Throughout the past few years, empowering women has increasingly become a central marketing ploy for brands, media companies and even celebrities. Pink knit “pussy” hats, T-shirts emblazoned with “The Future Is Female” and the Sheryl Sandberg-branded concept of “leaning in” appear more cringe-worthy than feminist. And in an era where women’s rights are at stake, it’s becoming easier to see which brands have co-opted the idea of female empowerment vs. having it authentically ingrained as a part of its brand ethos.
The idea of corporate feminism — which caters to wealthy, white women, and neglects diversity and inclusion — has been more visible than ever since the 2016 presidential election. There are two key elements that seemingly propelled this trend even further: Donald Trump and the 2017 Women’s March.
In a debate with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in October 2016, Trump famously went on a tirade where he called his female opponent a “nasty woman.” Trump’s comments went viral but incited a gamut of merch with “Nasty Woman” screen-printed on it. Brands largely donated a portion of their proceeds to nonprofits, but it sparked a trend that brands latched onto that didn’t always have altruistic intentions. In 2017, the first Women’s March took place in Washington, D.C., a protest that gave visibility to women, but also seemed to be an opportunity to buy and show off feminist merch rather than enact change.
The start of The Wing is worth mentioning: a co-working space and social club solely for women formed by Audrey Gelman in October 2016. The Instagrammable millennial pink space, which has since expanded to eight locations throughout the U.S. — functions as an office or meeting space and also hosts regular events featuring everyone from Clinton to Kerry Washington. To be a member, there’s a $215/month membership and an application process. For those who can’t afford the hefty price tag, there are two-year scholarship opportunities. The company touts diversity and inclusion — like having hair products for women of color in the bathroom and a diversity and inclusion team — but the social club has been criticized for being exclusionary with regards to its membership. While The Wing has had no problem selling merch with phrases like “Sisterhood” or “Pay Me” on it, equal opportunities — and lower-tiered membership prices that would be doable for underrepresented women with lower incomes still don’t exist (according to Vox, they are working on it at the moment).
Underpinning all of this is how “branding” has infiltrated all aspects of culture. Causes quickly become brands, issues become platforms, and monetization quickly follows.