This year for International Women's Day, Amazon Music is offering a roster of all-woman playlists, curated by woman artists. A restaurant in Westminster has an International Women's Day pizza up for grabs. The other day, I was invited to a craft beer brand's celebration of the annual occasion.
I mention these things, plucked from my inbox over the last few weeks, not to call out any specific organisations or PR representatives (who are just doing their increasingly difficult jobs!), but more to point out that, every year, when the 8th of March rolls around, brands seem to be louder and louder, shilling less relevant products and events.
I’ve written in the past about how mainstream feminism in the UK continues to zero in on vague gestures towards "empowerment" via the likes of anti-airbrushing initiatives and panels about "Being a Woman at Work" or "Unlocking Your Power as a Woman". This stuff undoubtedly has its place – but it should be presented alongside more nuanced recognition of women's marginalisation, rather than instead of it. To give one example: "Girl Power" T-shirts sold by platform F= (posted to social media by celebrities like Holly Willoughby and Emma Bunton in 2017) were produced in a Bangladeshi factory where some workers can earn as little as 43p per hour.
These kind of stories no longer feel that surprising, because time and again, we're faced with contradictions in big brand feminism: plenty of slogan T-shirt lip service, but little genuine responsibility. Even after #MeToo and last year's legal deadline for UK companies to declare their gender pay gaps, "feminism" still feels like a buzzword for brands to tick off their social consciousness checklists – not an ethical system they seriously acknowledge in the running of their businesses.
This is partly because to do so wouldn't be that profitable. Enacting feminist ideals instead of just sticking them on the side of a mug would require massive overhauls to things like pay, conditions and general working culture. As such, feminism – an intrinsically liberatory system of politics – doesn't sit easily beside capitalism, because the very point of feminism is to free us from many of the constraints capitalism imposes.
We live in a capitalist patriarchy; on a basic level, that means society is still predicated on subjugating women, non-binary people and everyone who doesn't identify as an able-bodied cis man. Last year, a study by McKinsey concluded that women remain underrepresented by power structures in US workplaces; in 2017, the EU found that gender inequality in various parts of UK life was the same as it had been ten years previously. And so brands (especially large companies), as products of this culture, no matter how well intentioned, are rarely inherently feminist. That's regardless of how many International Women's Day-themed events they might hold, or cute iced cupcakes they might hand out.
It's more complicated, however, than saying brands never contribute to women's material empowerment. After all, we live under capitalism. Therefore, it is important for brands to be run by women, to remunerate their woman and non-binary employees properly, and to pay back to the causes of marginalised people. Two examples of the organisations actually doing something to make a difference are fashion brand Birdsong London, which make its products in partnership with women's groups and charities, and pays the London living wage; and ALICAS, which works with clothing brands to donate new and unused garments to women in clothing crisis (frequently because of having to leave abusive relationships).
The irony of writing about this topic on VICE is not lost on me. Last April, VICE UK reported a gender pay gap (of 12.6 percent), as did the majority of UK media companies. And VICE as a global corporation, as reported at length by the New York Times in 2017, has been plagued by a historic culture of sexual harassment and abuse, and sexism at large. It is therefore far from exempt from the criticisms I am making here – but I think it's still helpful to use it as a platform to make them, and to direct attention to this issue.
In a sense, this issue sort of proves my point. We don't live in a feminist utopia, so we have to use the tools at our disposal to get closer to one. If brands genuinely want to contribute to that, the best thing they can do when aligning themselves with feminism on International Women’s Day is to actually back social causes over creating easy "Every Woman Is Beautiful" social videos which prioritise cis, straight, white, thin, able-bodied, middle class women. Quite simply, brands ought to practice the politics they profess to have, and contribute to alleviating the many issues in the world that disenfranchise women and non-gender conforming people every day.
Here's a list of some brilliant causes doing vital work that you can read up on for International Women’s Day 2019: