Remember When the Future Was Female?

By
Photo: Courtesy of Instagram/thebrittharris; lemii_on; liv.milne; pregulapati; malditalimena

It’s a small thing, amid the terrible surprises of the last two weeks, but nonetheless: The success of the pantsuit surprised me. Who would have thought that the poor, dowdy pantsuit — metonym of ’90s working womanhood — could be rehabilitated as a feminist symbol? But the pantsuit was perfect. “Pantsuit Nation,” a Facebook group 3 million strong, made headlines on Election Day, and women there and elsewhere shared photos of themselves wearing pantsuits to vote. As a fashion statement, the pantsuit bespeaks practicality; it didn’t require taste, just a willingness to look a little dorky and earnest in service of what you believed. The pantsuit was the best possible emblem for Hillary Clinton.

Yet even the humble pantsuit, over the course of the campaign, had found itself swept up in a general effort toward making Clinton’s candidacy look cool. There she was, vintage-chic in old photos, collaged on a phone case, stenciled on the sidewalks of Williamsburg (“YAAAS #ifeellikehillz”). My Instagram feed last Tuesday was a cascade of voting-sticker selfies taken in the fall light of coastal cities: The apparatus we generally used to advertise our taste had turned itself toward democracy. I “liked” with gratifying abandon.

Through the fall, another locus of cool-Hillary stylings — one that felt almost like Instagram come to life — was The Wing, an all-women’s social-club-slash-co-working-space. Its opening had coincided with the chance to cheer Clinton’s campaign. And this was feminist branding at its most intelligent and immaculately stylish: a millennial-pink venue for successful female New Yorkers to network, where empowerment came with custom wallpaper and mid-century sofas (and a $1,950 annual price tag). The Wing on Election Night seemed like it ought to be the ideal place to watch a new generation of women winners celebrate victory — the Times sent a reporter. But the account that ran in Thursday’s Styles section wound up describing something else, of course: The evening’s slide into a grim scene of defeat, one that all the woman-made pottery and sassy ball caps in the world would do nothing to avert.

I’ve found myself wondering what we risk when we align feminism (which, at its heart, ought to be common sense) with an aesthetic vocabulary designed to convey in-group coolness. Taste divides the world into people who share it and who don’t. We might not all have been able to afford The Wing, but plenty of my peers and I (educated, urban-dwelling) chose to perform our feminism this election season within comparably well-upholstered cocoons. We chose to signal politics as style, and it allowed us to feel that we were standing up for something when really we were patting ourselves on the back. The marvelous speed with which “Nasty Woman” T-shirts materialized post–third debate suggested the ease of converting outrage into something to wear. (In an on-the-nose coincidence, the retailer Nasty Gal — purveyor of “#GirlBoss” empowerment via polyester crop top — filed for bankruptcy in the days following the election.)

It felt so good to see all the women looking proud in their feminist T-shirts! It felt even better to see the feminist T-shirts on children, or just to imagine the children — some of the youngest were photographed in Hillary onesies — who would grow up seeing feminism as cool. I suppose it’s easy, at this juncture, to look back ruefully on any time we spent feeling good. If only we had felt worse? If only we had chosen different ways of feeling better. If only we had realized that making feminism (or Hillary) look cool should be the least of our worries.

A “Trump That Bitch” T-shirt and one that reads “This Pussy Grabs Back” are not the same thing — one makes a vulgar threat; the other voices defiance amid rape culture. Still, the Trump shirt at a Trump rally and the Pussy shirt in Brooklyn do share a certain subtext. Both seek approval from the like-minded for using salty language unabashed, for refusing to kowtow to pieties. Wearing either suggests excitement at the possibility of provoking a hypothetical antagonist, but really, it’s a gesture that imagines no receptive audience among the unconverted. It announces the wearer’s sense of security. In an election that hinged on identity politics, style was identity delineation.

Style isn’t antithetical to action, but it’s worth considering how the two shape each other. What are we really saying if we choose a mode of communication that speaks only to those already in agreement? Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote that she’d sensed something ominous in the Election Day gear, when she saw all her friends’ daughters in “The Future is Female” T-shirts. “If I’m being honest, that was when I began to worry,” she wrote. “Women can only get away with T-shirts like that because everyone knows it isn’t true.” Style allowed us to see and to feel a confidence that had outpaced reality.

Perhaps no one better captured the spirit of liberal feminism as taste in this election than Lena Dunham, who worked hard for Clinton (starting early, when many of her peers were in the Sanders camp), and who also crystallized an aesthetic. She had the most meta, most elaborate swag; she dressed up as a “grabbed pussy” in cat ears for Halloween. Last Tuesday morning, as she wrote in Friday’s edition of Lenny Letter, she’d put on a sweater with a “not-so-subtle pussy motif” and spent the day working to get out the vote. She anticipated celebration. She was at the Javits Center that night, shocked and heartbroken.

“Don’t Agonize, Organize,” read the subject line of Dunham’s letter Friday. “A lot of people have been talking about how we need to try to understand how this happened and what’s going on in the minds of the people who voted for Donald Trump,” she wrote. “Maybe. But maybe let’s leave that to the strategists, to the men in offices who need to run the numbers … It’s quite enough work to know about and bear the hatred of so many.”

As a feminist call to action, “Let’s leave practical strategy to the men” seems less than inspiring.

Imagine that it is November 7, 2016. Imagine that you’re canvassing in Michigan. You ring a bell; a door opens. What do you want to say? What might make a difference? Do you want to be wearing a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt on this occasion? Would doing so be helpful, unhelpful, neither, irrelevant? Figuring out how to change minds — how to make people care who don’t yet — isn’t pandering, or sacrificing your principles. Figuring out how to change minds is how you win.