When I was a lonely college freshman living with an obnoxious roommate, I bought a “feminist as fuck” shirt in the hopes of making outspoken conservatives in my various classes uncomfortable. On my campus, comprised of mostly white and upper-middle-class students, I wore it proudly and I was pleased with all the positive comments I received on the shirt. Students and faculty alike commented on my bravery and my edginess.
A couple years later as I’ve gained some more perspective on social justice and activism, I’ve realized that buying a feminist as fuck t-shirt didn’t make me more of a feminist or a better feminist. I had just fallen into the trap of virtue signaling and marketplace feminism.
Part One: Virtue Signaling
What is virtue signaling? It’s publicly expressing your opinions to demonstrate your good character and correctness about a particular issue. It’s doing good things not because you should be doing them, but because it gives you brownie points. It’s like putting out your old rosary before your parents visit to make them think you’re actually going to Mass.
A more specific example is wearing a safety pin to indicate your stance as an ally but not actually involving yourself with marginalized communities or dressing your three-year-old boy in a “wild feminist” t-shirt for no other reason than the likes and “YASSS QUEEN ?” comments you’ll get on Facebook.
Virtue signaling doesn’t have a backbone. It doesn’t require any sort of self-reflection nor does it affect any sort of change in the lives of people around your or society at large. This is harmful because many people who call themselves activists only virtue signal. They might care about racism, white supremacy, fascism, poverty, but only get involved at a surface level -- buying a feminist t-shirt.
For activism to be effective, it needs to have a backbone. It needs to come from a place of commitment to the cause itself.
But as always things aren’t just black and white. Everything requires nuance.
Publicly expressing your opinions isn’t always virtue signaling. There are times when it can be beneficial. The difference between virtue signaling and activism is the intent and the context. If your “the future is female” t-shirt sparks a productive conversation with someone on the bus about feminism or queer studies, then I’d say it was good praxis. If you are able to engage with the subject you are promoting thoughtfully and productively then publicly expressing your opinions is actual activism.
Part Two: Marketplace Feminism
Andi Zeisler, Bitch Media editor, wrote a whole book about this so writing a blog post really isn’t going to do the subject justice. If this is something you are interested in learning more about, I would highly encourage you to check out “We Were Feminists Once.”
What is Marketplace Feminism? Marketplace feminism is the commodification of feminism and female empowerment -- feminism that has been co-opted by neoliberals and capitalists.
Being a feminist wasn’t always something people aspired to be but as feminism has changed and grown over the years, it’s seen a boom in popularity.
Now, feminism is everywhere: on your lipstick, in department stores, on Buzzfeed and paparazzi magazines. As society has become more aware of sexism and male supremacy, feminism has grown into a new form of branding.
Marketplace feminism supports the materialistic idea that buying products decorated with the word “feminist” or “feminism” is an act of feminism. Wearing “the future is female” t-shirts is an act of feminism. Buying a menstrual cup is an act of feminism. Posing with a statue of a girl on Wall Street is an act of feminism. Using the hashtag #likeagirl is an act of feminism. Going to see Wonder Woman is an act of feminism.
These are not actually acts of feminism.
Being a feminist requires more than just participating in a capitalistic society. If that were true, we would all be feminists the moment we bought our pink girl power lipstick or purchased these empowering tampons and pads. Everyone who buys lipstick or pads -- even lipstick or pads marketed as “empowering” or “feminist” is not a feminist.
Marketplace feminism only serves as a distraction to real feminist issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, trans women's murder rates and the pay gap. It just feeds our desires for virtue signaling.
This easy form of feminism is dangerous because it doesn’t require us to change anything, yet it still makes us feel like we’re doing something.
Just because I bought a feminist as fuck t-shirt, it didn’t make me a better feminist. I became a better feminist through self-education, listening and having conversations with people who knew more about feminism than me.
Wearing my feminist as fuck shirt can be productive and an act of activism if I’m also involving myself with activities and behaviors that promote change. Feminism is hard and messy and difficult. It should never be as easy as buying hygiene products, reading a listicle or buying an article of clothing.
Rebekah L. Markillie
a PDX based creative who enjoys reading books, contemplating the oxford comma and rolling for initiative.
What's Up Radical Feminist