What is Rainbow capitalism and and how does it impact LGBTQ people?


As Pride month rolls around each June, big brands put out Pride merchandise seemingly as a sign of solidarity – but the trend is being criticized as an exploitative act of Rainbow Capitalism.

Karen Tongson, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Southern California, defines Rainbow Capitalism as the “commodification of things related to LGBT culture, especially the concept of gay pride.” Think everything from Pride flags to rainbow-themed sweatshirts and sunglasses that can be found in stores as Pride month nears.

While intentions may be good and lead to some representation, this commodification can be harmful, according to Joshua Coleman, a psychologist, speaker and author of “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.”

LEGO launching first-ever LGBTQ set ahead of Pride Month

The set has 11 monochrome figures that make up colors of the rainbow, a symbol of pride.

USA TODAY

“On the one hand, it promotes acceptance in the sense that it’s normalizing something that does need to continue to be normalized and accepted… But I think there’s also a kind of annoyance about the rank hypocrisy of some of these companies which in the past, might have actively discriminated against the LGBT community,” he says.

This year in particular there has been an increased call out of Rainbow Capitalism, prompted in part by TikTok users commenting on certain stores’ Pride collections.

User @ylracbutler described Target’s Pride line as “…interesting…” 

“Besties i’m scared….” she wrote, showing off a rainbow suit and other items, garnering 1.4 million likes.

“We’re not circus clowns bro,” one user commented. Another joked, “(They) found the straightest intern and put him on this project.”

User @awolfsquared garnered 1.4 million likes for sharing critical clips of Walgreens’ Pride merchandise. One user pointed out that the products appeared to lack effort. “They really said ‘we have to do this so let’s make it quick,’ “ user @shelbyglenn.j wrote.

Target and Walgreens aren’t the only big brands to promote Pride, of course. Lego made waves in May by launching its first-ever LGBTQ-themed set, and Fossil is selling rainbow and transgender flag-colored wristbands. Apple, Disney, Adidas, Gap and more companies ranging from clothing to tech highlight Pride in some way. 

Tongson says Rainbow capitalism allows big companies to profit off the queer experience.

LEGO is launching its first-ever LGBTQ-themed set ahead of Pride Month. The set includes 11 monochrome figures each with its own hairstyle and rainbow color.

LEGO is launching its first-ever LGBTQ-themed set ahead of Pride Month. The set includes 11 monochrome figures each with its own hairstyle and rainbow color.
LEGO Group

“It just falls short in every possible way, in terms of actually providing systemic or structural change or justice for the community that it purports to represent,” she says. “Sure, it helps to see somebody who quote-unquote looks like you… (but) if that’s not backed up with with something substantive, like a real commitment to hiring LGBT people or making sure that there are no discriminatory laws… it’s not going to make any difference because people are still going to suffer the same injustices. They’ll just be able to drape themselves in rainbow gear while doing so.”

Coleman says the ongoing issue of safety for the community is another reason these campaigns may rub people the wrong way.

“That feeling like you’re being used in this way and exploited and taken advantage of would contribute to that feeling that your identity is somehow something that you’re not in complete control over,” he explains. “You don’t have complete control over the narrative about it and that could certainly increase feelings of anxiety or things related to that.”

People have also expressed their frustration with Rainbow Capitalism on social media.

Twitter user @notsoscify says Pride feels “co-opted as another ‘happy X’ holiday… especially with all the rainbow capitalism… it feels very disconnected to the actual reason for Pride.”

User @lgbtqbpd says Rainbow Capitalism “makes me feel so empty.”

The Minimalist 40mm watch gets a rainbow flag makeover this year.

The Minimalist 40mm watch gets a rainbow flag makeover this year.
Fossil

One way brands try to make their actions meaningful is by donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of their Pride merchandise. But sometimes the donations are capped at a certain amount. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch give a set amount to its organization of choice, which as user @mckensea puts it “feels kind of weird because (they) are going to make more in profits than (they) are donating.”

Tongson says oftentimes the donations don’t ultimately wind up in the hands of the most impactful organizations. Instead, the money is “waterlogged into the same kind of corporate structures that these corporations are giving money to.”

The result is consumers of Pride gear are becoming more aware and making an effort to shop where proceeds will make the biggest impact, including shopping at small, queer-owned businesses.

For example, consumers are taking note when companies only feature underrepresented groups during their respective history or heritage months, says Ali Fazal, vice president of marketing at influencer marketing platform GRIN.

“(If) the only time they see LGBT people represented is during Pride Month, it’s clear that what you’re doing is not a long term evolution for your company and your marketing,” Fazal says. “You’re just trying to capitalize upon the seasonality of that month.”

Tongson agrees consumers are well aware Pride merchandise benefits the companies selling it, and they’re doing the work to examine the policies at those companies.

“It’s very easy to slap a rainbow on something but when it comes down to it, will you stand up for your trans employees as they’re facing say a discriminatory law?” she wonders. “So while people might appreciate the symbolic gesture, it remains purely symbolic.”

Karen Tongson, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Southern California.
People are still going to suffer the same injustices. They’ll just be able to drape themselves in rainbow gear while doing so.

Fazal hopes Pride lines can still have a “positive halo effect with society.”

For example, big stores that promote Pride lines may reach queer people in places where representation is otherwise scarce. 

“Maybe the fact that Target has a Pride line is one of the more mainstream representations of LGBT Pride that they’ve been able to see wherever they live,” he explains.

Looking beyond shopping, Tongson points out that Rainbow Capitalism highlights the disconnect between Pride’s activism roots and what it is today.

“So many trans women of color and queers of color who are at the heart of these activists efforts have been erased from those histories as a more sanitized version of Pride has increasingly become the kind of corporate flavor of Pride,” she says.

She also advises people not to look towards these corporations for validation or “symbols of acceptance.”

“Expect more,” she says. “No bit of shopping, no matter how much capitalism tries to convince you of that, is going to make you feel freedom, you have to go and get it.”

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