The commercialization of feminism has made it more visible, but at a steep price
Following the recent adoption of feminist ideals by a few high-profile celebrities, a new, uber-marketable wave of 'pop feminism' has emerged to bring gender equality and social justice to the masses. But as more people jump on the feminist bandwagon, does its newfound popularity actually mean anything for the movement, or is just a way for brands to profit?
For the majority of its history, feminism was largely relegated to activists, academics and artists. While the intrepid feminists of history like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Walker, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Freidan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinhem are the reasons why women can vote, exercise the right to abortion and birth control, and are creeping towards closing the pay gap today, feminism has long been the assumed domain of bra-burning, penis-hating liberal women with intact body hair.
But then, Beyoncé happened.
At the 2014 MTV music awards, Beyoncé's universally recognizable silhouette stood tall in front of a building-sized banner that lit up with a single, solitary word: "Feminist." There was nothing delicate about it. The word itself wasn't a suggestion, like "Hey, maybe you should look into some feminist literature and familiarize yourself with the issues that face today's women.” It was a war cry. It was an in-your-face banzai that demanded her female fans know and cherish their own ability and worth, and it was accomplished with three, glowing 10-foot high syllables broadcasted live to millions of people between commercial breaks on the nation’s 39th most watched television network.
In that moment, Beyoncé , one of the most recognizable and marketable pop stars in history brought feminism, one of the longest and-hardest-fought social issues in history, to the masses.
The people went wild. Unused to this new, political Beyoncé who asserted both her gender and her blackness as intersectional symbols of power, they were suddenly and grippingly intrigued. Just what was this strange word Beyoncé was power-stancing in front of? Google searches for “feminist” skyrocketed during the week of August 24-30, 2014, the week of her MTV performance.
(Graph source: sexandstats.com. Red is "feminist," blue is "Beyoncé.")
Almost immediately afterwards, actress Emma Watson addressed the UN with a message about gender equality. A few months later, Taylor Swift and her brood of 1 percenter model besties hopped on board, espousing “female-friendly” messaging such as "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." (Although it’s a little unfriendly to insinuate you’re headed for straight for Satan’s house if you don’t immediately rush out and help other women simply because they also have ovaries, but ... okay).
Even men pledged allegiance. Mark Ruffalo released a video showing him answering the sexist questions female actresses get during interviews, and Orange is the New Black actor Matt McGorry charmingly admitted he was a “newb” to feminism and wrote a “thoughtful” essay about how women should be paid the same as men for Equal Pay Day.
Suddenly, becoming a feminist was "in". Famous people were “cool,” so the things they #believed in must also be “cool” too. The idea that women and men should have equal rights and be treated the same no longer seemed to be the inaccessible charge of remote intellectuals and Pussy Riot. No longer was it a nebulous concept to agree on, but do nothing about. Now that the hot and popular A-list was on board, fighting for equality hot and popular, too.
But most importantly, it was marketable. The sudden popularization of feminism even spawned a new type of advertising — "femvertising” — which made use of this new trend of #empowerment to sell things to women ... stereotypically womany-y things like sanitary pads, paper towels and laundry detergent (Proctor and Gamble's Ariel-brand detergent encouraged Indian men to "#SharetheLoad" with women, painting a picture of a super cool brand who thought men should — gasp — help out with laundry sometimes!)
Femvertising — the direct result of feminism's commercialization — is pervasive. Open your eyes for one second and direct them toward a screen. Any screen; I’ll wait.
I’ll bet you see things like Pantene’s “Stay Strong” campaign and its accompanying short film “Sorry, Not Sorry,” which encourages women to fight stereotypes by refusing to apologize in everyday conversation (Did you know that you can now "stay strong" with really, really shiny hair?) Or, perhaps you see Cover Girl’s “Girls Can” campaign which features by Pink, Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifah telling women that girls can do things like play ice hockey, own businesses, be funny (with makeup that lasts 16 hours, girls can do anything). And then there's Always’ pretty moving short film “Like A Girl” which flips the notion that doing anything “like a girl” is bad. It's actually quite successful at conjuring up feelings of empowerment and self-worth, but also, it's so you'll by Always' tampons and pads.
Smaller, more theoretically enlightened brands do it too. Take Wildfang. Their apparel is awash with feminist messaging (one $38 t-shirt says "Girls Invented Punk Rock, Not England). One can scarcely throw a rock without hitting someone wearing a "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, “#feminist” tote bag or pin that say “Fuck the Patriarchy.” Pretty much anything that’s a noun has something on it that says “The Future Is Female.”
That's why it's important to remember that, while these are actually great campaigns and designs that do a pretty great job conveying the feminist ideals of empowerment and equality, the only reason they exist at all is so companies can align their interest with their audience's in order to sell them more stuff.
What does that mean?
Well, before we look at the this sort of commercialized feminism as evidence of progress (well, at least we’re talking about feminism now!), we should start by considering the implications of what it means to buy products from brands who are profiting off feminism’s pop moment, rather than making actual strides towards gender equality.
As Emily Algar points out in an , “Pantene and Cover Girl have both made millions of pounds telling young girls and women that the only way we can be ‘beautiful,’ ‘confident,’ or ‘empowered’ is if we have long swishy hair and wear the right lipstick and mascara. All of which has been communicated to us through a series of highly photo shopped and distorted images. Yes, I think we should applaud these companies for embracing the feminist tag … But we should also be skeptical as to why these companies are only now embracing the feminist movement and what their policies are like behind the scenes. Do they offer equal pay? What are their maternity/paternity benefits like? How do they tackle office sexism? What do their childcare arrangements look like?”
When those questions can’t be answered, or have answers that you don’t want to hear at all, that's not a good sign for your custom "Future is Female" bomber jacket.
In her book We Were Feminists Once, Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler explores this idea, explaining that commercial social movements are typically less concerned with improving inequality and more on the canned, profitable image of self empowerment. To brands, that image looks and feels a certain prescribed way (thin, mostly white females wearing the a shade of foundation that actually matches their faces, laughing and jumping); a way they know makes them money.
"Consumer or celebrity feminism is a label that can be put on and taken off when it's convenient, where 'feminism' can mean anything from 'loving your female friends' to 'wanting women to have choices'," Zeisler "Media and pop culture can be excellent conduits for reaching people that social movements might not reach on their own, but it's important not to let consumption stand in for action, and there are ways in which marketplace feminism encourages that … it doesn't challenge systems of power. It makes 'power' an attribute that you can buy."
Our good friend Taylor Swift is a prime example of this. While publicly adopting feminism as her go-to girl power image, Taylor Swift has done very little to advance actual gender rights, something that is concerning considering that she is seen as one of Hollywood’s most feminist figures (albeit, not by anyone who knows much about real feminism).
Huffington Post’s Rebecca Bohanan expertly reviewed Swift’s non-action in a 2016 article about how “Taylor Swift the Feminist (©Taylor Swift)” capitalizes off commercialized feminism for her own popularity:
"Unlike Dunham, Swift has not publicly supported funding Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton, the Equal Rights Amendment, or any other piece of feminist legislature. She privately showed support to Kesha financially for her ongoing trial against her abusive producer and record label, but Swift made no public statement regarding the state of women in the misogynistic music industry she claims to want to change so badly.
This is because Swift supports issues when she can benefit from supporting them. Swift has built an image around working with women (see: her model friends in the “Bad Blood” music video), but when she accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year earlier this year, there were no female producers with her on stage. Swift is all about female friendship, except when a woman has dated a man she also once dated, like Camilla Belle, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, or Kendall Jenner — then the women are ‘buried,’ as her ex Calvin Harris recently put it, for the benefit, seemingly, of Swift’s self-esteem."
When you're a celebrity like Swift, you are a product. You're selling yourself; your own brand-image. And once you take on a social movement like feminism without doing the legwork to make a difference, you become no different than Cover Girl's super female-friendly lip plumper or Always' athletic period pads.
"Once something becomes commercialized, it becomes more about selling a product than sending a message,” Leanna Robinson, feminist writer, artist and performer tells me. “Many commercial brands that hinge their entire mission on feminism, like Wildfang, are co-opting activist language to sell a product. A lot of these companies have unethical work practices like outsourcing their goods to be made in factories where women work in unsafe conditions, which must make one question, do Wildfang and other feminist brands mean 'feminist for all' or 'feminism for Western women?’”
That brings up one of the biggest problems with commercialized feminism — the way it’s being co-opted is inherently classist, with so-called feminist products selling at prices way outside the average person’s budget. In many cases, this also makes them inaccessible to people of color, erasing entire groups of people from the fun and flirt #feminist party.
"Something can not be radical or equalizing if it is only available to the bourgeois,” explains Robinson. “I'm not in the lowest income bracket, and I still can't even afford a $40 'This Is What a Feminist Looks Like' tote bag. Essentially, what commercialized feminism does is it takes something that is supposed to be empowering (gender equality) and turns it into a watered-down, bite sized product that often misses the point and can only be accessible by the rich."
Something else that commercialized feminism does is encourage gender stereotypes. If you haven't already noticed, the brands that are pushing big, seemingly feminist agendas on their audience are primarily brands who make products who have a historical and stereotypical association with femininity — laundry products, makeup, period care, and so on. In continuing to market products that cause women to act out their gender roles, they're also contributing to enforcing those roles. In saying "look how empowered you can be," they're actually saying, "look how empowered this detergent makes you ... in the laundry room."
What would be infinitely more adaptive and useful to the feminist movement would be to weave in feminist messaging into brands and products that aren't stereotypically female. Lawn mowers. John Deere. Workout powder. Home Depot shit. Ingraining predominantly male audiences with the idea that women can do the same things they do is a much more effective way to address equality when it comes to brands and marketing.
But, it's not all bad. Commercialization does achieve something important, which is that it normalizes the fight for gender equality.
"One could take the stance that any press is good press," says Robinson, "It gets people talking about issues and makes people less fearful to speak out about their opinions." In other words, commercialized feminism makes feminism more accessible, which is nice. When it reaches a larger audience, people unfamiliar with the movement might be more apt to look into to it or get involved. It’s possible the purchasing commoditized girl-power goods gives people a “way in,” an entrance-point to a movement they might have felt distant from otherwise. And really, isn’t that how capitalism operates? It takes genuine, grassroots and underground movements and lifestyles and transforms them into high-demand products to sell back to the people that started these movements in the first place. Skateboarding is a great example of this. So is rap.
Feminist organizer Jessamy Gleeson agrees that increased visibility isn’t bad … it just needs the backbone of action to succeed. "Whenever this wave is over, I want us to be left with more than a Beyoncé album and a t-shirt," she . "I want us to have legislation on pay gaps and domestic violence. I want guaranteed funding for women's shelters. I want us to ensure that trans discrimination is a thing of the past. So sure, buy the t-shirt if you want — but consider donating exactly the same amount of money, energy or time to a cause that directly benefits other women."
And if you can’t do that? At the very least, continue the conversation. As we continue to explore what everyday feminism looks like in 2017, there are so many types of feminist conversations to be had. Some are introductory level, “this is what feminism is and this is what it means” conversations that may seem oversimplified to people with more experience and education on the topic. Others are nearly intangible, existential and academic discussions that will feel unapproachable to people earnestly interested in gender equality. All of them have value, and we need every type in between.
So, to answer the questions of whether commercialized feminism is good or bad: who knows? It’s fine and dandy if the brand responsible for the commercializing makes an actual impact, but, it’s kind of shitty when they use an incredibly nuanced and important social issue to sell shiny hair shampoo.
P.S. The author acknowledges that Beyoncé is in no way solely responsible for marketable feminism. To think she’s the reason Ashley has a ‘#feminist’ tote bag is to ignore the decades of work that feminists before her have done. Generations of women before her simply gave a person like her — the biggest pop star on the planet — a platform for which to popularize a social movement which previously existed on the fringe.