Feminist Capitalism: A Dangerous Oxymoron
There you go, confidently advancing down the street in your high-rise black skinny jeans and your cropped Forever 21 tee that spells “feminist” across your chest. I cross your path, mid-eye roll, questioning your motivation to spend money on announcing your feminist ideals. Should I feel compelled to yell, “Me too! I’m a feminist, too!” as we pass each other? No, I don’t think I should, because I know I can demonstrate my feminist values in more effective ways than donning a self-proclaiming tee shirt.
Before I come off as too harsh, I fully support your freedom of expression; wear whatever clothes you want. However, I do think it would be worthwhile to consider my next few points before you purchase any kind of “feminist” apparel and buy into the dangerous oxymoron that is feminist capitalism.
First of all, let’s talk about what’s motivating you to buy this shirt. Are you spending this $25 so you can visibly claim your liberal ideals—and if so, to what end? In my opinion, feminism is not a publicity stunt, nor is it some kind of ephemeral fashion trend like ‘80s shoulder pads or crimped hair. Without implying the political passivity of all who wear “feminist” apparel, I believe being a feminist requires more substantial action such as getting involved with local social justice groups, attending the next Black Lives Matter march or enrolling in a gender studies course. I recognize these opportunities are not accessible to everyone; however, I must maintain that solely wearing this shirt does not progress gender equality.
Since money is the main priority of feminist capitalism, let’s talk about that $25 you just spent. So you just left Forever 21, yellow bag in hand, but who really benefits from this transaction? Sure, this shirt may be a cute new addition to your wardrobe, but would you have bought it knowing that most of this $25 would jump straight into the pocket of an old man instead of going toward any feminist cause? Rather, this money is withheld from garment workers, a predominantly female workforce, operating in global factories that produce apparel at the cheapest cost for brands like Forever 21. In agreement with the UK Daily Mail article calling for a boycott of similar “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirts, the exploitation of female garment workers in order to produce this apparel, which will ultimately profit men, is not feminist.
Let me give you a more specific example. So you found this “feminist” shirt at Forever 21, right? The Chief Executive Officer and founder of Forever 21 is Do Won Chang, an American businessman whose net worth is over 2.8 billion dollars. Do you think Mr. Chang really cares about whether or not you’re a feminist? Of course not, he just wants to sell you this shirt so he can pocket your $25 plus tax—unbeknownst to him, of course, as I can guarantee he won’t be the cashier that stuffs your bright yellow shopping bag.
As a student organizer in the international labor movement, specifically affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops, I am passionate about holding corporations accountable for improving factory conditions, including paying garment workers their full, earned wages. This explains my enthusiastic skepticism of feminist capitalism, especially since Forever 21’s “feminist” shirt contradicts the very process of its production.
Of course, because of a lack of transparency in the corporate production process, we can’t definitively say where Forever 21 factories are located. Although online the brand claims this shirt was made in the United States, the Los Angeles Times reports that workers in Californian factories producing for Forever 21, among other brands, are still exposed to sweatshop conditions in the name of corporate greed. For example, after the U.S. Department of Labor facilitated investigations of these Californian factories, it was found that these companies have been paying poverty wages and thus have stolen $1.1 million from their employees. The U.S. Department of Labor can only penalize companies that directly employ their workers, so brands like Forever 21 often find relief by subcontracting multiple factories across the world.
This trend of feminist capitalism is retroactive to the movement for gender equality, especially because female garment workers are receiving the brute force of the consequences. Statistically, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, about three quarters of an estimated 75 million international garment workers are women—resulting in about 56 million different female garment workers that could be producing your “feminist” t-shirt under sweatshop conditions. To reiterate the UK Daily Mail article, “feminism is too important to be failed like this.”
So, is there any solution? Maybe at this point I’m making shopping sound pretty hopeless. Like how on Earth am I, a single consumer, supposed to change the harmful consequences of today’s fast-fashion industry? Affordable, ethically made clothing is hard to find, but in my opinion, the first step is avoiding the huge fast-fashion companies like Forever 21 and instead shopping at locally owned or second-hand stores—my favorite is the Good Will in Ballard.
Do you still really want a “feminist” shirt, but one that was produced ethically? Make that shirt yourself! Any shirt proclaiming feminist ideals should not be made in a sweatshop, and creating this shirt yourself would grant you full creative authority—that’s something you’ll never find at Forever 21. Sure, this alternative may require more work, but zero garment workers would be harmed in the process of tie-dying, stitching or painting that old white t-shirt you’ve been stashing in the back of your closet.
At the end of the day, I don’t support fast-fashion brands that claim to support feminism with their sweatshop-made clothing. To me, it’s a contradiction that only makes sense to the businessman in charge. Feminist capitalism is a global, dangerous trend that isn’t easy to avoid, but at least there are alternatives. As consumers, we should challenge ourselves to become more knowledgeable about how our clothes are made and utilize the shopping alternatives that are available. I may not be able to solve capitalism, but at least I can reduce my role in perpetuating its harmful effects.