Your ‘Grl Pwr’ T-Shirt Might Not Be Feminist At All

This year, International Women’s Day has coincided with the universal surge of outrage concerning Sarah Everard. Conversations concerning the wider mistreatment of women both in the UK and further afield are being had despite being left unspoken for far too long. This highlights, yet again, the continued need for feminism in a world dominated by male and economic agenda. With fourth wave feminism arguably creating a visible, mainstream space for women that is more accessible than ever within the media and our everyday lives. However, with slogans trending on t-shirts such as ‘Girl Power’ ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ and ‘The Future Is Female’, the question of whether feminism has become little more than a capitalist fashion accessory must be asked.

This year in light of International Women’s Day, Shop Like You Give A Damn has driven the movement towards some difficult questions. A harsh light has been shone on the anti-feminist truths that lie behind your new favourite feminist t-shirt. It is estimated that only 2% of the people that make your clothes earn a living wage, 80% of whom are female. If this statistic isn’t troubling enough, the constant fear of abuse is also in play. A woman’s right to join a workforce to gain a shred of economic independence is tainted by fear of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. This is the harsh reality for many women within the textile industry. The prevalence of globalisation has encouraged the spread of western and neo-liberal economic policies; the result of this is a world in which cheap international trade takes precedence over local lives and their right to safety and fair wages. These workers need protection on a local level, not just the knowledge that the fashionable feminist movement is in full swing in the United Kingdom.

Shop Like You Give A Damn’s co-founder, Kim van Langelaar, has commented that “these well-intentioned acts of micro-activism seem helpful, but can actually be tremendously harmful, as unsafe working conditions, wages that make life essentially unaffordable, child labour exploitation, environmental damage, misogyny and racism are the grim reality of the fast fashion industry”. Until the 1980s saw the emergence of postcolonial and transnational feminism, western political thought had tended to silence the voices of those not included in the dominant discourses and as Kim highlights, can we say much has changed in wider society since then?

In 2017, Dior Spring Runway’s focal theme was feminism and one piece in the collection caught the fashion world’s attention; a t-shirt with the slogan ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. The danger of linking feminism with fashion is that there is no guarantee that fast fashion companies will stay away. The economic drive behind the production of fast fashion ensures the exploitation of workers will continue to be swept under the carpet. Shop Like You Give A Damn continues to call out this behaviour. However, with fast fashion’s ability to respond to trends much quicker than ethical brands, it can often feel like these cries have been met with nothing more than indifference.

The current feminist trend of slogan t-shirts explicitly targets the desire to feel good about oneself and the individual message the wearer is promoting. This is rather than achieving the goal of focusing on the collective struggle of women globally. Fundamentally, feminist research and activism should be tied to enacting structural social change. Instead, individuals benefiting from feminist slogan messages ultimately undermine this process, producing catastrophic effects for those who can’t benefit from fashionable feminism. Despite using mass-produced t-shirts to further promote a feminist ideology, engaging with popular culture in this way inevitably leads to the idea that only certain female voices are relevant. Clearly, the fight is not over.

Shop Like You Give A Damn addresses the question of what if the fast-fashion brand donates money to a women-focused charity? The answer is simply don’t waste your money! This won’t fix problems ingrained within the fast fashion industry that is calling for systemic change. It is not possible to buy the cheapest clothes whilst expecting the garment worker to receive a fair wage and security within the workplace. A one-time donation accompanying a t-shirt created through breaking the backs of exploited workers achieves only one thing—misconceived permission to look the other way when calls for help are heard.

The feminist t-shirt trend exploits and objectifies women textile workers who don’t even have the privilege to buy one themselves. Objectification of women, their time, and their bodies through purchasing unethically sourced t-shirts can’t be considered progress in 2021. This cannot be considered advancement for feminism simply because privileged women have enabled this, whether unknowingly or not. As well as traditional discrimination of women typically associated with men, individualised agendas have appropriated feminism; underrepresented women really are out of sight, out of mind. Even if the means of objectification vary greatly, the ends for the feminist movement are depressingly the same. The collective voice of women in need is silenced in the most public way, blazoned across our chests.

Words by Eloise Cowen


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