Tits, clits and hairy pits. Brands are appropriating everything from our bodies to our principles in the pursuit of our hard earned cash. They borrow our ideas and pillage our lived experience in order to fill our houses and wardrobes with cheap disposable future landfill. Awareness is welcome, but is for profit feminism ever ok?
The trend for disembodied female genitalia began in activism with independent artists celebrating the parts of us we are taught to be ashamed of, whilst offering a sort of social commentary on the patriarchal perception of women. To wear a gold plated vulva on a necklace or display houseplants in a pot modelled on your own bosom is both an expression of pride and a quiet form of rebellion. An in joke between feminists and a humorous reminder that body positivity is more than just those vague messages of self care that populate Instagram in generic swirly fonts ripped from the front of provincial wedding invites.
Emma Low makes “tit pots,” the sort that feature heavily in pastel hued flat-lays or lifestyle posts, filled with succulents or artfully arranged make up brushes. She started “pot yer tits away love” fuelled by a desire to “produce pots [that] celebrate and normalise real bodies”. With a 10 week pottery course and a bit of a knack for social media, in 2 short years her business has grown exponentially. Emma’s product remains artisan in nature and her motivation largely pure if her funny, irreverent and fiercely feminist, self managed Instagram is to be believed. Her refusal to capitulate to demand and outsource production makes Emma and her personalised artworks all the more endearing. Is it authenticity that makes indie businesses who trade on their feminist principles and strongly female aesthetic acceptable? For me the answer is resolutely yes, because the alternative is retailers looking to monetise our politics and capitalise on a perceived trend. It is Emma herself who adds value to her brand, of this there is no doubt, but tap “tit pot” into Etsy and you will encounter a sea of copycats.
A quick skip through google shows a stylised boob print on duvet sets at urban outfitters, a similar pattern features on cups and plates at Monki, and if you fancy a phone case to match you can always hit up skinny dip. The humble breast, or at least this popular Linear representation of it, has been claimed by many indie designers. Fearne Cotton used it for a Coppa feel charity tee prompting a slight backlash online from disgruntled illustrators all of whom felt the simple but effective design their own. The print felt subversive and more than a little reactionary before it was applied to product and offered up wholesale. Now the boobs blend into a generic landscape of “quirky” stationary, cut price and lining supermarket shelves for the perusal of adventurous consumers seeking to buy into the cool crowd. With female nipples still largely taboo, particularly on platforms such as Instagram. It’s more than a little funny that such an image fades into banality.
It is not just the female form that has been rendered fashionable by mass manufacture. Set foot on the British high street in the month of March, and you will inevitably be met by rails of feminist tees and totes in honour of international women’s day. Emblazoned with slogans taken from pop culture we are encouraged to display our solidarity in black and white, or pink and red on our chests or across our weekly grocery purchases, and of course we pay for this privilege. Feminism has become big business for the British high street. I like a slogan tee as much as the next girl, but feminist socks and jeans bought from Monki or that empowering & other stories campaign with the LA municipal dance squad feel a little disingenuous when their parent company, H&M still pay female staff 96p to the male £1. Topshop, a business headed by Philip Green. A man reviled by feminists and trailed by allegations of abuse and corruption, cancelled the launch of a book curated by activist/journalist Scarlett Curtis at the last possible moment, for fear the title, “feminists don’t wear pink” may be a bit controversial for the brand. No such qualms about profiting from clothes displaying the moniker.
March 8th is a big date for purveyors of goods to women. The run up to International women’s day always heralds a slew of emails and direct messages chock full of “exciting” opportunities. Marketeers and social media managers strive for attention grabbing campaigns and collaborations and retailers fall over themselves to offer themed discounts and incentives to buy. In case you don’t make a living being creative online I will excuse your ignorance and explain the modern phenomenon of collaboration. Occasionally a brand wishes to engage your professional services with this turn of phrase. More often than not, it is used in lieu of the word free. Sometimes they offer that most covetable currency, exposure. But essentially zero is the rate at which the aforementioned business expects to commission your work. Using your personal brand to sell politically themed notebooks and hoodies on behalf of an organisation with no motivation aside from profit is ethically questionable, doing it for free is more than a little stupid. The fact these products are likely made without consideration for workers rights, welfare, or any genuine association to the cause they are ostensibly celebrating is exploitative. Art is not free and even activists need to eat, but as a creative there is a fine line between paying the bills and selling out.
Women in creative industries are plentiful, but in the art world, few and far between. There is one artist whose entire career is inextricably linked to her gender, her body of work forever reduced to a single question, vulva or flora? Georgia O’Keeffe’s well documented obsession with native plant life fascinate’s audiences, for the simple fact her paintings bear strong resemblance to that most intimate facet of female sexuality, the vagina. A theory perpetuated by the artist’s husband and vehemently denied many times over by O’Keeffe in the intervening 6 decades. Still, she is largely recognised as the lady who paints female sex organs in the guise of flowers. The mostly white, male establishment offer the benefit of multi faceted interpretation to their ilk, whilst marginalised artists and women are generally afforded only one reading. The simplistic, erotic interpretation of O’Keeffe’s work speaks to a larger problem faced by female artists. We are only deemed interesting when singularly subversive or slightly shocking, though never in a grotesque or particularly overt way. Interest sparks popularity which is converted neatly into sales. O’Keeffe holds the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a woman. Would this be the case if her ideas weren’t repackaged by the patriarchy and her voice wasn’t lost beneath a flood of genitalia?
The current crop of artists and makers exploring the idea of female anatomy don’t rely on Freudian suggestion or interpretation. There is no question of provenance for the colour matched anatomical renderings of labia and clitoris that adorn cushions, earrings and art prints on page after page of etsy and the artfully curated shelves of bricks and mortar shops. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there are certainly many imitators looking to capitalise on the fashionable feminist pound. It is not for me to decide if you abandon the basket of merchandise adorned with breasts and swirling quotations before you reach the counter at Urban Outfitters. There is no universal gauge of authenticity to consult. No absolute right or wrong. If you join the waiting list for one of Emma’s pots you won’t earn any extra feminist points. There is just you and your conscience and of course that ever present need to appear both cool and worldly in front of your peers. Before you buy your next Instagram prop consider why. Are you chasing an idea? buying into a lifestyle. Think about your personal brand of feminism for a moment, are you comfortable with all this? As consumers we vote with our wallets and as women we are ultimately answerable to ourselves. If you identify as female you should also understand the need for equal consideration. To commandeer this desire, to repurpose and repackage it, making equality prettier and more palatable for mass consumption. To fill the coffers of middle aged men in surrey mansions with beautiful wives and comfortable lives. This is not what I signed up for. Principles cannot be bought and neither can I.