Last year for Christmas, I got a makeup set (the standard fare: red lipstick, blush, and eyeliner) from a well-meaning family member. The slogan was, in big, red letters: “Empower yourself.” I was genuinely grateful for the gift and I’ve used the set to doll myself up for parties many times — but something about the “empower yourself” marketing bothered me.
After a bit of thinking, I was able to put my finger on it. As a feminist, I’ve always had a child-with-her-hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar feeling about wearing makeup — it’s something I know I’m against, but do anyway, with a hint of guilt, hoping none of my friends see the numerous tubes and bottles of paint hidden away in my bathroom.
Sometimes, I reason, I just want to look “good,” even if this definition of “good” stems from socially-dictated standards of beauty. The “empower yourself” collection consisted of the same type of brands I criticize for perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards and for capitalizing off of women’s insecurities, but seemed almost to work as a “get out of jail free” card for my guilty feeling — if I re-embraced makeup as empowering, I was making a feminist statement. It seemed like a sneaky way for the company to both assuage my critiques and co-opt feminist rhetoric.
At the time, I wrote off the branding of the product as a one-off and largely forgot about the experience. But since last year, the internet has exploded with gift guides and listicles for feminists that use similar language: Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine… Hell, even the right-wing Telegraph got on board with the trend and published a list of holiday suggestions for that hard-to-shop-for equality-fighter at your Christmas table. The gifts that make these lists are largely kitschy, feminized, fashion statements: pink, flowery pillows with the words, “fuck the patriarchy” on them. “Feminist killjoy” pins with sugar hearts. A tea mug with “male tears” emblazoned on it in girly cursive. There was nothing that included genuine feminist theory — no bell hooks, no Andrea Dworkin, no Audre Lorde, or Germaine Greer.
The gifts were all a bit twee — as if cashing in on postmodernist irony. But the issue with irony is that it’s all in the eye of the beholder — while I may be baking cupcakes or wearing my retro 50s makeup sarcastically, with an eye-roll, the average viewer will most likely view these things as earnest. They’ll see a person who dresses femininely and embraces stereotypically feminine activities like cooking. The issue here lies not with the activity (making cupcakes is great!) but rather the fact it can rebranded as “feminism” if a cheeky wink to the audience is added.
The issue with irony is that liking problematic things ironically can easily slide into finding these things subversive. We see this, for example, in the idea of “weaponized femininity,” wherein patriarchal makeup norms sold to us by capitalist companies assert that our (now subversive) eyeliner should be “sharp enough to kill a man.”
Irony has, in many ways, become the rhetoric of compliance: we’re still buying into these systems, but with an edge. It’s become similar to the guilt-free promise of “empower me” lipstick — both a coping mechanism for the double-bind of life under the patriarchy and a way to remain comfortable with oppressive systems.
I wonder how feminism has gotten to this stage, and I wonder whether this is largely a reaction to the still-persisting stereotype that feminists are man-hating, hairy lesbians? (Misogyny is the only reason we feel we must prove we are not, in any case…)
A “male tears” mug is sassy rather than angry — it includes no threat to radically redistribute power imbalances in society. An “empower me” makeup set holds no genuine hope of abolishing the constraints of femininity placed on young women. So what is the point?
Perhaps it all stems from the millennial obsession with self-definition — simply signalling one is “feminist” (the fun kind, of course), but without the political activism. Regardless, these products defang feminism, turning a political movement into a fashion statement.
Why haven’t other liberation movements faced the same kind of commodification? Why is there no market for a “This is what a socialist looks like” shirt, or flowery “Black Power” mugs?
It is at this point we must discuss intersectionality. Radical left movements and racial equality movements are confident they are not cute, twee, or kitschy — they see the harm done by capitalism and/or white supremacy every day, and can measure that harm by the bodies. Likewise, feminism isn’t cute, and so it should question corporate attempts to reduce it the movement to “girl power” or “empowerment” (a very privileged way of defining the movement).
Beyond FGM, or child brides, or rape-as-a-war-tactics — issues that seem to exist largely outside the sphere of most Western women — two women are killed every week by male partners or ex-partners in the UK. Women everywhere face a constant fear of rape and are still common victims of incest, pedophilia, and sex trafficking. The average woman still faces structural inequalities: economically, politically, and socially.
The reduction of our fight for liberation to knit uteruses and pink pillows is a shame. I say, for the feminist woman in your life, get her an Audre Lorde book or subscription to Ms. Magazine. Because feminism is for life, not just for Christmas.
Sarah Fletcher is a UK-based feminist studying for her final year at Durham University. She occasionally blogs at Trigger Happy Go Lucky, but consistently tweets about feminism at @SarahFletcher27.