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This Is Not What Feminism Looks Like (The Feminist Shirt Controversy)

If feminism itself was not already a controversial issue, creating “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts using (predominantly female) sweatshop labor and distributing them to male icons like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (my personal celebrity crush), Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, took a step in the wrong direction.

ELLE UK
ELLE UK
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Feminism, quite simply, is the “radical” view that women and men should have equality – no double standards in societal perspectives, no glass ceiling, no objectification and commercialization – the list goes on. In the United States (and in most of the world), it is not difficult to see the male-centric perspective that dominates and governs society, politics, the judicial system, and the workplace (P.S. Sweden has dramatically benefited from seeing things from a more gender-balanced perspective regarding government policies and regulations on issues such as prostitution). From receiving a smaller paycheck for the same career (devaluing the potential or work of a woman) to the widespread lack of justice for rape victims and victim-blaming, the existing system in most of the rest of the world lays testament to the strong need of a feminist movement–one which both men and women need to be a part of in order to succeed.

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Enter the “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” shirts that you might have seen on the chests of some of the most in-demand men in Hollywood to raise awareness for this movement (in the guise of consumerism, of course, but we can save capitalist holidays/agendas for another time 😉 ). In theory, the idea of getting influential men to spread the word about, and trying to normalize, feminism, sounds like a decent way to attract more men to join the cause (which unfortunately is not the easiest task to do). Not to mention that these roughly $70-$80 t-shirts are also raising money for charity. Sounds like a potentially alright plan?

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Daily Mail

Well, except for the teensy little part about the whole “these-shirts-were-made-in-a-sweatshop” thing. Which, I suppose, is slightly important and relevant to the discussion of feminism, given that most garment workers are marginalized women trying their best to make ends meet for their families, and are already taken heavily advantage of. It’s amazing how easy it is, as consumers, to not think twice about where our products come from. Scratch that. It’s incredibly frightening. The conditions in sweatshops are fairly widely known if you just do a simple google search, so it would not be necessary to again go through what these horrid conditions would entail here, but rather to understand the difficulty in reconciling the production of “feminist” shirts by exploited women.

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While Fawcett claims to have launched an investigation into the suspicions on unethical practices which has concluded that such assertions are not accurate, (because a brand would definitely want to admit to hypocrisy, right?) the Daily Mail seems to have reached a different conclusion: women in their factories are being treated in a way counter-productive to the clothing’s suggested message. Earning less than the minimum wage is not only violating the basic human rights of these women, but it also directly contradicts the goals and purposes of feminism as a means of empowering and encouraging women. And this raises important questions for the feminist movement rooted in such consumer-based societies: Does feminism, as a movement, only extend to white, American women? As a feminist, is it not your responsibility to take into consideration the message your money is sending to fashion companies’ mass exploitation of marginalized women around the world? 

Hoda Katebi

Hoda Katebi

Hoda Katebi is an Iranian activist and fashion blogger from Oklahoma going to school in Chicago. Her blog, JooJoo Azad, meaning "Free Bird" in Farsi, is filled with photography of personal style and discussions on social-responsibility within the fashion industry. Warning: this site is more than just pretty pictures.

7 Comments
  1. Does feminism, as a movement, only extend to white, American women? As a feminist, is it not your responsibility to take into consideration the message your money is sending to fashion companies’ mass exploitation of marginalized women around the world?

    You are too extreme in your opinions. Why should the u.s. be responsible for everything on the planet when other countries just want to ram it down our throats. Go back to your country and work on changing the thousands of years of downtrodden backward thinking and apply your message there.

    1. Seriously? “Go back to your country?” She was born and raised in Oklahoma. Which might SEEM like a different country, but I can assure you, her country is the same as yours.

  2. Thanks, Hoda, I appreciated this smart take on the feminist t-shirt topic. (When I was a teenager, my mom gave me a button with the same phrase on it; she had worn it in the 70s.) But in reading the first paragraph, I wondered who the audience is for Skirt. Do readers here need a textbook-dull definition of feminism before they can dig in to the story? If that’s the case, I wonder if I’m on the wrong site.

  3. Yeah, I bet this particular t-shirt run could have done better without a lot of effort — do a Google search for “sweatshop free t-shirts” — but more generally, I think about the pervasiveness of worker exploitation (and for that matter environmental exploitation) being on the same order of magnitude worldwide as the oppression of women and imagine the paralysis of activists trying to avoid any such criticism. Is your protest message written on 100% post-consumer recycled paperboard? Are you keeping hydrated with water from your reusable bottle? Did you take public transit? Is that locally-sourced organic soy jerky in your sweatshop-free fanny pack? Ack. And don’t even start with the fallacy of prioritizing causes…

  4. I’m glad this issue is being brought up. But unfortunately people will pay attention to the pretty causes, like good looking male celebrities wearing a shirt instead of ugly issues like women being taken advantage of. At least one of the two issues is being addressed, even if it’s not the one that needs the most attention.

  5. I would not consider “Hollywood men” for anything in the realm of advice. Most of these “men” are effeminate and homosexual. Them wearing a t-shirt that espouses their mistaken feminist views are no more likely to persuade me than that idiotic premise of a show “Queer eye for the straight guy”. Benedict Cumberbatch is a homosexual. Why would I (a straight man) take any advice from him? The fact that these t-shirts were made in a sweatshop further advance the notion, to me, that feminists are ignorant tools.

    1. Actually, Benedict Cumberbatch is straight. Not sure where you got the idea that he was gay, especially considering that he and his fiancee are expecting their first child together.

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