In 2015, an indie retailer called Otherwild unveiled a remake of the iconic 1970s “The Future Is Female” T-shirt. The design was an instant success, with the first batch reportedly selling out within two days. As one of many fledgling feminists trying to make sense of the cultural whiplash surrounding the F-word at that time, I loved the shirt, because it expressed a growing feeling of something nascent but urgent.
Steeped in activist history, the Otherwild design preceded an explosion of overtly political T-shirts that responded to the changing political tides threatening women’s rights. The feminist T-shirts of 2015 and 2016 protested systemic inequalities via sans-serif slogans: “My Uterus, My Choice,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-damental Rights,” and perhaps most pointedly, “Pussy Grabs Back.”
The past three years, however, have seemingly delivered another kind of feminist fashion trend: T-shirts that simply make a statement of gender. Some just say “Woman.” Others feature slight variations: “WOMEN WOMEN WOMEN” or “The Woman” or “Human Woman.” Sometimes it’s contextualized in a sentence: “I am woman,” or “Man, it’s good to be a woman!” Other times it’s in other languages: “Femme/Donna/Mujer/Woman.” You can buy a matching design for your little girl. The phrase has become so popular, it’s become something of a self-referential joke (“This Is a T-Shirt About Women”).
T-shirts with “a simple statement or word,” have “become more and more ubiquitous throughout all levels of the fashion market,” said Nina Marston, a fashion analyst for the market research provider Euromonitor International. Such shirts serve as “identity affirming purchases” she said, that could lead women to “theoretically, take a step toward becoming more politically active.”
Theoretically. The shift from the rah-rah political messaging of a few years ago to simple proclamations of womanhood also signals a larger change occurring within the microcosm of feminist fashion, as well as beyond it: The tilt from a politics of visibility toward an economy of visibility.
Visibility has always played a critical role in feminist movements. Pride marches grew out of a need for a public presence for L.G.B.T.Q. identities. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework made visible the unique discrimination black women experience to account for their lack of representation in workplace policies, laws and social movements. The success of #MeToo was in large part thanks to the newly public nature of what was once private sexual harassment. “That visibility which makes us most vulnerable,” Audre Lorde wrote, “is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”
This is what Prof. Sarah Banet-Weiser calls a politics of visibility: the act of highlighting identity categories like gender and race to accomplish political recognition and, hopefully, structural change.
An economy of visibility, on the other hand, decouples this practice from its political end goals. Instead, visibility becomes valuable in its own right because of its monetizable potential. It’s at play in the near constant messaging to “invest in girls,” as if they were commodities. It underpins gender-equality-is-smart-economics activism. And it manufactures T-shirts that equate being a woman with being a feminist.
This isn’t to say, necessarily, that what we had in 2015 was “good” and that today’s shirts are “bad” for feminist goals. Arguably, any statement T-shirt is involved in an economy of visibility; all those “Future is Female” shirts — even the ethically produced ones — were almost certainly negligible in their political impact. Indeed, gender scholars have argued convincingly that capitalist feminism is hardly feminism at all.
Crude though they may be, however, political T-shirt slogans are useful distillations of social movements into their most basic conceptual elements. A T-shirt that says “Equal Pay Now” may not do much in the way of dismantling pay discrimination, but it does let you know where our energies lie. What, exactly, does wearing a shirt that says “WOMAN” serve as shorthand for?
An optimist might say it’s the self-evident importance of gender equality in 2019 — because this shirt exists, and because I am wearing it, what it stands for must be valuable. A realist might say it’s demonstrative of the sweeping way feminist principles have percolated through cultural consciousness in meaningful and not-so-meaningful ways.
But cultural recognition itself is not enough. When the representation of marginalized groups becomes tokenizing rather than transformative, the project of inclusion fails. When Nike creates viral marketing spots championing women’s equality while discriminating against its pregnant athletes, cultural recognition veils oppression. When Hollywood execs proudly trot out black filmmakers while privately punishing them for using their voice, the economy of visibility betrays.
What’s more, for many women, there is real danger in visibility without political valence. To be seen in public as a trans woman or lesbian brings with it an especially grave bodily risk.
Sometimes 2019 feels like a dystopian dinner party where you’re handed a name tag at the door that reads: “Hi, my name is: WOMAN.” This kind of unvarnished visibility distracts from the towering structural barriers to gender justice while reinforcing simplistic notions of gender. By emphasizing our monolithic “womanness,” we minimize our commonalities with men, while collapsing the differences among ourselves.
To be sure, the popularity of gender-statement T-shirts has little bearing on the state of feminist politics. But perhaps the trend of visibly wearing your womanhood is a symptom of a larger cultural condition. If in 2015 we predicted the future would be female, in 2019 it feels as if we were right. Water bottles are female. Tote bags are female. Workspaces are female. And somehow, it’s still not enough.