When Donald Trump muttered a loaded insult at Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate in October, Amanda Brinkman took the opportunity to reverse the narrative and turn it into a badge of honor.
“Nasty Woman” shirts, which display the words in capital letters over a red heart, went up for sale that night on Brinkman’s “Google Ghost” Shopify page — with 50 percent of their proceeds to be donated to Planned Parenthood. She posted an image of one of the tees to her personal Instagram and the @googleghostpress Instagram simultaneously. Overnight, thousands of them were ordered.
“I put it online, thinking I’d sell four or five shirts to some friends,” said Brinkman. “But a friend of mine, who is a tattoo artist with about 40,000 followers, reposted it — and from there, it took off.”
Brinkman’s Nasty Woman shirts have been bought by stars like Katy Perry and Will Ferrell. The estimated number of T-shirts sold has exceeded 16,000. Five weeks ago, Brinkman shared an update on Instagram that the total proceeds donated to Planned Parenthood had hit $100,165, and since that announcement, she said the shirts have raised another $10,000.
The Nasty Woman T-shirts are just one piece in a feminist merchandise flood in reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Beyond “Nasty Woman,” activists are buying and promoting shirts that declare “The Future Is Female” (a reignited ‘70s ringer) and “We Should All Be Feminists” (courtesy of Dior, who borrowed it from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), or pasting the feminist symbol over their chests with the Venus Tit tee. All the T-shirts and the other merchandise are pithy, sassy and perfectly shareable on Instagram.
“Style and fashion have power in expressing political views by influencing a larger crowd to demonstrate support for a given cause. Instagram helps to reach that larger audience, and drive momentum and virality,” said Céline Semaan Vernon, CEO of Slow Factory, an eco-friendly and activist-driven online store. “In that sense, Instagram plays the role in distribution in the same way that a brick-and-mortar store might. It’s showcased there because traditional media and retail doesn’t really get it.”
Semaan Vernon points to the pink knitted “pussy” hats that became the identifying piece of apparel of the Women’s March as an activist item that traditional media and retail would not know what to do with. On Instagram, the hashtags #pussyhatproject and #pussyhats have gathered thousands of posts, while owners of Etsy accounts linked to their knitted pieces for sale.
#todayonMDK When knitting is front-page, above-the-fold news in the New York Times. (And Kay’s LYS @knittycity is featured In the Metropolitan section on the same day.) #link in profile #allthenewsthatsfittoknit #knitting #knittinginthenews #pussyhatproject
A photo posted by Mason-Dixon Knitting (@mason.dixon.knitting) on
The feminist merchandise movement has been spurred on Instagram mostly by independent designers and boutiques, such as Manhattan’s Otherwild, which revived “The Future is Female” slogan from the archives by splashing it across a collection of tees. Many are made domestically; some donate proceeds to Planned Parenthood.
This brand of Instagram activism has come under fire as an attempt to pass off a single purchase as #slacktivisim. Instagram, after all, is all about surface and artifice. The world faces many challenges, few of which are likely to be surmounted by a very cute selfie.
“It’s definitely a form of slacktivism,” said Max Lenderman, CEO of cause-driven agency School. “But it’s an improvement on people clicking the like button or retweeting a sentiment. Slacktivism that’s revenue-driving is progress.”
“I was struck by the incredible creativity seen at the marches,” Lenderman added. “And Instagram is the new conduit for this. People are conditioned to look for trends there, and see what other people are doing and particularly wearing, so it’s an interesting platform for apparel activism. Plus, it still has a community, less commercial feel that Facebook has lost.”
For many activists, the question of what comes next has become top of mind now that the Women’s Marches have come and gone. For Brinkman, she wanted to continue to create and sell products that could have meaning for the movement. Rather than a T-shirt, she and partner Cameron Shaw created “The Year of the Nasty Woman,” a 200-page planner filled with action items and information about intersectional feminism (which recognizes women who do not identify as white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, and/or middle class as part of the feminist movement). Google Ghost will also be partnering with other indie designers on more products down the line. All products sold will continue to benefit Planned Parenthood.
“It was really important to me to not just have a bunch of shirts that cashed in on the momentum,” said Brinkman. “I wanted to create a sustainable business that gives back.”
She added that two big-box retailers approached her to sell her designs, but she turned them down, as that meant the shirts would be manufactured abroad and would no longer benefit Planned Parenthood. (Brinkman declined to name the retailers.)
As momentum around the election slows down, Semaan Vernon foresees Instagram’s role in distributing activist-minded merchandising becoming more important as mainstream businesses move on.
“Instagram is only going to grow its role, in terms of distributing indie products that have a mission or value attached to the cause,” she said. “There’s a fine line, though: Is the brand ethical? Is it exploiting a hashtag that’s not meant to be about consumerism? The thinking can’t be: If you get this T-shirt, you’ll buy your ticket to heaven.”