After years of people heralding the death of feminism or debating its 'image problem', it seems like the tables are turning. The fashion magazine ELLE announced its 'Feminism Issue' for December featuring cover star Emma Watson and a joint venture with the women's rights organisation Fawcett Society involving the slogan 'this is what a feminist looks like' and t-shirts and jumpers. These garments were worn by famous figures from actors to politicians including Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman (but definitely not the Prime Minister), and were swiftly revealed by the Mail on Sunday to be made in a sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour. The Fawcett Society disputes this accusation, and many have seen it as an attempt by the mainstream media to derail feminist discussion once again. Maybe it is.
Unfortunately for all involved, even if the sweatshop revelations are untrue this campaign is far from the perfect vehicle with which to make feminism accessible. Questions about the extent to which a fashion magazine, politicians, and celebrities are ever going to be able to shake the core of the capitalist cisheteronormative white patriarchy aside, aspects of the campaign make some very questionable assertions about what feminism is, or what it should be. Specifically, the choice to sell these t-shirts for £45 and the jumpers for £85, the choice to work in partnership with the Fawcett Society and to direct 100% of the proceeds to them, and the choice to have various famous men photographed in the clothing.
Anybody can call themselves a feminist, and anybody can wear a jumper declaring themselves to be a feminist. By and large, that is the point of the t-shirt campaign: a variety of people you might not otherwise assume to be feminists challenging this view. That's fine, but what not everybody can do is demonstrate that their actions match up to this assertion. Feminism is not a label and it should not be a marketing tool; feminism is a movement and it is a practice, a lived experience. ELLE lauded Benedict Cumberbatch for wearing their jumper, but when discussing Julian Assange in the past he has described the rape allegations against the Wikileaks founder as being 'misinformation'. Would someone who was really a feminist so openly perpetuate rape culture in this way? Until Assange returns to Sweden to address the allegations, none of us have any reason to believe that they are false. The reality of the disparity between rape cases reported, rape cases resulting in convictions, and the false conviction rate largely suggests that it is always worth believing that allegations are true until they are verified as otherwise.
If the men holding your feminist banner do not uphold the most basic tenements of feminism, it is disingenuous at best to present them to young women as role models. Indeed, there is debate as to whether you should be presenting young women with men as feminist role models at all; it may be the whole premise of Watson's campaign #HeForShe, but cis white men in this society are the oppressor, and while they absolutely should be on board with bringing about change, it is difficult to see why they should be the focus.
It is also difficult to see how anybody can or should be expected to pay £45 or £85 for a piece of clothing to show their support for gender equality. Some of the women who need feminism the most are those who do not have the money to feed themselves. That they could ever be expected to have £85 for an item of clothing is a sick joke, and says plenty about the kind of person ELLE's campaign is really aimed at. It's not for women marginalised on other axes of oppression, for sure. The partnership with Fawcett Society, meanwhile, makes it certain that it is not for sex workers; the Fawcett Society are active supporters of End Demand or the 'Nordic model', a policy regarding sex work that seeks to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, thus leaving sex workers with the options of unemployment and poverty or being driven underground into unsafe conditions. Of course, maybe ELLE don't think sex workers even can be feminists, which would be hilariously unfunny given they think Cumberbatch can.
So, what does a feminist look like? I'm afraid it doesn't look like Cumberbatch, and it doesn't look like anyone who believes that forcing sex workers out of employment because they need 'saving' is the best way forward. Feminism must address the needs of all women and include the voices of all women; it's going to take a lot more than a t-shirt campaign before we're addressing the realities of the structural and actual violence facing women every day, but we shouldn't accept concessions in the meantime.
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