Smart shopping in a marketplace feminist world

Since Beyonce and Taylor Swift made feminism cool a few years ago, and even more so since the ultimate embodiment of toxic masculinity waltzed into the White House, we’ve seen a surge in marketplace feminism–companies using seemingly feminist messages to market and sell their products or services. 

For a comprehensive look into marketplace feminism, read Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once. But you won’t need to look far to find examples of marketplace feminism, whether it’s Nordstrom selling a “feminist t-shirt” for $30 or Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign or L’Oreal celebrating “boldness” on “National Lipstick Day,” brands have learned that they can move product by weaving feminist-leaning messages into their products.

I’ve written before about why companies using messages of “female empowerment” is complicated and shouldn’t be celebrated without close analysis. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to not participate in marketplace feminism or buy products that tout feminist messages. While progressives aren’t making nearly enough headway in our government, it seems like plenty of feminist-minded people have made it into corporate marketing and PR departments (or, potentially, people who just understand how to harness a population’s anger to make money).

Of course, their motivations are complicated and questionable. Are for-profit corporations, instead of our government or non-profit organizations, the entities that should be driving change? I’m not sure (government doesn’t seem up to the challenge these days).

But I want to set that argument aside for now, and instead ask, if you’re a consumer (which you are) and if you’re a feminist (which you might be, since you’re reading this blog), how can you make sure that when you buy a product that promotes a message you support, you aren’t actually giving money to a company that perpetuates anti-feminist ideals?

The best strategy is approaching every “feminist product” with skepticism and doing your research about the manufacturer. Do the proceeds of the “Smash the patriarchy” onesie you want to buy for your daughter go to an organization that does real good in the world, or do they fund a company that uses a factory with meager wages and unsafe working conditions? Take the time to analyze the seller, the designer, and the manufacturer. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it’s necessary.

You should also be prepared to articulate and back up whatever message your product is proclaiming. If you buy a coffee mug with an Audre Lorde quote, you should be able to talk in depth about Audre Lorde and her legacy. 

Finally, you should remember that saying, wearing, and buying a product that promotes a message of female empowerment does not make you a feminist or an activist. You can only do that through real work and activism. That’s not to say that buying a “Nasty Woman” to support Planned Parenthood is a bad thing–it’s a great thing, go buy one now!–but it should just be a small part of your personal feminist agenda. Do real work. Make things happen. Research before you buy.