The iconic plastic rings that were almost always too big, the shades so vibrantly artificial they looked like Skittles, the custom branded Motorola brick phone—Hard Candy’s nail polish line and subsequent makeup line was a ’90s cult classic, catching the eyes of icons like Brittany Murphy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Alicia Silverstone, and Elton John. The brand’s relevance faded after the early 2000s, but Hard Candy is back in the limelight this week with the news that it’s attempting to trademark the words and hashtag #MeToo. TMZ broke the news first, and the Cut reported “that the brand applied for a trademark application for the hashtag on October 20, a few days after it began trending.”
While Hard Candy isn’t alone in seemingly trying to profit off of the current political moment (in December a Virginia law firm filed an application to trademark #MeToo for legal services), the brand pre-empted criticism with a tepid statement assuring us this isn’t a cash grab. “The company’s intention is to give back to women worldwide,” said Jerome Falic, CEO of Falic Fashion Group, which owns Hard Candy. Another source indicated to TMZ that the plan is to donate the proceeds of any #MeToo branded makeup to the cause. The move would follow a similar scheme from the late ’90s, when Hard Candy released a shade of nail polish called “Love” and donated all the proceeds to AIDS advocacy group amfAR.
This move deserves a healthy amount of side-eye, but to be fair, Hard Candy wouldn’t be the first lipstick to synergize with the #MeToo movement. LipSlut, a brand founded by three college students in the wake of the 2016 election, followed up its viral “F*ck Trump” lipstick with a “F*ck Hollywood” shade in support of sexual assault survivors in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. At checkout, those buying the bright-red matte lipstick get to choose from six anti-sexual assault organizations to support. The charity with the most votes will receive 50 percent of the lipstick’s proceeds.
Neither of these models are as tone-deaf, in my view, as the #MeToo branded necklaces created by Adornia, which initially gave only 10 percent of proceeds to RAINN before being internet-shamed into donating 100 percent of the profits. Or as incredibly crass as the fact that there are more than 1,300 items on Etsy tagged with “safety-pin solidarity” that range in price from $3 to $335. But the same hollow activism motivates all the efforts, and trying to own the phrase itself feels particularly exploitative.
Yes, it’s true that more money for good causes isn’t a bad thing. As Adrianne Jeffries at the Outline wrote, “While you could argue that the buyers should send all that money directly to the ACLU, and perhaps stop spending money on fashion altogether and send all that money to the ACLU, you could also argue that everyone should drink a glass of water before breakfast. Although it’s true (try it!), only monks are committed enough to do it.”* And, at least theoretically, wearing these symbols in public raises awareness and makes vulnerable populations feel less alone. So what’s the problem?
For one thing, these products—and ownership of the #MeToo phrase itself—commodify a movement that was started 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, a black woman, only to reach mainstream appreciation when a rich white actress co-opted it after Weinstein. “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow,” Burke told Ebony in October for a piece on how black women have reacted to #MeToo. “It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” To try to own the intellectual property of black women that she intended to be open source is, at best, tasteless.
But more important, these forms of activism are fundamentally transactional: money for social cachet predicated on trauma. Even when these companies donate the profits to charity, the items are largely empty gestures on the part of the customer and a cynical choice on the part of the brand. If we truly had faith that people actually cared about sexual assault, we wouldn’t need to incentivize charity with lipstick or a safety pin necklace. These objects allow customers to align themselves with a movement, flaunting their “support” with a F*ck Hollywood bold lip or a sterling silver safety pin, while not necessarily doing the work that dismantling rampant sexual assault or systematic racism requires. Aziz Ansari’s #MeToo pin at the Golden Globes should make clear the problem with flashy statements of solidarity. In the end, they’re as easy to take on and off as Kendall Jenner’s wig in that “super woke” Pepsi commercial.
*Correction, Jan. 19, 2018: This post originally misspelled Adrianne Jeffries’ first and last names.