This new onslaught of corporate feminism

SET to commence a new phase of life some months ago, I went window shopping for some new clothes in preparation. Seeing an opportunity for redefinition, I wanted to leave behind certain parts of my former self—my wardrobe being one, and my lack of active political involvement being the other. So browsing through an online clothes store on Instagram, I found a bodysuit I knew was going to be good for my new transition—it was white with the words “We should all be feminists” printed in bold black font across the chest. All of the times I wander into stores checking out outfits, I unavoidably see a display of sassy, glittering shirts emblazoned with what must be thought of as aggressively empowering phrases — “Feminist,” #Boss Lady,” “Girl boss,” “The  future is female”  etc — aimed at teenagers and millennial women like me.

And at its core must be a positive intent; a nice idea about seeking to uplift girls and women with empowering phrases as part of the armoury against the machinations of patriarchy; which certainly gives me an understanding of the desire to express oneself on a T-shirt. But it leads me to question what is meant by these vaguely-feminist, cloak statements? What does it mean to be a “girl boss or boss lady?” And does wearing a graphic tee really make you a part of the resistance to patriarchy? It’s not overall a terrible thing to promote encouraging messages in the name of equality, or something like it. But one downside of being so blatantly pandered to, with the endgame of getting us to buy what they’re selling, is a bone-deep, irritated exhaustion. It then occurs to me that businesses have resorted to using feminism as another marketing tool, or simply put, feminism is probably having a corporate moment, — a derogatory term used to describe non-intersectional feminism.

To be sure, empowering women has increasingly become a central marketing ploy for brands, media companies and even celebrities. T-shirts emblazoned with “The Future Is Female” and the Sheryl Sandberg-branded concept of “leaning in” appear less bearish and intrusive than feminist or feminism. And in an era where women’s rights are at stake and becoming pronounced, it’s becoming easier to see which brands have co-opted the idea of female empowerment versus having it authentically ingrained as a part of its brand ethos. Yet, this new, trendy, sanitized version of feminism in which women who already hold absurd amounts of wealth and power try to increase their relatability through vaguely empowering messages offers an explanation as to how and why slogans like #BossLady have become so popular. The commodification of feminism has obscured the meaning of the word, creating a more palatable concept of “girl power” rather than actually uplifting marginalized women. But rather than embrace this new feminist facade, the truth remains that when feminism becomes embroiled in corporate interests, the already-marginalized, especially the girls and women, in our society are sidelined, omitted, and simply continuing to be oppressed under a more progressive guise. Besides, these brands rarely live out the values their social bios would have us believe. They hide behind the “#BossLady” facade, claiming to tear down the boys’ club walls, but in reality, these companies just reinforce existing inequities.

Besides, this brand of feminism is monolithic, materially-driven, and encourages women to push each other down in a mad scramble to the top. Bolstered by celebrity culture, it promotes the idea that if women, as individuals, can better their financial position, somehow the feminist dream has been realised. Women have been conditioned for decades to believe that they are never enough, that if you buy this cream, this pill, this soap, you will temporarily feel better until it’s time to go out and buy more cream, more pills, more soap. Unfortunately, this celebration of capitalist feminism forgets: unequal gender representation in government and business, the pay gap, gender-based violence, the violation of the human rights of women and girls in the developing world, the suppression of children’s rights, continuing keeping of women in low-socioeconomic brackets, denial of maternity rights and a whole host of real issues keeping everyday women from establishing and experiencing fully realised gender equality life and living continue to be the order of the day everywhere in the world.

In the last analysis, this kind of individualistic feminism – often enacted by shopping is not sufficient to advance the rights and freedoms of women and, in fact, enables capitalist  patriarchy. Corporate feminism is incongruous with real female empowerment and freedom, much as it is contradictory even in its ethos, speaking of freedom while not seeing anything wrong in the oppression of women perhaps by women themselves. Feminism cannot hope to be a real movement for social change if it is pandering to the same structures it is supposed to be critiquing. Social justice movements are meant to challenge and dismantle oppressive power structures, not silently profit from them. Which is why real feminism must be rooted in helping all women, starting with those that need the most help, to empower themselves to face and overcome the injustices of patriarchy everywhere in the society. We need less #GirlBosses—less bosses in general—and more educators, a higher minimum wage, more housing, more organizers, more compassion.

Feminism may have been commodified to fit nicely on a T-shirt and to prioritize liberal ideologies of individual pursuit of wealth and security, but that’s not what it should be about. It’s about the uplifting of communities; of working for and getting a better society in terms of justice and equality for all. If we truly want a feminist movement that will work to eradicate misogyny and dismantle patriarchy, we cannot align ourselves with the corporate system that actively oppresses us and keep girls and women down every day. All women ever wanted was equal rights, not designer shirts with “We should all be feminists” #Girlbosses, written on them.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.

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