From pussy hats to Pantene shampoo, it feels like companies and advertisers have become obsessed with distorting feminism in order to sell products.
While campaigns designed by brands like Dove Soap and Lucky Strike Cigarettes have tried to tangle their merchandise to the language of women's empowerment, feminism has, of course, never been about enriching corporations: A radical cry for equal rights that's remained incomplete since 1848's Seneca Falls Convention, the movement has often been co-opted by capitalism's agenda.
And, as you might have noticed, the work of feminism has rarely felt more unfinished, or more vital, than it does today. Below, check out Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kresigner's conversation with celebrated author and Bitch Media co-founder, Andi Zeisler, to hear her take on the dangers of commercializing feminism.
Zeisler has spent her career exploring the consequences of absorbing this pertinent social justice issue into pop and consumer culture (check out her book, We Were Feminists, to learn even more about the interaction between ideology and capitalism). "Celebrity feminism is tricky," she says. "It's a really valuable way in, especially for people who might not have been exposed to feminism through their schools, or their friendships or their parents." But she warns that there are major drawbacks to pulling feminism out of the political arena and into capitalist economies. "It's difficult because equal rights aren't a brand — they're not a static movement. Rather, feminism is a way of thinking about and advocating for ethics, and most political goals are not necessarily aligned with the ones celebrities are excited about."
Zeisler argues that by using feminism language to sell us deodorant or conditioner or underwear, brands lull women into a false sense of complacency. She worries about the movement's future if its captivating rhetoric, and all the money-making opportunities that follow, were to suddenly fall out of fashion.
"There's a way in which products marketed to women are sold with this language of empowerment — as if it's something that you can possess, rather than a very relevant, and very unfinished, social and political movement," Zeisler notes. "Activist feminism understands that there is so much more work to do, whereas marketplace feminism says 'we just need to make some tweaks and nips and tucks to mainstream culture.' So, there's danger there for sure."
Pop culture's borrowing marketing ideas from feminism becomes even more fraught when one considers who it's excluding. After all, how could advertising's obsession with punchy tag-lines encompass all of intersectionalism's layered anxieties? Often, this approach to social justice deeply invested in the overlooked stories of black, brown, and queer women. "Celebrities tend to gravitate towards the easiest and the most accepted issues of feminism. Equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, and body image have gotten the most air time within feminism because they're the ones most relevant to middle-class, white, educated women," Zeisler reminds us. "But my question is what can celebrities do about the ways in which feminism still has so much work to do on a policy level in ways that aren't sexy, that don't look good on a magazine cover. What about those issues and what can celebrities really do for them?"
Feeling a little weird about that new The Future Is Female tee shirt? Listen to the Strong Opinions Loosely Held episode above for more tips on navigating the consumer-oriented world.