Feminism that sells

2017-04-06 15:22

An increasing number of celebrities are expressing a commitment to feminism, fashion companies have made norm-breaking a sport, and so-called femvertising – or attempts to empower women through advertisements – is becoming an increasingly popular method to reach the female market. Feminism has become an attractively wrapped package that is well suited for mass distribution. But what problems does this lead to? Gender in Sweden talked to consumption researcher Magdalena Petersson McIntyre.

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– The use of feminism in advertising and conveying gender in non-traditional ways has really become a powerful trend in recent years, says Magdalena Petersson McIntyre, Associate professor in ethnology at the University of Gothenburg’s Centre for Consumer Science.

Her research has focused on for example how the representation of gender in the design of product packaging has changed over time, and right now she is involved in a project titled Market Feminism – Commercialisation of Genus and Gender Equality. In this project, she interviews gender and gender equality consultants to find out how the understandings of gender and gender equality change when the market gets to decide.

– I think we are seeing this development because of the vast feminist progress that society has experienced. The advertising industry tried to pick up more feminist portrayals of women in the past as well, cigarette advertising is one example, but it is definitely more common today. The advertising industry is looking for new stuff that appeals to and engages women and has found that feminism can do the trick.

Magdalena Petersson McIntyre. Photo by: Anneli Tillberg

She refers to Åhléns, the Swedish chain of department stores, that last year ran a campaign roughly translated as ‘violate the clothing power structure,’ .The campaign clearly alluded the concept of gender power structures as models from different ages, genders, and ethnicities dressed in non-traditional outfits. On the campaign website, a caption next to the picture of a man dressed in a tight pink sweater and a salmon-coloured scarf reads, ‘Our freedom to dress any way we want has long been restricted by gender norms. A man who wears feminine clothes takes off his power suit and a woman who wears masculine clothes puts it on. Isn’t it time to break the clothing power structure?

– There’s an opportunity to reach a lot of people since feminism has become more normalised. Businesses have realised that a large number of people in society are critical of the fashion industry and the gender norms in it. This makes them want to be that special company that represents something positively unconventional and that is able to reach people who also identify themselves that way, she says.

Femvertising increasingly common

Femvertising – an advertising practice which aims to empower women by promoting a positive view of them – has undoubtedly become a buzz word for the new millennium. Since 2015, there are even Femvertising Awards given out by the lifestyle website SheKnows as a way ‘to honour brands that are challenging gender norms by building stereotype-busting, pro-female messages and images into ads that target women.’

Self-realisation through consumption goods is the central idea of the advertising, says Magdalena Petersson McIntyre.

– This is clearly done today via feminism. The message of the advertisements is, “We can use consumption goods to achieve gender equality”.

Feminism can be ‘smuggled’ in

She believes that feminism in advertising messages can have positive effects.

– It shows that gender is constantly changing, and that’s reflected in the market. Gender is not something essential.

She continues:

– Moreover, feminism can be “smuggled into” businesses that otherwise wouldn’t be very interested in gender issues. And feminist messages can be disseminated in new ways to target groups that may not have thought much about such issues in the past, she says.

The subversionary risks disappearing

However, Magdalena Petersson McIntyre points out that this type of feminism is not always sustainable.

– Some types of feminism work in the marketplace and some don’t. What works is often an individual-based type of feminism, an attractive feminism that adheres to the logic of consumption. There is a risk in this that the whole thing becomes depoliticised. The subversionary and the critical approach to power that exist in feminism risk disappearing. Feminisms that could potentially lead to tangible change and total overthrowing of norms are not interesting unless they are also sellable.

She talks about All Aboard, a project supported by Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova, the aim of which was to create a boat that would appeal to women, since they were not considered to be interested in buying conventional boats.

– The people in the project figured out that the on-board toilets were a problem. Whereas men could easily do their business by just standing up and aiming at the water, women could not. So, they started building a boat in which the toilet would not be such a problem as the boat is tossed around in the waves. Instead, they could have revolutionised what women do at sea when nature calls. They could have found a solution that enables women to also stand up and aim at the water. However, you can’t sell that. When the market decides, we won’t see any radical changes that will totally redefine the norms.

Polished surface

The feminism expressed by businesses can also be a mere polished surface that hides a more problematic view of women underneath. Clothing retailer company H&M’s release of its much celebrated advertising campaign for its autumn collection 2016, where models were displayed under the motto ‘ladylike’ and to the song She’s a Lady, is a commonly mentioned example of this. The campaign featured different types of women, including a transwoman and other women of various ethnicities, body shapes and ages.

Earlier in the same year, Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet revealed that many of theworkers, mostly female, who sew clothes for H&M in Cambodia had been subject to serious violations, including threats, harassment, firing due to pregnancy or union membership, very low wages, and overall inhumane conditions.

– This is typical of the fashion industry. The fashion becomes a means of empowerment for white Western women and a way to work on their identity projects and self-realisation through consumption. At the same time, a large number of other women outside the Western world are forced to face outright terrible work conditions due to the production of those consumption items, says Magdalena Petersson McIntyre.

Feminist celebrities

Celebrities, too, are eager to present themselves as feminists, something that may help strengthen their brands. Beyoncé, Madonna and Harry Potter actress Emma Watson are just some of the well-known feminists who make public statements about gender equality.

– It is of course very engaging and reaches out to many girls. The feminism is disseminated in a new way. But, just like in advertising, this is often a form of feminism that is packed in an attractive cover and that reinforces an already existing beauty culture.

At the end of our conversation, Magdalena Petersson McIntyre points out that the view of politics and the marketplace, as two separate things, is a false dichotomy.

– Feminism has always taken advantage of the market to reach out with its message and sell feminist books, magazines and other products. It is also important to involve feminism in the commercial market, since there is so much that happens there, she says.

Author Anneli Tillberg, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Anneli Tillberg and Sanna Schiller
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