Most college students can point to one or more conduits through which they self-brand. My personal favorite is my yellow Hydroflask water bottle, where I display stickers revealing my Zodiac sign, my favorite boba chain and my allegiance to H*yas for Choice. Other venues you may use to display your personal image include laptop decorations, tattoos your employer will never see, social media accounts, public Spotify playlists and “maybe it’s vintage, maybe it’s Etsy” graphic tees.
In addition to these manifestations of self-aestheticization, the contemporary college student’s love of the marketable has coupled with a desire to outwardly display our political beliefs, creating a new and suddenly ubiquitous individual marketing genre: political self-branding.
While I understand this urge, I do fear that, if done gratuitously and thoughtlessly, political self-branding can reduce some rather complicated ideologies to pithy quotes plastered on laptops.
The use of political stances to bolster self-brands has particularly dire consequences for the political ideology in which I am personally most invested: feminism. Indeed, I fear our generational tendency to aestheticize the fight for gender equality has popularized a nonsubstantive reduction of a radical and robust philosophy.
The increasing popularity of feminist self-identification plays an integral role in the evolution of political self-branding. As experiences of gendered oppression such as sexual misconduct, transgender rights and wage inequality have increasingly received media attention, and as feminism becomes less taboo, feminist political self-branding has correspondingly skyrocketed.
A search for “feminist stickers” on Redbubble, the premier marketplace of graphic goods, yields over 43,000 results. Most of these decorations are different stylizations of similar ideas: “Empowered women empower women”; “Nevertheless, she persisted”; “The future is female.” Meanwhile, many college students’ social media accounts prominently feature pictures of signs from a Women’s March, feminist bios and woke retweets.
While I appreciate the increased acceptance of feminist self-identification, I believe the distillation of feminism into catchphrases oversimplifies the experiences of the gender-oppressed and forces us into unfair narratives. In my experience of womanhood and feminism, living in resistance to the patriarchy is complicated and difficult, and my exposure to the aforementioned maxims often aggrieves me rather than empowering me.
For example, when I find myself in conflict with another woman, I always grapple with my perceived betrayal of these feminist mantras and fear that my failure to empower that woman has transformed me into an agent of the patriarchy. Yet, I firmly believe feminism has no Ten Com-woman-dments for strict observance, and it accommodates interpersonal conflict. Sometimes, two women simply have conflict and don’t desire to empower each other at the moment.
I also admit that, sometimes, I feel competitive with another woman at work or in class. I also secretly have visions of the downfall of other women, courtesy of the patriarchal expectation of female cattiness. Though I don’t follow through with my immoral fantasies, I believe that critical self-examination and self-forgiveness for my own susceptibility to the patriarchy evoke the spirit of feminism much more effectively than the obligatory empowerment subscribed by the sticker and Instagram bio.
Moreover, these catchy rules of feminist action do not react well with intersectionality. Women and gender minorities who maintain additional marginalized identities have every right to haltingly and complexly configure their own conception of femme solidarity and feminist action, particularly given feminism’s complicated history of exclusion.
In all the instances I’ve mentioned, uniform feminist catchphrases build one-dimensional narratives that do not accommodate the diverse experiences of gender oppression.
Yet, despite all my qualms with social justice self-branding, I have openly admitted my water bottle is covered in stickers — some political. I still retweet progressive content. I understand the pleasure of the aesthetic, the appeal of an image and the genuine empowerment that results from publicly taking a political stance.
I do, however, ask us college students to consider our desire to condense the complicated and contain the unruly and consider being more mindful when we use our political beliefs, specifically feminism, to bolster our self-brands.
The history of gendered oppression is long and messy, and the process of achieving gender equality will be complicated, uncomfortable and, more often than not, unpopular. While feminism in practice may not be suited for a sticker or a status, I still urge us to consider the beauty of embracing the nonaesthetic and how such an embrace of the unappealing might embody feminism most authentically of all.
Rachel Biggio is a junior in the College. Generational Gap appears online every other Monday.