From women’s lib to lipstick

Have we benefited from the buying and selling of the feminist movement? Noor Evers and Liberty O’Hagan discuss.

FOR – Noor Evers:

Naturally, we all feel a bit queasy when we see brands hijack the feminist movement. Seeing a political movement which people have shed blood, sweat, and tears for, packaged up and sold in order to make profit. It exasperates me that this sacrifice is now being used to sell me Always pads, Pantene shampoos and CoverGirl makeup. It’s hard to forgive an industry that is so blatantly sexist and hell-bent on objectifying and sexualizing every part of a woman and her body.

But the phenomenon of ‘femvertising’ is not new – the same idea was present when brands started printing ‘fairtrade’ and ‘organic’ in large letters on their packaging. The bottom line is that when consumers’ demands and values change, businesses immediately seek to capitalize on it. Although this may feel intrinsically wrong, ‘girl-power’ campaigns may not be as abominable as we initially think.

Advertisements celebrating female empowerment and strength spread a powerful message to a vast audience, regardless of whether companies are using feminism simply as a marketing tool. Being part of a comparably progressive environment, and surrounded by liberal thinkers, as we are at university, often makes us forget that feminist thinking is definitely still not mainstream. Ad campaigns are an effective way of communicating to women that all bodies are beautiful (Dove), that girls can kick ass in sports (Always), and that women shouldn’t apologise for shit (Pantene). 

Feminist advertisements have shown me girls killing it on a football pitch and in the workplace, as well as celebrating all kinds of beauty. Whether or not their marketing was insincere or exploitative, I thought Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign addressed an important social issue that impacts young women. It’s hard to deny that this isn’t a positive development. Feminism aims to induce a change in the representation and inclusivity of our media, and femvertising plays a part in this.

Of course, the marketing industry is not always aware of the complex and sensitive nature of feminism and what it stands for. Although a few ads manage to get it right, there are many that fuck up big time (think Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad). Regardless, it’s worth celebrating the fact that businesses now feel compelled to add a feminist label to their products. After noting the successes of feminist ad campaigns, other companies may feel obliged to follow their example and further understand feminism in all its intersections. Some businesses have taken concrete actions, including Pantene’s ‘Shine Strong’ fund, or Verizon’s investment in innovation projects and awards.

In a world dominated by capitalist interests, it is important to be realistic and realise that businesses have a huge influence on society. The feminist movement can benefit by finding ways to harness this form of power. Encouraging ads produced by women, using writers and directors that identify as such, and ensuring that companies are actually committed to feminism (and the inclusivity that the movement stands for), following their advertisements through with action, could turn exploitative femvertising into a force for good.

joy molan image for capitalism article

AGAINST – Liberty O’Hagan:

Over the last few years, I have seen female empowerment packaged up and sold to its consumers by Dove, Nike and Always. At first these advertisements can appear uplifting, but scratch the surface and the overlap of feminism and capitalism certainly rings some paradoxical alarm bells. While such advertisements encourage consumers to ‘embrace yourself’ through the celebration of female bodies in all shapes and colours, we often fail to remember that the advertising world is still profiting from patriarchal and racist conceptualisations of beauty. The same advertisements that are ‘empowering’ women are selling overpriced beauty blenders, protein shakes and plastic surgery. Rather than identifying the intersecting struggles slapped against many women, they suggest that anyone can be empowered and succeed simply by purchasing their product. I find it particularly ironic that the same capitalist ideology that dismisses the under-representation of women in politics and business as an individual disinterest, preference or choice, is profiting from a movement like feminism.

While intersectional feminism should celebrate all gender identities, capitalism approaches women’s issues through feminine, ‘pink feminism’ branding. This reinforces the myth that feminism benefits women exclusively. Moreover, it suggests that, to be empowered, one must adhere to ‘womanly’ stereotypes. An advertisement or a video clip that presents feminism in this monolithic form does not do the movement justice; instead, we are buying an exclusive brand that is created in a largely white, male board room. Is this really progress? If feminism is simply a clever business move, we must ask ourselves who is really profiting. We have seen basic public services like education and health care gradually being sold off and turned into businesses. It seems that feminism, too, is not safe from such commodification.

Feminism is currently a source of income. But when it is no longer profitable, and activism is no longer selling products, another marketing tool will prevail. A soap bar or a sanitary pad cannot and will not represent feminism in its intersectional complexity, and so advertisements like the ones we are seeing only undermine feminism as a political movement. Because of this, I will continue to treat feminist advertisements with suspicion.

Illustration by Joy Molan

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