In the 2010s, at the peak of liberal feminism’s popularity, a sort of dogma became ubiquitous: if a woman did something of her own free will – and was happy doing it – criticising that woman or that particular behaviour was sexist. This applied to anything from celebrating female CEOs heading fast-fashion companies to supporting the unrealistic beauty standards set by the Kardashians because they were “smart business women”. Harmful actions and misogynistic stereotypes enforced by women were sloppily labelled as “feminist”, often excused by the common refrain “just let people enjoy things”.
In many cases, this defence was a response to real misogyny and an attempt to vindicate art, hobbies, even linguistic tics that were coded as female and therefore belittled. It aimed to correct double standards too, where criticism lobbed at women for certain actions or interests sailed past near-identical actions or interests of men (for example, female fashion being classed as shallow while male fashion signalled confidence). In the crossfire, though, a version of one-size-fits-all feminism proliferated, which could be used as a defence of almost anything done by women, no matter how objectively bad.
Since then, this version of liberal feminism has fallen out of favour and this plainly flawed vision of empowerment has been shown to merely uphold the patriarchal, capitalist structures it claimed to combat. However, the impulse to invoke “that’s misogyny” as a defence against any criticism of female-led trends remains prevalent. One example came at the start of this year, when TikTok and Instagram were littered with videos of Stanley cups: the giant, often pink, $45 thermoses, created by the US outdoors company of the same name, which have become omnipresent within a certain bland, trendy aesthetic on social media (videos related to these cups on TikTok get millions of views). After a release of a limited-edition Valentine’s Day run, social media was awash with all kinds of Stanley cup content: videos sharing the multiple accessories, such as snack holders and animal-themed straw caps, that you could buy for your cup; people posting hauls of getting cups in a number of colours to match different outfits; and even sharing hauls of dozens of cups bought over the last few years.
The criticism that followed was predictable. These items – designed specifically for durability and years-long use – were being bought in egregiously high numbers as an accessory and status symbol. The hyper-consumerism and negative environmental impact was glaring. However, rather than quietly swallowing this truth or even ignoring the response, Stanley cup defenders were quick to condemn criticism as misogyny. They suggested that the only reason anyone was finding fault in buying dozens of reusable cups was due to the demographic who was purchasing them (“Stanley cups are fine, until women like them,” one post read). While some of the backlash online was indeed solely about mocking women for buying these cups, rather than exploring the problems with over-consumption, the much louder eco-arguments were batted off as sexism. As another post put it: “Do I need to get on my soapbox again about how Stanley tumblers are only getting so much s**t because it’s a female interest?”
This pseudo-feminist defence of the Stanley cup may feel particularly absurd, but is part of a cyclical pattern online in which overtly patriarchal, capitalist trends – led largely by women – aren’t just defended under shallow claims of sexism but lauded as feminist. “Misogyny” – the definition of which is used as loosely as possible – is invoked to defend anything a group of women are doing, regardless of its consequences.
It goes well beyond Stanley cups: we saw it in the response to any serious critiques of the Barbie movie’s trite feminism being used to sell dolls this summer, with “haters” being labelled bitterly anti-woman. Equally, the trend of adult women infantilising themselves online – by embracing fads like “girl dinner”, “girl math”, “feral girl summer” – has for years been excused as a feminist response to relieve women from the pressure of patriarchal structures (rather than capitulating to stereotypes promoted by those very structures themselves). Even in the last week, a TikToker received around four million views for videos about “girl hobbies” – such as “doing makeup”, “shopping” and “trying on clothes” – boiling down any backlash she received for this gender-essentialist, conservative stereotyping as people “being mean” (which she clarified was “NOT a girl hobby”).
There will undoubtedly be many people (not just women, but men too) who sincerely believe any environmental or consumerist criticism of bulk buying reusable pastel-coloured cups – because TikTok told you to – is merely misogyny at play. But there will be far more who see this unserious defence for the self-preservation tactic it is and will knowingly use it as a convenient, exculpatory narrative.
Why then are so many lining up behind this argument, when even invoking “misogyny” suggests at least some understanding of the way these social structures work? It’s common knowledge in 2024 that the cost of over-consumption falls disproportionately on the young female workers who make products, such as clothes (and even that reinforcing the idea of femininity as being synonymous with “shopping” feeds into long-standing misogynistic tropes). It aligns with a wider political trend in which left-wing ideals are professed and causes are loudly supported – up to the point of having to make personal sacrifices in order to achieve them. It’s easier to invoke accusations of patriarchy, power imbalances and misogyny than it is to give up on over-consuming material possessions that are trendy. Framing Stanley cup-hype as a feminist cause doesn’t just offset the obvious environmental downsides, but has the added bonus of turning it into something worthy, where being proud of owning a Stanley cup can masquerade as something beyond status-chasing.
It’s true that female consumption often gets more criticism and attention than male consumption, and it’s right to say that we could and should easily have the same scrutiny around over-consumption of stereotypically “male” products. But this imbalance doesn’t somehow absolve harmful, female-led trends from the damage they inflict.
The larger problem with this default response is that it ultimately removes all nuance and perspective in the debate about dismantling real misogyny. By flattening out all female behaviour as “good” and all criticism of it as “bad”, it obscures which behaviours are actually harmful to women and lets them slip by if they are perpetrated by women themselves – all while ironically reinforcing limiting, sexist tropes. This defence seeks to remove any social discomfort that might be required to address the confluence of power structures that work together to hold women back. The only people it helps are those already comfortable within these structures, who have the luxury of seeing great personal sacrifice in response to being asked to buy marginally fewer metal cups.
[See also: Why make another Mean Girls?]