Does This Shirt Make Me Look Too Woke?

When human rights issues become trendy and the market crowded with empty messaging, marginalization and commodification flirt. But do we help to blur the distinction?

ILLUSTRATION Yolande Mutale

In Times Square, people enjoy what our parents used to but we would never call an Indian Summer. A millennial pink billboard is telling everyone to vote. Then, in small letters underneath, paid for by Brazzers. 

“It’s not art that’s depressing me,” I promise a date who has the kind of optimism only a subsidized rent can buy, “it’s capitalism.” After the second drink, I put my pessimism on a shelf to get laid. 

Scrolling, my algorithm delivers an article from one of those magazines everyone’s in but no one reads, gushing about the latest label to “start a conversation.” Brands can talk? I click the link because I like to read publicist emails cut and pasted.

A label based in Berlin, naturally, plans to raise awareness re: manspreading—pressing issue—by printing the phrase TOXIC MASCULINITY across the inseam of pants. A statement that will cost you only forty euros and a leg spread. If that’s too niche, locally you can buy a tee that claims WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, with a picture of a globe in an emoji heart, manufactured by a streetwear label in a state that’s on fire. It’s very funny but also very not, like everything these days. 

On a Saturday, I’m hungover and drafting copy for a designer who champions community, so we’re told, by selling clothes which pair words like promote and capital with homo and queer. I struggle to spin deeper meaning from obvious statements about our collective condition. He notices, too, and my hours are cut—queer capital, indeed. 

Ever since True Cost or whenever it became trendy to care, consumers started to expect more from labels. Fashion with a message is now prioritised, even if the message isn’t saying much at all. That a Dior runway with “Patriarchy = Oppression” signs or a $225 Marc Jacobs crewneck with “Choose Your Future, Vote” on it offer no solutions to the problems they confront is beside the point, it’s the illusion of concern that counts. 

Fashion with a message is now prioritised, even if the message isn’t saying much at all.

A college friend talks about how former classmates of ours are still upset with mutuals who failed to post a satisfactory level of Black Lives Matter content on Instagram. I sip my $7.50 latte, “What do they expect from people?” This is rhetorical, of course, because social norms are even easier to follow online. Brands ourselves, we assume a woke posture, demanding each other’s feeds reflect the political complexity of their poster. Activists open PR packages on the app and it’s unclear who is pandering to who. Undeniably, marketing teams have only ever been good at their jobs. 

“We should’ve brought drinks,” girls in bandanas whisper to each other at a protest. A few weeks later, a couple will take the shattered glass from a similar event in Charleston and create a jewellery line called “Wear Their Names” – a $240 necklace named The Breonna, earrings for Trayvon, etc – a lapse in judgement as shitty as it is unsurprising. In an economic system defined by self-interest, it seemed only a matter of time before social consciousness itself would become capital to be leveraged, by corporations and individuals alike. 

I retell the anecdote about the girls. 

“Well, if protests were more fun, maybe more people would go,” sympathizes a friend who works in venture capital. Fun? Her girlfriend, a Facebook employee, clarifies it’s more about making the protest model sustainable long-term. “Incorporating entertainment elements could keep attendance high and momentum going. Which, historically speaking, is crucial in achieving political goals.” I must’ve been looking self-righteous because she sprinkles, “I know how it sounds.”

I compulsively follow Twitter cancellations of people I don’t know. Comments on comments, strangers attack one another in often cruel and funny ways. No matter the slight, the dog-piling is always intense and mostly perpetrated by people who never owned a flip phone. Their commitment is impressive; I try to remember what I was doing in high school… 

“We need to cancel,” an unpaid intern tells me. Our company has scheduled an Instagram takeover with, as of yesterday, a beloved sex toy manufacturer who has just been outed for not compensating their influencers of colour. The backlash is widespread and within twelve hours, other industry players have released statements in solidarity with the brand ambassadors. “We need to say something,” the unpaid intern tells me. Comments criticizing our silence are starting to appear on the company page. So we post a vague statement on our Story, but we don’t need to cancel because the sex toy manufacturer never follows up. A year later, they receive renewed vitriol for similar offences. They’ve since posted a Desmond Tutu quote and turned off their comments. 

“The end result is that every social movement becomes like Pride,” says the venture capitalist—she’s driving, so it lends her authority—alluding to how the anniversary of the Stonewall riots has become primarily the providence of corporate virtue signaling. The whole car agrees that social media has given everyone the ability to speak a language of consciousness without fully understanding it. I look out the window and think of all the anti-cop merch I bought during Spring. Macro and micro, marginalization and commodification—the pairs have always flirted, but do we help to blur the distinctions? Non-profits make money, a different friend has to explain over lunch. “How do you think I get paid?”  

A sum of our capitalist parts, every day I’m less convinced we are total victims of the systems we inhabit. 

On a Tuesday night, my 62 year-old father texts me, “Baby Boomers have, for the most part, proven themselves to be racist, money grubbers.” I consider mentioning how the only thing my generation has gotten better at is identifying this behavior, that all we’ve learned is how to deliver a more convincing performance of giving a shit… I heart-react the message instead. 

Someone I was arrested with has become a poster child for the Spring protests, displaying enough digital savvy to follow in the footsteps of activist-influencers like Adam Eli. “Hi there,” he texts at 1:30AM. I can’t tell if he wants to fuck or have me testify against the NYPD. I hate it here. 

<strong>Jacob Seferian</strong>
Jacob Seferian

Jacob Seferian is a writer and editor living in New York City. His work has appeared in over 13 magazines and he’s currently developing a comic about bad sex. 

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The Art of Corporate Compromise
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