By Kelsey Jones
An ad on my Facebook feed encourage me to join Lean In, advertised as a non-profit organization designed to “empower all women to achieve their ambitions.” The organization stemmed from a book by the same name written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Scrolling down my feed, I caught another advertisement, this time for Aerie’s #aerieREAL campaign against photo shopping and the use of thin models.
The feminist movement has been at the forefront of the push for women’s rights for decades, but it’s increasingly also becoming something that companies wanted to plant their own stake in.
While that fact alone proves the power of the feminist movement, it is also a tricky tightrope to walk: using an intersectional political movement to sell products to a specific subset of women versus actually supporting feminism and its ideals across class, sexuality, and racial lines.
Empowerment has long been associated with something that women need: to be empowered in education, in the workplace, in the home. And now, companies are advertising products to help make that possible, as if the right beauty product and a little confidence is all it takes to solve sexism and systemic discrimination in education, in the workplace, and in the home. These messages, paired with catchy, viral-worthy phrases, contribute to the rising prevalence of hashtag feminism.
For instance, one of the most popular ads during last year’s Super Bowl featured several young girls demonstrating what they thought it meant when the producer asked them to run or throw like a girl. It was produced by Always, the feminine product company owned by Procter & Gamble.
The premise of the commercial was profound. It brought to light the insidious nature of common phrases like “You throw like a girl!” being used as an insult. But after challenging the viewer to redefine what it means to do something “#LikeAGirl,” Always flashed the brand logo and encouraged women to buy their product.
Companies like Always do have large audiences, especially when the commercials air during an event like the Super Bowl, so it's heartening to see these issues be raised at all. But juxtaposing a product with a powerful message dilutes the message, especially when the motive is to boost the company's own bottom line and pad the pockets of its largely white, heterosexual, male CEOs. The watered-down feminism of these "empowerment" campaigns—such as ones from Pantene and Secret—is even more apparent once you consider the fact that women generally pay more for the same beauty and hygiene products, thanks to the "pink tax."
The problem is not that the companies are taking feminism and putting out their own social campaigns crafted around their interpretation of it. The problem is that many of these campaigns are still aimed at selling a product. More often than not, that product is marketed in a way that says, “Look, if you buy this, you will be empowered.”
It is the hypocrisy of creating a commercial to break down gender stereotypes while producing other commercials for those same menstrual products with blue liquid to simulate blood and extra coverage to prevent the undesirable leak.
As companies move away from sexism and degradation marketing towards the adoption of feminism for profit, the goals of the movement and the companies becomes muddied. Feminism is a political movement. The misappropriation of such a movement for profit is deplorable.
Companies are not alone in the adoption of what has been deemed corporate feminism. Organizations like TED and Makers regularly hold conferences aimed at empowering women, but at a prohibitive cost—the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco this October costs $2,495 to attend. A price tag like that generally attracts a primarily white, wealthy, heterosexual women audience.
Furthermore, the talks come from a range of speakers, but many of them leave the audience with a feel-good positivity that side-steps some of the real issues facing the movement. The TEDWomen conference Jessica Valenti attended in 2014 didn’t have any mention of abortion access; when asked why, conference co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”
Feminism began as women gathered in small groups at houses across the country. They picketed, protested, and demonstrated in front of corporations and the government. They demanded their rights as citizens of this country.
When corporations and organizations lose sight of that history in favor of dollar signs, they limit the movement as they shave off the parts they deem undesirable or unmarketable.
Empowerment cannot be bought. The term in and of itself is empty; empowerment is almost always discussed by those who hold the power. Companies should be welcome to participate, but feminism should not be a marketing prop. Feminism and empowerment should not be a pastime for wealthy white women to discuss at expensive conferences.
Feminism is still political, not commercial.
Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.