Popular culture has gotten a hold of the word "feminism" and refuses to let it go. In the last year or so, it seems like everyone -- from famous celebrities to multimillion-dollar corporations -- is suddenly down with the cause. Pantene puts out a video denouncing gender inequality in the workplace. Dove examines beauty norms to show women that they are more beautiful than they think. Beyonce dubs herself a "modern-day feminist." Lena Dunham promotes "feminist dialogue" through her show, "Girls." And let's not forget about Miley.
The face of feminism is certainly changing in the media and popular culture. But I cannot help but be a little more than skeptical of what is being defined as "feminist" in the mainstream. Does this visibility lend itself to advancing the theory and praxis behind eradicating sexism and its interlocking oppressions? Or is it just another instance of consumer culture reselling feminism as a diluted commodity in the guise of progress and empowerment?
Advertisers have appropriated feminism to sell products since the inception of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s. A notable example is Virginia Slims' 1968 ad campaign featuring a series of young women coyly smoking cigarettes next to the slogan "You've come a long way, baby." Not only is the slogan patronizing, but the ads also end up trivializing the feminist movement with the implication that by smoking Virginia Slims, you are supporting women's rights. But actually, the Altria Group, the tobacco corporation that owns the Virginia Slims brand, only cares about making money off marketing their cigarettes to women who become convinced that consumption is subversive.
This strain of consumer-driven feminism is known as "commodity feminism," or a strategy that takes feminist ideologies, depoliticizes them and rebrands them as capitalist ware. The consumer is persuaded into thinking that because feminist themes are becoming more visible in the mainstream, society must be progressing in the realms of sexism and women's issues. And it's much easier to buy a bottle of shampoo or download an album than it is to parse out the complex cultural mechanisms behind an advertisement or music video to understand the underlying motivations of the producers. Commodity feminism ultimately bolsters the "virtues" of consumerism while misdirecting feminism into an impasse.
Take Beyonce's recent self-titled album, for example. Regardless of whether you think Beyonce's feminism is propelling women of color forward or merely fastening their bodies down to the postfeminist rhetoric of sexualization as empowerment, you cannot deny that Beyonce's so-called "feminist manifesto" is making serious bank. And the frenzied media debate only bolsters sales. The album has sold a few million copies (and been downloaded who-knows-how-many times) worldwide in just two months, and Beyonce has solidified her position as one of the most prolific recording artists of all time. But last time I checked, black women as a whole are still relegated to a marginalized existence within U.S. social, political and economic institutions. So, as scholar and activist Su'ad Abdul Khabeer so perfectly tweeted, "['Beyonce'] begs the question: Is capitalism compatible with feminism?"
Commodity feminism seduces its way into our wallets, coaxing our cash and credit cards from between the folds to gamble in a titillating game of "Whose Feminism is it Anyway?" Feminism's rising prevalence in the mainstream veers toward an insidious marketing ploy that embeds false visions of progress in the minds of the optimistic and the hopeful. This feminism works within capitalist and patriarchal frameworks to sell us a significantly less potent version of an ideology that is meant to challenge these very structures. In order for actual systemic change to occur, feminism cannot be brought to you by capitalism. Because let's face it: Pantene isn't going to defend you when you file a sexual harassment complaint at your corporate job. If Dove really supported women's natural beauty, the brand would go bankrupt. Lena Dunham's feminist politics are highly questionable, but boy, does she know how to work the media attention. And as for Miley -- well, she's just being Miley.
Rashmee Kumar is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in women's and gender studies and South Asian studies. She is a former copy editor of The Daily Targum. Her column, "Media Matters," runs on alternate Mondays.