by  Melissa Chacón

On Wednesday 3 October 2018, LSE Gender PhD students organised an event titled ‘Why feminisms? An open discussion about doing gender research’. During this event, MSc and PhD students discussed what inspired them to study gender. Three PhD students then presented their thoughts about doing feminist research in this particular moment in history: one where gender studies faces calls to adapt itself to the needs of the neoliberal university, whilst also being challenged to decolonise its syllabi, pedagogy and other practices. At the same time, the rise of far-right movements across many contexts brings with it a politics hostile to the very concept of gender and gender studies, as we have been discussing in our current blog series. This series of posts on why feminisms presents the transcripts of the speakers’ discussion papers.

Nike’s 30th anniversary ad campaign was launched on Twitter last September, featuring Colin Kaepernick, a 30-year-old US football player, in a close-up photo with a quote that reads, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’. Kaepernick, who hasn’t played for the NFL in nearly two years, sparked a nationwide controversy in 2016 after protesting racial injustice and police brutality in the United States by taking a knee during the national anthem in several of his games –he said he could not “show pride in a flag that oppresses black people and people of color”. While he received support from many US citizens, including the former president Barack Obama, who argued that he was exercising his constitutional right to have a different opinion and to express it through his freedom of speech, many others criticized him and cataloged his gesture as unpatriotic and disrespectful to those who have fought for the nation, while also claiming that sports should be clear of politics.

After one year of silence, since opting out from his team contract in 2017, Kaepernick’s face went viral on Twitter once again, this time as the spokesperson of Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ ad campaign. Along with his tweet, a two-minute video ad was released some days after, featuring different athletes that have overcome ‘difficulties’ to be where they are today. In this video, Kaepernick’s voice narrates an inspirational script guided by the main theme of the campaign ‘Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they are crazy enough’. As I guess was highly expected by Nike’s marketing group, the inclusion of Kaepernick’s political activism in this new campaign ignited a worldwide controversy, once again, and even when there was a backlash after the campaign’s release that drove Nike’s share price down and prompted some nationalist consumers to tear their Nike products from their clothing in calls for a boycott, experts acknowledged that most responses to the campaign were neutral or positive. Nike received more than 43 million in media exposure from Kaepernick’s tweet, and even as shares fell, some reports say the campaign moved millennials to snap up Nike stock.

Although this is not the first time that Nike uses social justice to sell its products, since it holds a long history in using gender equality and feminism as marketing strategies to drive more women over the counter, this case represents a particular moment in history in which capital enterprises are not afraid to talk about politics, or even to take sides on political debates, but most important, they are functioning as discursive platforms for those who are actually living and embodying an activist life. I bring the development of this particular case into discussion, as it resembles some of the topics and concerns I want to share with you in this brief intervention today. In specific, I would like to think with you about what are the consequences of contemporary entanglements between capitalism and social and political activisms, not only in Nike’s ad campaign and Kaepernick’s political agenda but also when thinking about capitalized academic institutions and the work of gender and feminist researchers. Far from sharing conclusions on these matters, my intention is to open a conversation with questions and provocations to be discussed today, but also along the year of studies that you have just begun.

Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan reflects some of the work that neoliberalism does as a historical formation made out of specific sets of economic and political transformations but also as a project of subject formation. Firstly, it evokes the fantasy of freedom characteristic of liberal societies that have grown through capitalism, in which subjects are defined as free and equal individuals, born with the same rights and opportunities: just do it, because everyone can, and those that give their best, always succeed. Secondly, it urges a particular temporality.  It invites individuals to act and react as fast as the market does while living in a globalized and digitalized world in which information, money, and opportunities, are traveling at the speed of light. Competition seems to be the only way to play the game: just do it, because everyone is trying to do it, and only those that move fast enough, will succeed. Thirdly, this slogan resembles cultural and political messages of privatization and individualization, in a world in which subjects are free but also responsible for the maintenance of their own wellbeing: just do it, because nobody is going to do it for you.

This process of subject formation is present in many societies, and although it varies according to cultural practices and beliefs, and we should not claim for a generalization on this matter, it is clearly at the base of most of the current capitalist social world. Its outcome is an independent competitive subject that believes that he/she deserves what he/she has accomplished because it is the result of his/her individual work. Although this idea sounds tempting, and I guess many of us in this room have felt this way some (or many) times, in recent decades the work of several gender and race critical scholars has disclosed how much of a fantasy this argument is. If we look at this particular case, the race that Nike is promoting with the ‘Just Do It’ mantra will be finished only by those who are privileged enough to have the opportunity to enter the race in the first place: those who have abled bodies to run fast, those who have inherited racial and economic shortcuts, those who speak the masculine English language of progress, and those who have a support system available to them in case they break a leg. In other words, what is hiding behind the ‘Just Do It’ slogan is that privilege is a precondition for achieving success.

If we look at Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, which is not only invested in the promotion of this neoliberal subject but it is now using the faces and stories of disabled, racialized, and gendered bodies to inspire this race for success –erasing the specific circumstances of privilege that facilitated the achievement of success by these athletes, despite their ‘belonging’ to certain marginalized social categories– we can see clearly how social difference is being capitalized and the language and claims of social justice activisms have been co-opted and distorted by the market. Although some may see this case as a positive phenomenon, as Kaepernick is using this ad as a discursive platform to reach massive audiences to demand social change, I still believe it is pertinent to think about what are the consequences of making alliances with capitalism to promote or communicate our social and political agendas. In this particular case, what happens when Kaepernick’s activism is translated into the idea that sexism and racism can be surpassed by oppressed subjects’ desire to dream crazy? And more broadly, what are the consequences of transferring your political activism to capitalized corporations or institutions?

I raise these questions, not only because Nike managed to convince Kaepernick to use his activism as part of a marketing campaign, de-politicizing his message and advocacy for racial justice in the US, but also because we, as gender researchers, are in constant contact with academic institutions and social organizations that also function under this neoliberal logic. Just as the ‘Just Do It’ slogan does, many private and capitalized academic institutions are promoting the consolidation of this neoliberal subject, not only by the inclusion of this content on their curriculum but also by endorsing internal practices that demand neoliberal subjectivities from both their faculty members and their students. As a feminist researcher, working from a private and capitalized academic institution, I constantly ask myself, is it possible to embody a neoliberal subjectivity and still do feminist and critical academic work? Or in other words, how can we identify when our neoliberal subjectivity or our alliances or investments in capitalized academic institutions are boycotting our politics? I do not have an answer for these questions, as I warned you before, but maybe recalling some of the most basic practices proposed by feminist and critical race scholars may be useful to navigate some of these contradictions when working from and with neoliberal spaces.

A shop front with home-made banner above with text "Community not commodity"
Photo credit: Ignacia Banda

One of these practices is related to acknowledging our position of privilege, as subjects that are occupying discursive spaces that have a direct impact on how social difference is understood. As Kaepernick, who, after being adopted by white parents, had a privileged position to ‘dream crazy’, we are occupying today a privileged position that demands accountability, and most important, political commitments. The erasure of the role of privilege in our race for success, and the power that comes with it is a dangerous practice to follow as it threatens our capacity to see our social reality, not only as an outside phenomenon to be studied but also as our own position in this social world. By realizing that our achievements are the result of the family, race, body, and country, in which we were born, we are closer to understand that social injustice is not an individualized problematic and that it is not the job of marginal subjects to overcome sexism and racism, but it is our duty to open spaces in our academic and political projects for these voices to be heard and understood. By this, I do not intend to erase our own internal differences as a group or the fact that we all share different amounts of privilege, but instead, I take on Audre Lorde’s invitation to relinquish power when thinking about difference, not only as a concept but also as a way of being in the world.

Thinking about our own privilege in this neoliberal system also opens a question on our capacity to value difference and to work from it. As gender researchers, we are called to resist the idea of being individual and independent subjects by embracing the challenges of thinking and working as a collective. Negotiating power, sharing spaces and resources, and building skills as a group are practices that must emerge in order to resist this race for success. It is not only important to acknowledge difference but also to recognize its potentiality, in Lorde’s words, ‘difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic’ (2017, p. 90). Knowledge and political resistances emerge from moments like this, in which many individuals come together with one objective in mind. When we work as a collective.

Finally, trying to do critical work is a complex task that demands time and emotional energy. Thinking about privilege, establishing our political commitments, and working as a collective, are difficult projects that are not accomplished in short periods of time or shallow conversations. None of these projects can or should be accomplished under the pressure of neoliberalism’s temporality. Instead, as Isabelle Stengers argues, we need to slow down when doing critical work in order to avoid getting trapped by the language of crisis. Sexism, racism, and social injustice, in general, are being presented nowadays as if they were new and urgent matters in the need for immediate solutions or interventions. While we need to find a solution for these matters, it is not through easy and immediate strategies, like this Nike ad campaign, that social justice is going to be achieved. Instead, we need to embrace and defend the complexity of these matters to demand time and space to work on sustainable interventions and deep understandings. Next time we feel the urge to just do something, as maybe Kaepernick felt, we should practice this slowing down as a way of doing critical thinking, while ensuring our participation in a collective that recognizes difference and that cares for each other.

Portrait of Melissa ChaconMelissa Chacón is a PhD candidate at the Department of Gender Studies and a member of the Engenderings editorial collective. Her doctoral project looks at lived and embodied experiences of conflict-related violence and everyday violence in the life course of sexual minorities in Colombia. Her research interests include feminist and queer studies, memory and trauma studies, theories of affect, and visual research methods.