Can Fashion be Feminist? Can Digital Media?

Robin James extensively argues that fashion and digital media are stuck in a kind of performative neoliberal femininity which perpetuates the MRWasP (multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy). James’s piece really forced me to think about how feminism, particularly the “Look I Overcame” performance she talks about, plays out on my social media feeds. James’ argues that women of today reject the “dainty” figure of woman by affirming the damage of systemic misogyny and overcoming it in a public, performative way. In this way, women are told, by and through almost all avenues of power, that the systemic inequalities, and the psychological effects they have, are all a part of a personal therapeutic journey to post-feminist bliss. While being a boss woman and overcoming body image issues or traumas of sexual harassment are positive traits, these ideals do not take down the patriarchy, in fact, by placing the “overcoming” on the woman, the patriarchy continues to exist, untouched and in power.

As a woman of the 21st century, I spend a lot of time online looking at, engaging with, and reading about women. In many different iterations, I see “popular feminism”, used as a tool of both fashion and self branding. In this sense, it is hard for me to believe, or see, how large brands or social media conglomerations could truly be feminist, in the sense that they attack or work to undo the systemic issues plaguing both women and men under the patriarchy. In dominant discourse, the performance of resilience is still very strong. Despite positive efforts to diversify models, or write stories about loving ourselves, women-geared realms like the fashion world struggle to get out from under the damage/overcoming narrative. In addition to being pleasurable for women as consumers, selling confidence and self-love is profitable.

I looked at one of the most popular fashion publications, and one of my favorites, to see the prevalence and proliferation of the “overcoming” feminist narrative. In my first search, on Refinery29’s website, I saw a shopping article called “7 Spring Buys That are Major Confidence Boosters” and another piece titled “Jeffery Campbell is Making Size Inclusive Boots Thanks to This Model”. I was surprised how quickly I stumbled upon these late-capitalist headlines that are quite disturbing when you actually think about them. Buy these things, then you’ll feel good? Because of a popular plus size Instagram model NOW we will make shoes for people over a size 14? The commodity- cure- all approach to overcoming inequality seems shady at best and extremely damaging at worst.

But I don’t want to be too cynical. The increased representation of women of color and plus sized women in new designs is a great step forward for a more inclusive fashion world. Is digital media or the fashion world the pinnacle of feminist thought? Do they actively work to destroy systems of inequality? Definitely not. However, their efforts to raise voices of women might get them there someday.

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