Feminism: not just a slogan t-shirt

 A 'this is what a feminitst looks like t-shirt' - screen grab from Elle's website

A ‘this is what a feminitst looks like t-shirt’ – screen grab from Elle’s website

The Daily Mail has discovered that the ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt that the Prime Minister refused to wear is being produced in “sweatshop conditions” in the Far East. But this seems like the least of the problems behind a spectacularly misguided idea.

The t-shirts are being produced to support an Elle magazine series called ‘rebranding feminism’ which, its website says, is trying to “rebrand a term that has become burdened with complications and negativity.”

Well, yes. As soon as you put forward a feminist idea – equal pay, equal representation in Parliament – you’re bound to run into some pretty complex issues and you’re bound to upset people.

The two thirds of MPs who are white men over 40, and the male middle managers who earn a third more than their female counterparts for doing the same job are, naturally, likely to resent the suggestion that something is wrong with this state of affairs.

Less acceptably, too many are also willing to argue that anyone who suggests otherwise is a. attacking them personally and b. some kind of ‘feminazi’ who is probably incapable of keeping a husband or a house and is slovenly to boot.

The best answer to the last bit is just to say “nonsense”; it’s perfectly possible to want equal rights and pay and then spend the latter on nice clothes. But, as a fashion magazine, Elle decided to take the literal approach of creating some trendy t-shirts so that readers could literally buy-into this idea.

Bafflingly (although nominally in support of the UN’s #heforshe initiative) it then decided to set up a promotional photo-shoot featuring a lot of… men.

Elle asked some hunky actors and rather less hunky politicians to pose in the shirts, and duly got a ‘yes’ from Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and a ‘no’ from Cameron. This allowed it to publish a blog asking why the Prime Minister should be “afraid” to call himself a feminist.

As some female newspaper columnists have pointed out, the answer to this is obvious – he isn’t one. His government has not only maintained the status quo, but brought in all sorts of benefits changes that have hit poorer women hard.

However, the PM can hardly say this; and the positive press received by Miliband and Clegg was enough to send the Mail off in search of its story.

In response, the Fawcett Society, which owns the slogan, has said it was assured by its supplier, Whistles, that the t-shirts were produced by an ethical supplier.

The society did this by email, after the t-shirts had been printed. This doesn’t sound particularly rigorous; or the kind of thing that its founder, Millicent Garrett-Fawcett, would have done (when she was asked to investigate conditions in the Boer War’s concentration camps, she set off for South Africa).

Garrett, though, was a more activist kind of activist altogether. She headed up the suffragist movements (votes for women), co-founded Newham College (education for women) and campaigned for The Married Women’s Property Act (non-chattel status for women).

Whereas Elle is selling “the slogan tee to end all tees!” There’s a message here that should have kicked in long before the magazine, shop and charity got caught in the ethics of t-shirt production. It’s possible to be a feminist and to like fashion; but not to reduce one thing to the other.

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