Kinzah Khan reconsiders the way we use feminist terms, and why we’re (literally) paying for it.
Have you walked into Paperchase recently? If you go into the one at the end of Tottenham Court Road and take a left to the table with all the notebooks, you’ll see a lot of diaries, planners, diet trackers and so on. A lot of these books have quirky phrases on them like ‘seize the day’ and ‘you can do it’ and a whole bunch of other feeble attempts to motivate us to get organised. I’ve noticed that since the growth of the women’s rights movement, a lot of these notebooks from Paperchase, as well as jumpers from Primark and backpacks from H&M, have ‘GRL PWR’ and ‘#Feminism’ scrawled all over them. As the trend of feminist merchandise has grown over the last few years, I’ve found myself becoming more reluctant to use it, and I think I know why. In order to explain, allow me to compare the effect of my changing attitudes to another favourite of mine: Harry Potter.
I was obsessed with Harry Potter when I was younger. The books launched me into the literary world and the story was a huge part of my childhood, as I am sure is true for many members of our generation. Up until 2011, the story was still the focus as it was only the books and films that had been released. All of the products that surrounded it were background noise. Shortly after the ending of the movies, the opening of the theme park in Florida, the Studio Tour in Watford and the interactive website were announced, which truly made the story timeless.
Now, nine years later, it pains me to say we’re at a point where Harry Potter is being shoved down our throats: the opening of the London play and the new series of movies were perhaps unnecessary but they are excellent in their own right, if taken independent of the original story. I am focusing on the obsessive outpouring of products: Primark literally has a whole section of their store dedicated to Potter merch. It’s gone too far and now the story is no longer the focus of that world. It feels like it’s lost its authenticity and has become an annoyance. And this is coming from someone who loves J.K.Rowling’s work. So why has this happened? It is due to the commodification of something that could have been left alone to exist; just the existence of that thing would have been powerful enough for those that loved and appeciated it. I think the same theory can be applied to the word feminism.
Feminism, as a term, has an academic standing. It is a theory as well as a practice, and it is not just a 21st century word that has come up in the last few years to represent the women’s rights movement. In fact, my first proper engagement with the term was in my A-Level English class where it was used as a lens with which to critique texts. Feminist theory is also used as a branch of international relations, in the comparisons of laws and in the interpretation of religion. Feminist academia has a long, gruelling history that has been ripped apart and put back together countless times. It’s powerful. So why do people roll their eyes when you declare yourself as a feminist? Well, just as with Harry Potter, it’s being shoved down our throats in the form of products and hashtags. The word has become ingrained in popular culture, rather than a credible academic term. It’s a trend, categorised alongside viral dances and memes. It’s trendy to be a feminist in the same way that is fashionable eat avocado toast and a huge part of that is from the commodification of the word.
You might be asking ‘why do you care do much? It’s just a word’. Well, no, reader, it’s not just a word. It’s a word that represents a movement. I’m not going to delve into complicated political theory but essentially, words or terms act as a common ground; a force that can unite people regardless of their backgrounds. If the term that represents the women’s rights movement triggers the knee-jerk reaction of an eye-roll, how can the movement itself be taken seriously? I understand the commodification of the term is only a partial explanation for the deformation, but I think it at least bolsters the inauthenticity of the term.
Maybe it’s just me who has felt the effect of exaggerated feminist merchandise, but I can’t ignore the slight twinge I feel in my stomach when I see the neon ‘#FEMINIST’ signs sold online. The exploitation of the term feminism degrades the autheniticy of it which has a domino effect of degrading the authenticity of the movement itself due to the knee-jerk reaction it stimulates from reactionaries. A movement needs supporters, but if the term that represents that movement automatically dissuades potential supporters from considering it, we grind to a halt and the movement becomes stagnant. I’m not suggesting the feminist movement is stagnant, but I do believe the core is becoming lost – and even confusing – in the whirlpool of product placement.
I will always be a feminist and, realistically, will continue to use the term, in the same way I will always be a fan of Harry Potter and will declare this to anyone who mentions anything remotely related to the story. My conclusion is two fold: firstly, feminism is not just a term to have as a badge on your bag. The depth and academic prowess of the term should not be lost in this outpouring of products. Secondly, to those who automatically reject the term because they may think it is just a word girls have on the front of their notebook, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Feminism is more than a commodity, and, much like a human being, shouldn’t be exploited for the sake of profit.