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Girlboss Feminism and the Commercialization of "Wokeness"

Hiding behind feminism allows the problematic girlboss to rebrand and remain unanswerable to the harm she has caused. Inclusivity is worn as a skin to deflect bad behavior. 

TW: Sexual Harassment, Sexual Abuse 

By Gloria Oladipo

Nadya Okamoto has been described as “inspirational” and a “leader of the menstrual movement” after founding the non-profit “PERIOD” in 2014; “PERIOD” gives period products to unhoused people and generally works to destigmatize menstruation. Okamoto recently launched “August”, a lifestyle brand “working to reimagine periods”; her efforts were lauded in an article with Today. However, little to no attention has been paid to the stacking accusations against her, allegations of bullying, plagiarism, anti-Blackness, and other misgivings. Okamoto, similar to other sullied girlbosses, has weaponized  feminism and performative wokeness to evade accountability. 

Especially in 2021, after a year of witnessing renewed calls for racial equality and increased compassion towards others, the average consumer has tried to practice “ethical” consumption (whatever that means) by using buzzwords to measure a company’s ethicality. “Female founded.” “Black owned.” “Sustainable.” “Free trade.” While these phrases only provide some information about a company’s practices, people are increasingly using these labels to suss out which companies are principled and, therefore, worth buying from. Though non-profits like “PERIOD” don’t necessarily have items for sale, the same logic still applies. Marketing oneself as race conscious or progressive in other ways convinces people to support specific organizations, leading to increased engagement and monetary donations. Overall, “wokewashing”, companies, non-profits, and other advertised groups using progressive signals to exploit consumers’ social awareness naivete is simply a tool to project a liberal facade. 

Specifically, as branded feminism is a subset of “wokewashing”, being a “female founded” company run by a girlboss sells. Brands and organizations such as “The Wing”, “Glossier”, “Reformation”, and more have all gained popularity and built their platform around their girlboss origins. And, like “PERIOD” and “August”, all of these companies have later used their association with feminism and progressiveness to avoid responsibility after being called out for racist, problematic behavior. Hiding behind feminism allows the problematic girlboss to rebrand and remain unanswerable to the harm she has caused. 

Take THINX founder Miki Agrawal, for example. After being accused of sexual harassment (among a myriad of other problematic behaviors) in 2017, Agrawal continues to profit from her “feminism” with a new book and THINX Underwear, known for their inclusivity, has since been discovered to have toxic chemicals. Similarly, Audrey Gelman, CEO of “The Wing”, stepped down after published reports of Black employees not receiving measly $500 assistance checks and rampant patterns of abuse in the company. However, she has since been treated with pity, her racism and transphobia seen as mistakes of a “first time founder.” 

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Even Okamoto was able to distance herself from serious accusations of harm she’s committed; she’s created this distance with her brand, with her progressive language, with her trauma (which she frequently mentions when talking through her call-out). Last November, she appeared on the Youtube Channel of Kelsey Darragh, a white woman, talking about how she “overcame cancel culture” (aka accountability). Throughout the episode, she rarely acknowledges the specific damage she has done (the plagiarism, bullying, and other behavior she’s been accused of), instead positioning herself as a victim and highlighting her “journey” with “healing” and “learning how to not take up too much space”, all while sprinkling in her professional accolades. She doesn’t explain how she has learned from past mistakes, like having the gall to run for Cambridge City Council despite living in the city (as a privileged Harvard student) for less than a year. 

Furthermore, Okamoto and the YouTuber argue that Black organizers won’t solve anything by “cancelling” Okamoto (as if calling out her actions with a list of demands is synonymous with a full-stop cancellation). Darragh continually comforts Okamoto, acknowledging all the good work she’s done and how she’s “only 22.”  Here, we see a literal manifestation of how white girlboss feminism shields Okamoto. Okamoto hides from her accusers in Darragh’s reality and is continually spoon fed the benefit of the doubt for no apparent reason. Okamoto goes through her struggles of attending rehab post call-out (given how much stress the events placed on her mental health) and the online abuse she received from people who questioned her trauma, including the sexual abuse she had suffered. Obviously, Okamoto shouldn’t receive harassment and questioning the trauma she is still working through is pretty woeful. However, one can’t help but wonder why so much attention is given to the ways that she suffered after being approached publicly by organizers versus her own damaging actions. 

Like Okamoto, Gelman and other disgraced female founders have been portrayed as sympathetic characters, women who have fallen prey to an intersection of cancel culture and the patriarchy. Despite projecting an investment in progressiveness and equity, time and time again, girlbosses are routinely shielded from accountability, often due to white woman privilege and the “wokeness” associated with their brands.   

Both “PERIOD” and “August” are guilty of presenting as progressive despite numerous reports clearly stating otherwise. Their actions of harming Black and Brown people while using us as promotional material demonstrate that they use BIPOC for clout, as a veneer, similar to how a predominantly white university uses marginalized students as added diversity on admission brochures. Published pictures of Black “August” community members don’t answer the accusations that Okamoto called for other Black-led period organizations to be dissolved in favor of being PERIOD chapters. Among images of glossy BIPOC, there are no answers to reported plagiarism, regarding both published work and groundwork done by other grassroot organizers. Inclusivity is worn as a skin to deflect bad behavior. 

Despite the posturing, “PERIOD”, “August”, and Okamoto’s attempts to be “woke” are shallow and reveal a steadfast alignment with white feminism generally. Scant images of BIPOC women and femmes loving on themselves are juxtaposed with a repost of Leandra Cohen (the founder of Manrepeller who shuttered the online blog after being called out for racism) on her period with the caption, “This is iconic.” A celebratory post of Vice President Kamala Harris is published (despite her record of criminalizing Black and Brown communities and harming trans people, among other misdeeds) among creators from the same, harmed demographics. The board and youth advisory council for “PERIOD” is made up of mostly non-Black people despite  “PERIOD” having heavily publicized issues at the intersection of race and reproductive health. There is a chasm between the politics of “PERIOD”, “August”, and Okamoto herself versus the radicalism they portray on social media, all with the intent of capturing more support from left-leaning individuals. 

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So, after recognizing the gap between the internal politics of many “woke” brands and the beliefs they portray, how can ingenuine brands be held accountable? What does responsibility look like going forward? Not just for Okamoto but for all girlbosses that have used their positionality to skip consequences.

Part of the solution is a material response, one where money and attention once given to these harmful individuals and their brands is diverted to harmed demographics doing similar work. For example, divesting from “PERIOD” and “August” while investing in Black period equity organizations is crucial in correcting the harm perpetrated by Okamoto. On Okamoto’s part, despite the accountability coaches, therapists, and other sources of ethical support she has surrounded herself with, truly taking responsibility means listening to the demands of those she has hurt; it also probably looks like sitting out of any “activism” (non-profit, for-profit, and the like) for a long, long time. 

But situations like Okamoto’s, Agrawal’s, and other female founders who have fallen from grace demand a more complicated response than simply donating money elsewhere or discredited activists taking a time-out. We need to critically examine why it’s easier to give attention to non-Black people talking about anti-Blackness and the patriarchy than Black people who have been doing the work, foundationally and for much longer. We need to think about why we are so obsessed with corporatized “activism”—activism that gets co-opted, with the end goal of shifting away from helping communities to creating brands, gaining sponsorship, and chasing other badges of mainstream legitimacy. We need to sit with questions of why people like Okamoto not only gain far-reaching followings but are encouraged to keep going even after causing documented harm. 

The story of Okamoto and her bad behavior is, yes, in part about her as an individual, but more so about the ways that our culture routinely gets tricked into assuming good intentions based on empty “woke” platitudes. Corporate activism usually isn’t activism. Commercialized feminism usually isn’t feminism. Profit-oriented wokeness probably isn’t that woke. Let’s not be fooled by the girlboss performance any longer.

Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a senior at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. You can email her at gaoladipo@gmail.com, follow her on Instagram at @glorels, or on Twitter at @gaoladipo.

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