Commodity feminism – a 21st century problem

Almost anyone studying the field of feminist + queer theory will come across the words ‘constructed’ ‘socially’ and ‘femininity’ in a sentence – like, at least 400 times. And, every time, the message seems very clear: ‘femininity’ is not biological, it is not scientific, and it is not tied to women at all. In these terms, ‘femininity’ is a direct product of patriarchal social constructs which dictate distinct regulations on both sexes in an attempt to mask them as purely scientific. As shocking as this could have sounded in the ’70s, nowadays these ideas have become very palatable – if not a bit cliche’ (but those things are almost always mutually exclusive).

During these tremendous cultural transgressions in (but not limited to) queer theory, ideas such as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ were irrevocably scrutinised. Such terms went from a state of static, forced being to a state of fluid mobility. ‘Femininity’ no longer merely a woman’s designation, ‘masculinity’ not only exercised by those who had created it in the first place. Of course, as in anything, queer theory did face some major backlash but in our visual culture it has never been more alive and relevant than at the time of its nascence. Just last summer, the Tate Britain had a tremendous ‘Queer British Art Show’ exhibition, while the National Portrait Gallery featured works by the too-often forgotten Claude Cahun.

Claude Cahun, self-portrait, 1929

Some argue that purely on a visibility aspect, Western culture has unequivocally embraced queer-culture…with news outlets such as Buzzfeed News, MTV and Yahoo faithfully reporting on issues relating to women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I would argue on the other hand, that popular culture has demonstrated probably the exact opposite – that what we are facing instead is a commodification of feminist + queer issues because time and time again we have seen that it is like, so hot right now. A few months ago I was scrolling through my news feed when I came across a slogan that read something like ‘now sex no longer sells, but activism does’, and that really stuck with me. We see how mega clothing stores such as Topshop brandish tee-shirts with the likes of ‘FEMINIST’ and ‘Everyone Should be a Feminist’, I don’t even want to fathom the image of Sir Phillip Green wearing one of those oversized monstrosities as jammies…but it’s hard not to.

Very avant-garde topshop tee

We should find items like these at best patronising, and at worst a callous exploitation of women’s livelihood for the sake of capital inflow. Somehow, somewhere… while we were all out for a mini-snack break or a quick bathroom trip… we came back to a feminism that has been reduced to an accessory no more poignant than an Urban Decay Naked palette. Like the palette, feminism is now easy to store in our handbags, ready to be used and brought around for when we need a ‘touch-up’, but never really given much more thought than that. To me, popular feminism seems to be more of a status-symbol for a very-bored girl, who, running out of things to do, takes a look at an insta-celebrity’s profile and finally realises that ‘feminism’ is perhaps something that she ought to be interested in.

Of course, it would be overly cynical and equally as stupid to assume that there are no real feminists left, that the movement has become hollow and impotent. Aside from the really really big names (if you can’t name any don’t worry they will probably end up on a posthumous crop-top tribute) I am lucky enough to interact with truly remarkable young women who have enough tact and sensibility to separate the meaningful from the superficial, the real from all the bullshit. But that also seems too little, too late. Feminism failed to see that it’s biggest adversary was never going to be grumpy men in shiny suits, nor rape-culture, nor even gender-genocide – it’s largest, most unbeatable opponent was the very thing that produced and fetishized all of those listed above – consumer capitalism (oOoOoOoOo). It’s kind of funny to think about the fact that we have literally let consumer capitalism fuck us (again!) when we are not even really sure what consumer capitalism is. Sure, there are the numbers, and the people and the items themselves…. but how could we have let it drive us to this very moment, how could we have let it make such a fool of us? It’s kind of like imagining that for all these years feminism has been running towards the edge of a very promising cliff, and that at the other side of the cliff there is our objective, and that with each step we take on more momentum, and more, and more… until we get to the edge and we realise that actually the other side of the cliff is just a big pile of shit, so we try to bring it all back, retrace our steps… but we can’t – and now we are swimming in a big pile of shit...shit.

In all seriousness, I have been trying to argue that commodity feminism really does more harm than good. It inspires us towards superficiality, by giving us a ready-made and hollow version of perhaps the biggest movement in charge of materially ameliorating women’s lives. It enables critics to scrutinise feminism, and indeed women’s credibility by allowing ourselves to be reduced to none-other than noise. It perpetuates the idea that, exactly like chokers or dip-dyed hair, feminism is something to be monetised – at least, for a brief period of time.

It seems that feminism really does come in waves – although it truly ought not to be. For every suffragette there was also a Betty Draper, for every Gloria Steinem there was also a Barbara Bush and for every Malala Yousafzai there is the inevitable commodity feminist. But at least the likes of Betty Draper and Barbara Bush were polite enough to wait their bloody turn, they waited at least twenty-years before coming in to tear down the bunting. The big problem now is that commodity feminists are our contemporaries, they need no benefit of hindsight, no pearl-necklaces, no revisionist-revisionist approaches because they have managed to infiltrate the very system that had once vowed to break them down. In short, commodity feminism has orchestrated the ultimate coup-d’état. 

It seems hardly believable that even in the guise of strength and solidarity we women still allow the most brutal offences to be made in our name. Perhaps we do not realise just how oppressed we really are until we actually stop and take a closer look at the fine print written at the very bottom of any concession granted to us in our favour. Most of us are very happy to decorate our bodies with silly pseudo-feminist tee shirts in the same way that the women before us submitted themselves to the corset. We allow ourselves to be satisfied by a mere pat on the head by a man who perhaps stands only a few inches taller than us, because even the most liberated have been taught that we are deserving of half our worth. Now more than ever we seem more content to relax our fists and stop struggling, we lower our eyes to the ground when men tell us that women have ‘never had it better’. From this I can only derive two possible conclusions: either that 1. most women truly inhabit the illusion that both sexes live in a state of immutable and constant equality or (the one which I subscribe to) 2. most women believe that they want better for themselves, but don’t believe in it enough to actually want to inhabit a state of material change – something which obviously requires a lot of heated discussions during (but not limited to) dinner parties.

The question of women’s now almost deliberate submission to their male peers leads me on my next argument about the desperate generosity of women, which I will discuss at length in part II, ‘Commodity Womanhood: An even bigger 21st century problem’

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