In the middle of this summer, I was booked to shoot for a new lingerie brand. The rate was on the low side (about 60% of industry standard pay per hour), but I’m a fresh college grad reluctant to turn down good money, so I agreed. The day before the shoot, the casting director contacted me and said that they couldn’t pay me, but would be able to offer trade. (Instead of money, would I accept compensation in bras?) That really doesn’t cut it, but I conceded. I had already committed, and didn’t want to develop a reputation as difficult or flaky that would injure me in the long run. Plus, she emphasized that the founders didn’t have two pennies to rub together, and as the editor of a magazine run entirely on volunteer labor, I sympathize with the underfunded. They couldn’t pay for a makeup artist, so I would do my own makeup beforehand. I brought my own jeans. I would be in and out in two hours.
When I got there, I was stunned to find that they had rented an enormous, beautiful studio for multiple days and many thousands of dollars. The place was littered with technicians strapped with expensive, bulky video equipment, which also surprised me. There was a makeup artist with an assistant and a full kit, a hair stylist, a clothing stylist, and catering that cost twice my day rate. Later that evening, the French supermodel Camille Rowe was flying in to be photographed for the launch. The makeup artist leisurely redid my entire face, and over two hours had passed before I even started shooting.
I took some quick, run-of-the-mill photos before moving to video—which no one had told me I was expected to do. I was shoved into a too-small bra because they didn’t have my size, and positioned on a solitary stool, lit so my face acquired the beautiful, highly-detailed stoicism of a Time magazine cover. I was asked to state my name and bra size—confidently, looking directly at the camera, as though I had overcome some challenge—and then interrogated about my inevitably vexed relationship to my breasts and the modern bra market. Every question was a leading one: “Isn’t it horrible that…?” “Don’t you wish…?” And nearly every one was completely asinine, treating complicated feminist social problems with simple capitalist remedies. No, my life has not been marred by traumatizing bra shopping experiences. I like the two bras that I own and I bought them painlessly on the Internet. No, they’re not particularly uncomfortable. I can’t speak to the epiphany I experienced when you told me my “true size,” because your system of measurement is just as arbitrary as everyone else’s. No, I don’t understand how a new bra will somehow shield me from the wandering eyes of men I don’t want while attracting the men I do. I don’t understand how it’s possible to be sexy “for myself.” (I’m sure the videographer’s botox and lip fillers were “for herself,” too.) And I definitely don’t see how the freedom of movement I’m supposed to gain with a more comfortable bra remotely simulates the real freedom I desire.
Of course I did not say these things; I dissimulated, I think rather badly. At the end of the video, I had to rhapsodize about the superiority of this too-small bra I’d worn for a total of ten minutes to every other bra I’ve ever used, and describe how I’ve been rescued from the sexual oppression of men and bra-makers, which (surprise!) makes me look and feel hotter than ever. The final question was, simply, “How do you feel?” I begged myself not to say “liberated” or “unburdened,” which created an awkward pause. So I blabbed, “I feel independent?” and scurried out red-faced. I have yet to receive my payment in bras.
I have made a small career in the industry of creating advertisements for female consumers, which means that I have broader knowledge of the stuff of buzzy fashion startups and social media influencers than I’d like to admit. The baffling cocktail of feminist problems packaged in pro-capitalist solutions typified by this lingerie branding is nothing new, and has only proliferated in recent years. But this shoot felt like a particular violation; even worse than the egregious labor practices and obvious abuse of my work was the expectation, without my consent, that I was to narrativize my experience as a woman, using my own name, in such a way as to suggest that the real struggles of women against patriarchal oppression could be alleviated, magically, by buying a bra that costs more than ninety six percent of those purchased annually by American women. Speaking under beams of hot studio light, ineptly attempting to strike the perfect balance of elegance and false bravery culminated in a scene so extreme in its failure to approximate genuine social good that it toppled into bathos.
I refuse to participate in “brand partnerships,” which require people (overwhelmingly women) to use their identities on social media to market brands and influence the consumer behavior of their followers in exchange for promotion and free product. I still field requests for this regularly. A particularly ridiculous proposition I received last week was from a company that sells loose leaf tea that supposedly “enhances female intuition, self-reflection, and witchyness.” I am constantly receiving targeted ads from high-end cosmetics brands, urging me to bite the bullet and give myself “what I deserve.” The hugely popular women’s luxury coworking space The Wing recently held an event promoting the American Express Platinum credit card veiled as a day of “Extreme Self-Care.” Even the fifteen-year-old teen star Jojo Siwa is versed in the argot, insisting that her pricey and coveted line of technicolor hair bows is a “symbol of power, confidence, believing-ness.” The supermodel Emily Ratajkowski, who trumpets her identity as an activist, feels compelled to designate her every move (usually her frequent and “controversial” displays of nudity) as a feminist act. Defending a video in which she massages herself with oiled spaghetti while gazing hungrily at the camera, she wrote on Instagram: “Being sexy is fun and I like it…Feminism is about the choices we make, and the freedom we have to make personal choices without judgment or retribution.”
I am grateful for the fact that I am just one of many to condemn the utter bastardization of radical feminism that has dominated the fourth wave, where tag lines like “the woman’s choice,” which originated in battles over health and marital legislation, now defend arguments like Ratajkowski’s: that women should be free to do whatever they want without judgment or retribution because their gender identity inexplicably transcends the capacity for destructive behavior. Critics often call it “lifestyle feminism.” Lifestyle feminism was first discussed by bell hooks in Feminism Is for Everybody, where it denoted a feminism so drained of any commitment to radicalism or self sacrifice that it becomes merely aesthetic—serving a decorative function in atomized lives. In recent years, Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker, Andi Zeisler of Bitch, and Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin are responsible for some of the most highly circulating of such critiques.
I am writing now because I find the aforementioned attempts inadequate—not because they are unsound, but because they confront a capitalist problem with analyses that never really become Marxist, and would benefit from being considered as such, even in the broadest terms. The most obvious unsaid: “feminist” as an identity group has been rendered a fetishized commodity. It generates actual and social capital wherever it is “owned”—which can take both material and immaterial forms: worn on t-shirts, written into hashtags, knitted into pussy hats, transfigured into graphics and videos, spoken aloud. A less obvious one: it seems that the accelerating cultural shift into more and more visual and iconographic modes of communication is largely responsible for this.
I recognize that, in a certain sense, this is a good problem to have. If the general public now thinks it’s cool to wear t-shirts that say, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like,” that means the general public is at minimum unopposed to the nebulous idea of women’s welfare—which is more than we could say of other periods in human history. The cost, though, is that the complex and often discordant set of social and political aims that can be considered “feminist” are now condensed into a narrow, almost endlessly replicated set of images. These images are nearly always conservative and essentialist in their representations of womanhood; popular forms are breasts, the color pink, the Venus symbol, painted fingernails, cats, fruit, and flowers. (To those who object that feminist movements have used these symbols for generations, I respond that Dior certainly wasn’t jumping to put them on t-shirts and sell them for $710.) The production, reproduction, and dissemination of these images obscure importance differences between feminist ideologies, and increasingly detach feminist symbols from the concrete positionalities that they are meant to represent.
I am aware that some level of distance between the symbol and the symbolized is inescapable. But the reification of this distance in sociopolitical contexts seems to engender particularly damaging consequences. The image adopts the characteristics of jargon, and appears to worsen them. I cannot think of a better reference for this crisis than Theodor Adorno, who reproached Heidegger’s and the existentialists’ obsession with “authenticity”: “Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task.” This seems only exacerbated with the proliferation of symbol in the world of new media, where the primary medium of communication, the image, is even further abstracted from the idea than language itself, which gets relegated to the role of commentary. The prevailing method of consumption of these images is surely antagonistic to anything that could be called “proper thinking.” An individual social media post is viewed for an average of less than two seconds, and one of the most common forms of spreading information is duplicating preformed content via a “share” function. If we recall the limited iconography that represents an overwhelming percentage of what is being shared, its conservatism seems an inevitable product of its method of transmission. Because the end game of producing content is always to generate the greatest amount of capital, creators who deal with political movements are incentivized to represent them in their post palatable forms. The writer Lauren Oyler encapsulated this phenomenon in her witty (and tragically nonce) coinage, the feminist “fav wave.”
Adorno also anticipated the “diminished theological resonance” that jargon accrues when the identity of the speaker is overly bound up with the significance of the speech. He writes that jargon “sees to it that what it wants is on the whole felt and accepted through its mere delivery, without regard to the content of the words used. It takes under its own control the preconceptual, mimetic element in language—for the sake of effect connotations.” In today’s mainstream, phrases like “the woman’s choice,” “believe women,” and “the future is female” are employed in the same way. They are vague, proselytizing, and vulnerable to being decontextualized and smattered over any circumstance, however irrelevant, that needs justification. One of the most popular t-shirts in the circles I run in, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet,” is a particularly clear demonstration of the real function of such language—which is to silence. The jargon does not in itself contain sufficient meaning to accomplish this task; it is dependent upon what Adorno calls the “surplus of the speaker”—in this case, gender identity—to claim a theological authority that terminates the possibility of discourse before it even begins. I am far from the first to point out the religious resonance of the contemporary slang “woke,” which gilds recognition of political injustice with the aura of conversion, the sovereignty of enlightenment. The use of feminist jargon, whether visual, linguistic, or some combination of these, does not appeal to anything specific or actionable, but to an imprecise and falsely self-evident claim to domination.
Whether the capitalist co-optation of the women’s movement truly inhibits real feminist work from being done is an excellent question. Good arguments have been made, for example, in defense of lifestyle feminism as a gateway to more radical iterations. Also, even though “empowerment” is the latest ploy to get women to shop more, the popularization of such language does not directly hinder the ability of individuals and groups to take political action.
Though it’s true that the existence of luxury “feminist” lingerie brands does not restrict my freedom to speak, vote, protest, or run for office in this very moment, I think the damage is more insidious. Taking a longer view, consumer feminism does restrict these freedoms; by cloaking extreme capitalism under the guise of “self-empowerment,” one percenters can continue to contribute to the increased stratification of wealth while feeling that they’re “doing well by doing good,” thereby burying any potential moral scruples. As for everyone else, they face the same reduction of political bargaining power that has already occurred in post-industrial economies, which is placated by an increased ability to purchase goods and services. The most harrowing consequence of this is when the political movement itself is the fetishized commodity—as I have been speaking about feminism here—allowing consumers to feel like they are combating inequality while in reality they are allowing it to flourish.
As I finished the lingerie shoot this summer, I was overwhelmed with the inchoate feeling that the commodification of feminism has rendered its language unusable. I had never felt so disgusted with myself after finishing a shoot; if the same terminology used to describe Wages for Housework, protections for sex workers, and the fight for equal pay can also be used to market luxury bras and exploit models, more specific language is required. The corruption of “self-care” is a particularly clear and tragic exemplar of this need. Born within the Black Arts Movement to dignify the self-preservation of persecuted bodies, what was formerly a generative term has been enervated by consumer feminism, where its vestigial political overtones are now used to manufacture the need for elaborate skincare routines.
One of the most common retaliations against such abuses (and the one most commonly employed by critics of lifestyle feminism) is something I’ll call “identity policing.” In a desperate attempt to maintain the mythical integrity of the feminist movement, one becomes a swashbuckling defender of its borders, fixated on adjudicating who is and is not a “real” feminist. While I suppose that this behavior is not entirely unproductive (and this essay is certainly a manifestation of it), its energy is petty and its success partial. It is completely ineffective in displacing feminism from its status as a fetishized commodity. In fact, it seems only to uphold this status; by broadsiding capriciously-determined “outsiders,” the “insiders” become free to act however they please, from a position of renewed moral comfort.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because feminist identity policing is a subset of the broader internet phenomenon of “call-out” or “outrage culture,” in which a piece of writing aims (consciously or not) to slander and then ostracize something or someone perceived to have stepped outside the indeterminate boundaries of political correctness. Beyond the obvious and lasting harm done to the targets of such attacks, the casualties extend even to the level of the imagination. The structure of identity policing encourages defensive behavior; adherents are forced to operate from a place that fears exclusion rather than one which desires to create reform. Thus, even the kinds of people and complex, contradictory sets of ideals that can be considered “feminist” bend to conservative, unproductive limits that reduce the movement’s potential for radicalism and efficacy.
My cynicism about the “ins” and “outs” is bridled by the fact that identity isn’t just going to disappear, and railing invariably against it seems like shooting oneself in the foot. We define ourselves according to common interests and backgrounds because such self-definitions enable us to act—to pursue pleasure, acquire status, find comfort, avoid pain, or alter material conditions. To practice the feminism I desire, I need the support of others who share some of my ideals, and in order to gain that support, I must be able to identify them.
I will be forthright and say that while I have spent most of this critique doing the easy work of detailing what I don’t want, I struggle with the harder task of articulating what I do. I am tempted by an equally conservative alternative position, which is asceticism. If the language of feminism has indeed become unusable, I could jump ship in search of some island where I can speak without shouldering heaps of corporate baggage. This doesn’t seem too hard. As they say, “Women’s rights are human rights”—more jargon—and monumental improvements can be made to the quality of women’s lives by advocating for human rights in gender-neutral language. While one could joke that I’ll have to flee again once fast fashion starts printing goods promoting universal health care, it’s interesting that this appears much more alien a prospect than the commercialization of feminism, and also less indisputably harmful. Because they cannot brook claims to sovereignty, identities centered around courses of action seem more capable of tolerating difference than those centered on more static categories like gender, whose hereditary foundations seem to inspire a proclivity for turf wars.
I said before that asceticism is a conservative position—and it is for this reason that this approach still feels like a cop-out. Nietzsche said it best: asceticism is a willful blindness to the realities of the world, a refusal to even try to change it. My hypothetical refusal to engage with feminist language as it now exists does nothing to transform its qualities that I have come to loathe. And in this historical moment, the proposition of becoming some sort of Luddite verges on the ridiculous, if not impossible. I’ve been rereading Dialectic of Enlightenment recently, so I may be particularly impressionable to its pessimism, but I cannot shake the feeling that the capitalist apparatus has become more powerful than our ability to shake it. I make myself ludicrous in my own project of survival (Adorno and Horkheimer’s term for staying alive), which requires me to remain complicit in my own domination. In a week from now I’ll be shooting a very lucrative beauty campaign that I landed by ingratiating myself with the company’s VP of Creative—enthusiastically agreeing with her that the cosmetics industry empowers women. Other occupations I’ve had include pressuring women into buying shoddy designer handbags at artificially discounted prices, and writing glowing reviews of expensive makeup and skincare products that I have never used for an audience of teenagers who look up to me.
I have made many attempts to manufacture a hopeful conclusion to this essay, and I have not been able to find one that I believe. The truth is, this is not a problem that feminism can solve, or solve alone; it is capitalist at root, and whether it can be repaired is beyond the scope of what I hope to communicate here. Again I’m going to lean too heavily on the Frankfurt School—this time on Max Horkheimer, who struggled immensely with the same prospect of emancipation that we do now. Like us, he needed to live as he groped through these grand questions, which he increasingly suspected had a grim answer. So he invented and applied the notion of a “complementarity of theoretical pessimism and practical optimism,” requiring him to act as if he had faith in a better future, even if he felt he knew better. With this mindset, there is still much to be done. In addition to being more judicious about our consumption of both goods and information, it behooves us to treat what we generate just as carefully. Perhaps there is a way to create and transmit images that are more conducive to “proper thinking.” And more generally, to wield our identities more lightly, making space for the real work to begin.