“Branded feminism is a bloodletting of the movement and it can no longer continue”

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, journalist and Mushpit co-editor, Bertie Brandes discusses why she's fed up with brands jumping on the feminist band wagon. 

Feminist Bertie Brandes says:

In recent years, feminism has become very visible.

I don’t know if you can tell, but that’s me trying to be nice. This visibility does not mean all people are now comfortable with feminism, but as a concept it has become front row, phone case, sweatshirt and Instagram-bio-relevant.

You could argue this is progress; I’m not so sure.

The fascination with feminism currently playing out across the fashion and beauty industries feels far from pro-active or political. Instead, it appears to be largely down to an exchange between brands, celebrities and media platforms; each fuelling the other’s desire for content.

The discussion of what does and does not fly within the individualist feminism sold to my generation is highly charged, unrelenting and not particularly interesting. You only have to look at the frenzy caused by a partially bare Kim Kardashian selfie (you can hardly grant that collage of censorship the term “naked”) to see how eagerly the media cover every sexy sexy aspect of it. And while this mainstreaming of feminism appears on the surface to signify a widening of our movement, scratch deeper and you’ll see how it’s having a rather less worthy effect.

Yes, suddenly everyone’s interested in what makes a worthy feminist; from the bathroom mirror to the bathroom cabinet to the boardroom and back to the bedroom – and where the media leaves its footprint, along come the brands with their magnifying glasses and direct line to the head of their factory in Thailand. Now it’s all so simple: wash your hair with #WomanPower and when you shave your armpits don’t forget to #UseYourAnd.

At the moment as far as I can tell the general ethos of on-brand feminism is about charging inaction with meaning. It’s about focussing in on the inane aspects of an apparently ubiquitous daily routine and encouraging women to see it as a vehicle for self-improvement under the questionable guise of a political movement.

This is not a feminism that is interested in issues like paternity leave or sexual health – this is a feminism that is interested in leg hair and lip fillers. It portrays a placid, Instagrammable, largely white, well-spoken portrait of liberation; a liberation which hinges on its community being in work, being in to grooming, being aspirational. I don’t buy it, especially when it’s being sold to me by a company who also happens to sell razors.

From here, the question is: ok, it’s disingenuous, but does that matter?

Surely, every little helps. Surely discussing feminism with a wider audience is a good thing, regardless of the platform being a bit corporate and the edges being a bit blunted. Sure.

Except, this isn’t really feminism is it? Feminism is a movement which (yes, I know, Google it: equality) and, say, Brand X is a company which sells various soap products wrapped in different coloured bits of plastic. Brand X does not share its sole objective with feminism, it is using feminism as a USP in order to flog various forms of an ingredient and by doing so it places the movement within a capitalist framework.

This is where things become slightly less straightforward – the mainstream is scrubbing our feminism clean when in reality we should be daubing on war paint. I’ve been in meeting rooms with marketing managers, I know how scared they are of all things even remotely provocative, messy or unpredictable. The emergence of feminism as a branding tool is a bloodletting of the movement writ large on billboards in central London.

Under the veneer of democratisation, we are seeing our generation’s feminism diluted, depoliticised and dangerously slick-ified.

If there’s one thing brands aren’t comfortable with, I would assume it’s encouraging radicalisation. Why then, are they so happy to co-opt a political movement which at its very core is fighting for radical change? Probably because women are savvier and more engaged than ever and brands know they need to at least appear as though they’re keeping up.

Unfortunately, by re-packaging feminism so cleanly you can hear it squeak from outer space they simply reinforce the same capitalist (and inherently patriarchal) tropes of self-made success and individualism that we need to push back against.

In an interview on Democracy Now about her book Lean Out, writer Dawn Foster describes what she terms “lifestyle-feminism” as “toxic”; “you have to be careful not to expend energy on lauding that soap manufacturer or cereal manufacturer” she adds. I think energy is a really good way of quantifying the damage that the commercialisation of feminism might inflict on the wider movement.

Multi-million pound corporations should not be championed as feminist activists – feminist activists should be. Foster’s right about their insignificance and she’s right that we shouldn’t waste time thanking them for apparently liberating our morning routines from the patriarchy.

These brands have nothing to do with feminism, and when it comes to praise they are unequivocally not worth it.

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.