It seemed like things were finally starting to look up for feminism—
Three days ago, California passed a “Yes Means Yes” law, giving the term “sexual consent” a legal definition. It was a little over a week ago that Emma Watson delivered a poignant speech before the United Nations, addressing the importance of gender equality. In fact, it’s barely been over a month since Beyonce delivered a full-throttle performance at the VMAs that culminated in one “FEMINIST” statement.
For the first time in what felt like a very long time, people began re-evaluating their relationship with the “F-word.” Feminism’s use of mainstream celebrity and social virility gave the movement a “friendlier” face. Sure, some feminists took issue with the less than serious star-studded approach — after all, no one can ever be the perfect poster child for the movement (not even Steinem!)— but for once it seemed that discussion surrounding the word “feminism” became much more fluid. “Gender Equality” was no longer a taboo topic, or perceived as a social myth constructed by embittered, man-hating women.
However, this all came to a screeching halt the other night, right in the middle of Chanel’s fake city staged in the Grand Palais.
On Monday, Karl Lagerfeld sent a stampede of tweed and floral clad models stomping down the runway, waving handmade picketing signs with slogans such as “History is Her Story” and “Free Freedom” (a nod to the notorious #FreeTheNipple campaign) while yelling into branded megaphones.
Immediately the media burst into a chorus of speculations surrounding Lagerfeld’s collection— Is the runway show a feminist statement? Is Karl Lagerfeld a feminist? Was this a joke? Was Chanel’s collection influenced by feminism?
Upon first glance, the runway show appeared to be either a light hearted celebration of womanhood or a harmless joke hyperbolizing the buzz surrounding feminism. However, after I read about it more and started to really think about the subtle messages embedded within Chanel’s “protest,” I realized that Lagerfeld’s portrayal of women and ultimately women’s issues was actually a step backward from all of the social progress feminism was beginning to acclaim with mainstream society.
Whether intentional or interpretive, Chanel’s use of feminist motif within their SS’15 presentation diminishes the movement down to a “fashion statement” as antiquated as ‘70s influenced silhouettes.
Namely, there were three primary issues I took with Chanel’s runway show…
1. Its Trivial Treatment of Women’s Issues
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
—Cara Delevingne’s battle cry lead Karl’s slogan-slinging “feminist” brigade down the runway.
Whether we like it or not, there is still an undeniable social prejudice against assertive women. In presenting women’s protests as unreasonable and silly, (i.e. demanding tweed,) we are perpetuating the social stigma that women’s issues are frivolous. The protester presented by Lagerfeld reinforces the stereotype of the woman as vapid consumer, who is concerned solely with the superficial and incapable of dealing with “real” issues.
Similarly, the solutions concluded by the model-cum-protestors’ signs, (“Divorce for Everyone”, “Feminism Not Masochism,” to name a few,) provide Hallmark Card answers to serious issues such as domestic abuse and abortion that impact women’s lives every day.
Take for example, the sign saying “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too” —
The aforementioned is an obvious allusion to the issue that a majority of decision makers overseeing women’s reproductive rights are men who will never get pregnant. Rather than articulating the subject head on, it is articulated with the tone of a spoiled schoolgirl, reinforcing the stereotype of feminists as whining “victims” who demand special privilege — an idea that is further reinforced by another Chanel sign, “Ladies First.”
Yes, all of this may have been intended as a lighthearted joke, but is that all that women’s issues can be reduced to — a joke?
If Lagerfeld’s intent was to praise and advance the feminist agenda, his signs bearing meme-like catchphrases fell flat. He could have at least given thought-provoking credibility to the issues presented rather than presenting them in a frivolous tone.
I’m not saying that everything needs to be taken SO seriously. There have been many feminist protestors who have incorporated humor and wit into their signs. However, reducing the fight for women’s rights to a frivolous fashion statement is one of the many examples of society using humor to strip women of their validity.
Ultimately, it perpetuates the belief that women are incapable of making their own choices without opening up a Vogue or gaining reinforcement from their peers.
2. It Glorifies A “Privileged” Version of Feminism
I understand that this was, of course, a fashion show, and (as with most things in fashion,) it’s intended to be a fantasy. However, I don’t think that a designer who once deemed Coco Chanel, “not ugly enough” to be a feminist, and stated that “no one wants to see curvy women” could embrace a form of feminism that challenges patriarchal standards of beauty.
Take for instance, the show’s problematic “Feminist, but Feminine” sign.
It’s no secret that feminism has undergone a sort of “re-branding campaign” in an attempt to distance the movement from long standing ill-informed assumptions regarding the label “feminist.” In trying to de-bunk the myth that all feminists are bra-burning, man haters who refuse to shave their legs (yes, some people really think this) celebrities such as Emma Watson have come forth and shown a “friendlier,” more approachable spin on gender equality.
Although what Emma Watson did was wonderful, there are some hazards with feminism going “mainstream”, namely a mass misappropriation of the label akin to the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” in the late ’90s. In sweetening the movement’s proposition there’s always the risk that it can lose its intrinsic value.
“It is the fate of any counter-cultural movement to become co-opted and repackaged. The market dictates, and the market has decided that feminism is cool. It is now more heavily commodified than ever before, so it’s no wonder the fashion industry is taking note.”
However, Lagerfeld’s brand of feminism is problematic in that it’s solely inclusive of those who fit into his ideal of womanhood. The statement “feminist but feminine” implies that identifying as a feminist needs to come with some kind of caveat such as— “Oh, I’m a feminist, but don’t worry I’m a ‘good’ feminist since I am pretty and dress traditional.”
Women shouldn’t have to apologize for identifying as a feminist whether they wear dresses every day or men’s button ups.
Back to Chanel–If a parade of of well dressed women, who are all the pinnacle of conventional beauty are marching on a fake street yelling about frivolous things like their right to tweed, (see point 1,) all in the name of “feminism” isn’t indicative of the mainstream’s misappropriation of the movement, I don’t know what is.
If society begins policing women’s bodies and dividing them into “good” and “bad” feminists, we will end up reinforcing the exact same patriarchal values feminism argues against. This method of categorizing feminists will marginalize and exclude women who may not choose to adhere to society’s expectations of femininity, labeling them “unworthy” of the movement’s benefits because of their appearance.
3. It Was Pure Gimmick, No Substance
Sure, there’s the point that maybe Chanel’s runway show will prompt a discussion about larger issues. However, amidst all of the attention grabbing gimmicks, what conclusions can be drawn about the state of women’s autonomy from looking at the show alone?
The shopping cart spectacular last fall was an interesting take on consumer culture and the value of branding, but this campaign lacked any kind of artistic interpretation of feminism’s importance or applicability within every day life.
The show was purely a soulless display of women carrying signs with quotable catchphrases on them as mere props to grab attention. It lacked any kind of artistic or thought provoking merit and presented controversial topics for the sole purpose of gaining attention… Which it has done extremely well at doing—look how long this post is.
Am I going to boycott Chanel? No.
Am I personally offended? No.
Does this upset me to the core and completely make me lose faith in the fashion industry? No.
Do I still think Karl Lagerfeld is a wildly amusing character and one of the greatest designers of our time? Yes.
The point I’m trying to articulate with this whole, long-winded article, is that we need to stop taking things at face value and start evaluating whether something’s external message aligns with its intrinsic values.
More specifically, it’s time to stop asking if a brand, celebrity, commercial, book is “feminist” or not, and start thinking critically about how brands actually treat the women they claim to empower.
In short, it may look like feminism and sound like feminism, but that doesn’t mean it actually is feminism—it could be a wolf dressed in a very fancy wool outfit.
P.S. On a lighter note, where was Rihanna? This is the first time in years she hasn’t been front row at a Chanel show. It seems like she’s been awfully quiet lately.