Is clothing adorned in feminist slogans a powerful statement or just another form of slacktivism?

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By Samantha Edwards

It all began in 1972. Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, opened that year, and along with it, birthed a slogan that would become a modern feminist rallying cry. The bookstore had a shirt designed for it, a simple white t-shirt with the words “The Future Is Female” in blue bold letters.

Fast forward to 2015 when graphic designer Rachel Berks saw a photo from 1975 on Instagram of musician and activist Alix Dobkin taken by her girlfriend at the time, Liza Cowan. Berks re-posted the image on her Los Angeles shop Otherwild’s Instagram account, and she was overwhelmed with the number of requests asking her to remake the shirt. Berks modernized the original 1970s version and created 24 shirts.

Within 48 hours, she sold out and started working on the next run.

Throughout the 2016 American presidential election, the shirt gained new political meaning as young women proudly donned it at Hillary Clinton rallies and in Instagram selfies paired with #ImWithHer buttons. So when Donald Trump was elected on November 8, Berks figured sales for the t-shirt would slow down.

Instead, on Nov. 9, Otherwild’s online shop sold more than on any other day before. “It was like people woke up the day after election and needed the slogan more than ever,” says Berks.

While t-shirt-as-feminist sloganeering isn’t a new phenomenon – the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirt made by the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2003 and made popular by Ashley Judd kick-started the trend – it’s certainly proliferated over the past year.

Feminist-branded clothing is everywhere, from indie boutiques and fast fashion chains to the runways. Dior sent a model wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words “We Should All Be Feminists” down their Spring 2017 catwalk, a specific nod to feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book of the same name. Meanwhile, Topshop’s take on progressive politics is decidedly vague with their “Save The Future” t-shirt, which, as they describe on their website, allows you to “speak your mind with a statement piece of clothing.”

These t-shirts are being worn by everyone, from celebrities like Rihanna, Ariana Grande and Natalie Portman, to woke millennial women and Gen Xers and their stylish toddlers. Along with pink knit pussy hats, these shirts became the de facto uniform of the Women’s March on January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

It makes feminism seem fun and aspirational rather than absolutely vital to the health and longevity of the human race

But while the t-shirts push feminist politics into mainstream conversation, they’re not the equivalent of true political action. As momentum from the Women’s March slows, is wearing a t-shirt becoming the sartorial form of slacktivism? What role do they have in the current feminist movement?

For Berks, political activism is built into the core of her business. She donates 25 per cent of the proceeds of each sale of the US$30 The Future is Female t-shirt to Planned Parenthood, and so far has donated more than $50,000. Otherwild’s other slogan t-shirts, such as “Gender is a Drag” and “Sister Resistor,” donate proceeds to The National Center for Transgender Equality and the ACLU.

“What does it actually mean to be a feminist or to be an activist? Is it just about wearing a shirt?” asks Berks. “For me, it certainly isn’t. I’ve founded my business on raising money for social justice organizations.”

Amanda Brinkman, the New Orleans-based designer of one of the most popular “Nasty Woman” shirts, has also seen how tapping into the trend can help support the causes she cares about. During the third presidential debate, Brinkman watched as Trump called Clinton “such a nasty woman,” and immediately knew the insult had to be put on a t-shirt. She quickly mocked up a design – a simple white shirt featuring a red heart with the words Nasty Woman inside – and posted it online. Brinkman expected to sell five shirts or so. Instead, within the first 24 hours, she sold more than 10,000.

“I think the reason it really resonated with a lot of people is because we knew these things were said about women, especially those who are prepared and intelligent, behind the scenes,” says Brinkman. “But to have it said on this international platform confirmed what we already knew to be true. Coming from such a vulgar person, it’s a compliment.”

From the beginning, Brinkman pledged 50 per cent of the shirt proceeds to Planned Parenthood and has donated over US$130,000 to date. Before the shirt went viral, Brinkman worked for over a decade in nonprofit management and sees the value that retail has in affecting change.

“The [non-profit] work that I was doing had a large impact over an extensive length of time,” says Brinkman, “With the Nasty Woman shirt, I was able to donate so much in so little time. That’s really exciting for someone who craves change.”

Rather than releasing more variations of the Nasty Woman t-shirt, Brinkman wanted to do something more “meaty,” so she designed a day planner, filled with biographies on famous feminists and political how-to guides, such as ways to contact your local representatives. “I wanted to make it accessible to someone with any level of understanding of politics,” she says.

Another part of Brinkman and Berks’s business model is ensuring that their wares are ethically made. The same can’t be said for the knock-offs sold at Zara and Topshop, or even those produced by more noble causes. In 2014, the Daily Mail alleged that their version of the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt made by UK-based feminist charity The Fawcett Society (in collaboration with ELLE UK magazine and British retailer Whistles) was actually produced in a sweatshop by women earning 62 pence an hour.

While there’s no doubt that exploiting female workers clashes with the very tenets of feminism, it’s not the only ethical dilemma at work. “There’s something about the sloganeering that’s happening now that’s decontextualized. It makes feminism seem fun and aspirational rather than absolutely vital to the health and longevity of the human race,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine and the author of the book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.

Indeed, the US$710 price tag of Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt is opportunistic, tone-deaf and clearly an attempt to capitalize on a political movement – even if the designer later announced it’d be donating money to Rihanna’s charity, Clara Lionel Foundation.

Furthermore, how much of this trend is merely about self-identification – a not-so secret handshake amongst fellow feminists on the streets or on social media – rather than actually about enacting social change? “There’s a limit between consuming a product and that being in itself a feminist act,” says Zeisler. “It’s what I call ‘marketplace feminism,’ this idea that you can buy something and feel good about it, and that stands in for thinking more deeply about the nuances of an issue.”

Thereu2019s a limit between consuming a product and that being in itself a feminist act

Putting a price-tag on feminism is a complicated issue. Sure, buying a shirt that donates a portion of the proceeds to an important cause is better than doing nothing at all, but your actions shouldn’t stop there. So much more work needs to be done.

Since fashion changes constantly, there’s also the fear that when a store like H&M embraces feminism, it reduces an important political movement to a trend that inevitably will go out of style. Feminism is about structural change and advocating for women’s equality, which includes improving labour laws that fast-fashion chains exploit.

But this doesn’t mean the trend need be dismissed entirely. For Ilya Parkins, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of British Columbia, fashion is a valid outlet of self-expression and creativity. “The reaction to fashion as vapid is misogyny in disguise, even amongst feminists,” says Parkins. “There’s a history that we can trace back to Ancient Greek philosophy of associating femininity with artifice, while men are associated with depth. Anti-fashion critiques often hinge itself on that, and that’s a problem.”

Recently, feminist slogans have spread beyond the t-shirt, to tote bags and baby onesies, and even hijabs. Toronto designer Nour Kaiss has put a new lines of scarves she hopes will challenge perceptions of who can be a feminist. Launched earlier this year, her company Nourka makes head scarves printed with the words “Feminism” and “Equality.” For Kaiss, the scarves subvert the idea that Islam and feminism are incompatible. “People don’t see those two as going hand-in-hand together,” explains Kaiss. “They look at a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, and they might think her husband or her dad told her to wear it and she doesn’t really want to. But in fact, I’m wearing it proudly, and I’m also a feminist.”

While wearing the printed scarves as a hijab, Kaiss has had numerous strangers ask her about how feminism and Islam are related, and even what the word “feminism” means. “It gets a conversation going, which is what I want to happen,” she says.

In the end though, just starting conversations can be seen as a form of slacktivism, the type of lazy protest that is more performative than demonstrative. What these feminist-branded wares do accomplish is to normalize the term “feminist” and neutralize some of the negative connotations.

At this past summer’s Comic-Con in San Diego, a young girl wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt, cape and headband started crying while getting an autograph from her hero, the real life Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot. Gadot’s Justice League all-male co-stars – Ben Affleck, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher – looked over as the actress and little girl held hands. This single instance exhibited the impact portrayals of feminism in the mainstream can have on the next generation of young women.

For this little girl, feminism isn’t just the future, it’s the new norm.


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