Femwashing: Why Beyoncé May Not Be the Feminist Icon You Were Hoping For

Stumbling across Urban Dictionary one day led me to the discovery of the term ‘femwashing,’ a scenario on the website explained it stating, “did you see how XXX company started using ‘women’s empowerment’ as part of its key marketing gage? Yet the company doesn’t even have equal women in its senior leadership or equitable family leave policies for its store employees!” This example perfectly explains what femwashing is at its core. Femwashing is when companies utilise marketing strategies to capitalise on women’s rights and ideas of gender equality for their own capitalistic gains.

If we use the example of Beyoncé’s clothing line ‘Ivy Park,’ female workers were paid a shocking 44p an hour to produce garments. The Sri Lankan workers operated sewing machines for almost 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and were often made to work overtime as they also lived in the factory the clothes were being produced in. This salary in this region is meant to keep families from malnourishment, keep their children in school, and generally keep them safe, but it truly is still the bare minimum. The irony becomes somewhat uncomfortable when you learn that Ivy Park’s ethos is to “support and inspire women” through their sportswear.

Anti-exploitation campaigner Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International described the case of Ivy Park as bordering on slavery. He highlighted particular issues such as the women’s lack of movement because they are locked into their accommodation after curfew overnight on-site. A report on the incident claimed the women were living in cramped conditions with communal showers (which women share, unsafely, with men), they had zero kitchens, and they aren’t allowed to form a union to improve their unsafe conditions like in some developed countries.

@GHOSTLIBRARY took to Twitter and said this about the situation “So uhh, you guys are being real fucking quiet about Beyoncé using sweatshop labor to make clothing for her ‘Ivy Park’, huh? This is how y’alls ‘Queen’ empowers women?”

It’s important not to place all the blame onto Beyoncé though. What is unfortunate, is that Anti-Slavery International claimed these working conditions can be described as typical of the wider garment sector across South East Asia. Beyoncé’s scandal simply highlighted the conditions present for multiple fast fashion stores including Primark, New Look, and of course the retailer of Ivy Park, Topshop, as well as many others.

Much to the reader’s dismay as well, the buyer is also to blame. It is all well and good posting a selfie in our iconic “The Future Is Female” t-shirts, but when the women who made these shirts can die an early death because of the strenuous work they are put through, we are destroying our own mission statement. Feminism, which appears to be the new glamorous marketing tool has clearly not had its message reach the top, as of the 500 CEOs on the 2019 Fortune 500 list, a measly 33 are female. What we can learn from this is to be more mindful in our purchases, as we can appear hypocritical otherwise. It is important to remember that wearing fem-centered merchandise can usually be very passive in terms of activism, feminist activism must come from participating in the fight to make change happen for ALL women. Buy from female-owned brands. Investigate when you need to. Contact companies letting them know your dismay. Be the change.

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