The Price Tag on Feminism

The phrases seen on t-shirts and water bottles touting ‘girl power’ once represented a form of protest against the patriarchy. But now they are simply part of commercial slogans meant to commodify the feminist cause. Marketplace feminism is defined by Andi Zeisler in We Were Feminists Once as, “a powerful, corporatized, depoliticized version of feminism that’s developed during the past twenty years.” (Zeisler, 2016)  One of the big critiques surrounding marketplace feminism is that it has depoliticized the movement and repackaged it into a bite sized, watered down version of feminism. A version that is easily wrapped and sold to women under the guise of capitalist autonomy. Pinkwashing, femvertising and empowertising are all “ways to talk about the business of selling to women without conflating examples of that business with actual feminism”(Kaye, 2016) 

Many companies portray messages of feminism however, how many companies are willing to stand behind the feminism they promote when it requires real change?

Nike and Always are two companies who promote feminism but don’t engage in any tangible change to alter the climate for women in the world. Nike has long produced its fair share of female centred content. Countless images of women engaged in sports challenging gender norms. Nike has been associated with providing positive messaging surrounding women’s bodies. But why has Nike chosen to undertake the feminist cause? It certainly can’t be more profitable than a partnership with Michael Jordan. Two decades ago, the sweatshops Nike operated and its practices were released to the public, “then CEO Phil Knight admitted that the company had become ‘synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse’. He promised to not only transform Nike’s supply chain but to lead the entire apparel industry into a new era of corporate social responsibility.”(Hengeveld, 2016) 

The public relations nightmare sparked  the Girl Effect campaign in 2008. A campaign dedicated to sharing information on the lack of education and opportunity for millions of girls worldwide. 

Approximately 80 percent of workers in Nike Vietnam factories are women and girls; Maria Hengeveld interviewed Vietnamese employees from Nike factories and found of the 18 women interviewed each“reported pay so low they could not even meet the basic needs of their families, let alone save money or contribute to their communities. Their stories highlighted something the Girl Effect campaign is silent about: the importance of a living wage.”(Hengeveld, 2016)

A campaign like the Girl Effect, helps create the illusion that Nike is genuinely concerned with women’s rights and are making great leaps and bounds to change them. However, the truth is that realities and illusions are seldom as they seem. The idea behind the  Girl Effect was to create the illusion of female empowerment and in doing so, the promotion of feminism. But the stark reality is that female employment is simply cheaper. It is more economical to hire women and girls. 

In underdeveloped parts of the world where Nike goods are produced, women are less educated and are paid less. How can change authentically occur when it is the underpaid, underworked, racialized women’s exploitation that is being used to sell feminism to upper class, privileged women? Nike has made an applaudable effort in trying to probe at the normative discourse on gender and women but lack any initiative to challenge the systemic barriers which keep women small in a global context.

The #likeagirl campaign designed by Always, the child of parent company Procter & Gamble, was created to challenge the insecurity girls feel surrounding menstruation and promote a healthy body image message. As is the case with Nike, the inconsistency between the financial bottom line and feminism is greater than companies have consumers believing. Sanitary pads and tampons are white, glaringly white. A pinkwashing narrative is used to reinforce the idea of hygiene and cleanliness. However, scientifically this is done by chlorine bleaching. Pads and tampons are made out of plastic and synthetic materials, both “restrict air flow and trap heat and dampness, potentially promoting yeast and bacteria growth in your vaginal area”(Mercola, 2013) The pads trap heat in the vagina and heat increases blood production.

While Protcter & Gamble are promoting excellent messages and values, they are disingenuous when they haven’t actually altered the product to benefit women.

Very simply put, the more blood there is, the more pads have to be used and bought. Protcter & Gamble are promoting positive, female centric messages, but they are disingenuous when the actual product is not in the best interest of women. Such practices of marketplace feminism offer companies the opportunity to engage in feminism, to pry open the shut doors on social justice issues without dirtying their hands or risking economic gains, or worse economic losses.

The marketplace itself is perhaps the most duplicitous aspect within the scope of marketplace feminism. Procter & Gamble and Nike are companies run by the embodiment of white privilege in a capitalist society, quite literally, white, upper class men. Women have been notoriously excluded from executive positions in the marketing world, with men acting as the gatekeepers keeping women at bay. In doing so, the advertising world has created “an advertising system that positions real women at the centre of consumption as it simultaneously excludes them from both the textual and the production circuits”( Kaye, 2016)  Women dominate so many consumer markets and have tremendous buying power yet are withheld from the creative and business process of targeting the very demographic they belong to. The very demographic they have the most insight on. Companies can say they are feminist and female centric but when their commercial goods and business practices are harming and holding women back, how much are they really doing for feminism?

The issue of marketplace feminism calls out to the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism’. Marx discusses the idea of collective amnesia in his theories regarding commodity fetishism. He argues that the products origins aren’t remembered and it would harm the economics of the product if it were.”Commodity fetishism is similar to the conditions of so-called `consumer capitalism’, “where the pleasures of consumerism would be routinely diminished by an awareness of the productive origins of consumer goods” (Billing, 1999) Marx argues that this consumerist routine produces a ‘collective forgetfulness’ which in turn is “understood psychologically as a form of social repression.” (Billing, 1999)

This theory is seen in full force in marketplace feminism. Especially in the outlined cases of Nike and Always. These companies have been successful in disseminating a feminist messages because the ‘origins of products’ are withheld. It is once the origins of harmful chemicals and sweatshops are ousted that the spell is broken. The companies find themselves like suspects under investigation with the glaring lights of consumerism shining onto them. The benefit of consumer amnesia is that so long as it persists, the consumer focus is on the pre packaged feminism being sold to them and companies can keep their bottom line tight and investors happy. 

The greatest danger of marketplace feminism is that it creates the illusion that feminists have attained their goal of equality and the fight is no longer necessary. “Millenials have one of the biggest gender gaps in understanding of feminism and sexism among any demographic cohort: 63 percent of millennial women think sexism is real and demands institutional responses compared to only 38 percent of men.”(Horowitzv& Horowitz, 2019) These examples exemplify and identify the dangers in the commodification of both women and feminism in the marketplace. The illusion that the feminist cause has served its purpose and is superfluous thwarts the change that is still very much needed. 

Marketplace feminism creates the illusion of feminism as stronger than its reality, and reality does not change unless the illusion is shattered.


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