing feminist support in a performative or tokenistic manner;
the construction of narrow images – brands, in essence – of feminism which often also endorse other configurations of oppression (think of the skinny, rich, able-bodied white woman who wears Gorman).
Basically, there are a lot of ways in which corporations have moulded feminism into a misshapen and blunt trend centred around consumption. Commodified, feminism departs from its politics and ideas in sake of being transformed into something consumable and tradable.
So, what actually happens when you place a price on feminism?
An approach to looking at this problem is to think about the capital one can acquire from participating in feminism, which in this instance means buying feminist merchandise or from brands that market themselves as feminist. Capital, as Pierre Bourdieu first explained, is not necessarily limited to the economic. It can also be cultural and social, each form playing its own part in the processes of social and cultural reproduction. Cultural capital is about what you know: do you know the difference between a soup spoon and dessert spoon? The correct way to right a follow-up thank you email? On the other hand, social capital is about who you know: are you a part of an old boys’ network? Or do you not know anyone at a party? Both, although non-economic, are important in determining one’s footing in life, although the amount of capital you start off with can increase through expanding networks and resources, ultimately promoting mobility.
It’s not enough just to see feminist commodities in material and tangible terms of the physical characteristics of the good – it’s also important to look at the meanings being imbued into these feminist commodities that are transferred to consumers. Ultimately, people don’t buy a tote bag that says ‘feminist’ because they need something to put their stuff in – it’s a way to literally buy into feminist thought and action.
Applying a basic model of demand and supply, we could argue that the prices of feminist commodities are a function of the valuation of the buyer and its relative scarcity, as determined by the corporations that produce them. People demand feminist commodities for a variety of reasons – virtue-signalling and affirmation as some of the most obvious ones – and only a handful of companies cater to this demographic because although feminism has entered the cultural mainstream in recent years, it would be a stretch to say that being feminist is a norm. Looking at the prices of feminist commodities compared to their non-feminist counterparts, it also becomes clear that feminism comes at a premium. For International Women’s Day last year, online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter released six t-shirts created by designers like Victoria Beckham and Isabel Marant with slogans like ‘For Her’ and ‘You Go Girl’. The shirts cost £85 to £200. Not only is it inherently problematic to encourage activism through shopping instead of organising, protest and rallying, but charging people more for feminist commodities overlooks the important intersectional foundations of the feminist movement, which is tied to resisting capitalism. There is also a violent irony in brands positioning themselves as feminist when their core business practices rely on exploiting workers in the Global South, particularly as women comprise the majority of workers in sweatshops.
Ultimately, the commodification of feminism goes hand in hand with the rise of neoliberal feminism – one that prioritises personal aspirations and feelings over larger structures of oppression. Think of the Lean In movement and campaigns which champion female CEOs (because how great is it when a woman hoards wealth instead of a man, for once?!). Neoliberalism feminism lazily says that anyone can be a feminist as long as they are happy with their own choices, regardless of how these choices are implicated in larger structures of oppression.
Sure, some may argue that the commodification of feminism has made it more accessible and mainstream, but it is also important to ask ourselves at what cost this accessibility has been achieved. The commodification of feminism necessarily reinforces capitalism and neoliberal power, so maybe wearing a feminist t-shirt from H&M or buying from Glossier isn’t that ‘woke’ after all.