The Internet has been buzzing this week about FCKH8's "F-bombs for Feminism" video, featured on Upworthy and then quickly disseminated across the feminist sphere. The video features a group of grade school-aged girls swearing like tiny sailors and flipping the bird ostensibly in order to make a bigger statement about gender equality. With its talking points tackling the pay gap, body image issues and even rape, many have cheered the video and the young stars.
The young girls may be flipping the dainty "damsel in distress" trope on its head by cussing in princess costumes — it's certainly an effective attention-grabber — but the novelty and humor at play is masking some important questions.
Should a for-profit company that's been in the business of appropriating social justice messages be rewarded for creating what essentially functions as advertisements for the company's merchandise? For some, the answer is no — and there's more than a few reasons why.
The video's messages about rape and violence aren't broached on age-appropriate terms.
In one of the video's most jarring examples, the girls share the statistics that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted or raped by a man — and each of them count from 1 to 5 in resignation before asking the question, "Which one of us will it be?" They go on to ask society to "stop knocking women down" and "teach boys how not to fucking rape."
Although the video is targeted primarily toward adults — and the issues indeed have real-world implications — it's important to remember that these are children ages 6 to 13 who likely haven't taken a sex education class or had that ever-dreaded sex "talk" with their parents.
In a statement to Mic, FCKH8 video producer Mike Kon said the children's parents were involved in the entire process and, in some cases, chose the parts of the script that were OK to recite. For a video of this nature, parental consent is legally required for minors, so that's a given. However, there's also a matter of ethical responsibility.
The Bellejar's Anne Thériault took issue with the way the viral marketing campaign entangled young children in a serious adult issue like rape.
"There is for sure nothing feminist about having girls as young as six years old discussing rape and sexual assault; I would hope that at that age, most kids have never even heard the word rape, let alone had to recite facts about it for an audience of thousands, maybe even millions," she said.
"Having a little girl demand to know if she'll be raped just so that you can sell a few shirts is so far beyond the realm of what should be acceptable."
It oversimplifies the pay gap discussion by reducing a man to his penis.
Roughly a minute into the video, one of the youngsters shares a pointed message about the gender pay gap: "I shouldn't need a penis to get paid."
While that message may resonate with some, a closer examination reveals a flawed understanding about gender identity: Namely, that one's anatomy determines said identity.
Keep in mind that your sex is determined by what's between your legs and gender is determined by what's between your ears. More often than not, children are assigned a gender identity upon birth based on visible sex. For a conventionally masculine male who isn't trans, society's expectations are in line with both his body and his identity, but that's not the case for everybody.
In fact, some people who have penises are subject to unequal pay or a lack of workplace protections — including quite a few trans and gender non-conforming people — because of their gender identity or expression. To make this discussion solely about penises versus vaginas, as Sarah Silverman did in a recent parody video, erases all the complexities around the struggles for workplace protections for all people, including cisgender women.
FCKH8's move into making anti-sexism merchandise was a very recent business decision.
FCKH8 hadn't opted to enter conversations about racism and sexism until earlier this year, when Synergy Media took over the company and decided that videos and merchandise would branch out into other issues, per a statement to Mic. That change translated into the creation of the "Swear Jar Princesses" video and the associated merchandise.
The same could be said for FCKH8's video with kids from Ferguson, Missouri, critiquing common misconceptions about racism following the shooting death of Michael Brown. That video, too, was similarly criticized for using a tragic situation as a hook for boosting T-shirt sales. It also used kids for shock value instead of engaging anti-racism awareness.
The company counters that it has, in fact, donated more than $6,000 from Ferguson T-shirt sales to organizations such as the NAACP and the Michael Brown Memorial Fund. As for this latest campaign? FCKH8 told Mic they'll put it up for an online vote at the end of November. For anyone buying the T-shirts over the next month, however, there's no telling of who the money will benefit.
The group has a history of using social platforms to peddle stereotypes of women.
Before sharing videos and memes on the Internet, it's important to be aware of what's being shared, who it's been created by and to question the meaning.
FCKH8 was founded in 2010, when it first started selling merchandise affirming same-sex marriage. But even those products have been criticized by various groups for promoting unfortunate stereotypes about LGBT people and women. One can't knock the company for trying to promote feminist or LGBT messages, but it's unfortunate that it seems to be doing so without a high degree of cultural competency.
In the above example, a random image of a black woman — with a hand on her hip, a finger in the air and a cheeky smirk — was used for a meme riffing off the sassy and angry black woman trope. Many more of such memes are chronicled on a Tumblr page that documents the organization's problematic behavior. FCKH8 has also released arguably misogynist memes that make fun of how gay men supposedly view vaginas:
Promoting memes that include negative, stigmatizing attitudes toward vaginas doesn't demonstrate even the most basic commitment to gender equality, as women with vaginas already encounter enough social and political battles over their body image and reproductive freedoms.
Can you really equate children swearing with rape culture and pay inequality?
This is perhaps the biggest problem with the video: Why do we view dressing up young girls in princess outfits and making them spout expletive-laden lines shocking? Is it because we're supposed to view girls as dainty and refined, and if so, does this video break down that stereotype or perpetuate it? Going a step further, the video implies that viewers should be equally offended by this behavior as by institutional sexism.
"FCKH8 is setting up a false dichotomy by pretending that people would or should be equally offended at little girls dropping the f-bomb as they are the inequity women face on a daily basis," notes the Washington Post's Darlena Cunha.
"If there ever was a case of apples and oranges, this is it. Just because both feminism and little girls swearing about feminism contain both girls and feminism does not make them comparable on any deep level. All it does is confuse the issue and play on negative associations in the feminist movement, conflating swearing and raucous wording and attitude with equal rights for women."
This is a really important distinction. Does the shock value of the script help or hinder what is actually shocking inequalities dealt with by women?
The bottom line: On the whole, FCKH8's activity betrays somewhat of a basic ignorance about what it really means to practice an anti-sexist, feminist and intersectional approach to understanding social issues. But who needs to do the work, when all you have to do is slap a trendy message on a T-shirt and get cute kids to regurgitate a lot of purposefully controversial talking points?
In the vast expanse that is the online media today, it has become common to give viral videos the benefit of the doubt. But as we've seen time and time again — remember that hit "First Kiss" video that turned out to be a staged commercial? — it pays to approach such videos with a healthy dose of skepticism.
There's no reason you can't watch the FCKH8 clip and feel amused, maybe even inspired, but we still need to acknowledge and probe its intentions before holding it up as a the latest, greatest example of female empowerment.