When Panties Are a Stand-In for Feminism, Because Capitalism Says So

The following is an excerpt from We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler. (PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2016.)


“I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” —Angela Davis, 1994

Granny panties are the new feminism. That’s not me talking, that’s the New York Times, which, in early June 2015, featured an article on the front of its Styles section about the white cotton staple of the supposedly old and sexless. Apparently, they were on the comeback trail thanks to a new set of young female entrepreneurs designing indie underpants, one style of which features the word “feminist” on the butt. “Young Women Say No To Thongs” presented sales figures indicating a declining market for thongs and an expanding one for fuller styles as evidence that we’re in the midst of a feminist undie uprising. To quote one panty peddler, “Most lingerie is designed to appeal to a man… For us, that’s not even a consideration. This is underwear totally for you.” (Unless, as the piece pointed out, you display your undies to Instagram in “belfies,” a word I’m very sorry to have just foisted on you.) Remember when we thought the next horizon of feminism was going to be wage equality or universal health care? Turns out, it’s underpants.

The New York Times article was promptly picked up by multiple online outlets that parroted its claim: “Why Granny Panties are Cool Again” (Refinery 29), “Watch Out Victoria’s Secret: Women are Abandoning Sexy Underwear” (Business Insider), “The Rising Popularity of ‘Granny Panties’ Could Be Tied to a Healthier Perception of Beauty” (Huffington Post), and the oddly grave “Young Women Opting for Granny Panties Over Thongs, According to Report” at the NYT’s own Women in the World blog were among headlines touting the granny-pants revolution.

There are a few things to say about this story. The first is that it was not a “report,” but rather a trend piece. The second is that, as a trend piece, it was perfectly on-brand for the NYT’s Styles section: Draw attention to something that a very small group of privileged people are doing (deciding that something once uncool is now cool, building a business around that thing), and write about the thing as though it reflects a national shift in aesthetics. Downplay the rarefied nature of the product itself (the undies profiled sell for $25, $34, and $45 apiece). Overstate the facts. (Is a 7 percent downturn in thong sales really that significant?) Make sure the people making the products are young and cute enough to be photographed wearing their own product, in this case underpants with “Feminist” printed in pink across the butt. Encourage a tenuous connection with body or beauty politics that builds significant buzz for whatever’s being sold.

But let’s say that this granny-panties piece wasn’t an opportunistic leap onto the current wave of feminism-is-cool media that also had the chance to grab readers with pictures of half-naked young women. If that were the case, the following would still be true: Feminism has nothing to do with your underwear, and anyone telling you it does probably wants to sell you something ($45 underwear, most likely). But the fact that the granny-pants story whirled through the news cycle as though it was an actual feminist breakthrough has everything to do with marketplace feminism’s seductive infiltration of fashion.

There have certainly been periods in history that sewed a connection between liberation and undergarments. The Rational Dress reformers of the late nineteenth century sought to bring women out from under layers of wool petticoats, crinolines, and whalebone corsets that limited their movement and mobility; the women of London’s Rational Dress Society, for instance, quite reasonably proposed that women shouldn’t have to wear more than seven pounds of undergarments. These radical broads were among the many freedom-minded fans of the undergarment popularized in the 1850s by Amelia Bloomer, a Victorian-era feminist and avid bicycler who adapted “bloomers” as a version of the loose pantaloons worn by Turkish women.

Decades later, girdles were among the garments dumped in the Freedom Trash Can from whence the “bra-burning” myth came, at 1968’s protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Germaine Greer, in her zesty debut, The Female Eunuch, famously called the brassiere “a ludicrous invention.” And let’s not forget that thongs were once marketed as offering their own kind of liberation, if only from visible panty lines and unforgiving wedgies.

In contrast, no outlet that reported on the feminist granny panties that were purportedly sweeping the nation could agree on exactly what they stood for. Were they a nod to increasing body positivity? A response to the gaudiness and sweatshop-iness of Victoria’s Secret and its ilk? A corrective to mass-media images that suggest only the young and thin deserve nice knickers? The "undiepreneurs" profiled in the New York Times could only agree on two things: that big chonies are comfy, and that they aren’t about what men think. (Which raises a whole other set of questions: Do these women think that only heterosexual and cisgender people wear underpants? Also, have they never heard of Jockey For Her 3-packs?)

As marketplace feminism has fully emerged, perhaps it’s not surprising that feminist underpants have become kind of a thing. (There are several small companies that advertise their wares as feminist, as Nylon magazine noted in an online slideshow that enthused “Underwear shopping just got a lot more empowering.”) Underpants are a safe consumer item to brand as feminist: everyone needs them, they’re mostly kept under wraps, and they supply reassuringly normative associations. The rise of feminist underpants is a weird twist on Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, wherein consumer products once divorced from inherent use value are imbued with all sorts of meaning. To brand something as feminist doesn’t involve ideology, or labor, or policy, or specific actions or processes. It’s just a matter of saying, “This is feminist because we say it is.”

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