What Was the ‘Nasty Woman’?

A writer digs up an old T-shirt from the 2016 election that feels like a relic from another civilization

Photos courtesy of the author

“A Nasty Woman in the White House?” read the subject line of an email sent to me last month. It was a reference to vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who Donald Trump recently called a “nasty woman,” but I couldn’t dissociate it from the same nickname he’d given to Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate when she needled him about avoiding taxes. Seeing the phrase in my inbox alongside an avalanche of pandemic-related campaign emails — Bernie Sanders urging me to support a bill to tax billionaires who’d gotten richer over the last several months, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez asking me to donate to feed hungry families in public housing — made me feel as if I had traveled back in time.

The email was from an online retailer I purchased a T-shirt from four years earlier. The shirt had cost $25, with half the proceeds going directly to Planned Parenthood, which gave me a reason to feel good, maybe even righteous, about my purchase. If you spent much time on Instagram in late 2016 or attended the Women’s March three months later, then you likely already know the one. It’s white with a peach-colored heart in the center and two words printed across it in black capital letters: NASTY WOMAN. The simple graphic was vaguely political yet inoffensive. It did not advocate for a particular policy or even a particular candidate — though it obviously catered to Clinton supporters, many of them women like myself, who took issue with Trump’s misogyny.

The company that makes the nasty woman T-shirt has expanded since Trump’s rise to power. Having rebranded as the retail platform Shrill Society in 2017, its website now hosts products from nearly two dozen designers: sweatshirts plastered with the phrase “she persisted”; $300 ceramic “booty” vases (“because Trump and his despicable policies can kiss our ass); a line of “nasty woman” cosmetics, which features lip glosses in colors like “Power to the Purple,” “Resistance Red,” and “March With Me Mauve.” There are also “nasty woman” branded mugs, hats, and tote bags, plus a “nasty woman” card game, adorned with the likes of Oprah, Beyoncé, and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The tagline? “Just as in real life, the more amazing feminists you have on your side, the greater your chances of winning.”

It is far from the only retail site that has capitalized on the feminist merchandising craze that gained steam in 2016. On Etsy, a search for “nasty woman” yields more than 14,000 product results. “Nasty woman” shirts abound on Amazon with SEO-friendly keywords like “Pro Kamala” and “Biden Harris.” On the print-on-demand marketplace Redbubble, there are duffle bags, shower curtains, and cooking aprons plastered with Kamala Harris’ name, followed by the slogan: “America NEEDS a Nasty Woman.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the merchandise itself, it’s hard not to see it as an anachronism in the midst of a deadly pandemic, a catastrophic economic depression, and a social uprising against systemic racism.

After Trump uttered the phrase during the 2016 debate, designer and creative director Amanda Brinkman, according to her telling of the story, impulsively mocked up a simple design that was “both funny and wearable” and posted it online. By the time she woke up the next morning, she had more than 10,000 orders for the T-shirt.

Brinkman’s version scored praise from the Hollywood Reporter, Harper’s Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan. Teen Vogue, in its coverage of the shirt, used the sub-headline “feminism wins again,” though it was unclear exactly how or in what way feminism was winning. A separate Teen Vogue article titled “15 Nasty Woman Items You’ll Want Immediately” recommended tote bags, hats, a phone case, and a pillow printed with the catchphrase. Reuters declared in a headline: “In U.S. battle of election T-shirts, ‘Nasty Woman’ rules.”

After Katy Perry wore it while campaigning for Clinton at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the Washington Post questioned in a headline whether the T-shirt had become the Democrats’ answer to the Trump hat. Will Ferrell, Kristen Bell, and Julia Louis Dreyfus were all photographed wearing it in the weeks that followed. And like plenty of noncelebrities, I, too, posted photos of myself wearing it in the weeks leading up to the election. Because if you buy a viral T-shirt and never photograph yourself in it on social media, did you even buy it at all?

I posed in the T-shirt with my mom and grandma during a trip to see my grandma in Las Vegas. “Oh, just three generations of real nasty women,” I captioned it on Facebook, no doubt thinking I was very clever. The opportunities to pose for photos while wearing the zeitgeisty T-shirt felt endless. When I spotted a small Trump rally in a parking lot near my grandma’s house, I crouched down and posed near a black Escalade with a custom Trump-related license plate. “Nasty in Nevada,” I captioned it on Instagram, as if my presence in the T-shirt itself was an act of resistance. Thinking about those photos now and remembering my own smugness, despite that I’d personally done little to engage in activism that year, makes me cringe.

On election night, I remember looking around the dark windowless bar I’d retreated to and feeling both mortified and taunted by the sea of T-shirts worn by so many others around me: “nasty woman” shirts but also shirts with ambiguously upbeat, gender-focused mantras like “the future is female,” which certainly did not appear to be the case, at least on that particular night. It suddenly seemed as if we’d all made a big miscalculation. I took an Uber home before Trump’s victory was announced.

Walking back to the bar to pick up my car the next morning, I stopped at a bin of clearance T-shirts outside a gift shop. There must’ve been hundreds of them, all bearing images of Clinton’s face, alongside phrases like “history made,” and “President Nasty Woman.” The sight of the surplus T-shirts, the reality of history not having been made — at least not in the way that many of us had hoped — felt like a bad metaphor for the whole election. I decided to buy one, if only to rescue it from the clearance bin.

To my surprise, the thirst for “nasty woman” merchandise only seemed to grow after Trump’s election. A Bustle piece that read like breathless affiliate marketing copy declared “Nasty Woman Tees Are More Covetable Now Than Ever.” Writing that “all Clinton supporters need to be representing and supporting their girl gangs,” Bustle reported that the T-shirts were on backorder and that “purchasing this is a great way to wear your opinions on your chest.”

By December 2016, the T-shirt had raised more than $100,000 for Planned Parenthood according to Brinkman. “What better way to say ‘fuck Trump,’ right?!?!” she told The Cut at the time. A month later, the T-shirts became the de facto uniform at Women’s Marches across the country, along with the ubiquitous hot pink “pussy hats.”

It strikes me now that while many protesters in multiple cities all summer faced police brutality, tear gas, and incarceration for demanding the police stop killing them, those who participated in the Women’s March four years earlier were by and large allowed to assemble peacefully. What were we marching for back then anyway?

It’s an embarrassing reminder of a time when I mistook identity politics for meaningful action.

In the four years since, I’ve become more engaged with politics, both locally and nationally. I’ve held a sign outside my senator’s office and written emails to my county supervisor. Before the primary election this year, I showed up to strangers’ apartments and made phone calls with other volunteers with the Sanders campaign — a concept that seems nostalgic, even luxurious now, considering I’ve barely left my own apartment for seven months. In early March, just a week or two before most of the country shut down, I knocked on doors and passed out campaign fliers and made sure voters knew where their polling place was. And yes, I bought a campaign T-shirt, but I never saw it as more than what it was: a T-shirt.

The “nasty woman” T-shirt strikes me as archaic and discordant today because it recalls, and in fact seems to ignore, the results of the 2016 election; it risks conflating Kamala Harris with Hillary Clinton, a candidate who we already know was not successful. But perhaps more than that, it insists on a false sense of female empowerment, opting for personal affirmation rather than structural or institutional change during a time of mass nationwide suffering.

What has also become clear is that women in positions of power can be just as nasty, literally, as male bosses. This past summer, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests around the country, a number of prominent female founders stepped down after being accused of creating toxic, racially discriminatory work environments. Many of them, including Christene Barberich, the co-founder of Refinery29 (where I was once employed), and Audrey Gelman, co-founder of the women’s co-working space The Wing, had crafted companies that borrowed heavily from the aesthetics and language of the feminist movement. Sophia Amoruso, who resigned as the CEO of Girlboss in June, had previously been sued for pregnancy discrimination by employees of her other company, Nasty Gal. (The company predates Trump’s “nasty woman” comment by a decade; in 2016, it, too, debuted its own line of “nasty woman” tote bags and T-shirts.)

T-shirts sold by Shrill Society presuppose that any future with women in power is not only worth desiring but also progressive. Never mind that a number of congressional candidates who are members of the far-right anti-government conspiracy group QAnon are women. The slogan “the future is female,” which began in the lesbian separatist movement of the 1970s but has since been repeated by Clinton herself, has become so devoid of meaning that it might just as easily be taken up by Trump: He is also apparently hoping for a female future, at least when it comes to the next Supreme Court judge. “I think it should be a woman because I actually like women more than men,” he told reporters on Saturday. He is reportedly considering Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic who is anti-abortion, to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.

As for the “nasty woman” shirt, it has sat at the bottom of my dresser drawer for the last four years, a historical artifact I can’t seem to get rid of but also can’t imagine ever wearing again. To me, the shirt is a harbinger of the exhausting memeification of Trump’s most sensational and increasingly commonplace statements. It’s an embarrassing reminder of a time when I mistook identity politics for meaningful action; when I took for granted that the most accomplished candidate would win an election or that her gender was more important than her policies. It’s a souvenir from an election cycle I’m terrified we’re going to repeat.

The future I want, it turns out, is not necessarily female but equitable — with access to health care, housing, and education for everyone. It is one where deadly wildfires aren’t continuing to engulf the West Coast, unemployed families are not being evicted from their homes during a pandemic, and women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers are not forced to undergo hysterectomies. It’s a future that’s become more clear to me as a possibility only after I became more engaged in the work of local activists and progressive candidates over the last few years. If women happen to lead this future, I’ll be thrilled. But it won’t be because they called themselves “nasty.”

Writing about culture, sex, and politics. Founding editor, theLAnd magazine. Bylines: Rolling Stone, Washington Post, LA Times. jennswann.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store