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The Problem With Shoppable Feminism

02/10/2015 06:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Sam Edwards via Getty Images

Amongst the hoards of vintage dresses and snarky cross-stitch creations that populate Etsy's pages exists a vast collection of t-shirts, tote bags and patches, all exuding a pink, glitterfied message of "girl power." The vendor site popular amongst kitschy and crafty crowds has helped foster a market for "feminist" paraphernalia that embraces a definitively "feminine" style -- think bubble-lettered Venus symbols, plushie uteruses, and grrrl power bracelets. Yet while these products seem to advertise feminism, they don't advertise it as an ideology or set of fundamental human rights: They advertise feminism as an aesthetic.

Homemade "girl power" accessories have made it easy for women, most commonly in their teens and 20s, to show off their personal beliefs through their appearance -- an appearance that is self-consciously stylized to a point of exaggeration. Pastel polka-dotted "smash the patriarchy" patches have turned a statement of resistance to the oppressive system of male domination into a catchy phrase that adds an extra touch of playful provocativeness to any outfit. Feminist ideologies become a fashion trend.

While the trendiness of feminism in the marketplace does offer some benefits by making feminism as a concept more approachable and appealing to the general public, it also does the feminist movement a disservice by reducing such a large scope of aspects into small, digestible accessories. Girl power products don't tackle issues like the wage gap. They may share slogans and phrases that raise awareness about problems like birth control-accessibility and sexual assault, but most often they overlook these real, harmful issues that feminism works to improve. Most problematic, however, are products that focus on gender as a biological identity, marketing tampon-themed crafts and the like as feminist accessories and therefore alienating the trans community from the movement.

What's being sold is Feminism Lite: an ideology shaved down to its most digestible bits, molded into something bite-sized, and packaged in a pretty, trend-worthy package.

But this isn't to say that feminism's common catch phrases, ideas and inspirations have no place on items that are bought and sold. Girl power-themed apparel and accessories can help spread feminist ideas to people who have trouble understanding the f-word. Elementary feminism can eventually lead to middle school feminism, to high school, to college and beyond. It's a start -- but a start that can lead down some dangerous paths.

The issue with feminism as a packaged and sellable idea is that an ideology becomes destroyed once it is turned into an aesthetic. Profit comes before progress. And as sellable feminism becomes popular amongst individual shop-owners, creators and designers, it moves easily to a larger scale capitalist venture.

T-shirt company FCKH8, getting wind of feminism's rise to fashion, took the web by storm in October with the release of their viral video, featuring young girls cursing while talking about gender inequality. The video raised some important points about the necessity of feminism (the wage gap, sexual assault) yet did so in a way that was both inappropriate -- making girls under the age of ten discuss rape -- and self-serving at heart. The company is for-profit, selling "anti-sexism gear" and only giving a few dollars per shirt to "kick-ass charities working to make the world more equal for women and girls," and ultimately using shock tactics to maximize their own revenue and breaking down an ideology into a series of catchy phrases in neon font printed on American Apparel t-shirts.

While feminist fashion products may allow feminists to display their beliefs with pride, they also reduce those beliefs to something that amounts to nothing more than a trend, easily packaged up and put on the self until it becomes in-style again. For feminism to help society to make real progress it has to be much more than a few fun slogans and kitschy Venus signs, made for the ultimate goal of a profit. Gender inequality is an expansive issue that requires a thorough, active force to eliminate it.

Wear your "fight the patriarchy" tee and "girl power" bracelet if you must. But fight for real change while you're at it.