The presence of feminism is inescapable. It’s an alliance demanded of major figures, whether actresses or celebrity cooks; it’s a word featured almost daily in magazines and newspapers; it’s an unavoidable presence in our political discourse. Posing with ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ scrawled across their chest, politicians wear £45 tee-shirts as if the slogan was party mandate.
With far-right groups on the rise, and ‘Neo-Nazi’ joining ‘feminist’ in front page headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s ironic that feminism’s primary threat to its existence is no longer radical conservatives on the other side of the political spectrum, but the very troopers that march under its banners. The commercialisation of feminism has become such an intrinsic part of fourth wave feminism’s fabric that it is slowly but surely losing any sense of the radicalism so necessary when demanding basic human rights and dignity.
Magazines, mainly those targeted towards women, urge their readers to ‘love your body’ and ‘slay those acne scars, girl!’; body positivity and intersectionality being a major tenant of fourth wave feminism. Yet the bulk of their profit is made from featuring advertisements with heavily photoshopped, typically white, and almost always able-bodied cisgender models. This is, of course, a fault with mainstream publications, but also with commercialisation itself. For example, it is credible that Barbie is now encouraging young girls to aspire to careers such as surgeons and lawyers, but the reality of Mattel’s Chinese factories and their mainly working-class female workforce is a far cry from the feminist future so glossily proposed by their Western sales team. Mattel’s double standards are the rule, not the exemption: Dove’s Love the Skin You’re In campaign saw sales boom, despite parent company Unilever simultaneously objectifying women in Lynx deodorant advertisements.
Perhaps even worse are the global companies of the high street, such as H&M or Zara, with t-shirts declaring “Femme Power” and “Future is Female”. These shirts usually come with a small tag tucked in the side citing the shirt’s provenance: Made in Bangladesh. Made in Sri Lanka. This hideous irony of earnest self-branding and its sweatshop reality epitomizes the situation mainstream feminism finds itself in today: working solely to the benefit of capitalism.
For who profits from items advertised as ‘empowering’ or ‘feminist’, whether gym leggings or make-up, if not the typically white, wealthy male business owners? And who falls victim to this Western trendiness of feminism, if not those who need the movement most; the millions of women across the globe working overtime in inhumane factories and sweatshops, unrepresented and easily forgotten about? Ultimately, feminism doesn’t need brands and commercialization to validate it as a necessary force within society. It’s beneficial to the movement that it’s acceptable to identify as a feminist today, and yet when the commercialisation of the movement outright contradicts its intersectionality, it’s clear we are choosing appearance over action.