Monday, June 15, 2009

What Bottom Line? - Etsy as "False Feminist Fantasy"

Another flare-up of "Etsy pro-and-con" has appeared online, raising once again the issue of how we value handmade and DIY and the issue of making money vs. pursuing personal fulfillment. This time the battle was sparked on Slate's female perspective blog double xx and taken up by the cheeky blog Jezebel.

The piece on double xx by Sara Mosle argues that Etsy is peddling a "false feminist fantasy" that women can quit their day jobs and make a living selling their handmade wares on

She writes, "There’s just one fly in the decoupage: There are virtually no male sellers on Etsy. If the site is such a great way for anyone to market handmade goods online, then why is it such a female ghetto?"

"In other words," she continues, "what Etsy is really peddling isn’t only handicrafts, but also the feminist promise that you can have a family and create hip arts and crafts from home during flexible, reasonable hours while still having a respectable, fulfilling, and remunerative career. The problem is that on Etsy, the promise is a fantasy."

Focusing on the issue of how much money the average Etsy seller stands to make for their efforts, she continues "There’s little evidence that most sellers on the site make much money. This, I suspect, explains the absence of men." She also hits on the issue of how Etsy encouraged deflated prices for handmade work.

I agree with much of Mosle's perspective -- it isn't easy to make money on Etsy (unless you're a stakeholder in the company, in which case you're probably doing pretty well). At the same time, it isn't easy making money with any small business venture, but I think her essentially beef is with Etsy's marketing strategy.

Many readers have left comments disapproving of the way Mosle ignores other values at work on Etsy -- values of having more time to spend with your creative life and (often) your kids, having control over your work environment, finding more personal fulfillment, connecting with a larger community of like-minded people.

But I don't think Mosle is really interested in these non-monetary values. She is more interested in the traditional fiscal bottom line and the fact that the male-dominated stakeholders in the company are making money off of selling a myth to women who want it to be true so much that they go ahead and open Etsy shops. If these shops generate less money than they do new contacts and a sense of community, I guess that for Mosle would be, excuse me, the boobie prize.

The problem with Mosle's article as I see it isn't that women are being sold a false bill of sales by Etsy -- for after all, no matter how it markets itself Etsy is just a tool, like a crochet needle or a letterpress -- but rather that Mosle can't remove herself from a traditional male perspective of the world enough to see that there is more than one bottom line, more than one value system, and more than one way to find fulfillment in one's work.

Many women, and increasingly men, seek more flexibility in terms of their work and their time. A recent book called Womenomics written by two prominent women in television broadcasting addresses this issue of the demand for a more flexible workplace, and the success of Etsy I'd say very much reflects this demand, whether or not it delivers.

Commenter ohdaisy reflects this problem writing, "I'm not that familiar with Etsy but I'm disappointed to see, once again, the silly idea propagated that "meaningful" work really equals drudgery, and that the arts aren't good enough."

Fivelittlegems concurs: "I am setting a much better example for my 5 children by being at home with them, having jewelry parties, going to shows, posting on etsy and working very hard at SOMETHING I TRULY LOVE AND MAKES ME HAPPY rather than the dismal 8-5:00 high-paying but low personal satisfaction corporate drone job i used to be at."

So who's right? Lured by the heat of this issue, two writers redress the piece on Jezebel.

Sadie: "[D]oesn't it seem like she ignores the fact that Etsy functions as a community as well as a selling site? If one reads the boards, it's clear that Etsy is a real support network and intellectual forum for any number of like-minded people."

Megan: "Mosle's piece attempts to convince women not to take a relatively risk-free wade into the entrepreneurial waters of the American marketplace because they'll 'fail,' as though economic failure is something with which women cannot or should not be expected to cope."

Sadie: "[The article] fails to acknowledge that it might be, not just a source of modest income for those affected by the recession, but a means of empowerment in a demoralizing market."

I think it's a good thing to question Etsy (or any company) and to be critical of the buying and selling of dreams. And this debate over Etsy will go on and on.

But here's another bottom line: "I'd rather by stuff made by consenting women than by sweatshop workers. Maybe it's just me." This comment, posted by save jinger, kind of sums it up for me.

Now, about those crochet needles made in sweatshops in China...

Posted by Amy Shaw for Greenjeans.
Hat tip to Steph C.
Image "Utera Maxima" by Etsy seller Vulva Love Lovely.

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