This International Women’s Day has seen the canon of corporate feminist art expanded: today, like a fry cook flipping a burger patty, McDonald’s has inverted its iconic Golden Arches. Now the M reads as a W, in honor of women. The flipped arches will appear on special t-shirts and hats worn by employees at 100 locations across the county. One California location flipped the actual arches outside its store.
For some, the burger chain’s nod to women may signal the success of the contemporary feminist movement, which has been reinvigorated by the misogyny of Donald Trump. But like the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street (commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and unveiled for last year’s International Women’s Day), McDonald’s flipped arches are, like fast food itself, a filling but nutrient-poor serving of feminist art.
“Fearless Girl” and the upside-down McDonald’s arches have something in common: they’re both removed from political context. As brand-boosting marketing tools, they’re meant to foster good feelings among women, but not much beyond that. They don’t encourage legislative policy changes that would affect the lives of women in material ways. If anything, they distract from urgent conversations that could improve the position of women in society. On Capitol Hill today, House Republicans are threatening to block the passage of any budget that does not cut funding for women’s health care clinics like Planned Parenthood.
Watered-down pop feminism has become a favorite marketing tool for companies in recent years, according to Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Magazine. “The problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun,” writes Zeisler in her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once. “It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.”
The shortcomings of such campaigns, and their oversimplified politics, are painfully evident in the narrow definition of women they rely upon. State Street’s “Fearless Girl” statue, by artist Kristen Visbal, shows a young girl in a dress who sports straight, shoulder-length hair in a ponytail. Facing the Wall Street bull, she stands defiantly with fisted hands on her hips, like Superman. Dove’s “Real Beauty” advertising campaign, which show the bodies of women who conform to conservative notions of femaleness. Dove’s ads are intended to inspire, because the adult women featured are not model-thin and heavily edited in Photoshop. The white background, and white underwear they wear, emphasizes their curves and the different hues of their skin.
Perhaps these images are aesthetically beautiful. But they exclude women who are butch, disabled, trans, or otherwise queer — woman-identified people, in short, who do not align to traditional feminine norms. And this exclusion shows that corporate feminist art is not really political. It’s a money-making effort meant to line pockets. Such advertising campaigns likely consider the inclusion of trans women to be “too risky.”
The foundation of contemporary political feminism is the inclusion of all who seek equality, and its definition of woman is deliberately loose, unconstrained by pseudo-biological categories. In fact, political feminism strives to be such a big-tent movement that the exclusion of one particular minority identity is often seen as a Mortal Sin Against Feminism.
With its upside-down arches, McDonald’s perhaps deserves a nod of acknowledgement, because it does not specifically exclude certain women. In a way, the flipped arches may be a mildly political work of corporate feminist art. Its M-turned-W speaks to those who consider themselves to be women, not just those who embody conservative gender norms — perhaps allowing for a little queerness to thrive. Then again, “M” and “W” are what restaurants post on bathroom doors to divide people into categories. I hope that someday society can move beyond the exclusionary categories that make politics necessary.