Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Experimental Essay #2

Butterfly Wings's picture

Experimental Essay #2

The Commodification of Justice Movements (“Working” Title)

            As students at Bryn Mawr, we are put in a privileged position, wherein it is incredibly easy to not only collect information on past and present social justice efforts, but to critique them. I have noticed that we as a class are particularly critical of every movement we’ve discussed. With this in mind, I would like to say that my paper is not actually looking to criticize the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but rather to examine its trajectory. Before I launch into my questions, I’d like to take a moment to tie #BlackLivesMatter to two other movements- women’s liberation in the eighties and the “gay rights” movement today.

            Women’s liberation did not start as the entity we now openly critique. Liberation began as a much more urban movement, as educated women worked across color and class lines in city welfare programs and powerful Black women worked towards their own liberation. As mentioned in Sula’s paper, these Black women served as “Mama”s or role models for the young white women that met them. Its original ideals, therefore, centered much more around equality of genders and races. The problematic aspects of the movement arose when the women working in the cities returned home, to suburbia and their fellow middle-class white women. It was in suburbia that the movement gained further traction, as its numbers filled with educated, bored, frustrated, and comparatively privileged, women.  A movement is most shaped by those organizing it/with the loudest voices, thus the aims changed to better address the problems of said middle class white women. Additionally, this alteration was exacerbated by the racism of suburban women, who by the very nature of suburbia, were often isolated and segregated from Black people, and failed to see the intersectionality of many women originally within the movement.  Women’s Liberation came to focus more on allowing this specific subset of privileged women to expand into career zones and make it acceptable for them to continue working and being fulfilled outside the domestic sphere of home life. (A problem often irrelevant to working class women, who had to maintain their own careers in order to support their families.) The idea of a suburban woman who could “do it all”, aka feminine mystique, was partially built up by this movement, allowing it to spread and be marketed. In her essay titled “Arts of the Possible”, Adrienne Rich described the transformation of Women’s Liberation in the eighties to serve a specific group as the product of Capitalism,

[which] lost no time in rearranging itself around this phenomenon called "feminism," bringing some women closer to centers of power while extruding most others at an accelerating rate

It defied the economic social order of capitalism far more to bring equality across class and race than it did to simply advance the placement of white suburban women. Using feminism to further oppress other classes also reinforced the hierarchies valuable to a society of production. As far as publicity and corporate interests went, a bonus to seemingly supporting Liberation was that it added bodies to the work force, allowing for perpetuation of capitalistic ideologies. Women literally bought into further commodification in seeking capitalistic freedom.

(Warning: intense word vomit ahead- bear with me please)

            Similarly, something like this happened/is happening with LGBTQIA+ movements today. The one most relevant to my argument is that of “gay rights”. Somehow, the focus became entirely focused on “gay rights”, rather than equality across all people in the acronym. There are whole groups in the spectrum entirely ignored and dismissed by the phrase “gay rights”. What could be something so much more inclusive and radical has been reduced and commodified to the easiest version of itself. For example, the intense push for “gay marriage” as the key tenet to LGBTQIA+ struggles allowed people to pretend their part was done the moment the supreme justices ruled marriage between same-sex couples as legal.

            Corporate America could easily support a boost to the marriage economy, so why would they fight their own best capitalistic interests?  It was easy enough to slap a rainbow on anything and “show support”.  It was equally easy to produce millions of rainbow flags and related merchandise. “Gay Marriage” could therefore be reduced to marketing, serving only a small section of the spectrum and not addressing the stigmas surrounding other real problems. As with any marketing campaign, the more visible it became, the more hits an article on a rainbow-painted house across from the Westboro Baptist Church there were, the more gimmicky shirts for allies there were, the more acceptable it became to society. While homosexuality is still something incredibly feared by many (and is not something I want to claim as a non-issue), it is definitely accepted as a lesser evil than any other identification in LGBTQIA+ as a direct result of the intensity of the marketing campaigns supporting it. In its commodification, the movement became less about creating equal marriages and more about the “gay marriage” aspect of it. The reason it was such a disservice to the rest of LGBTQIA+ is that the marketing was too focused on the good of gay. No other fears were addressed or considered in any way, shape or form. The struggles of others in the spectrum were entirely erased. Many important people were lost in the process, in favor of those that were most easily commodified. Further, tying back to something I mentioned before, marriage itself is a capitalist need. A traditional family (i.e. two parents living with kids in a house and leading the American dream) is significantly more profitable than two people afraid to invest in a house together and start a family. Rather than question the ethics of/need for marriage as an institution, the push for “gay marriage” reinforced the capitalistic norm.

            My questions then, as #BlackLivesMatter continues to gain support and be commercialized and mass marketed to America, are:

should we be afraid of something similar happening to #BlackLivesMatter?

Does widespread success inherently mean losing the radical and important aspects of a movement? If so, how do we preserve the value of it? Is it better to get support for a small portion or to less support for the total?

As white politicians begin to become spokespeople for the movement (see Bernie Sanders’s recent speech on the topic) are the original voices of the movement being lost? How problematic is it to have a white figurehead, if they are in as strong a position as Bernie Sanders and if he continues to be educated by Black leaders of the movement?

What groups are being forgotten as the movement gains momentum? (Thinking Trans POC and WOC as a whole)

Is #AllLivesMatter actually helping the cause in that it provides an opposing force from without the cause that #BlackLivesMatter can push against and remain united against? Is the #AllLivesMatter pushback tied to some form of capitalistic frustration?






Butterfly Wings's picture

#BlackLivesMatter is fighting hard to avoid the same type of commodification I referenced in terms of previous movements. 

As far as physical objects go, we talked for a long time about the merchandising of #BlackLivesMatter. Their products are only sold through one site, run by the BLCK Foundation, all of whose profits go directly back to the movement, not the pockets of any higher ups or companies looking to just take advantage of the movement’s growing popularity. Ergo, their products are inherently anti-capitalist, as they funnel funds from industrial capitalist markets to social change, thereby subverting the more physical form of commodification experienced by the “gay rights” world. However, despite its subversion of capitalist goals, #BlackLivesMatter has not made an outright statements of this sort. There is no direct link between #BLM and any anti-capitalist groups, though they seek to fight the same evils.

We discussed Serena Williams’ clothing line as a direct contrast to #BlackLivesMatter’s form of subversion. The case was originally made that her clothing line’s success made a similar statement, because its profits do go into supporting a powerful black figure, but it is still problematic on two main fronts. First and foremost, her line is inherently exploitative of others for the growth of her own capital, no one and nothing else’s. She seeks only to expand her own empire as a capitalist being, not to contribute to societal change as a whole. Second, her line continues to support the commodification of black anger, as her image in popular culture is based almost explicitly on her aggression as a tennis player. Further, she is supporting a culture of black exceptionalism, which rewards her for being the “exception” to the rule of black mediocrity. Both problems are inherently agains the goals of #BlackLivesMatter’s social change goals.

However, while #BLM subverts capitalism in its physical products, it is definitely leaving many people behind. While it would contribute to to black exceptionalism and take away from the community-based endeavors of #BLM to put its creators on a pedestal, their identities as three trans, black women is often forgotten. Societal interpretations of #BLM leave them behind (as well as many other trans WOC, and WOC as a whole) in favor of focusing on violence against MOC (men of color). MOC, while in need, are not worse off than WOC, but very little public knowledge care is given to that fact. The most public demonstrations for #BLM mostly center around MOC and police violence. However, a WOC, Rekia Boyd, was also killed by a reckless police officer. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter at the time (November 2012), but cleared of all charges in April 2015. #BLM tried to organize protests about the injustice of said change, but very few people turned out to said events and it went mostly unremarked on online. 

As far as physical objects go, commodification is not an immediate concern. There should, however, be concern and focus placed on a loss of rights for the groups included in the original protest that were left by the wayside as the movement progressed out of their hands.

jschlosser's picture

This does excellent work recapping our discussion. I'm curious, however, what Butterfly Wings makes of all this: Is Serena Williams' model the more dominant model? If so, what does that say about the threat of black exceptionalism which undermines concerted efforts to combat white supremacy? Should Wiliams be called to account? (Rosa, you might need to leap to her defense!)