The Spice Girls and ‘gender justice’ t-shirts: do feminism and capitalism really mix?

Bangladeshi garments workers work inside a factory at Ashulia, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on December 26, 2016.

It’s not hard to see the ways in which brands and corporations co-opt recent trends into their products and their rhetoric. Consider Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ advertisements, the Nike Foundation’s launch of the ‘Girl Effect’ charity, or Gillette’s ‘Be Better’ campaign. All of these profit-seeking companies have incorporated feminist language and sentiments of self-acceptance, empowerment and gender-equality. All encourage their audience to question long-held expectations about the way men and women should interact with themselves and with each other. Which would be incredible if it weren’t for the fact that these companies are part of the problem, in the most insidious way. Dove urges you to accept your body’s flaws whilst selling you products to ‘fix’ aforementioned flaws. Nike uses the problematic idea of ‘smart economics’ (the idea that investing in women will empower them enough to get themselves out of poverty, conveniently ignoring the other gendered structural barriers) to subtly deflect responsibility for the role they themselves play in exploiting factory workers, the majority of which are women. Gillette hijacks the very real danger of toxic masculinity to tell men everywhere: be the best you can be (by using our products).

It is infuriating but not astonishing. There is no genuine compatibility between capitalism and feminist ideals of universal equality, because capitalism is by nature an exploitative practice that is built on – and sustained by – systematic inequality. It is that simple, even though capitalist systems themselves are immensely complex and varied in their exploitation. Just like too many cooks will spoil the broth, too many empowered and enriched people will eat into precious profit margins and prevent a very tiny percentage of people from making a lot of money. So it was entirely unsurprising to me when The Guardian revealed that the Spice Girls #wannabe T-shirts, sold by Comic Relief to fund their ‘gender justice’ campaign, were made in a factory that paid their (mostly female) workers 35p an hour and subjected them to abusive and aggressive treatment. How disgustingly ironic. Capitalism and its bedfellow, neo-liberal democracy, has an incredible talent of creating a problem out of thin air, socialising it into public consciousness and then selling us solutions to those problems.

Like feminism, capitalism is a mind-set and ideology, perhaps first and foremost. The profit agenda that runs through the core of consumerism means that for the system to work, only a select few can be capitalists and the rest must fund; whether that is through employment, labour or product consumption. But this inevitable inequality, coupled with patriarchy, mean that women and girls are uniquely disadvantaged. Women are usually paid less than men and often must make choices about their career that men do not. Women and girls face stigmatisation over their bodies, their sexuality, their biological functions, and face a global epidemic of sexual assault and harassment. They are more likely to work in exploitative lower paid jobs, such as textiles, that supplement the hungry fashion industry; and are more likely to have less control over the money that they make, if they make it. And on the other end of the spectrum, companies that actively contribute to this produce ‘feminist’ t-shirts and bags to promote something they clearly do not believe in. This is of course a rather simplified analysis of the problem, but the essence is the same: any company that hijacks feminist language or gender-sensitive development debates is most likely exploiting the very people it purports to be helping.

Although The Spice Girls themselves were likely to be unaware of the labour exploitation, their visibility and contribution to the project bestows on them a responsibility to pay attention to what they put their name to, especially as they embrace a ‘girl power’ attitude. And as consumers (who hopefully also identify as feminists), we have a responsibility to check who makes our products and whether we are betraying the values we supposedly stand for. This is far easier said than done, and requires an unprecedented level of effort. But actively avoiding mindless consumerism may be the biggest feminist contribution you could make.


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