The trouble with 'femvertising'

Ballerina Misty Copeland in Under Armour's ad "I Will What I Want" campaign.

Ballerina Misty Copeland in Under Armour's ad "I Will What I Want" campaign.

You may remember a film that was circulated online in the last few months in which an assortment of children and adolescents demonstrated what it meant to do things 'like a girl'. In the three minute video, the participants are led through an empowering kind of thought shift in which they're encouraged to reject the kind of gendered social disrespect which makes doing something 'like a girl' such an insult. By the video's end, the girls are standing tall and proud, running, throwing and moving with confidence instead of the self inflicted ridicule we're taught to apply so that no one makes the mistake of thinking we actually like ourselves.

The video went viral very quickly, appearing on mainstream news sites, blogs and facebook pages all over the world. To date, it has been viewed over 50 million times on YouTube. Naturally, I blubbed while watching it because I am a sentimental fool who sheds tears at everything from yawning puppies to old people holding hands. I remember sharing it around, insisting that everyone I knew watched it immediately.

And all the while, I kept forgetting that it was an advertisement.

Elle UK magazine recently landed in hot water for using a company that produces 'feminist' T-shirts in "sweatshop condition".

Elle UK magazine recently landed in hot water for using a company that produces 'feminist' T-shirts in "sweatshop condition".

The video, while beautifully directed by Lauren Greenfield, was also produced for Always, a subsidiary of the Procter & Gamble Co. entity. In addition to overseeing the manufacture of tampons and menstrual pads, Procter & Gamble are also the parent company to brands like Gillette Venus, Covergirl, Max Factor and a swathe of companies which sell laundry detergents. What this basically translates to is this: it's okay to co-opt a message of empowerment to shill a brand which still exploits women's insecurities about their most intimate areas, and it's even better to do it under the umbrella of a broader capitalist structure which further relies on those insecurities to increase its profits.

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Lifestyle site She Knows recently referred to this shrewd practice as 'femvertising', part of an irritating naming trend which plays on the idea that cultural practices are inherently gendered and can therefore be feminised or masculinised to highlight their points of difference. Regardless, 52% of She Knows respondents agreed they had bought a product or service specifically because they liked the way the company had portrayed women in its advertising. As one respondent put it, "Why would I buy from a company that doesn't respect me?"

Why indeed. In fact, the survey results from She Knows revealed what advertisers have known to be true for a long time - women are the biggest emerging consumer market and globally control over two thirds of the total overall consumer spending. Put simply: if you build it, we will spend.

But a resurgence of feminist discussion and awareness has made women less tolerant of blatant attempts to undermine our own autonomy and more vocal about how we go about opposing this. Consider the hilarious responses to Bic's 'Pens For Her' product line, or the clever gender flipping of advertisements which rely on sexualising women's bodies for profit. Although we're still inundated with ad campaigns for household cleaners which place women as solely responsible for the unpaid domestic labour and pretend that cleaning toilets is better than mixing Valium with chardonnay for an afternoon treat, more agencies have cottoned on to the idea of empowerment - and they're turning it into a brand all on its own.

Capitalism's co-opting of feminist rhetoric is hardly new. The 90s were characterised by Girl Power ads, with supermodels who looked like Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer selling lipstick under the guise that it had helped elevate them into positions as CEOs and corporate leaders. The machinations of that particular kind of capitalist venture - which, like today, was certainly not produced by feminists but enthusiastically received by many of them - had little to do with real empowerment and everything to do with moving products.

It is part of a very small but visible brand of feminism which prioritises the individual successes, both big and small, of 'everyday women' - most of whom appear to be white, middle class and comfortably enmeshed in a the kind of nuclear family which makes reassures conservatives that all is right with the world.

Nowhere has the uneasy marriage between feminism and capitalism been made clearer recently than in the allegations that the UK Fawcett Foundation's 'This Is What A Feminist Looks Like' charity t-shirts (which are sold for a whopping $82AUD in Whistles) are being produced by women working in sweatshop conditions in a Mauritius factory for as little as $1.13 an hour. While I'm suspicious of how much of the outcry is driven by the gleeful desire to criticise feminism yet again (for the market on sweatshop labour has certainly not been cornered by women in comfortable shoes), it's also deeply distressing to see people representing a movement I believe in so deeply make such an egregious and despicable error. The feminist movement has, at best, a sketchy history when it comes to representing and welcoming equally the voices and experiences of women of colour - we need to be addressing that and making amends for it, not reinforcing a squalid approach to 'branding' a movement at the expense of women who are among the most exploited and oppressed.

Alas, 'femvertising' and the monetised rhetoric of empowerment continues unabated. Neoliberal feminists would view its development as 'progressive', in much the same way that they prioritise electing women to boards over dismantling the system entirely. But while I take the utilitarian view that as long as we have advertising it should be inclusive and respectful towards women, I also know that voracious capitalism cannot be divorced from patriarchy. Nor can it be absolved of its responsibility for causing a great deal of oppression in the world - not just of women, but also children, male labourers, economies and impoverished communities.

Well may we be empowered by advertisements telling us women can do and be anything. But capitalism will always require a proportion of people to bear the load - and on the backs of which women will we choose to stand just so we can be that much closer in our reach for the stars?