Opinion: Stop commodifying feminism (and all activism)

Commodification is as shameful as it is summative of the illusions drawn by corporate America

Opinion: Stop commodifying feminism (and all activism)

As I made my way through security in Ronald Reagan National Airport on my way back to California for winter break, I was stopped by a TSA agent as I packed up my belongings. Following airport policy, I had removed my electronics from my backpack, revealing the “I Love Consent” sticker positioned on the front side of my laptop. Our exchange was brief: they asked (in words I can’t remember) something that carried the sentiment of “What the hell is this?” and I responded with a definition of consent, what the sticker means to me and, most importantly, where it is from. 

It is likely that this agent was merely poking fun at the mass of college students in the District whose aggressive and, at times, naive social agenda is seen as pretentious by the larger, working class D.C. community. However, my frustration over the dismissal of my politics given my age was quickly assuaged by my own concerns about the rampant misuse of my sticker and feminist propaganda at large. 

Commodification is the process by which something or someone is treated as a commodity — an economic good or service. In other words, commodification is when a product assumes loosely (if at all) related attributes to increase its value. The automobile industry is relentless in its use of this marketing tactic, employing adolescent love stories, sexy getaway scenes and images of dogs. All of this to sell Subarus. 

This ridiculousness becomes dangerous when such commodities are social movements, and their distributors are companies whose only tie to activism is the potential for profit. In 1975, a shirt with the text “The Future Is Female” was designed in celebration of Labyris Books, New York City’s first women’s book store. 

The shirt was later popularized by lesbian activist Alix Dobkin. Today, this symbol of feminist radicalism and other garb subject to “femvertising,” can be found at Old Navy, Forever 21 and just about anywhere else that sells clothes, shampoo, deodorant, etc.  

Feminism is merely the newest tool to sell a company’s products and corresponding perfunctory activism. In the early 2000s, industries ranging from cosmetics brands such as Estee Lauder to athletic associations such as the NFL were guilty of “pinkwashing”: grossly profiting from the consumer’s attraction to advocacy under the guise of breast cancer awareness. 

Clorox, whose products claim environmentalism with a “Green Works” label, and Uber, an app that ever-ironically projects rainbow maps during Pride, share the motives of Yoplait and the pink ribbon that stuck to their yogurt containers for years.

But the ability of Uber to support gay rights for only one weekend out of the year is as shameful as it is summative of the illusions drawn by corporate America. After all, the activist groups that corporations “support” (read: market and gain profit from) work to combat the very inequality that is created by capitalism itself. The bitter irony: corporations print feminist tees while funding political parties that actively work to disenfranchise marginalized groups. 

Feminist apparel decorates AU’s campus. This is not inherently bad. Many students sport gear in celebration of women’s organizations such as The Wing and Planned Parenthood — meaningful swag that, like my sticker from one of San Francisco’s largest domestic violence clinics, commends organizations’ foundational and consistent commitment to social justice. 

However, while some of my peers are even Instagram representatives for Bulletin — a shop committed to popularizing female-led brands (though, problematically, only donating 10 percent of their proceeds to Planned Parenthood in the process) — many students are cloaked in garments that fail to champion or encourage specific social change. They do nothing to promise generous donations to such causes.  

Even when it’s Target-bought, feminist wear has power; this degree of feminist visibility can at best inspire conversation amongst sisters and, at worst, disturb your local bigot. Additionally, no matter the tags on our shirts, young women should not carry the responsibility of undoing years of commoditization. Nor should we soley bear the blame for buying in to the system. 

The change should come from the suppliers, but activism is a multi-million dollar industry used by companies to ensure both monetary profit and social clout. Reversing such convolution and corruption may require a catastrophic system breakdown, a complete redistribution of wealth.

While the options are few, there are small ways young women and activists at large can stand up to corporate conglomerates. We can investigate the genesis of anything claiming the title of “activist,” attach to mementos that celebrate real changemakers and, when possible, avoid Amazon. 

Sophia Brill is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. They are an outside contributor. The views expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.


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