Let’s talk about…Purplewashing

How International Women’s Day’s impact is disrupted by purplewashing

International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022 occurred this week, on Tuesday, March 8th. Running under the theme ‘#BreakTheBias’, this year once again saw social media become flushed with messages of solidarity in the face of women’s issues – from individuals, companies, and political parties alike. However (perhaps just as predictably), among these pledges of support were countless instances of ‘purplewashing’, as well as a general lack of understanding when it comes to the message behind IWD and this year’s theme.

  One example that has garnered quite a bit of attention this week is the tweet New Zealand Rugby  posted in commemoration of IWD. On Tuesday, the All Blacks’ twitter account posted a tweet which read, “Forever grateful to all the women in our lives that allow us to play the game we love. Partners, mothers, daughters, doctors, physios, referees, administrators and fans. Appreciate you every day”. The tweet was posted alongside images of four male players with their female family members.

  Despite being home to the highly successful Black Ferns international women’s side (who are five-time World Cup winners and the current world champions), the decision was not made to shine a spotlight on the successes of women in New Zealand rugby. Instead of celebrating women’s achievements, women were commended for propping up the men in their life and ‘allowing’ them to play – a sentiment clearly rooted in the idea of women having to be fulfilled by the role of fervent supporter, and being the ‘great woman’ behind the ‘great men’ in their lives. Moreover, one of the male players included in the tweet had pleaded guilty to domestic abuse, so his inclusion in the post seemed especially tone-deaf.

  Unfortunately, that tweet was far from this year’s only instance of empty platitudes, as there were plenty more examples of purplewashing online during the week. Purplewashing is a term used to refer to when institutions claim to be feminist but in fact have no commitment to gender equality – and the swarm of IWD messages posted on Tuesday from countless organisations that in practice do very little to enact meaningful change, shows just how prevalent the issue of purplewashing is.

  Much in the same way that virtue signalling and moral grandstanding operates online, purplewashing allows people to feign support and alliance without really having to tackle, or even acknowledge, the heart of the issue. There has been a big push towards being more progressive in the past couple of years, but all too often, the leap is made to simply claim progressiveness to appease the masses, and no work is done in actually taking a hard look at how different the playing field is for women.

  Instances of purplewashing are not a new thing; they seem to crop up without fail every IWD and every time women’s issues are in the spotlight. This year was simply no different. Many organisations and individuals are doing great work in enacting meaningful change, and have been doing so for years, but seeing such a blatant lack of understanding and motivation to do better – all in ‘celebration’ of an International Women’s Day whose theme is literally about breaking biases – is incredibly disheartening.

  The unavoidable reality, both internationally and here in Ireland, is that women face significant systemic and social disadvantages because of their gender identity. A day like international Women’s Day aims to address this, while also shining a spotlight on women who have succeeded despite these disadvantages. A theme about breaking biases should’ve opened up the stage to a much wider conversation, where unconscious gender biases and intersectionality are discussed to a deeper extent. However, too much of what you’ll find under #IWD tags online are the same generic purplewashed platitudes from organisations with no real interest in the issues – because after all, it’s beneficial to be viewed as progressive, but entirely too much effort to actually try to be. 

  Ireland, for all its seeming progressiveness, still very much remains a country operating under patriarchy. We are leagues ahead of where we once were, but the problems continue to persist. Evidence of this is everywhere – look no further than the news feed this week, which balanced posts celebrating IWD between updates on the Aisling Murphy case and the Midlands rape trial. 

  We can accept these purplewashed platitudes and buy into the notion that we’re all on the same page about gender equality. However, no real change can come about if we still have big organisations that lack the basic nuance to think perhaps championing successful woman might be a more appropriate way to celebrate IWD than commending how maternal and supportive the women in successful men’s lives are.

  Presumably, New Zealand Rugby’s IWD tweet was meant to celebrate ‘the great woman behind every great man’, but surely we ought to start by taking women out of men’s shadows in the first place.