My family’s Facebook Messenger chat has been pretty active lately. We used to only use it to send each other New England Patriots memes, but more recently, our discussions have centered on articles about politics and protest. We debate the new president’s drastic executive orders—my sister and I disapproving, my parents more willing to reserve judgment. We talk about the consequences of widespread demonstrations, such as the Women’s March on Washington. We talk about the wide range of issues covered at these demonstrations. We talk about why movements can seem empowering to some and offensive to others. Memorably, one article my mother sent us from John Piper’s website Desiring God expressed particular revulsion for the Women’s March and for “those unspeakable hats.” You know the ones: bright pink, hand-knitted, two floppy ears.
There is a lot of contention around these hats. Originating with an online group called The Pussyhat Project, they have captured national attention since the Women’s March. The hats appeared on the cover of Time and The New Yorker; they appear at every demonstration I’ve seen since the Women’s March. I see women wearing them around campus and around Harrisburg; I hear women expressing discomfort with them in conversation or outright disgust with them on social media.
Why the polarized reactions? What makes this symbol so potent and divisive?
For one, they walk the line between the implicit and the explicit. While the hats are intended to represent cat ears (hence the pun on “pussycat”), their bright pink color and reference to traditionally vulgar terminology purposefully and transparently equate the hats with female genitalia in the public imagination.
For those who wear the hats, they are a symbol of reclamation. With the election of a president who first claimed he could “grab them by the pussy” and then dismissed his words as “locker room banter”, women are refusing to submit to the normalization of sexual assault and instead empowering themselves in the face of Trump’s derogatory language. As my sister so eloquently told my family’s group chat, “The hats aren’t randomly nasty, they’re defying the horrible things people think they can do to women without consent. I’m not saying [I would] ever wear one, but I wanted to point out that they’re somewhat purposeful and ironic, not to simply gain attention.”
For other women, though, the “pussyhats” are an abuse of the obscene. Generational differences can make a huge difference in how the hats are perceived. My grandparents’ generation, for example, was raised to be extremely private about their private parts. The presence of a symbol like the hats at national protests, then, makes them extremely uncomfortable, even if they also oppose Trump’s agenda. There is something of a double standard in the hats, too—if people were marching through a city wearing hats that explicitly symbolized phalluses, no one would call them empowering. They would call them crude. Others may find the hats to be a poor example to young children, who probably lack the political nuance to truly comprehend the symbol. Still others view the hats as overly exclusive, a denial of the discrimination and danger that transgender women face daily. From polite discomfort to staunch moral opposition, this symbol has garnered a broad spectrum of negative reactions.
However you view the now-iconic pink headwear, it is important to understand the roots of this political symbol. Although divisive and possibly indecent, the hats are a strong symbol of resistance to Trump’s ongoing hateful rhetoric, and they make a powerful enough statement to endure as a symbol of our era.
Hannah Eckstrom is a Spanish major with a K-12 Teaching Certification. She decided to join the Fellows to pursue a combination of her academic passions and community outreach, and is excited to learn more about the culture of Harrisburg as she participates in Fellowship projects.