Performative Woketivism

Performative Woketivism


Activism has been given a renewed breadth and depth through the emergence of the digital age, and has once again become a main aspect of many people’s lives not only in the United States but around the world. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a very difficult reality that many must deal with every day, as his views on immigration, LGBTQ+, and many other civil rights issues have created a hostile atmosphere for minorities everywhere, making it often seem as if no one were safe from persecution for being a minority. This rise of fear and uncertainty has also prompted a rise in political awareness accompanied with political correctness, or “wokeness.” To be “woke” means to be aware of the nuances of political correctness and of injustices in society, but wokeness rarely precedes real political action. Wokeness is now prevalent in society more than it ever was and has made a prominent entrance into the fashion industry. But is wokeness all there is?

To be labeled as woke one must only be aware of societal injustice, but one does not actually have to work toward rectifying this injustice, thus creating an entire subsection of activism which requires little to no risk for the large reward of feeling good about oneself. Wokeness has become almost always performative, and the concept of social injustice as a tagline has infiltrated almost every aspect of our consumerist world. This performative “activism” is especially prevalent in the fashion world, which has historically being criticized for creating importance based in appearance rather than actual substance. Fashion has not historically been activists’ chosen platform, except in rare instances like the case of the miniskirt, which in the 1960s became a symbol of protest against the sexual double standard that women must face throughout their lives.1 But in recent years, as society has advanced toward a more socially progressive and digital age, wokeness has sparked inspiration for fashion “visionaries.” Fashion has become a way to wear a statement, and in the current political climate, the fashion industry has decided to capitalize on statements to make money and to represent the brands’ politics and stances on hot-button issues of social justice, and thus eventually put them somewhere on the imaginary wokeness scale of which the public seems to be so conscious. These statements in the fashion industry come in many forms including, but not limited to, “pussy hats” in protest of Donald Trump’s well-documented misogyny, sweatshirts with fictional bullet holes punched through them against gun violence, and a copious quantity of slogans which do nothing more than present an idealist statement. All of these designs may have the best intentions, but in the end they all do the same thing: capitalize on the oppression that they appear to be so adamant about ending. Without the oppression, the brands would have fewer sales, as they would be unable to tap into the desire of consumers to advertise their social consciousness. Although the end of oppression is what these brands seem to be looking forward to, the reality of the situation is that if these brands felt that denouncing oppression on a T-shirt would not make money, then they would not even make it. In the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, the problem with wokeness in fashion “is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display.”2\ The majority of people who actually wear clothing with the intention of proving their wokeness have not even participated in dismantling the very oppression that they stand against. If they had, then perhaps their preferred clothing would not exist. Today’s society, especially in corporate capitalist America, has morphed into a mélange of political correctness, or wokeness, and a materialistic need to display this wokeness, and these two values do not necessarily align or create progressive change in regards to civil injustice.

Activism is in peril when in the grips of fashion trends. Activism, especially feminism, has been taken advantage of by the fashion economy for profit, and all of this activism and wokeness as a trend amounts to nothing but a lazy gesture as opposed to actual, constructive political action. In the evolution out of typical grassroots activism, has come fashion activism and this evolution has left many social actions behind in its wake. In The Aftermath of Feminism, Angela McRobbie describes a “double movement, disarticulation and displacement, accompanied by replacement and substitution,” which occurs when a movement, in her case the feminist movement, begins to transition from contestation of to assimilation with the mainstream, or dominant, culture.3 By “disarticulation,” McRobbie means “a force which devalues, or negates and makes unthinkable the very basis of coming-together, on the assumption widely promoted that there is no longer any need for such actions.”4 Such a process could easily refer to many of the “social movements” expressed by a fashion choice, in which the majority of participation occurs from one’s own home and consists only of posting a picture of oneself proclaiming a call for reform, usually with the addition of an accessory signifying one’s position, such as a safety pin for solidarity.

The safety pin movement, in which individuals post photos of themselves wearing safety pins accompanied by the hashtag #safetypin, is one of many forms of superficial “activism” that do almost nothing besides state one’s own political views, with the implication that one is on the woke side of history. The safety pin movement originated in the United Kingdom, following Brexit and the increase in xenophobia coupled with it as a way for native Britons to signal allyship with immigrants and diasporic communities. Although it seemed like a good idea upon conception, pretty soon, large fashion houses and other fashion brands started displaying items of which safety pins were the main attraction.5 This activism thus quickly shifted into a trend instead of proving to be effective as a form of activism, as it was initially conceived to be. Not only was the safety pin solidarity rendered ineffective, but it became a lie. And not just any lie, but “one born out of white people’s desire to perform their wokeness in an effort to shed guilt about being the beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy.”6 Performative wokeness has become dangerous, as it constructs performative activism as something that will actually work and provides false hope to people who actually need support in the form of real political action.

McRobbie writes that the “sphere of leisure and consumer culture is dominated by the vocabulary of personal choice, and is the primary site for hedonism, fantasy, personal gratification, and entertainment, which sphere increasingly coincides with society as a whole. 7 Activism has progressed (or devolved) into an important aspect of leisure and consumer culture, and if this culture is in fact dominated by personal choice, then we, as a society, have chosen to move important, non-trivial issues into this trivial sphere. This shift could very well be due to those who are in control of the narrative (namely, “woke” white people) being interested in how to capitalize off of another’s oppression to demonstrate that they care but not enough to insist on real change. The truth of the matter is, however, that real political action occurs without much regard for how many people have a safety pin on their lapel, and people in positions of power know that. These people in positions of power are more than likely to be the ones capitalizing off of their displays of wokeness and profiting off of them, because they know real change will not be due to this performative activism, but they still get to maintain their positions of power while fronting to those who are actually oppressed that real change will occur. Those who label themselves as woke are typically white people, who are not heavily impacted by oppressive laws and structural inequality; rather, they, more often than not, end up actually benefiting from these oppressive structures. These people have been the ones creating and benefiting from performative wokeness as their main form of activism, which allows them to control the narrative and decide how far this activism can actually go—because it does have the potential to become constructive, but instead it lies idle, waiting to be acted upon.

Performative activism is extremely prevalent among those participating in the popular Women’s March. The Women’s March, which began in 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, is a way for people to come together and advocate for civil rights focused on, but not limited to, on women’s rights and gender equality. These marches have become huge cultural phenomena and have begun to take place all around the globe, but, more than anything, these marches have become photo and content opportunities. Every year since 2017, on the date of the Women’s March, Instagram feeds become cluttered with those who wish to put their wokeness and activist orientation on display. The posters that these “woketivists,” or woke activists, carry and design are meant to help to implement change, but instead they become contestants in an almost passive aggressive battle to determine which poster has the quippier punchline. It is easily seen that there is merit to this sea of inclusivity, as there is power in numbers, but to what extent? Feminism has evolved into a competition for pride of place on the wokeness scale, but what feminism and other forms of activism are really about is not competition, but rather equality, understanding, and learning about another’s oppression in order to rectify one’s own behavior.

Performative feminism not only occurs at the Women’s March but has also infiltrated the fashion industry. There is an exhausting number of examples of performative woketivism in fashion, but the most obvious would have to be Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt, inspired by the title of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk and, later, book. For Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Spring/Summer 2017 debut at the French fashion house, she decided to spotlight her feminism in the form of T-shirts appearing as part of her first collection for the label. The T-shirts have “We Should All Be Feminists” printed on them, and, as Chiuri was Dior’s first female creative director, many thought that this was a strong feminist message that could help to usher in female empowerment at not only the Dior house but others as well.8 The T-shirts are today sold for $860, although they were only sold for $700 upon their initial launch. The initial price of $700 is quite a statement, and a hypocritical one at that, as the core of the current, fourth-wave feminist movement is diversity and inclusivity, and this price tag seems to represent neither of those values. Not only does this shirt almost ridicule feminist values, it is also something most feminists are most likely never going to wear.

There is a divided narrative when it comes to performative woketivism, especially in the feminist community, and this shirt only exacerbates this divided narrative as it promotes a disarticulation within the feminist community. In general, T-shirt slogans are a “kind of pre-emptive disarticulation, foiling an exchange or banding together, before it might ever happen,” and that dynamic is exacerbated when it comes tot this particularly pricey shirt, as it does not allow for all women to be able to even purchase the T-shirt.9 The typical person wearing this shirt is someone who has more than enough money to purchase it, and these people are typically those in positions of power, so they are most likely affluent white women. Affluent white women have their own definition of feminism, as does everybody, but theirs is most likely not going to include protecting those who do not have all of the same privileges as they do. The T-shirt has also been seen on celebrities such as Rihanna, Natalie Portman, Kendall Jenner, and Jennifer Lawrence, which only further proves that “the field of popular culture [is] a privileged terrain for the implementation of these new forms of gender power.”10,11 It is easy to become a woketivist when there are not really any rules that apply to you, as happens to be the case with celebrities, especially the A-list ones mentioned above. For those in the highest positions of power, as celebrities are in today’s world, there is not really much against which one has to fight. Standing up for a cause has become as easy as wearing a T-shirt with an activisT-like sentiment written across it. This trend, which entails getting a photo snapped of you wearing the T-shirt, and subsequently being labeled an activist, has become the baseline activist standard in today’s digital age of woketivism. It could not be simultaneously simpler and less effective, but that is the allure presented by this style of activism.

Performative activism is only effective when there is a real change produced as a result of the performance, but the performance of Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt is just that. There is nothing more to the shirt than the performance and the facade of wokeness when all that there is behind the shirt is probably someone who thinks the shirt is cute and nothing more. Wearing the shirt does not incite change, nor is it likely to promote the inclusivity and diversity that the shirt stands for. The shirt does not even come in a size larger than “L,” or large, and so does not even begin to include all of the women in the world, and the model in the marketing photos of the shirt is unsurprisingly a thin, white woman (Dior). Activism, for Dior and most creators of clothing with feminist messages on it, starts and ends when one puts the shirt in the morning and takes it off at night, which allows for the shirt and those wearing it to have “a suggestion of temporality, like the advocacy has a beginning and end point, and it’s the privilege of the woke person to decide where they want to draw that line” (Iversen). This “line,” however, does not exist for those who actually suffer oppression, as instead they must rely on those in positions of power, who are also those wearing the performative T-shirts, to create significant improvements in their well-being.

It is a privilege to be so ignorant as to think that performative woketivism does anything but make a sanctimonious statement. This ignorance, or, in some people’s cases, this deliberate performativity, only further aggravates divisions between activists, between oppressors and the oppressed, and within society in general. Having good intentions printed onto a T-shirt does not necessarily align one with activists who focus on real, constructive, political action. The problem with performative woketivism such as this T-shirt is not that it is wrong, but, as journalist Kristen Iversen writes,

it’s that by loudly proclaiming over and over again that they are doing and are part of something exceptional, woke-tivists make it impossible to make normal the kind of things that should be normal, things like compassion and tolerance and goodwill and charity and progressive political action.12

A clear distinction between those who are actually doing work to free the oppressed as opposed to the performative woketivists needs to be made clear, as those who are given false hope deserve more than a slogan printed onto a T-shirt they cannot even afford or fit into.

Performative woketivism has bled into other spheres of activism and has left a bad reputation for itself when it comes to making actual progress towards reform. A particular example which struck many as one of the most inappropriate forms of performative activism is fashion designer Bstroy’s debut of their spring/summer 2020 hoodies. Bstroy describe themselves as “Neo-native menswear design house. Creating and communicating from a time after now,” and the brand decided that the best way to communicate their brand to people is through this new hoodie design.13 The line of sweatshirts and hoodies Bstroy debuted feature logos for Sandy Hook, Columbine, Stoneman Douglas, and Virginia Tech, all with bullet-hole-like holes punched through them. These names are all of schools whose students were victims of gun violence—incidents that have raised questions about who should be allowed to own guns in the United States. The gun debate is a very charged one and Bstroy decided to capitalize on this debate with their new line of hoodies and sweatshirts. The response to these sweatshirts was overwhelmingly negative, as they are an obtuse statement which profits off of the unjust death of multiple students. These statement sweatshirts fall on the extremist side of performative woketivism. As one Twitter user puts it,

Putting bullet holes in school sweaters isn’t shining light on an issue. It’s being provocative for the sake of being provocative. And that’s not very provocative. It’s not artistic. It lacks refinement. It lacks intelligence. It lacks design skill. It is lazy at best.”14.

This user is absolutely correct; these sweatshirts do nothing more than remind us of the horror that these students had to undergo, and if a survivor of the shooting were to be walking down the street one day and saw someone wearing one of these sweatshirts, they would likely be more than appalled and offended. This design does not provoke activism, but instead anger and hurt, and does nothing to further the cause of ending gun violence—in fact, it is not really clear that that is supposed to be the message conveyed by the design. After the wave of backlash Bstroy encountered, their founder, Brick Owens, posted a statement on Instagram stating, “Sometimes life can be painfully ironic. Like the irony of dying violently in a place you considered to be a safe, controlled environment, like school. We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential.”15 Clearly the founder believed that his sweatshirt design would be a comfort to those who suffered at the hands of gun violence, but given the overtly provocative nature of the design and a price tag between $250 to $410, as Bstroy hoodies typically sell for, this sweatshirt only serves “to comfort those already in positions of power while further othering the people they are purporting to help.”16,17Iversen, “Please Let This Be the End Of Performative Wokeness.” This graphic homage to such tragic deaths is an extreme version of performative woketivism, and has no place in real, valuable activism. The distinction between this grotesque, misinformed woketivism and actions that produce real, substantial change is a distinction which needs to be made for the sake of productive change.

It is important to recognize how today’s society has come to be typified by performative wokeness and a materialistic desire and requirement to display one’s own activist sentiments. These two attributes of society are not necessarily affiliated with one another, and neither create progressive changes in regard to the civil injustices many face daily. The ushering in of a digital age in the past decade has prompted such a change not only in how we view others but in how we view ourselves, and this obsession with what others think about you, or the digitally inclined desire to put a perfect persona into the digital black hole we call the internet, has damaged and skewed our perceptions of the world. Society now teaches us to believe that change is the effect of a trending hashtag, but behind the hashtag there are actual people who are working to create progressive change, who might not even know what the hashtag is. We must work against this obsession with what celebrities are wearing, what we look like through the tiny circle holding our profile picture, and how the world perceives us through the screen, and instead step back up in order to take a critical look at what mark we want to leave on the world, aside from the digital stains on our brains.

  1. Emilia Petrarca, “From Twiggy to Paris Hilton to Bella Hadid, Miniskirts Are Back In Fashion Once Again,” W Magazine, July 7 2017.
  2. David Brooks, “The Problem With Wokeness,” The New York Times, June 7, 2018.
  3. Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009), 26.
  4. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 26.
  5. Kristin Iversen, “Please Let This Be the End of Performative Wokeness,” NYLON, January 10 2019.
  6. Iversen, “Please Let This Be the End of Performative Wokeness.”
  7. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 27.
  8. Ione Gamble, “How ‘Woke’ Is Fashion Right Now?” Grazia, Grazia, November 3, 2017.
  9. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 27.
  10. Alex Apatoff,  “Kendall Jenner Is the Latest Celeb to Wear Dior’s $710 Feminist Tee,” People Magazine, April 21, 2017.
  11. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 28.
  12. Iversen, “Please Let This Be the End of Performative Wokeness.”
  13. Kevin Vellturo, “Clothing Line Draws Criticism for Sandy Hook Sweatshirts,” Hartford Courant, September 17, 2019.
  14. B/G @bibbygreggory, as quoted in Vellturo, “Clothing Line Draws Criticism for Sandy Hook Sweatshirts.”
  15. Vellturo, “Clothing Line Draws Criticism for Sandy Hook Sweatshirts.”
  16. Tess Owen, “This Designer Is Actually Selling Hoodies with Bullet Holes and School Names Like Parkland and Sandy Hook,” Vice, September, 2019.
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