Photo via Pelosi's website.

Nancy Pelosi's #Clapback Merch Isn't Just Corny, It's Dangerous

What do we lose when we brand feminist politics into oblivion?

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Mar 12 2019, 3:42pm

Photo via Pelosi's website.

It was the clapback, or rather, clap-forward, heard 'round the world; after President Donald Trump's second State of the Union address last month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi went viral for the sarcastic, over-the-top clap she deployed in Trump's direction.

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(Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Oh-so-predictably, the moment was seized upon by the media and inflated to galactic proportions. "Nancy Pelosi clapped at Trump, and the Internet lost it," crowed the Washington Post; "Pelosi turns clapping into a viral art form as she trolls Trump." exulted the Guardian. "Nobody has ever clapped like this," opined Twitter, and the memes proliferated with the speed and strength of particle-beam weapons.

Now, Pelosi's clap has been transmuted into that most potent political symbol of all: merch. The Pelosi for Congress website features not one, but two items in the "Patron Saint of Shade" collection, a tote bag and a white T-shirt with a weirdly tiny logo.

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Photo via Pelosi for Congress.

Leaving aside the pressing question of whether a 78-year-old white woman should be appropriating the term "shade" from black and Latinx queer communities to line her campaign coffers, this is just bad merch! No real joie de vivre, no unique look, no immediately recognizable iconography along the lines of the pussy hat. The drawing of Pelosi is a poor likeness, and the clap just looks normal. Elon Musk would not approve.

It might seem silly to get bent out of shape over a T-shirt and a tote bag—after all, overpriced, politically inclined swag is nothing new (why, even Roger Stone has a merch line!) There's something not just cringeworthy but insidious, though, about the hyper-branding of this meme by Pelosi's office. After all, clapping isn't hard; babies can do it at eight or nine months. Significantly more difficult is the task of ably representing the future of the Democratic Party—something Pelosi has struggled with for years—but that complex legacy isn't quite as T-shirt friendly.

Ultimately, though, this is a question bigger than Pelosi, the question of how we, as a society, engage with female politicians. In a cultural moment where Amy Klobuchar's abuse of staff and Dianne Feinstein's arguing with children over climate change are interpreted as aspirational #girlboss antics, it makes sense that we're in search of any possible feminist moment to wrap ourselves in. Pelosi's merch, though, functions as a kind of Trojan horse, letting us believe we're proudly repping one of our country's foremost female leaders for some substantive act of resistance when we're actually celebrating....a clap that happened weeks ago. (Not since NBC's The Slap has a hand gesture gotten this much attention.)

It's worth noting that Nancy Pelosi has been a champion of women's issues for years, recently unveiling a bipartisan reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act and defending her embattled colleague, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, against accusations of anti-Semitism. The issue here isn't with Pelosi's feminist credentials, per se; it's with a meme-driven monoculture that elevates an empty gesture above decades of political participation, and with a cash grab from Pelosi's office that drowns out her actual work on behalf of the Democratic Party in favor of a mortifyingly "how do you do, fellow kids?"-esque branding opportunity. Sometimes, as Freud didn't say, a clap is just a clap.