What do you do when your most famous quote becomes an internet meme? What if that meme is then commodified and marketed by other people, with no consideration of or concern for how you might feel about it?
In progressive circles, Flavia Dzodan is what has become known as an intersectional feminist — a concept she herself helped proliferate. But thanks to the rise of one of her quotes as a catchall mantra for feminism, she’s seen her own words turned into a cash machine, one that she is powerless to stop.
"My feminism will be intersectional": when a powerful rallying cry becomes a watered-down cliché
The idea behind intersectional feminism is that those who identify with it are concerned not just with social justice for women but also with advocating for all different marginalized identities. This includes understanding how social progress for all these different groups can sometimes overlap, intersect, and even conflict.
The concept of intersectional feminism as a fundamental part of modern progressive politics is one that Dzodan herself popularized with a single 2011 essay in the well-known countercultural feminist blog Tiger Beatdown: "My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit." In the now-famous essay, Dzodan unleashes her outrage at the controversial use of a racial slur as a feminist statement in an iteration of the famous feminist march Slutwalk.
Again and again throughout the piece, she uses the statement "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit" as a rallying cry to call for a change in the way feminists think about issues besides gender equality. After the essay was published, the statement became a famed internet catchphrase, a touchpoint for modern feminists looking to break away and branch out from the focuses of previous generations of feminism, which primarily concentrated on gender equality and women’s rights.
However, the idea hasn’t been universally embraced, at least as a catchphrase. Many have critiqued it as a means for white feminists to hide behind a feel-good mantra rather than examine the ideas inherent in Dzodan’s original essay, which speaks extensively about the racism that all too often is allowed to pass unchallenged by feminists who are focused mainly on promoting equal rights among women.
i feel bad for Flavia Dzodan cos the "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit" comes from an essay of hers that was a— teenage robot (@42Odaryun) March 24, 2016
genuine critique of feminism's failings and ignoring the issues of women of color and it got cherry picked down to that quote— teenage robot (@42Odaryun) March 24, 2016
like that was never some sassy one-liner zinger that was genuine anger and meaning and look what she's been reduced to by etsy feminists— teenage robot (@42Odaryun) March 24, 2016
The commodification of an anti-capitalist mantra
One of the themes of Dzodan’s original essay was the way in which many feminists ignore the implications of racialized abuse under capitalism. Intersectionality is generally naturally opposed to the glorification of capitalism, because production for profit often stands in the way of equality for the marginalized people and cultures whose labor often produces that profit.
But in an unfortunate case of internet irony, Dzodan, who says she hasn’t really considered herself a "public" figure in years, has seen her famous quote commodified and sold across the web — by people who never offered her a cut of their profits.
In a Medium piece published Tuesday, Dzodan discusses the exhaustion she often feels after years of seeing her famous quote about intersectionality appropriated by other people, printed on merchandise, and marketed online even as she struggled to make ends meet.
"These people thought it was acceptable to try to make the money that I do not even have," Dzodan wrote. "Not a single one of them thought of my material conditions and wondered if this was OK, if I had enough to get by or if I was profiting out of my work."
Dzodan described finding scores of items for sale that were devoted to shilling her famed quote, everything from cross-stitching to T-shirts:
"The most egregious of these items is probably this cutesy little pin with a blond little girl picking flowers," Dzodan, who is from Holland and who identifies as a woman of color, wrote. (The Etsy listing for the pin has since been removed.) "Sometimes they do not even spell my name right."
Dzodan’s anger is about more than cute Etsy merchandise — it’s about cultural appropriation
The issue of having her words taken away from her and repurposed by others has long been a central one to Dzodan, as well as to the progressive internet community at large. A recurring theme in discussions of intersectional politics is the issue of who is profiting from the work done by women and people of color. In many cases where a paid reporter uses someone else’s quotes or experience to produce content or add context to a news article, many progressives, including Dzodan, feel the use can be exploitative and problematic.
In 2012, writers and feminists Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter came under fire for including the "my feminism will be intersectional" quote in an article for the New Statesman without properly sourcing it to Dzodan. Part of the issue was that they were defending white feminist Caitlin Moran, who has often been controversial for her lack of support for intersectional politics.
In the past, Dzodan has taken issue with journalists who quoted her public tweets and other publicly available statements without asking her for permission, often because she feels these journalists are of a class of "white feminist" whose shoddy work piggybacks off the voices of people of color while doing nothing to elevate them. After one fiery rant in which Dzodan described a cadre of such journalists as "vultures" and "media whores," Dzodan herself was criticized by white journalists who claimed she was being misogynistic.
A feminism that shames successful women by calling them whores, then demands they apologise for being hurt, is bullshit.— MarinaS (@marstrina) February 22, 2014
Then, as now, the issue seemed to be one of attribution and commodification, and, well, intersectionality. White women who may have struggled to make their own way in the world of journalism were angered by what they saw as Dzodan’s devaluation of their work. But Dzodan’s anger over seeing white journalists appropriate her work was a response to a much larger trend of people of color having their words and culture appropriated away from them.
The theft and appropriation of work created by people of color has always been a problem — but these days, thanks to the internet, that process can happen at the speed of a retweet. And with the memeification of pop culture, few stop to think about whether they should pay for their use of someone else’s words — and what the impact of their use might be on the original creators.
The black teen girl who invented the word "fleek," for example, has yet to profit from it; Black Twitter and black internet culture at large has given the world meme after meme through the constant widespread appropriation of black slang — even as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) continues to be culturally devalued and used to denigrate those who actually speak it.
None of the profit gleaned from the merchandise bearing Dzodan’s words has come her way. But of equal importance to Dzodan is the way her words have been misapplied — as with the pin inexplicably bearing the image of the cute blond girl.
"It was bizarre to see my name in pink fonts, being sold as a commodity when the entirety of my work has been against the commodification of feminist ideas and the misuse, appropriation and subsequent lack of credit of feminism of color," Dzodan wrote.
She continued: "There is irony in the fact that I have written thousands of words about capitalism and its role appropriating emancipatory movements while simultaneously realizing that someone is trying to sell a coffee mug with my name on it."
Is it helpful to helpful spread someone’s message even if you don’t pay them for it?
Dzodan has said she stopped participating in public life due to constant threats and harassment — the unfortunate status quo for feminists on the internet — but recently, she’s returned to her old Tumblr and started a new Medium account, entering the public sphere once again after a two-year absence.
In the interim — although, as she noted, "I do not have the credentials, the institutional support of an organization or even the wide range public that would validate me as an author" — her work has impacted larger culture to the extent that other people are now profiting off it.
But it’s difficult to identify where the line between "public figure" and "private individual" can be drawn in such a case. That’s especially true if you are a journalist inclined to write about the complication for a story, one that needs to quote Dzodan in order to discuss it effectively.
Other people’s news articles will no more put food on Dzodan’s table than will other people’s Etsy shops with her words emblazoned on their merchandise. But it is possible that perhaps telling Dzodan’s story — what social justice advocates often refer to as "signal boosting" — might elevate her voice above those of the many who are trying to profit from it.
Theoretically, this signal boosting could, in turn, generate profit-making recognition for Dzodan down the line. Then again, it’s also what led to the harassment that initially drove Dzodan off the internet for the better part of two years. For any journalist (including this one) attempting to report on intersectional issues, as well as remix culture on the internet, it’s tricky.
For her part, Dzodan remains unconvinced that any of these processes are anything but exploitative for her and other women of color whose words are being spread across the web:
[M]ultiple people on this here internet thought that the words I put out there, fighting precisely these notions [of capitalist appropriation], were fair game to try and make money while sparing not a single afterthought to the realities of the woman who wrote those words. ... I wrote about feminism and I did not even get the lousy t-shirt.