No, The Future Is Not Female

Caveat: the pronoun usage in this article is intended to be inclusive of all gender identities and expressions. Any usage of binary language that is exclusive of n.b. folks is entirely unintentional and accidental. Further, all thoughts and views of feminism and gender politics are my own -- I am not in authority on this. I encourage you to put your education into your own hands and form your own opinions on the matter.

 

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last two years, you’ve definitely come across a shirt, hat, hoodie, protest sign, pseudo-inspirational Pinterest post, or an Instagram caption with the phrase, “The Future Is Female.” With International Women’s Day having just passed, it’s unlikely you were able to scroll through your various social media feeds without encountering it. While on the surface, this sentiment may seem empowering, it is underscored by notions of queer gentrification, biological essentialism, misandry, and transphobia. Allow me to explain.

The phrase most recently became popular during Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign as a response to Donald Trump’s chauvinistic masculinity and ad hominem attacks, but the phrases’ origin story is much more nuanced than that. The first recorded propagation of “The Future Is Female” took place in the 1970s as the motto of a group of lesbian separatists -- gay women who dreamed of a utopia without men. It has since been appropriated (for better or for worse) by upscale design companies such as Otherwild. Owned by Rachel Berks, Otherwild collaborated with LGBTQ historian, Liza Cowan, to reproduce the garment from this iconic and sapphic photograph:

In a New York Times interview, Berks expressed that to her the shirt is more than feminist merchandise, but “a reaction to a misogynist and patriarchal culture that affects a lot of people. People are recontextualizing it: trans women, men, moms who have sons...The meaning of ‘The Future is Female’ has not changed for me, despite all of the ways it is used today, from selling politics to selling underwear. It is such a powerful, magical phrase that I believe it even repels corporate corruption. It is its own armor.”

As compelling a statement as Berks makes, a number of folks, myself among them, take issue with both the definitively binary nature of the statement as well as Berks' ignorance regarding the context in which the phrase is modernly applied. It is no longer a message of overcoming gender disparity created by, and for, the disenfranchised, but a trendy corporate tagline utilized largely by upper-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual women as an attempt to curate social currency by way of appearing progressive and “woke” in their identity politics. 

First off let’s get something out of the way: referring to women as “females” is gross and passé. Not all women are female (i.e. trans women, intersex women) and people shouldn’t reduce others to their reproductive parts. It’s not cute.

Moving on... Let us address the most obvious (not to mention, most superfluous) issue that some people, particularly men and conservative women, take with “The Future Is Female”: the implication that it excludes masculine-presenting folks from the narrative. This is part of a greater pre-existing fallacy that feminism is inherently anti-men, which could not be further from the truth. Fundamentally, feminism is about gender equality. Legitimizing the expression of femininity and empowering young femme people in no way deprives young boys or masculine-presenting kids of their own power; they are empowered in nearly all international institutions whereas femmes are not. This is not about burglary of power but about the equal distribution of it. For additional perspectives on the subject I highly recommend “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks, “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay, and this video by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The first bone I personally have to pick with “The Future is Female” is its insinuation of an exclusively female (a.k.a. cisgender) utopia. While the phrase is wrought with well-intentioned notions of female empowerment, therein lies the problem: “female.” This slogan fails to account for anybody who falls outside the male-female binary (e.g. non-binary people, trans people who may not biologically fall into either category, intersex people) and in so, effectively ostracizes a huge portion of the LGBTQ community, whom feminists often and ought to fight for. To ontologize the gender binary as incompatible with human nature problematic: those who identify as queer, trans or non-binary are not seen in this so-called future. Because of this, those who are far-Right, homophobic, or transphobic, can easily endorse “The Future Is Female” without any apparent contradiction to their political views. The foundational message of equality and empowerment is completely lost.

When gender identity is used as the primary method of social coding, it becomes incredibly reductive. To explain what I mean, allow me to use a hypothetical example: imagine if the way we primarily identified people was by hair colour, and certain hair colours were held at a higher social and societal value while others were generalized (e.g. blondes are vapid and ditzy, all people with black hair are goth cyberpunks, but brunettes are sooo intelligent). As important as the recognition of identity is, this is how identity politics becomes dangerous -- when individuals, especially of at-risk identities like being queer or a person of colour, are reduced to caricatures.

Further for those who identity as feminine, “The Future Is Female” paints a picture of a world where only one identity matters: womanhood. But should a black woman care more about her womanhood than her blackness? Which identity should matter most to a queer wheelchair-bound immigrant woman? How can one's womanhood be more important when it's inseparable from a woman's ability, race, or class status? The concept of intersectionality, as conceived of by civil rights activist and race theory scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, is crucial in the consideration these intersections of identity.

My second issue with “The Future Is Female,” and perhaps the most asinine part about the tagline, is how it has been utterly bastardized. Following the success of Berks’ paraphernalia, fast fashion (i.e. Topshop, H&M, ASOS, Forever 21, etc.) was quick to jump on the bandwagon of capitalizing on activism without doing any actual legwork for the cause. Even high-fashion is getting in on the trend: Prabal Gurung charges $200 for black or white tees reading, “This is what a feminist looks like” and “Nevertheless she persisted.” Refinery29 reports that Forever 21 actually stole a design from queer-women owned retailer Wildfang, who was donating 10% of their proceeds to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

Co-opting the success of queer small businesses is not only abhorrent, but capitalism with a capital C. Big box stores are able to profit off of the prior struggle of queer people, particularly queer women, without taking on any of the risk that queer women face in statements so bold as “The Future Is Female.” While this endorsement makes an underdeveloped form of feminism more accessible to a greater amount of people, it also makes it easier for people who don’t really care to capitalize on the social currency of the feminist movement. Forgive me if this argument sounds hipster in nature (“queer people did it first”) but hear me out:

Think about how mad high school boys get when they see girls wearing classic rock/heavy metal t-shirts; they go on a witch hunt trying to determine whether she’s really a fan of the music (which of COURSE she can’t be -- girls CAN’T like Led Zeppelin). Now consider an energy similar to that, but with the following in mind: queer women of colour, particularly trans women of colour, have one of the lowest life expectancies of any demographic in the United States -- 31 years old to be exact. Being visibly queer in anti-LGBTQ communities lowers your life expectancy by an average of 12 years due to the fact you are likely to be targeted and murdered. Straight, cisgender, upper-class white women are leaping onto the “The Future Is Female” bandwagon in herds for the sake of its popularity, but face no threat of losing their lives for advocating, face no discrimination. They are not fighting for the lives of queer people or people of colour but gain social clout for wearing our colours.

This is not the Spanish Inquisition for rich straight white girls. This is not a call-out post or a piece in the cancel-culture puzzle. This is a call to arms.

If you have ever benefited from “The Future Is Female,” if you have ever reposted, retweeted, or even typed the words, you have not earned it unless you are actually out there advocating for women -- not just women who look like you, but women of colour, trans women (support your sisters, not just your cis-ters), disabled women, poor women, women who face addiction and mental illness, immigrant women, queer femmes who reject the label “woman,” and queer femmes who embrace it.

It may not look as good on a Forever 21 t-shirt, but the truth is this: the future is genderless, uncertain, and terrifying...but it’s sure as hell ours. Do something to make it better.