I love the ads for Thinx, the underwear designed to absorb women’s periods. If you’re female, you, too, probably see those ads daily on Facebook—and maybe you, too, wear a little smile of recognition every time they pop up. One shows the curving sections of a grapefruit leaning against a maroon wall; another pictures a glistening raw egg just beginning to drip down the side of a table. These clever little vanitas tableaus make me feel as if I’m in on the joke: that things are about to get messy beneath the tidy, cultivated shell of the surface.
I know this wry feminist message was likely cooked up in a focus group. Still, I always imagined I could have shared a wink with the woman behind it.
That illusion dribbled away when I read about Thinx founder Miki Agrawal in Noreen Malone’s excellent profile for The Cut. In the paragraph of the piece that has sparked by far the most conversation on Twitter, Agrawal gushes:
“I only started relating to being a feminist, literally, right when I started my company. … Every time I thought about the word feminist, I thought about an angry, ranty … girl. When you hear those spoken-word poets and feminists, who are just like” — she made a high-pitched version of the Charlie Brown grown-up wah wah white-noise sound — “I just couldn’t relate to that. I was always on the ‘women are equal’ front and into empowerment and laughter and inspiration,” she continued. “But I learned so much in the past few years about the plight of women … What I tell my team every day is that we have to be accessible. We have to build a bridge to redefining what feminism is, and we have to do it in a way that makes your mouth go like this,” she said, forming her mouth into what she termed a “smirk.”
Feminism spoke to Agrawal, it seems, not as a political creed, but as a savvy marketing technique. As Malone puts it, “Thinx is unapologetically riding [the] tide of period feminism, to great success.” But how are the feminists who cheered Thinx’s victory over the prudish impulses of the New York subway system—and who might be the underwear’s demographic of buyers—going to feel about Agrawal’s Machiavellian conversion?
If Twitter is any indication, the answer is: not great. “The period underpants founder would like feminism to be more accessible,” novelist Jami Attenberg tweeted, adding a few minutes later, “Also leave the poets out of it.” Bloomberg reporter Rebecca Greenfield asked, “How does someone graduate from a fancy college with this understanding of feminism?” (Agrawal attended Cornell.)
Greenfield’s question is a fair one. Agrawal is 37, came up with the idea for Thinx in 2010, and opened for business in 2013—meaning that she made it well into her fourth decade before figuring out that feminism wasn’t just for spoken-word poets and their dangly-earring-wearing ilk. On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Malone characterizes Agrawal as the female version of a “tech bro.” Her fellow bros aren’t exactly known for their warm feelings toward the f-word. Tech entrepreneur David Sacks wrote in the 1990s that feminists “see phallocentrism in everything longer than it is wide.” Former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, for his part, has written about why women should be unburdened of their right to vote.
It’s not just masters of the universe in northern California. Celebrities say so many dumb things about feminism that some publications make an annual roundup. (On this year’s list: Shailene Woodley, who was asked if she’s a feminist: “No, because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance”; and Lana Del Ray, who declared herself “more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”) It’s little wonder that even young women who are attracted to the term sometimes have very little idea what it means. A recent Washington Post feature about young self-identified feminists quoted them saying things such as “feminism is not political” and “being a feminist takes all different forms, and at the core of it is being inclusive and not excluding.”
Many people who identify as feminists had to shuck off misinformation before they arrived at a definition they could embrace. In a culture averse to many of feminism’s aims, perhaps that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. (I remember my own conversion moment, when I asked an older friend if it was true that feminists hated men. Thankfully, she knew the answer was no. I think I was twelve.) What could help, though, is if people like Agrawal, upon realizing what they stand to gain from feminism, could ruminate a bit on why their earlier impressions were misguided or damaging. The thing that rankled most in Agrawal’s comments wasn’t that it took her thirty-odd years to realize that feminists aren’t a bunch of ranty whiners—it’s that she still seems to see them in that light, to the point that she’s assigned herself the task of “build[ing] a bridge to redefining what feminism is.” Maybe Agrawal needs to do a little more research before deciding whether feminism needs “redefining.” If it does, I’m not sure she’s the woman for the job.