I left my Political Science class on Monday, Oct. 3 with eight messages from my mother. Seven were a series of phone cases with phrases varying from “I stand with our sisters of Iran” to “woman, life, freedom” and its Farsi equivalent “زن زندگی آزادی”. One was a message: “Which of these should I get?” It felt wrong to be shopping for 'I stand with Iran' phone cases on Amazon that won’t even indirectly support the Iranian people. There was something painfully ironic about leaving a discussion about Marcuse’s one-dimensional society and then seeing it play out in real time. I don’t shame my mother for wanting to show her support after living through the 1970s revolution as a kid, but the question remains: what makes us commodify a revolution?
If we’re sticking with Marcuse (though I am about to grossly simplify his work), then perhaps as a society we fear discomfort. Revolution is born from discomfort– there is almost always suffering that precedes change. Marcuse's notion of the one-dimensional society (at least how I understand it) has a lot to do with pacifying ourselves with consumerism. We have been lulled into feeling comfortable– like we’re making a difference. On that same note, some images aren’t easily commodified because they make people feel too uncomfortable.
Eric Fischl's sculpture, The Tumbling Woman, is one that made people feel horrified. And the result? The sculpture was removed from the public.
People felt it was inappropriate to use a human figure in a 9/11 memorial; but what would be better? A tragedy like 9/11 cannot be erased through euphemisms, so they make it more palatable for the world. The public doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable, so they censor themselves from reality.
An empowered woman is the wet dream of white liberal feminists. To so many non-Iranians, the image of the women taking off their hijabs is one that makes them feel empowered, because they are not oppressed by a religious regime. Mahsa Amini’s death is one that doesn’t bother mainstream media, but one that can be used as a symbol of revolution. Amazon can sell phone cases, and we can post infographics, but for Iranian women, this oppression and violence is a reality. Mainstream media doesn’t want to show images of prisons full of revolutionaries burning down. Mainstream media doesn’t want to show little girls being beaten by police. Media don’t show these things because they don’t want to turn the lens inward and reveal that the same violence and oppression continues to happen in the U.S.
In 2020, I listened to friends tell me how they got shot with rubber bullets and maced by LAPD. In 2022, I watched my reproductive rights get taken away by the Supreme Court. It’s pretty obvious that our own systems are structured in a way that divides us by race, class, gender, and anything else that differentiates us. People of color are over-policed, prisons are full of non-violent criminals, the poor are trapped in cycles of poverty, the rich get richer, and women get paid less than men (women of color even more so). To think that what is going on in Iran is so far from our own systemic oppression would be naive. I don’t have an answer to why we commodify revolution, but I do know that this uncomfortable existence for anyone who isn’t an upper-class cis-white man is not sustainable, and never has been.
My ultimate answer: we commodify things to make ourselves feel better. We want to feel like we’re making a difference, and we want to show that we’re aware. But is that enough? One of my professors always says “who are you when you read this,” and I encourage you all to think the same thing. Who are you when you hear about radical change? Are you someone who needs to buy shirts and phone cases to show support? Are you someone who posts on social media? Do you need other people to know you care? Why?
“Hello Professor [Omitted]
…I remember you mentioning [commodifying revolution] during class on Monday and I wanted to see if I could pick your brain more. How does a society decide what kind of issues are worth commodifying? And in that case, does society consider issues that are not easily commodified ones not worth pursuing? What would Marcuse say about this?
I am proud to be an Iranian-American woman and I am privileged to be here writing about what’s going on in Iran. The Iranian people are not a reflection of their government; they are warm, hospitable people who have a rich culture that they are proud of. If you feel so inclined, support the Iranian people in any way you can. Stay educated, stay informed, and keep the discourse running. Here’s a resource where the money for a phone case can go toward something productive instead: