Does That “Nasty Woman” T-Shirt Defeat Its Own Purpose?

Originally published in Paste Magazine.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

The past couple of years have been among the most politicized of the last decade, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. Depending on where you live, you’re probably hard pressed to go a day without seeing a red “Make America Great Again” hat or “Nasty Woman” t-shirt. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wearing your politics on you sleeve—or head, lapel or otherwise—it’s a practice that’s carried on for centuries. However, you’ve likely noticed an irrefutable uptick in merchandise specifically marketed towards feminists. Kendall Jenner was just spotted in a $710 Dior t-shirt that says “we should all be feminists,” and controversy was spurred when a gaggle of white celebrities promoted Suffragette in a t-shirt that said “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” While it’s understandable that women want to bring attention to the fight for women’s rights, when does all of the merch just become a capitalistic ploy, profiting on a contentious time in American politics?

Stop with the Pussyhats

What comes to mind when you think of January’s Women’s March? While it would be great if you thought about people from all walks of life, genders and sexualities coming together to express that a seemingly anti-woman president and administration wasn’t going to silence our voices, you probably just think of the pussyhats. What started as a cute idea to keep warm during a January march while simultaneously making a statement quickly became a way for knitters to make some cash off of the cause.

Bitch Magazine criticized the Pussyhat Project before the march even kicked off, saying, “the infantilizing kitten imagery combined with a stereotypically feminine color feels too safe and too reductive to be an answer to the complex issues facing women today.” That isn’t the only issue with these pink pointed hats, though.

If you search “pussyhat” on Etsy, you’ll find finished hats for anywhere from $15 to $30 or patterns to make your own for only $4. Some of these listings say that a “portion of proceeds” is donated to Planned Parenthood or other various women’s rights organizations, which is cool. Supplies and shipping are pricey so it’s understandable that sellers wouldn’t donate all of their funds. However, the majority of sellers are simply making money off of the movement for women’s rights.

Feminism under Capitalism

Take that adorable “Pussy Grabs Back” t-shirt you wore to the march that hasn’t left your drawer since. Where was it made? A factory in the United States, staffed by workers who are paid fair wages? Probably not. Now, don’t feel too guilty for unconsciously supporting the exploitation of overseas workers. According to KQED, approximately 2 percent of American clothes are actually made in the country in this day and age, despite the fact that we’re purchasing more pieces than ever before.

The eye-opening documentary The True Cost told the story of 23-year old Shima Akhter, a garment worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is currently the second biggest exporter of clothes sold in America, after China. Dhaka is also the site of the infamous 2013 sweatshop collapse, caused by cracks in the building that owners knew about, where 1,129 workers died.

Though Akhter lives in Dhaka so she can get to work quickly, her young daughter cannot live with her because she doesn’t have access to childcare in the city. Instead, she lives with Akhter’s relatives in a small town outside Dhaka. The conditions in the garment factory she works in are too hot for a child to stay in for such long hours, so that nixes the idea of taking her daughter to work with her. It’s no secret that the conditions of sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam wouldn’t even be an option in the U.S. It’s those harsh conditions, though, that allow factory owners to keep costs down so we can buy skirts for $10.

The True Cost states that over 85 percent of garment workers are women, and the minimum wage in Bangladesh is less than $3 per day. Akhter discusses the fact that she tried to unionize at her garment factory to get better pay and conditions for her and her co-workers, which ended up backfiring and causing a fight to break out in the factory.

Though you may mean well with your “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights” t-shirt, by supporting companies that exploit garment workers, you’re supporting an industry that actively denies women those very human rights that the shirt references.

Now, it’s not necessary to adopt a Marxist point of view to be a champion for the feminist cause. However, can we agree that it’s pretty awful to take the fact that women are fighting for their rights to their own bodies, equal pay for equal work, et cetera, and spin it to make a buck? Especially if exploited women overseas are the ones ironing those quippy statements on your shirts.

What Else Can We Do?

Luckily, if you feel so strongly about informing people about the wage gap that you want it emblazoned across your chest, there are less hypocritical options. Feminist Apparel sells collections in which 40% of the profits go toward organizations like the African American Policy Forum, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Hollaback!, Bust Magazine, and the Equality Institute. It also allows independent artists to sell their work on the site. The website also states that its feminist designs are printed on Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production-certified shirts that also adhere to the codes of the Fair Labor Association. It’s also beneficial to support independent artists who sell these types of goods at local craft fairs—this way, they get to keep all of their profits or donate what they deem fit.

If you don’t need a token for your donation to human rights organizations, though, it’s more beneficial to donate a full $30 to the organization of your choice, instead of depending on a middleman to donate $12 for you. Not only do you contribute more money while spending the same amount, but you’re also guaranteed that the donation is going where you want it.

Another way to practice what you preach is to skip the idea of clever merchandise that draws attention to your feminist leanings and just support women-owned businesses. Next time you’re in the market for a new outfit, check out a local boutique owned by a woman instead of shopping at the mall. If you’re in the market for a certain service, look for a company run by a female. According to Womenable, there are approximately 11.3 million woman-owned businesses in the country, all which employ nearly 9 million people. This number has increased by 45 percent since 2006 while the overall growth of businesses in the U.S. has only been 9 percent. The number of businesses owned by women of color has risen by 127 percent since 2006 as well. That means that women are getting shit done, despite typically facing hardships that men don’t, like the expectation to juggle work and children, harassment and discrimination in the workplace and even fewer opportunities to secure funding.

So, next time you see a cute, mass-produced shirt at Target, sporting some girl power-esque slogan, think of what you can do to actually benefit the cause in a tangible way… and do that instead.