The Commercialization of Social Movements

Emily Xu, Staff Writer

1 November 2018

#MeToo Activists

#MeToo Activists


Social movements are often defined and remembered by symbols and objects. The Black Power Movement was defined by the Black Panthers, South African resistance to apartheid was embodied by Nelson Mandela, and the 1960s feminist movement was remembered by Rosie the Riveter. Recent social movements follow similar patterns, with one notable deviation: symbols now tend to come in the form of commercial goods.

A decade ago, Tarana Burke founded a grassroots organization to offer support to those affected by sexual harassment — particularly women of colour, a vulnerable and frequently overlooked group —  and coined the catchphrase me too to “to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” In 2017, the #MeToo movement entered mainstream consciousness when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged others to use #MeToo to draw awareness to sexual harassment and abuse. However, one year later, the movement possesses a paradoxical ubiquity: despite it being everywhere, everyone seems to have a different idea of what #MeToo is about. Part of the issue is that after the movement gained recognition, others joined in the movement and used it to draw attention to a range of issues, from systematic biases in the corporate world and the pay gap to abortion rights. While these are all relevant and valid concerns, tacking these issues onto the movement diluted the message, and thus effectiveness, of #MeToo.

Increased awareness also drew corporations to flock towards the movement, seeing an untapped market with a high potential for profit. Commercialization has permeated social movements, within both large-scale, highly public events and day-to-day workplaces, sparking controversy and conversation. Time’s Up, a legal defence fund founded in support of and response to #MeToo, encouraged celebrities to wear black and lapel pins during the Golden Globes to stand in solidarity with those who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Off the red carpet, corporations have been selling merchandise emblazoned with hashtags and phrases. Supporters of #MeToo can demonstrate their association with the movement by buying this merchandise, thus drawing greater visibility to this cause.

However, commercialization has also removed all barriers to entry associated with joining the movement. In lieu of contributing meaningful support, commercialization grants individuals the ability to signal their virtue. Businesses, furthermore, capitalize on this opportunity and attempt to show their support with gimmicks such as donating a portion of their profits to an organization. However, no one holds businesses accountable. The fashion industry, in particular, is guilty of sexual harassment with numerous stories of models being exploited with promises of furthering their career. Moral licensing refers to the phenomenon where previous positive and moral actions are likely to make an individual inclined to worry less about the implications of future actions. It runs rampant in social movements, as commercialization means that those who appear to be supporters via signalling and wearing merchandise are likely to be complacent and are less likely to participate further. These symbolic gestures are often confused in many people’s minds with actual, direct action.

The consequences of the commercialization of #MeToo can be seen now, as accusers are beginning to return to the workforce and founders reflect on the progress that the movement has made since its inception. Many perpetrators have been called out and are suffering the consequences of their deplorable actions: Harvey Weinstein is awaiting court appearances, Kevin Spacey is no longer working on House of Cards, and many of the accused have been removed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However, others such as Louis C.K. have gone back to work and Brett Kavanaugh was recently sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice.

Despite the flaws of how the movement developed in America, it has gained traction and inspired a global movement. #MeToo has expanded across borders, notably as a grassroots movement in India. Although the government of India has implemented a series of new policies and legislation intended to mitigate incidences of sexual assault, high rates of sexual violence have continued. In Senegal, it has provoked conversations about the nation’s culturally entrenched attitudes towards rape and in particular, domestic violence. Movements in Guatemala have allowed women to speak out report incidences of sexual violence, promoting discussions of systematic gender inequality and reforms to the legal system. These movements are all at their early stages and have returned to their original intentions — sparking conversations about the previously taboo subject of sexual violence and abuse — with much potential for meaningful reform.

For any movement to develop sustainably and have a lasting impact, it needs a focus and well-defined goals. Despite the watershed moment that  #MeToo has become and the reforms that have been made to a range of industries as a result, there is still work that needs to be done. The exploitation of social movements by corporations and the subsequent commercialization has only hindered the movement, making it at risk of being a fleeting fad rather than the monumental change it needs to be. Corporations view #MeToo as a product rather than a social cause, valuing its monetary capacity rather than its potential for reform. #MeToo has consequently been trivialized, with 2018 being branded as ‘The Year of the Woman,’ and risks being forgotten as it becomes no longer trendy and is overshadowed by the next cause. While demonstrating support in the form of material goods can increase visibility, there is a fine line to draw between raising awareness via merchandise and having products be the only form of support that one gives. Social movements can thus be hindered by commercialization and become unable to generate tangible change. Rather than empowering survivors of sexual harassment, the commercialization of #MeToo celebrates individuals who signal their support by adorning themselves with feminist merchandise. With the international expansion of the #MeToo movement, others can learn from the United States’ mistakes and make a lasting impact.