As feminism has gained new power in recent years, more and more people are eager to get on board. The cultural cache of identifying as feminist and empowering women can be seen everywhere from celebrities donning feminist t-shirts, the VMAs, and the Late Show with David Letterman. Most of these people are undoubtedly sincere when they express their support, and lend their cultural power, to embracing women’s rights. It becomes a big dodgier when corporations pick it up to sell products.
In the most recent episode of Bitch magazine’s podcast Popaganda on the sometimes fraught relationship between women and shopping, writer Natalie Baker dives into the question of whether “girl power” advertising helps or hurts the cause.
So here we are, once again, stuck in another good vs. not good enough debate: either these ads are radically tackling sexism through a historically appalling medium or it doesn’t matter what these ads say because corporations don’t actually care and will say anything to make a buck.
What if it’s both? That is to say, what if these companies are forwarding feminist messaging despite not actually caring about it? And what if that still helps us?
Most feminists understandably bristle at the idea of corporations coopting women’s empowerment to sell us products. We want to maintain the purity of feminism, a social justice struggle that is dear to us, with stakes that couldn’t be higher. It’s obnoxious to see corporations, many of which reinforce sexist stereotypes to get us to spend money on products we don’t need, jump on the feminist bandwagon to make more money.
But there’s an argument to be made that this self-interested embrace of feminism ends up having some positive effect. There’s no surer sign that we are gaining power than the recognition by voracious capitalists that there is money to be made. And as you would expect given the uptick, some research indicates that “girl power” advertising actually works to make people more inclined to buy products. Baker writes:
These “fempowerment” campaigns do precisely the opposite. Their eventual purpose is to sell stuff, but their primary messages are that we should stop telling girls that they’re weak, encourage them to get into STEM fields, quit apologizing for ourselves, and remember that we’re damn good-looking just how we are. Me? I can get down with those messages, even when they’re being generated out of corporations’ self-interest.
In fact, I like that they’re doing it out of self-interest. I don’t want feminism to be charity. I want companies to consider supporting feminism to be necessary for their survival.
There’s a similar dynamic in politics. It’s outrageously frustrating to see politicians pretend to embrace women’s rights and pro-choice politics, especially when we know there is no substance underneath (and this sadly worked for some anti-feminist candidates on Tuesday). But you only need to look at how many politicians suddenly love the idea of over-the-counter birth control to see that they have made a calculation: women’s empowerment messages are winning messages. There’s some satisfaction to be taken in the clear display of our political power that people who consider most of these issues to be antithetical to their platforms see a clear benefit in embracing them.
It can feel gross to see people and corporations with ulterior motives mimicking our arguments. If anything, we should take is as encouragement that we are setting a cultural standard: Want to be cool? Want to be appealing? Be a feminist. That political and cultural power is a springboard for us to organize and work to pressure corporations and politicians to actually live up to these ideals or get out of our way.
What do you think–is this dynamic good for feminism or bad? Or both? Or neither?