How Is Feminism Branded?- by Ana Cecilia Alvarez
Leave it to Jezebel co-founder Anna Holmes to edit what is sure to be the coffee table bible for middle-class feminists everywhere. The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things features a word-and-picture compilation of all things “relevant” to the “ladies.” Who these ladies are remains unclear, but so far we do know zits and ingrown hairs are in there alongside women’s history greats like bell hooks and Althea Gibson. A better question might be, why make an encyclopedia? Before the Internet offered up search engines, encyclopedias provided Oxford-approved knowledge. These blocks of prescribed truth indexed history into discrete categories of easily digestible snippets of truth. Holmes’s lady-feminist encyclopedia catalogs the indiscernible, the complex, into an alphabetized logic that is then shrink-wrapped and shipped from Amazon.
On the surface, there is nothing particularly novel about a digital platform banking on its readership by branding its content and selling it as a nice novelty item. Jezebel can be a little bit funny and a little bit thought-provoking, at times gossipy or trivial. At most, the book will be some “funny and thought-provoking” holiday gift and end up in the nightstands of young women as some lofty marker of their cultural awareness and political progressiveness for all their friends to see.
Yet it is worth considering—what happens when a contested political stance gets a marketing spin? How is feminism branded?
Holmes’s recent interview with Glamour editor and friend Mikki Halpin offers a cringe-worthy example of how flat feminism falls when it’s spinned into a selling bit. The title of the interview—“The New Do: Calling Yourself a Feminist”—itself raises some eyebrows and many red flags. Is “feminism” a style you can “do?” Since when is it new? Reading the interview, you get the feeling that they are talking about the latest fitness craze. At one point Halpin even refers to the rise in feminist discourse as “the Lena Dunham effect.” While Holmes attempts to rein the conversation back to “lady things” like inequality and inequity, Halpin’s questions warn of this “new” feminism defined by celebrity quips and fit for ladymag slugs.
Glamour isn’t the only glossy invested in polishing feminism’s brand. For their November issue, Elle UK editors took it upon themselves to bring in the big ad guns and really sell feminism. They paired three self-defined feminist media outlets and ad agencies with the aim of “making feminism relevant to young women.” The resulting ads featured bold upper case print, hot pink, and info graphics. Much like the product branding that co-opted socially conscious talking points like “veganism” and “energy efficiency” into marketing schemes, the ads present a form of feminism that is approachable and easy-to-swallow, an elevator pitch for a movement. The ads feel out of touch with pressing feminist issues. They sell a feminism that's far removed from trans* violence or the lack of governmental support for low-income women and single mothers. The fact that Elle UK underlined the relevance of feminist issues through ad space exemplifies how poorly feminism translates into good marketing.
Feminism is not, and has never been, an easy sell. Yet, in the words of an Elle UK editor, they wanted to “make all those complications go away and make [feminism] something we want to embrace.” One of those complications include the painfully ironic fact that publications like Elle UK and Glamour produce content which is at odds with the growing feminist consciousness that their ads attempt to appeal to. Ladymags celebrate excessive luxury materialism, adopt the language of body-shaming, and appeal to an upper-class white cisfemale consciousness. Their attempt to manicure feminism into something embraceable sidesteps the fact that much feminist critical discourse would not be quick to embrace them. Even Jezebel finds a comfortable avenue of embraced self-promotion within the pages of the magazines, which Holmes herself confessed, it was founded to react against. We are left to wonder if their newfound calling as beacons of feminist propaganda comes from an earnest appeal towards issues of gender inequity, or a fear that the more ugly side of feminist criticism could lower their sales numbers.
Rebranding hasn't been the only form of recent feminist co-option. Trendy feminist merchandise sells. American Apparel recently collaborated with Petra Collins, a photographer and curator best known for founding The Ardorous, an online all-girl “art collective.” The artists and works featured in The Ardorous, with Collins at its helm, embody the feminism that permeates Tumblr feeds. Their works play with notions of femininity and female sexuality that is often subversive, cheeky, and self-aware. It is also, for better or for worse, decidedly hip.
VICE, the media corporate conglomerate of all things “alternative,” has taken many of these artists under its editorial wing, frequently publishing works featured on The Ardorous. Like ladymags that feature ads of airbrushed models and commission ads for feminism, VICE’s support of feminist-minded art is incongruously coupled with the media group’s history of an all boys-club editorial board guilty of incredible insensitivity towards feminist issues. One needs to just look into the recent debacle caused by VICE’s women-only Fiction Issue, which fashioned deceased female writers by mode of suicide, to suspect their embrace of feminist-minded art. Is the inclusion of artists working within a feminist framework and an Issue dedicated to female writers an earnest attempt at granting them larger exposure? Or rather, is the online controversy stirred by naked girls and suicidal women an easy way to get a lot of page hits? And is it any different if VICE gets the media traffic for originally publishing the images, than if Jezebel gets the same ad revenue for also posting the pictures in their critical response?
The same question applies to Collin’s “collaboration” with American Apparel, which really reads more like a strategic sponsorship. Collins, who photographs and models for the fashion retailer, recently curated Gynolandscape, a thinly veiled branding campaign that exhibited art from The Ardorous. Collin’s neon sculpture of a woman simultaneously masturbating and menstruating stood as the exhibition’s centerpiece. Illustrator Alice Lancaster’s drawing of the sculpture ended up merchandised into an American Apparel white tee, on sale at the show’s opening.
It’s unfortunately not surprising that this “taboo” image of a woman’s body amidst period and pleasure would result in a media flare-up. Even if, as Time magazine’s article on Collins notes, the shirt’s possible message aligns with other memes meant to promote period pride among young women, the bickering around the shirt rests much more on American Apparel’s audacity and have-they-gone-too-far-ness. Which only strengthens the brand’s already-advertised aura of provocation and near-offensive edginess. American Apparel did not choose to merchandise Collins and Lancaster’s work out of a desire to make this imagery more broadly accepted, but to bank on its awe and shock.
Collins felt the less profitable consequences of such awe and shock soon after. Days after the t-shirt was released, Collins posted one of her photographs, depicting her unshaven bikini line, on her Instagram, only to have her account deleted afterwards. Collins cried censorship and passionately denounced the double standards implicit within images of men’s and women’s bodies circulating the Internet. A hairy bikini line is, by most standards, less “offensive” then a menstruating-masturbating-full-frontal-vagina. It goes to show that while the American Apparel t-shirt virally circulated the Internet, a less “off-putting” image was almost instantly censored when put forth by the artist herself. Subversive images of female sex positivity can pass—when they sell. American Apparel’s branding strategy, their ads rampant with hyper-sexualized young women, proves they know how to profit from women’s bodies.
It’s also worth pointing out that American Apparel similarly spins their American workforce as a Made-In-the USA branding opportunity appealing to the retailer’s socially conscious labor policies. Yet this only comes after the company almost went bankrupt due to lawsuits including accusations of sexual harassment, wage-and-hour violations, and degrading conditions for those hot, young models. In an attempt to regain their tarnished rep, American Apparel chose to sell an image of a menstruating vagina instead of a bare big ass, but basically to the same effect. With the pleased-period-pussy selling away thanks to the controversial publicity, any critical or otherwise feminist impulse within Collin’s work gets chalked up to good marketing.
Some of this is old news: marketing, branding, and advertisements have always been essential components of a company’s financial success. Yet the impulse to use amorphous social consciousnesses which remain, in their most radical expressions, largely antagonistic —feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism—as tools for corporate revenue is more and more transparent within marketing campaigns.
An overall rise in liberal consciousness could be partly responsible for this branding strategy. More directly, the now almost automatic self-branding employed universally in social media sites also bares resemblance. Political memes and digital editorial content that harks on the controversial (this article notably included) gain exposure through social media sharing. Accordingly, individuals create an Internet persona off of what they share, like, and retweet. So when you post a Jezebel article on Miley Cyrus on your Facebook wall, you present a profile that supports “feminist media” and is “in-the-know.” Same thing if you buy The Book of Jezebel and place it on your coffee table for your friends to see when they come over. These micro-iterations of personal identity building via social media platforms mirror any corporation’s branding methods that co-opt social or political engagement for the sake of image.
If many people complicitly participate in political-engagement-for-good-branding in some way on a daily basis, it is easy to lay back and bask in what Halpin from the Jezebel/Glamour interview sets up as her premise. Is it so awful, one could ask, that media entities and fashion retailers are becoming more socially conscious? Are their new branding efforts perhaps a positive and appraisable reaction to the broader rise of critical discourse in their consumer base due to the Internet and social media sharing?
For me a more personally conflicting question arises—isn’t it kind of cool that, despite the insidious and irritating corporate co-option, feminism is being discussed and written about more? In my own way, I am heavily invested in what Elle UK has now deemed the “rebranding of feminism.” As a student, I joined a group of women that similarly identified a stigma and overall misunderstanding of feminism as a term, a movement, and a set of histories. Yet we all felt a stake in “reclaiming”—a term that is implicitly linked to rebranding—feminism. We founded a publication, Bluestockings Magazine, to create a space specifically dedicated to employing and complicating the term. We hoped in part to encourage our readers and peers to engage with feminism, to critically challenge its histories, but to also take pride in “calling yourself a feminist.”
Our impulse wasn't isolated. In the introduction to her interview with Holmes, Halpin notes a Ms. Magazine study that found the number of women who identify as feminists increased by 12 percentage points from 2006 to 2012. Questions of gender inequity are gaining more traction. The media’s abominable representation of women, compounded with the government’s growing threat to second-wave victories, have added a sense of urgency to gender equality issues. Feminist writers and digital publications have stepped in to call bullshit on issues of gender, race, class and other disparities. Discussions of rape culture, slut-shaming, trans violence, and racial appropriation are now accepted and even common media topics, something unthinkable less than a decade ago. Even within the feminist community, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen proved that commentary on the silencing of women of color and feminism’s historically troubled relations to race can trend on Twitter. With or without Elle UK, feminists are seen less and less as man-hating, hairy, bra-burners. They are now bloggers of color, chicks with armpit hair, and Jezebel readers.
That said, feminism does not need a makeover. The changing attitudes towards feminist discourse should not adopt a feminism that’s less ugly, more palatable, an easier sell. For me, the drive to write about feminism, to remove the stigma that had largely pronounced it dead, was not to disavow the activists of the second wave who begot that ugly feminist stereotype and in their own ways revolutionized gender relations in the process. And it wasn't so that companies and media conglomerates could superficially swipe feminism’s “trendiness” sway on top of their otherwise insensitive practices.
If anything, a feminism that is easily definable, that can be categorized in an encyclopedia or fit on a t-shirt, is often the most incomplete, the most unattractive. It’s the kind of feminism that is talked in terms of “good/bad” and “right/wrong.” The Elle UK editors, Halpin, Holmes, and Collins aren’t “bad feminists” for the same reasons that feminism can’t be translated to a marketing campaign. “Feminism” doesn't come with rigid set of guidelines. You can’t consume “feminism.” You can’t tag it on the cover of a book or make it your new do. Feminism, as a critical point of departure, as a set of sympathies, as a rally cry, contains a messy spectrum of definitions that defy simplification. If there is in fact a recent rise in feminist consciousness, a “new trend,” (another wave) it must be approached with intersectional and anti-oppression frameworks in mind. And it cannot be preached or branded by one exclusive subset of women. In her essay “Conditions for Work,” queer poet and second-wave feminist activist Adrienne Rich warned:
“If we conceive feminism as more than a frivolous label, if we conceive of it as an ethics and a methodology, a more complex way of thinking about, and thus more responsibly acting upon, the conditions of human life, we need a self-knowledge which can only develop through a steady, passionate attention to all female experience.”
A feminist ethics should compel critical engagement and compassion. At most, all that a feminist brand induces is an impulse to buy. But the feminism worth fighting for won’t be listed in an encyclopedia of lady “things”—it evades such simplicity.