I’m a man and identify as a feminist ally. What really ruffles my feathers are corporates trying to reap feminism brownie points. Let me start from the beginning.
On International Women’s Day, amidst multiple Facebook posts about gender equality, I saw one video featured multiple times across my newsfeed. It features Kriti Sanon, in what is now one of those social media clichés, holding up placards to convey a message about Women’s Day. After an innocuous feel-good start with Sanon holding up an ‘It’s Women’s Day card’ and smiling, the tone of the video shifts. ‘Same shit different year’ reads the next card. Sanon then runs through a list of words we hear – girl power, women’s rights and gender equality to make the point that celebrating Women’s Day is masking the fact that women still have to grapple with glass ceilings, lack of public safety and being shamed for what they wear. The video ends with Sanon dropping placards saying ‘All we do is talk and I’m done talking’ before walking off screen.
— Kriti Sanon (@kritisanon) March 8, 2017
On face value, the video features a thought-provoking idea. It seems practically engineered (and most likely was) to be spread across social media. Yet, all its symbolic power is undercut at the end when the words Ms. Taken flash on the screen.
From a cursory Google search, I found that Ms. Taken is a clothing brand launched by Kriti Sanon in collaboration with Anjana Reddy. Suddenly, like a wolf in feminist clothing, the seams start to show. The video was never about making a point about gender equality. It was about selling clothes to women.
Honestly. Fuck. That.
Finding out that this was a marketing ploy to draw the most number of eyeballs to the brand infuriated me. The sad part is that this strategy seems to have worked. The video has already been viewed more than four million times (and who knows how many thousands more by the time you read this). It’s a viral success. Yet, it reflects the insidious ways in which feminist rhetoric is being co-opted – to market and sell a fashion brand.
This kind of marketing masquerading as thought-provoking feminist sloganeering has become an all too common tactic in the fashion and beauty industry. What other way to announce effortlessly chic than bring in a little gender equality to the forefront? Dove’s Real Beauty campaign and Pantene’s labels against women are only two examples. Yet, by employing the language of feminism but not its goals, Ms. Taken’s video seriously undercuts it.
No one is saying that fashion can’t be used to make feminist statements. The thousands of women who took part in the Women’s March wearing ‘pussy hats‘ (the proceeds of which went to Planned Parenthood) are testament to that.
However, looking at Ms. Taken’s Facebook page, it doesn’t look like the brand is breaking any new ground. It isn’t transgressing any of the fashion industry’s deeply entrenched sexist mores given that every woman modelling its casual western wear is a lithe, fair skinned model with Eurocentric features. It isn’t a philanthropic endeavour. Even the label’s price (clothes start at ₹799 on Myntra) falls into the same range of most of these ‘affordable’ upscale clothing brands. So, its package of aspirationalism is clearly not for women who couldn’t afford it already.
Sanon can’t ignore the fact that through her fashion brand, she’s pushing the same patriarchal standards of the fashion industry on women. Empowering? Maybe for Sanon, in terms of her financial independence but definitely not for the rest of the women out there who receive the same media messages about their looks every day. Fashion brands have a lot of cultural cachet in our society so Sanon should have been cognisant about putting her feminism into practice and not just for imaging purposes. Start with featuring models with a variety of body shapes and skin colours. Ensure that the many women who are tirelessly working in a sweatshop mass producing these clothes for retail get a fair wage.
It’s all well and good to push the message that we need tangible breakthroughs in achieving real successes for women rather than pat ourselves on the back and remember them for a single day. That being said, feminist symbolism is also important, particularly when it is employed for the political purposes and not to push a new clothing line.
Of course, Ms. Taken’s fauxminism is symptomatic of a larger problem; the way feminism has been commodified under capitalism. Like a whisky with coke, it’s made palatable for a mass audience by diluting its politics. Feminism, it seems, is a lifestyle choice you can purchase like Ms. Taken’s navy blue skinny jeans. Capitalism also prioritises choice feminism, the idea that any individual choice by a woman is an inherently feminist act. As Nancy Fraser says in an excellent essay in the Guardian, the kind of feminism that capitalism frequently seems to espouse focuses on cultural sexism without taking into account social inequality.
And Sanon seems unaware of the privileges she possesses in our capitalistic, caste driven society. She has appeared in a fairness cream ad and claimed that it is easier for women to get launched in the film industry than men. She has also noted that when she talks about education for women “…I sound like a feminist because I get really angry when I hear certain things.” If I could shoot a video, I’d hold up a placard asking her to ‘Do better’.
Like Deepika Padukone’s Vogue video or Dior’s $700 shirts emblazoned with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s quote ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, let’s all be wary of the way consumerism dressed up in feminist garb. Otherwise, terms that are supposed to mean something like women’s rights and gender equality will be just symbolic. In other words, Blah. Blah. Blah.