Pitfalls of a Slogan Tee

Last week, Elle UK teamed up with The Fawcett Society — a British women's advocacy group — to celebrate men celebrating women. Or more specifically, to carry on Emma Watson's UN message and #HeForShe mandate, in which she invited men to declare themsleves feminists and to fight for women's rights. T-shirts were going to be made, they were going to say, "This is what a feminist looks like" on them, and proceeds were going to go to The Fawcett Society via Whistles, a high-end British chain.

So far, so good.

This explains why when Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Pegg, and various other British celebrities eagerly stepped up to wear said t-shirt and to show their support. Cool! Less cool, however, was the report by the Daily Mail that claimed these t-shirts had been made in a sweatshop in India, where women were working for about $1/hour and sleeping 16 to a room.

Since, Reuters has reported that Whistles has taken the t-shirt off the shelves, but The Fawcett Society stands by it, having released a statement this weekend that they personally took all necessary steps to ensure they were ethically made and would like to see more proof before the cause-via-merch is put to bed.

So: this is a massive clusterfuck, then. And who wins? Like, seriously, who? Not Emma Watson, who fronted Elle UK's feminist issue, and who is trying to drum up support for #HeForShe. Not the celebrities who wore the t-shirt, because now they look like pawns. Not feminists, not The Fawcett Society, and certainly not the women who've been working in that factory. No one. The Guardian put it pretty bluntly yesterday: the fashion industry ruins everything.

Now, I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, which is fine because we're not going to talk about that here. But what I do think can ruin everything is the commodification of a cause. For the record, I love items whose proceeds are donated, I love limited edition lines that work well in conjunction with an issue or group, and I love people who try their best. But I do not love things like, say, decking my car out in pink for breast cancer awareness. (Like, we are all very aware. Now what?) I don't like the "consent is sexy" slogan because consent shouldn't have to be. (It should be common knowledge. I don't want to have sex with you. Respect that, and fuck off.) And, while I know everyone's heart was in the right place in this specific case, I don't know if I like the idea of a t-shirt telling me that "This is what a feminist looks like." We should all be feminsits. We should all look like them.

But this isn't a condemnation of the effort because we're still in the wee baby steps of figuring out how feminism in popular culture is supposed to, well, be. Everyone — well, most of us — is/are learning and trying their hardest, and to spread a message that's usually followed up with an insult or derogatory remark is no easy feat. Some people are only able to call themselves feminists now. Like, in 2014. So while celebrity feminism can be a polarizing topic, I'm going to support the idea that a famous might inspire a teenager to advocate for equality, or stand up for themselves, or report a sexual assault. We've had far worse buzzwords than "feminsm." So that being said, celebrities wearing a feminist t-shirt isn't the real issue at hand. The issue at hand is the, "that's it" component. Like: "I bought a shirt! That's it." Or, "I wore a shirt! That's it." Or even more upsetting, "I said I'm a feminist! That's it."

That's not it. But I also get that what's beyond a declaration can be terrifying. When I was in university, I was very vocal about equality, and I was also very overwhelmed. Why? Because it's all very fucking overwhelming. I saw how some of my feminist friends had been treated, I heard how guys talked about feminists, and while I was also happy to nestle into my "fuck you" mentality, to do anything beyond that seemed insane. So I talked to somebody I looked up to, and she said simply, "Use your gifts."

And I won't lie to you: that confused me even more. But the older I got, and the less "new" feminism seemed, the more I understood how to put what she told me into practice. First, activism isn't the same for everybody. And, aside from supporting gender equality and actively deciding not being the worst (which is just a good life skill to have), there's no "right" way to be a feminist. But it also can't just end with a t-shirt. (Anybody can wear one of those. And 99% of the time, what they say mean nothing. I own a t-shirt with a hashtag on it, for heaven's sake. I think it even says "Selfie." You 100% can't judge a person on the t-shirt they wear.)

But "use your gifts"? I know: what the fuck.

So, I see it this way: Congratulations! You're a feminist. Amazing. Now what are you good at? What do you like to do? What are you passionate about doing? Use it. Are you a writer? Write about feminism. A comedian? Keep your jokes misogyny-free. Are you just a person who is still trying to figure out what your "gifts" are? We've all been there. So take it step by step: your pals catcall a woman, you tell them to stop. You see anyone catcall a woman, you tell them to stop. You refuse to watch things that glorify hurting and damaging women. You stop laughing at jokes that make women feel stupid and small or trivialize things like rape and domestic violence. Your "gift" can just be "existing." But even existing requires some leg-work. You can wear a t-shirt, sure, but you better do something else in it.

And I know that causes seem daunting. But as helpful as celebrity feminism can be, it can be damaging if we're not going past buzzwords and declarations. If we're buying a t-shirt and expecting that to solve centuries-old systemic problems, we've got an even bigger one. And if you're a dude and think that wearing a feminist t-shirt makes you some White Knight crusader, that's something else to take issue with. (Because, for the record: we, as women, don't need to be saved. We need allies — and for you to please just let us speak.) 

This is a lot to take away from a t-shirt, I know. So remember, if this does feel overwhelming, remember that there is always somebody to tell you to use your gifts; or at the very least, to answer the question I had for the teacher at my university: "How do I help?"

Tags: celebrity feminism, Elle UK, t-shirts

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