At the end of 2015, a feminist pop culture controversy broke out on the Internet over a t-shirt. The t-shirt features the slogan “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” in block print. The slogan is catchy, and the t-shirt is similar to many modern-day t-shirts featuring popular phrases and expressions. However, the shirt has a historic past and a contentious present.
In 1975, Liza Cowan photographed lesbian folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing the slogan on a t-shirt. The shirt was designed for Labrys Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, and the photo was a part of a slideshow entitled “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.”
Flash forward to 2015, when Rachel Berks, owner of the queer design studio Otherwild, saw the photo and was inspired to recreate the t-shirt as homage to the original design. The Otherwild website describes the slogan as “an empowering statement for all, as female-identified bodies and rights remain under attack."
The t-shirt became wildly popular, with a celebrity following including Lena Dunham and St. Vincent. Model Cara Delevingne bought one of the shirts and then allegedly ripped off the design and began selling copies of the shirt to benefit the organization Girl Up. Berks responded over Instagram, and the media buzzed over the feud. However, in all of the coverage of the dispute, from Otherwild’s statement, to the New York Times, to Cosmopolitan, Dobkin and the slogan’s controversial, gender-essentialist, and transphobic history was neglected.
Alix Dobkin is a staunch second wave feminist, and a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Dobkin has a history of being strongly opposed to trans-inclusion in the LGBTQ movement and has participated in trans-exclusion at the notorious Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In 2015, Dobkin co-authored an article for the website Gender Identity Watch, titled "The Erasure of Lesbians." In the article Dobkin states, "apparently anyone can collude with the medical/pharmaceutical industry, declare himself a woman, and find acceptance as such almost everywhere. Except for a few Lesbian/feminist holdouts, transsexuals have leaped forward on the civil rights agenda and become the latest cause of the LGBTQ community, often to the detriment of Lesbians.” Given her beliefs, she makes a strange icon for contemporary feminists today.
In fact her beliefs are directly contradictory to a statement on Otherwild's website:
Inflexibile and compulsory sexual and gender binaries are used to oppress and deny people their humanity and agency. Otherwild believes in an inclusive, expanded and fluid notion of gender expression, identities and feminisms. We support liberation, embrace our trans sisters, and call for the end of patriarchal ideology, domination, oppression and violence.Perhaps Berks was unaware of Dobkin’s contradictory political beliefs when she chose to recreate her t-shirt. Or, perhaps, she thought the shirt just looked cool, and its history did not matter. Surely, Delevingne was unaware of the shirt’s history and its wearer’s beliefs.
In the advent of pop feminism, when everyone from Taylor Swift to Carly Fiorina is a feminist, feminism must be more than a bandwagon, or a way to claim cultural capital. As Jessica Valenti questioned in her 2014 article, “if everyone is a feminist, is anyone?” Valenti suggests that “maybe doing the work of feminism is more important than identifying as a feminist. After all, [sic] word isn’t just an identity – it’s a movement. It’s something that you do.”
It can be powerful to have celebrity allies in movement building, but pop culture’s embrace of feminism needs to be broader than a trendy shirt and girl power ideology – it needs to be introspective, intersectional and evolving.