In Fashion: Why Feminist T-Shirts Don’t Change Things

Group of people wearing shirt with this is what a feminist looks like logo

Join the movement… everyone’s doing it.

THE SAD TRUTH for people who like feminism, and T-shirts, and are wont to have a tiny, feminist-t-shirty orgasm when these two things combine: feminist T-shirts with slogans like “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” probably aren’t going to bring about substantial social change. They also may not be ethically sourced. Reportedly, the non-profit organization that sells “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts, which also campaigns on issues of womens’ economic equality, faces allegations of unfair labor practices and is currently under investigation. Fayzal Ally Beegun, president of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers’ Union, alleges that The Fawcett Society’s factory workers in north Mauritius — all women — earn less than $1 an hour and sleep in tiny, cramped living quarters that often house sixteen woman at any given time.

Beegun told the Daily Mail, “The workers in this factory are treated very poorly […] It would take a woman working in the factory nearly two weeks just to buy one shirt. What is feminist about that? […] They are paid a pittance and any money they do receive they send back home […] They are on four-year contracts that mean they don’t get to see their families in that time.” One factory worker reportedly added: “How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism when we do not see ourselves as feminists? We see ourselves as trapped.”

Though The Fawcett Society quickly released a statement denying that the T-shirts were produced in a sweatshop under unsafe working conditions, the issue extends far beyond the “robust and factual” evidence of the factory’s safety. The investigation points to the systemic exploitation of the world’s millions of women garment workers. The problem is that T-shirts are cool, but talking about “systemic exploitation” isn’t cool, or marketable, and the solutions to systemic exploitation aren’t available for purchase online. Cutesy feminist merchandise makes feminism more palatable, but it also commodifies an entire movement. Putting a brand label on social justice, making it trendy or fashionable, doesn’t necessarily do anything to fix social injustice or exploitation. The T-shirts (and iPhone cases, and celebrity endorsement) might feel like a start, because social injustice issues can feel so big and out of control that maybe you just want to do something, and the T-shirts are there and they’re cute and they’re 50% off, but they don’t really do anything in the long-term, or even really in the short-term, when the funds don’t reach the people they’re meant to and when the system of inequalities that the cause purports to be combating ends up being perpetuated instead. It becomes a capitalist iteration of the rise in Internet or “hashtag” activism — the kind of lax participation in social movements that allows people (mostly members of the Millennial generation) to think that their Facebook “like” or tag on Instagram or Twitter RT makes a palpable contribution to the latest hot-button social justice cause. Therein lies the problem with the feminist T-shirt, and FCKH8, and the cat-calling video. Just because something “goes viral,” or is appealing on a commercial level, doesn’t mean it actually works.

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