Such feminisms. So wow.
Image: That Lady Thing

The first thing I noticed was all the pink. The pink carpet and pink velvet rope that led into the pink-lit bar, where you could procure a pink drink with a pink drink ticket. Inside it smelled pink—more specifically, like the cotton candy that was being served by women wearing pink wigs. All of this pink was how I knew that some real, hardcore feminism was about to go down—better get ready to be Empowered™!

Enter That Lady Thing, a Museum of Ice Cream-style popup in San Francisco, whose stated raison d’être is raising awareness about, and donating money to, Very Serious women’s issues—all by creating opportunities for women to take photos of themselves. Instead of that famous pool filled with sprinkles, there is a pool filled with boobs. The experience is designed not by a feminist activist organization, but rather an ad agency. It is just the latest example of women’s empowerment being turned into a cutesy symbol of itself, drained of real meaning and serving only to promote “feminism” as a fashionable lifestyle brand.

So line right up, ladies! Come snap a pic with the inevitable end-point of trendy and marketable feminism. It is a candy-colored, effervescent, and very ‘gram-worthy dystopia.

The exhibit first launched earlier this year for International Women’s Day as a one-night event dubbed The Lady Factory—a play on The Color Factory, another made-for-Instagram pop-up. It was thrown by San Francisco ad agency Eleven purely for employees and their families and friends. A press release declares it was such a hit that its makers decided to bring it back, go public, and rebrand for another round—and to prep for “a traveling roadshow and growing content platform.”

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While it is true that the original event landed a feature with “lifestyle media company” Brit + Co, it was not exactly a viral sensation. That evening, and in the days that followed, the designated hashtag garnered less than 60 posts outside of The Lady Factory’s official Instagram account. But it was an idea they were determined to push further.

The show, which opened Sunday and runs for five days, merges “activist messaging and lifestyle appeal,” according to the ad agency organizers. It is “part speakeasy, part speak out—a pop up with purpose, where we serve up selfies with a side of self respect.” In other words, it is the perfect encapsulation of this moment of “selfie factories,” empty hashtag activism, and the corporatization of feminism.

The project’s main do-gooder defense is that it’s a not-for-profit enterprise with proceeds going to the National Women’s Law Center. There is a donation station set up where visitors can swipe their credit cards for the cause. But it’s also a prime advertising opportunity for its various sponsoring brands—including Lyft, Benefit Cosmetics, the Silicon Valley tech company Carbon 3d, and Ellevest, a women-focused financial startup. It’s also a vehicle for Eleven to showcase what it can do in the way of branding, content, and what’s known in the biz as “experience design”—which often enough just means “exposing people to advertising in a fun way.”

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A $25 ticket gets visitors an artisanal cocktail—a “Consensual Sex on the Beach” or “Bold Fashioned,” for example—and several hours of unrestrained selfie time. Each installation—from the well-lit selfie corner backed by boob-covered wallpaper to the boob-filled ball pit—is meant to communicate some stuff about lady stuff. Like, for example, the pay gap is a thing, in case you didn’t know! So is sexual harassment. Now let’s take some photos about it!

Here I am, feeling so dang empowered.
Photo: Tracy Clark-Flory

“We wanted people to look up from their Instagram feeds and pay attention, but then we realized that we could create some irresistible eye candy to bring the message onto the Instagram feed,” said Jamie Shaw, Eleven’s creative director, during a press and “influencer” preview of the exhibit. “So we see this as injecting some substance into something otherwise superficial.”

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The substance is questionable.

My first “experience” was with The Sea of Objectification, a miniature pool filled with disembodied boobs. You walk down a diving board and then leap—or, as I did, creakily lower yourself—into a mass of what can best be described as stress balls with nipples. Then you pose and take a picture or two or 10. A sign nearby explains, “Every morning, we wade into the familiar waters of misconduct. Ladies, soak up the sea of change—the tides they are a-changin’!” It’s accompanied by some stats on unwanted sexual advances in the work place.

The “activist” metaphor is a bit unclear. Why are we giddily soaking in a sea of boobs if the tides are a-changin’? Are we going to... miss that sea of boobs? Are we dejectedly bathing in our own oppression? Are we asserting our personhood amid a bunch of depersonalized breasts? Are boobs misconduct? Are misconducting boob-tides a-changin’? I just don’t know—nor do I think it matters much within this corporate-sponsored brand of kicky-gal feminism. “Around here, we raise our voices. And our glasses. And maybe a little hell on the side,” reads the Eventbrite description.

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This kind of feminism isn’t just marketable now. It’s also got “lifestyle appeal,” particularly when it involves pink everything, girlfriend-y vibes, and boobs boobs boobs. I recently went to a nail salon—a nail salon—decorated with a throw pillow screaming, “FEMINIST FEMINIST FEMINIST,” and a neon pink sign reading, “nevertheless she persisted.” Any business entity so intent on telling you that you’re empowered—whether it’s while you get your cuticles trimmed or pose for a selfie—deserves a boob-pit-sized heaping of skepticism. (And it should make you wonder what, exactly, they want you to persist at.)

I ventured across the room to The Corporate Climb, a bright pink climbing wall intended to signify the difficulties facing go-getting women in the workplace. “Got a case of the missing rungs? So do we! Try to climb the corporate ladder,” reads the exhibit’s sign. “Only 5% of you will make it to the top. But hey—have fun trying! Footwear is ladies’ choice.” Although, part of the “fun” seems to be in absurdly trying to climb in high heels. I watched as a woman cheekily perched on the wall in platform sandals while holding a stick of cotton candy and posing for photos.

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Next, there was The Money Maker exhibit: you walk into a booth with a glass front, close the door and, suddenly, fake money swirls around you game-show-style as you grab all that you can (and have a friend take a video of you, naturally). “Financial inequality blows. Here comes the winds of change,” explains the installation’s sign. “Who’s ready to move from financially frozen to financially feminist.” It’s sponsored by Ellevest, the woman-focused financial start-up, which, conveniently, had a digital sign-up kiosk right next to said Money Maker exhibit.

Money maker for whom... is a question... one might ask. If you read the legalese before buying That Lady Thing tickets, you might notice that by attending you are granting permission for the event’s sponsors to take photos of you and use them “anywhere in the world in perpetuity for the purposes” of “promoting and publicizing” themselves.

Again, while That Lady Thing presents a business and brand-identity boon for its organizers and sponsors, it’s a not-for-profit endeavor. Eleven didn’t keep track of donations raised from its first small-scale iteration, but it does plan to hold a silent auction for the National Women’s Law Center as part of the exhibit (the exact details have yet to be worked out). All proceeds from That Lady Thing’s online gift shop—which sells a range of products, including cellphone cases, duvet covers, and leggings, featuring the same custom-designed wallpaper displayed on the selfie wall—will go to the organization as well.

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‘Gram it. Hashtag it.
Photo: Tracy Clark-Flory

Perhaps That Lady Thing will collect donations and gift-shop dollars from people who might not otherwise have known about, or given money to, a worthy cause like the National Women’s Law Center. There is something satisfying about the idea of getting people to metaphorically “look up from their Instagram feeds,” as Shaw put it, by, well, engaging with their Instagram feeds. What a sneaky ploy—like vitamins disguised as gummy bears. But there’s also a depressing assumption therein—that these selfie-taking women in its target audience can’t handle, or even have fun with, a feminism of real “substance” and integrity. It’s also worth considering what gets lost in the watered-down message—and how it might distract from more substantial activist efforts.

These questions are nothing new—similar ones were raised with the pinkification and commodification of breast cancer activism, for example. (It was also, by the way, an instance where women’s well-being was—playfully, in a fun way!—reduced to “boobies.”) We’re simply in a moment when the same thing is happening to feminism and women’s empowerment.

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After leaving the exhibit, my friend Sarah—my plus-one—and I grabbed burritos from the taco truck parked out front and hid from the wind in my car. We discussed the potential merits of fundraising being channeled through non-traditional and seemingly vapid channels as grease from our carnitas dripped down our chins and fingers. Searching around my backseat for something to wipe our hands, we resorted to using one of my baby’s discarded onesies. Then we rifled through the event’s gift tote bag—which read, “DAMN IT FEELS GOOD TO BE A GO-GETTER”—and found roll-on aromatherapy balm, a stack of cards with financial-health tips, and a coupon for a free airbrush tan.

Then, Sarah reached into the bottom of the tote and pulled out a mini Benefits Cosmetics bag filled with pink, branded crepe paper—and let out the girliest, pinkest squeal. “Ooooh! We could’ve used this to wipe our hands.”