Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
This spring, The New York Times published an article for International Women's Day highlighting fashion designer Tory Burch's "Embrace Ambition" campaign, which attempted to reclaim the word and rid it of the stigma attached to female ambition. Burch's campaign features photographs of celebrities wearing T-shirts featuring different slogans: Kerry Washington wears "Strong," Reese Witherspoon wears "Powerful," Yara Shahidi wears "Ambitious." These shirts can be bought for around $70, or for those who don't want to spend that much, there are bracelets bearing similar slogans for $30. This type of feminism seems rather passive and exclusive. It's an elitist form of "resistance" which benefits none other than the companies who sell these products in the name of female ambition.
Ambition has gone the way of many phrases orbiting the representation of feminism in the mainstream media. These phrases have been adopted and employed as hashtags to be used on celebrity Instagrams and overpriced T-shirts. Phrases such as "feminist af" and "nevertheless, she persisted" have stopped representing the circumstances and issues from which they emerged and turned into something more palatable and, perhaps more importantly, marketable. Many companies, such as Asos, Forever 21 and H&M, have followed the path of Burch, allowing for their consumers to engage in a screen-printed, capitalized form of feminism that in no way challenges the social structures that hinder the success of women. These companies do nothing to better the lives of their female employees, yet proclaim that "we should all be feminists."
Gawker published an article chronicling the company Ed & Harriet's exploitive labor practices in which, "women … who were hired to make shirts that read 'This is what a feminist looks like' have been paid roughly a dollar an hour to do so and sleep in dormitories that house 16 women at a time." The Daily Mail wrote about this same company, saying, "It would take a woman working in the factory nearly two weeks just to buy one shirt." What is feminist about this? In a movement defined by the liberation and betterment of all women, how is this injustice present in so many lives and wardrobes?
The answer lies in the culture, in which commercialized feminism, or #feminism, is not a movement grounded in the betterment of all women, but rather a brand. This branding has expressed feminist concepts like being "ambitious" and "grabbing back" exclusively through the lens of the commercial, rather than through social action, critical thinking and discussion.
So, how can we as students become more conscious of this and create spaces on campus that foster conversations about meaningful, intersectional change? There isn't any one answer, but beginning conversations about what it means to support immoral companies is a start. I will be the first to admit that I too enjoy buying cute buttons and shirts that bear the reminder, "we should all be feminists," a reminder that feels increasingly necessary given the current political climate on our campus and the country. But I believe the people who wear them should be held accountable.
How do we have meaningful discussion and foster concrete change without supporting companies that do not value the struggles and lives of all women? How do we do things like being "ambitious" and "grabbing back" in ways that perpetuate a culture of intersectional change and discussion? The answer is by no means going to be simple or easy, but remaining critical of the malevolent forces present in our everyday lives is a good first step.
Sarah Riback is a sophomore English and sociology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.