The Irony of the Current Zeitgeist in Feminist Symbolism

When Texas state senator Wendy Davis stood for a miraculous 13 hour filibuster to prevent anti-abortion legislation from passing in Texas, she did so wearing a bright pink pair of Mizuno running shoes.


The outpouring of internet support for Wendy Davis (most of which occurred after the filibuster and well after the abortion-related bill became an issue, similar to the spike in interest in gay marriage after Proposition 8 passed in California…) was strong. She became an instant folk hero for women’s rights–and why not?

Jezebel published a piece on Davis’s shoes:

More recently, the Public Shaming Tumblr blog posted a piece on raising money for “defending women’s rights” featuring a t-shirt from which 50% of proceeds will go to Planned Parenthood.

See the t-shirt here:

and here:

Problematically, there is a high probability that this shirt was made by an underpaid woman. According to the teespring website (through which the campaign is run):

“Our most popular brands include American Apparel, Hanes, Canvas, Next Level and Spectra. We also have items available for special requests, such as organic, Made-in-USA, and Union Made cuts.

We only work with suppliers who have strong fair labor and social responsibility policies.”

The last line in this is troubling as it’s largely untrue–at least based on my own perception of what “Fair labor and social responsibility policies” should mean. Without plowing into that discussion too much, I can simply mention that Hanes has a highly questionable history of child (largely female) labor (; (“Rape Factory:” and so on. These are arguably bad things and counter to the whole conscious consumerism things that teespring glosses over. Similar complaints can be made for the other manufactures mentioned–even the oft cited consciousness of American Apparel has come under fire (although this hasn’t seemed to affect their image too much).

The t-shirt also features a Mizuno running shoe. It’s an interesting bit of product placement, but so is the semi-cult status it’s attained following Davis’s filibuster. Albeit, I still find it weird to endow brand-name products with values regarding civil rights. That aside, it’s a Mizuno and though Mizuno has a history of iffy labor practices around the world, it’s made a considerable step in recent years to comply with heightened labor standards. Here we have an agreement signed between Mizuno and International Textile Garment and Leather Workers Federation in which the Japanese corporation agrees with several ILO standards: (the document of the agreement is at the bottom of the blurb).

This doesn’t absolve the company from suspect labor practices. And no doubt, women are making these shoes. Go women.

Had it been any other running shoe–seriously–the irony of “defending women’s rights” would’ve been heightened. And that’s where I struggle the most with such symbolization–Davis happened to be wearing Mizunos. Had she worn a pair of pink Nike’s, they’d be emblazoned on the shirt.

Ultimately, the point I’m making and what most tickled me about this fatuous attempt at philanthropy from a Tumblr blog is that the reach of the act isn’t fully theorized by the benefactors and participating consumers. If someone is to wear the t-shirt, it shoes that they identify with what is broadly being called “women’s rights” but should more rightfully be understood as “specific women’s rights of a particular few,” with a possible and cold parenthetical (“all others be damned.”)

The very presence of the teespring site and the ease of making such money raising t-shirt campaigns is particularly interesting. Through it, the barrier to entry for a charitable cause is reduced greatly and a veritable marketplace for causes is opened up. Moreover, your cause or causes can be worn as a t-shirt: I support X, or I support Y. This implies that both the cause must be summed into a t-shirt size logo and/or slogan, and more broadly that a cause is an asthetic choice–as much a part of someone’s identity as the clothes they put on. Such cause marketing appears to divorce the user from the world of ethical and moral decisions in which he is embedded and supplants this truer notion of embeddedness with a facade of choice. Hence ethics and morals are something that can be suspended until they become an expedient part of our wardrobe, until they make us look better or help us to affirm an identity or conformation to a group with a particular set of ideas. Right behavior, then, isn’t a consistent personal state (though we may prefer to think of ourselves as consistently ethical), it’s an expedient behavior. More importantly, it’s passive: not something you do, something you show. Perhaps by being demonstrably ethical, we convince ourselves and each other that we have attained some necessary threshold of ethical behavior. Perhaps at that point we cease to question what the heck our actions mean–like when we buy a t-shirt that says “Defend Women’s Rights” and that t-shirt is made by an adolescent female.

And in conclusion, more irony:

About this

Freedom and Fashion is a fashion-oriented, creative arts organization that serves as a resource hub for fair-trade businesses and non-profit organizations working to combat modern-day slavery, human trafficking, child labor and human rights violations.

Screen printed on Hanes Tagless Tee.


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