feminism

A Peek Inside Miki Agrawal's Feminist Void

Self-styled "She-E-O" Miki Agrawal left the underwear startup Thinx in 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations. Now she's back with "Disrupt-Her," a new book that encourages women to embrace a contentless version of feminism that's been diluted by brands.

by Marie Solis
10 February 2019, 1:00pm

Miki Agrawal is giving birth to herself. A pair of legs spread open—hers, I assume—and Agrawal’s head pokes out from the valley where they meet. As blood streams out, appearing in both color and texture like red pasta sauce, Agrawal gropes her way forward, pulling herself to her feet. She picks up a wide-brimmed fedora sitting nearby, secures it on her head, and addresses her viewers: “It’s the moments of struggle,” she says, “that inspire true transformation.”

The scene opens a collage-style animated video that supplements Agrawal’s new book Disrupt-Her: A Manifesto for the Modern Woman, a 13-step guide for women who want to “question the status quo,” released on January 29. That night, sitting on a pouf, I watched it with about 100 others gathered at The Assemblage, a coworking space in Manhattan, to celebrate its launch. People were scattered about, some perched on poufs like me, others on couches framing the perimeter of the room, and a dozen or so lounged on floor pillows directly in front of the small platform where Agrawal would later sit cross-legged in between Stacy London, the event’s moderator and a personal friend, and Lauren Handel Zander, her life coach of five and a half years.

The event got started in earnest about an hour after the invitation had said, with Agrawal launching right into an account of dedicating the last 15 years of her life to “working in categories that are taboo,” and the resistance she’d met pitching her businesses: the gluten-free pizza franchise Wild, followed by the period-underwear startup Thinx, its sister pee-absorbing underwear startup Icon, and her most recent venture, Tushy, which sells bidet attachments and other bathroom products. “It was just such a societal pushback,” Agrawal recalled, clad in a tall black hat—taller than the one in the video—and silver-sequined blazer (London as well as Agrawal’s husband, Andrew, wore matching ones). “ No one’s going to invest, no one’s this, no one’s that. It took a long time to get investment in all of the business ideas, and it turns out society was wrong.” Within the first four minutes of the talk, Agrawal announced to applause that the quartet of businesses was valued at $200 million.

Over the course of the night, Agrawal spoke in veiled terms about the turmoil surrounding her March 2017 departure from Thinx, for which she’d served as “She-E-O.” At the time, Agrawal faced a sexual harassment complaint from former Thinx employee Chelsea Leibow, who alleged that Agrawal had groped and made comments about her breasts, talked about her sex life, and undressed in front of staff. She and Agrawal privately settled the harassment complaint under confidential terms in May 2017. Agrawal has denied the claims, and on the fourth page of Disrupt-Her, she refers to Leibow’s complaint as the “inflamed allegation” that led to her getting “ruthlessly taken down by the media.” Other Thinx staff went on the record to accuse Agrawal of creating a toxic work environment, which notably lacked a human resources department and parental leave policies.

As Agrawal alludes, the backlash she met in 2017 was swift and unsparing. The news of Agrawal’s alleged bad business practices took people by surprise mainly because Thinx had been branded as a feminist company. Though in a 2016 Medium post, Agrawal said she had a complicated relationship to feminism herself, she maintained that feminism was an “integral part” of Thinx’s strategy because it had been developed by a team of “badass feminists” changing the way brands spoke to women.

The company’s strife seemed to speak to larger anxieties plaguing the feminist movement in a post-Lean In world, where feminism was increasingly used to sell products and augment individual wealth under the guise of “empowerment.” If Thinx was a feminist brand, and Agrawal its “She-E-O,” what did that mean for feminism? And should the term “feminist” ever be attached to companies, CEOs, or their products?

Feminism’s transformation into a capitalist enterprise didn’t begin with Sheryl Sandberg, but she certainly gave it a solid foundation to scale. Her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead sought to give women in corporate America practical advice for negotiating raises, landing promotions, and balancing work and family, not necessarily for women’s advancement as a group, but for the advancement of individual women who aspired to C-suite offices. If Sandberg had any hopes for the collective betterment of women, they were vague at best: She argues that “more women in power” means gains for women everywhere.

Sandberg’s ethos helped shore up empowerment feminism, which told women that anything they did—in a 2016 New York Times magazine article on the subject, Jia Tolentino suggests “not shaving, not breastfeeding, not listening to men”—could be termed feminist, if done in the right spirit. As Tolentino points out, the concept provided a ripe opportunity for brands like Aerie and Dove to interpellate female consumers with messaging about “real” beauty that turned serious profits.

“We let the conversation stop at it’s good for everyone to be a feminist rather than making it about the goals, values, and ideas behind feminism.” Jessa Crispin, the author of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, told me in an interview over the summer. “That’s what allowed feminism to become a t-shirt—all of the power behind it got redirected to the word itself, which allows anyone to use it however they want.”

Agrawal didn’t stride into this moment so much as she stumbled into it. In Disrupt-Her, Agrawal says she got the idea for Thinx underwear when her twin sister Radha got her period unexpectedly while the two were running a three-legged race together. When, two years after the startup’s 2013 launch, the MTA’s third-party advertising firm sought to bar Thinx ads from New York City subway trains because they were “inappropriate,” the controversy pushed Thinx to take up a more explicitly feminist message. “Being on this rocket ship, it was accidental that all of a sudden we were in this feminist movement,” Agrawal said at The Assemblage. “That was never the initial intent, but it was amazing to see women—and even men—feel liberated by it.”

Some women rooted for Agrawal, especially in her feud with the MTA, but others accused her of using feminism as a “savvy marketing technique” and “unapologetically riding [the] tide of period feminism” for financial gain.

“The feminist imagination has been co-opted by the capitalist imagination."

Agrawal has a prepared response for these kinds of criticisms, which she includes in Disrupt-Her: “I start by saying, ‘Well isn’t that awesome? Because the term ‘feminism’ was the most socially hated word for so long—so it’s great that at least it’s a positive term that can be ‘used for marketing’ now!’” she explains. “Then I follow that up with, ‘And no, I am not “using feminism for marketing”; my businesses are inherently feminist because they alleviate undue societal shame for women.’”

But if feminism no longer poses a threat to any social hierarchy—if it’s appealing to brands, for example—some argue that means it must also be virtually content-free, hollowed of its politics, and made into a vessel that can be filled with things to sell.

“The feminist imagination has been co-opted by the capitalist imagination,” Crispin said. “It’s become about how do I rearrange the furniture in this capitalist room I’m in? rather than how do I fuck the room, start over, and build something else?

But Agrawal thinks she’s fucking the room.

In her new book, and from the floor of The Assemblage, Agrawal has a lot to say about “society.” Society is telling us we should use toilet paper—not bidets—to clean ourselves; society has caught women in the bind of being demure and likeable or outspoken and a bitch; society has “tricked us into believing that what it is saying is truth or reality or ‘just how things are.’”

Society is, broadly, what Agrawal is trying to disrupt. She rarely gets more specific. Agrawal defines “disrupt-her” on page four, writing that the word disruptor has had a “negative connotation in society ever since the English language gave it a definition” before listing synonyms: “anarchist,” “troublemaker,” “malcontent,” “rebel,” and “instigator.”

“I think a disruptor doesn’t give a fuck about what society says,” Agrawal told the audience at The Assemblage. “I think a disruptor is like, I see a problem, I know that now people are uncomfortable talking about this problem, but I don’t care. I’m going to keep forging ahead.

Disrupt-Her outlines 13 areas for readers to focus on—how to “live in a childlike state of curiosity,” how to fight the patriarchy “authentically,” and how to turn your partner into a SNAG,” or a Secure New Age Guy or Gal,” being just a few—but nonetheless, Agrawal’s followers at the event seemed unsure about what they should be disrupting, or why, or to what end.

“I think that she’s a really inspiring figure in our current day and age,” Jillian Vigon, a 25-year-old real estate agent in Manhattan, told me. “We need people who are going to take things by the reins.”

Vignon said she was excited to read Disrupt-Her and disrupt something in her own life. “I’ve been in a course of doing the same thing over and over again and maybe it’s not in line with what I’m truly meant to be doing,” she continued. “So what do I need to do in my own life? I think it could be taken on a small level or a big level. Even if you’re doing something on a small level— like, I’m going to do something differently today—if you have a few of those it can add up to something big.”

A 35-year-old freelance event production manager named Mel, who would only give me her last name if I promised to write positively about Agrawal, said: “We’re disrupting a lot of things right now and I think it’s really important to start the conversation. A lot of people don’t like the conversation but you have to have it anyway.”

When I pressed Mel on what “things” were being disrupted and what “conversation” Agrawal was starting, she added, “The period things. Shame around women’s bodies and what we’re not allowed to do. She [Agrawal] just had a baby so there’s a lot of that.”

Agrawal seemed to suggest that it didn’t matter much what audience members disrupted, or what they disrupted it with; the point was to “do shit.” A reliable indicator of being a successful disruptor, however, was facing opposition, though again, the source of the opposition—“society”—remained nebulous. Agrawal’s detractors were the skeptical investors at the start of her entrepreneurial career, but they were also the feminists who later slammed her for allegedly creating a toxic environment at Thinx. In the aftermath of her departure from Thinx, Agrawal said she came to the realization that she was on the “right path” because “this is what disruption is all about.”

“All of that negative shit I inhaled, that was so painful, and I just wanted to fight back so badly,” Agrawal said, “that negative shit” apparently referring to Leibow’s and other Thinx staff’s allegations, as well as Agrawal’s subsequent resignation and the ensuing media attention.

“Instead I just pushed it down and put it into this book, pooped it out, used my bidet, and it was squeaky clean.”

When Agrawal makes remarks like this, it becomes apparent that she invokes feminism differently than female entrepreneurs who might be considered her analogs, like Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso or Wing CEO Audrey Gelman, women whose enterprises convey a bubbly, pro-girl power outlook on the world.

Despite the female pronouns Agrawal attaches to words throughout her book—in addition to “disrupt-hers,” there are also “love-hers” and “hate-hers”—you won’t hear Agrawal declaring “the future is female” or that 2019 is the year of “girls doing whatever the fuck they want” either. She thinks over-emphasizing femaleness “strengthens the patriarchy” and can isolate men from the feminist movement.

“The exact thing we don't want is to create more separateness,” Agrawal said at her book event. “Oh yeah? You guys fucked us over or whatever, we’re going to do that to you.” Agrawal’s brand of feminism is more gender neutral and New Age-y, a feminism for those who might believe, as one man attending the event told me, that we all contain “masculine and feminine energies.”

Some say it’s only to be expected that figures like Agrawal will find different ways to adapt feminism for their own ends—it’s the logical conclusion when feminism becomes more attached to brands and individual personalities than to a political agenda. Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow has found a way to sell jade eggs, energy oils, and rose quartz facial rollers on the promise that self-care can make you into the kind of woman no longer bound by traditional gender expectations. Gelman, who aims to foster “greater mobility and prosperity for womankind” with her franchise of coworking spaces for women and nonbinary people, recently began evolving the brand’s aesthetic, expanding its line of pastel-hued merch to include hardcore metal-inspired t-shirts reading “annihilate the patriarchy.”

“We’re playing with what’s expected—there’s only so many ways you can say ‘feminism’ before you have to step outside your comfort zone and keep evolving as a brand,” Deva Pardue, the Wing’s creative director, told GARAGE in October. Like any other successful marketing strategy, feminism in its hollowed-out state offers endless possibilities for imitation and exploration.

“I’m not surprised one bit, because that’s how trends in the market work,” Maga Miranda, a Brooklyn-based socialist feminist organizer, told me last month during a conversation about Agrawal. “That’s what happens with the commodification of feminism—you get this appropriation of counterculture and counter-hegemonic work.”

In November, writer Mari Uyehara wrote in The Nation that Lean In had been “discredited for good” after the New York Times published an exposé about Facebook ignoring the rise of Russian trolls and placating conservatives that threatened to damage Sandberg’s feminist brand beyond repair.

“That’s what happens with the commodification of feminism—you get this appropriation of counterculture and counter-hegemonic work.”

But Sandberg’s fading cultural influence doesn’t mean the basic tenets of Lean In are dead. Miranda said women entrepreneurs like Agrawal have figured out how to take what may already feel stuffy and outdated about Sandberg’s manifesto and update it for a new generation of women. Whereas evangelizers for “trickle-down feminism”—the idea that building power among affluent white women will have a positive effect on women of marginalized social positions—may have once resided solely in a corner office on Facebook’s campus, now you might sooner see them at Burning Man.

“When I read Lean In, some of Sandberg’s suggestions seemed to employ the kind of respectability politics that don’t really vibe with millennials right now,” Miranda said. “I think Agrawal is suggesting something a little bolder that appeals more to young people. But at the end of the day, it’s still trickle-down feminism.”

It’s difficult to imagine what will follow Agrawal’s brand of feminism, and, despite speaking to several people, her fans at The Assemblage didn’t offer many hints. Agrawal has built an empire on blood, pee, and shit—basic facts of biology everyone in the audience could relate to in some way. The universal nature of these things has provided the ideal basis for a universal feminism, a perfect contentless void where anyone can be a feminist.

But if one made the mistake of dwelling on the problems with Agrawal’s message for too long, she might disrupt those thoughts with another universal truth: We’ll all be dead someday.

“I think the other thing I learned from this experience is just, we’re all gonna die,” Agrawal told the crowd at the end of the talk, returning again to her departure from Thinx. “We live, we’re here for such a short amount of time, so let’s just live deep and suck the marrow out of life.”

This article originally appeared on Broadly.