What Does ‘Nasty Woman’ Merchandise Do for Feminism, Actually?

While mugs and T-shirts can improve awareness, they also distract from much-needed solutions, argues feminist author Andi Zeisler.
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Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton, proudly flouts a nasty woman mug on Saturday Night Live.

Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton, proudly flouts a nasty woman mug on Saturday Night Live.

It was the sneer heard ’round the Internet. Near the end of the third and final presidential debate, as Hillary Clinton elaborated on her plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, she quipped that Donald Trump did not pay his taxes (fact check: He certainly could have avoided it for the last two decades, according to a recent report from the New York Times). Trump leaned into the mic, and remarked, while she was speaking, “Such a nasty woman.”

Predictably, Twitter seized on the phrase — the #IAmANastyWomanBecause tag began trending almost immediately — and within hours of the remark, brands capitalized on the attention too. “Nasty woman” mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, and hats appeared within hours, vying for debate viewers’ dollars. The Huffington Post compiled a listicle that curated pantsuits for the modern “nasty woman”; merchandisers alternately touted “nasty woman” products that directly benefited the Clinton campaign or Planned Parenthood. (Others didn’t benefit anyone except the buyer’s own thirst to proclaim themselves a “nasty woman”: A “nasty woman” cross stitch, anyone?)

Perhaps Saturday Night Live portrayed the quick commercialization of the phrase best: Right after Alec Baldwin’s Trump makes his “nasty woman” comment in the program’s sketch of the debate, Kate McKinnon’s Clinton turns to the viewer and notes, “Go to hillaryclinton.com and buy a limited edition ‘nasty woman’ mug” — while cradling one in her hands.

But can buying a “nasty woman” mug really be a radical feminist act? To find out, we talked to Andi Zeisler, the author of this year’s We Were Feminists Once and the co-founder of Bitch Media. In her book, Zeisler argues that feminism has recently transitioned from “riot grrrl to CoverGirl” — in other words, that being a feminist now means participating in a movement that has come to rely on credit card and visual cues like T-shirt slogans. Today’s “marketplace feminism” is now focused more on whether women should shave their legs or wear make-up than existing and enduring systemic inequalities, such as the fact that women comprise a mere 4 percent of CEOs of Standard & Poor 500 companies and that the gender wage gap isn’t estimated to close for another 170 years.

Last week, Pacific Standard spoke with Zeisler to connect the dots on marketplace feminism, commercialization, and the “nasty woman” phenomenon.

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Did you expect that “nasty woman” was going to resonate with so many people?

I think I did expect people to react to it, talk about it, and embrace it on some level. I’m 43, and so the first thing I thought of was Janet Jackson’s song “Nasty,” which was such an iconic song. And then I think [one element of its popularity] was in the way that the word “nasty” has such a weirdly sexual content. And certainly there has been some interesting talk about the racialized use of the word “nasty” — what does it mean that largely white Hillary Clinton supporters are glomming onto this word “nasty,” and is that appropriate? What does it signify that people are embracing this word that has been very loaded in the past? And [in terms of the] commercialization of a phrase like that, I was not at all surprised.

What’s your opinion on “nasty” being reclaimed by Clinton’s supporters, many of whom are white college-educated women?

I don’t necessarily think that it’s in the front of people’s minds, and definitely not in the front of white women’s minds — but I do think that it’s something worth pointing out. I follow Feminista Jones, and she’s the person who I saw was doing a whole thread on it. I read through that and I was like, “Yeah, I think this is something that women should be considering.”

It reminded me of the moment when SlutWalk became a thing, and people were talking about, “Who gets to reclaim the word ‘slut?’ Who gets to call themselves a slut proudly and not be punished for it?” Mostly, it’s white women because slut has so many racialized associations for non-white women. That’s not to say it’s a completely empty project, but, yeah, it’s important for white women to consider the nuances of this thing.

Where does “nasty woman” fit in the trend of commodifying the feminist movement that you describe in your book?

A lot of this election, and the rhetoric around it, speaks to the idea of “marketplace feminism.” Many people who have been galvanized by [Trump’s] sexist rhetoric or the pro-woman, pro-Clinton rhetoric are not necessarily people who consider themselves feminists, but are increasingly seeing the world around them in a different way than they did last year — this election has brought out so much of the existing sexism in our country and made it really legible.

There is definitely something to that: the idea that people are accessing feminism [through this election] and feeling empowered that they’re a part of a movement or a resistance. “Nasty woman” is a really interesting, and very quick shorthand for, “Yes, I am a pissed off, Clinton-supporting person who is tired of misogyny and might still be putting up with a lot of it in my personal and professional life, but I am officially putting my flag in the ground and I’m saying I don’t want to stand for this anymore.”

So it’s kind of performative, and it’s a way to build a symbolic community. That is a big part of marketplace feminism, the performativity of it, and the way it’s like, “I am an individual who is pledging my allegiance to this movement through largely visual or commercial cues.”

Do you think the performativity and commercial aspect of the phenomenon will dilute the message or power of the cause?

If someone is truly feeling empowered by wearing a “nasty woman” T-shirt and it leads them into a new way of thinking about the world, their gender, or their place as a change agent, that’s great. I’m not saying that that’s what happens across the board, but I think that there’s great value just on the optic level of seeing women as a force embodying this kind of resistance as a critical mass all at once. I don’t necessarily think it means the message is empty because it’s performative.

Katy Perry, and other big name actresses havealigned themselves with the “nasty woman” campaign. What happens when the visibility of a movement gets pushed to the mainstream with celebrity involvement?

Social movements and political figures have always gotten a boost from celebrities aligning themselves with them, but I think Clinton is in a better position than a lot of her previous male counterparts because she is the first woman at this level. When people now talk about women, they’re almost always conflating being a woman with feminism — the cultural discourse really does conflate these two things.

A lot of celebrities who have been quite outspoken about feminism and who have been very performative in claiming feminism have actually been quiet about Clinton and this election. There’s obviously a commercial reason to not pick a side — if you’re someone like Perry or Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, you can probably assume you have fans and supporters of all political sides. So I think the fact that Perry is aligning herself with Clinton in particular, and becoming a vocal and visible Clinton supporter, does say something about her willingness to risk that perceived neutrality, and that’s interesting. [Then again,] the whole “nasty woman” thing is quite on-brand for Perry to begin with.

Does it frustrate you that wide discussion of feminism only seems to crop up when it’s attached to a hyper-visible celebrity figure?

It definitely can be frustrating, and that’s my whole issue with marketplace feminism. When you’re aiming to make something palatable for the largest amount of people in the smallest amount of time, you’re going to leave a lot of stuff out. You’re going to present a really incomplete and pretty diluted vision of what it is. And it’s usually going to include only the biggest and most prominent and sexiest features and not really the ongoing systemic stuff that is incredibly unfinished and crucial to feminism.

So yeah, that phenomenon is certainly frustrating. But I also feel that a social movement like feminism can benefit optically from surrogates or figureheads being out there and being prominent, saying, “Hey guess what, this is what feminism looks like, no matter what you’ve been told.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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