We live in the age of empowerment. Seemingly everywhere, women and girls are encouraged to view themselves in a more positive light. Slowly but surely, feminism is gaining social acceptance. Self-identifying feminists are encouraged and championed for battling gender roles, taking charge of their careers, and being independent. Feminism has taken over Hollywood and has given feminists everywhere a voice. Celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham are known for standing up for women and attempting creating a positive environment for feminism to thrive. On any given day, you can walk into a Forever21 and buy a shirt screen printed with FEMINIST on the chest. Whether you wear a cute tshirt or put a trendy enamel pin on your backpack — there is no shortage of ways to display the fact that you are a proud feminist.
Even major companies have caught on to this trend — we want feminism and empowerment. Take this empowering advertisment from Dove, titled “Beauty on your own terms,” for example.
Concluding with the phrase “My beauty my say,” Dove is sending an empowering message to women and girls by encouraging them not to be defined by society’s rigid norms for what a woman should look like. I can’t help but feel inspired after watching this video. Finally we have reached a point in society where it is celebrated to identify as a feminist, women are no longer being held to insane beauty standards, and there will be a new era for young girls to grow up in. This heightened visibility of feminism in pop culture, media, and everyday life appears to be portraying feminism in a positive light. Mission accomplished.
While this visibility in the media appears to be beneficial for women everywhere, there are still brands sending messages that demean women.
For example, the popular Men’s grooming brand Axe is known for its commercials. Take this popular ad from 2011, for example.
Axe’s central message in this commercial is that if a man uses this product, he will become irresistible to women. Furthermore, the representation of women in this commercial is limited to thin, predominantly white women, in bikinis. These women are not presented as complex, but simply as individuals chasing a man.
Okay, so maybe the fight isn’t over. Axe’s message does not promote the equality of women. In fact, this commercial is extremely demeaning to women. This commercial acts in direct opposition to Dove’s overall message. In Dove’s commercial, woman are presented as unique and complex individuals.
The biggest issue with these two competing messages is that both of these brands are owned by the same parent company — Unilever.
If one major company controls both of these messages, who benefits from this message of empowerment for women?
One theorist that can offer a solution to this predicament is Iris Marion Young. Following Young’s argument from “Five Faces of Oppression,” the concepts of cultural imperialism and exploitation are at work to maintain the oppression of women.
Cultural imperialism can be defined as using the mainstream culture and assuming it is the norm. In the context of feminism, this creates a paradoxical effect on women. While women are stereotyped, the experiences of women are also made invisible (Young, 101).
Mainstream “feminist champions”, Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham, become deeply problematic in this context. In the mainstream media, Taylor Swift is regarding as a feminist icon for gaining success as a solo female artist in a field dominated by men. Girls look up to Swift and idolize her, they want to pick up a guitar and make it ‘big’ just like Swift.
However, Taylor Swift has also been criticized for being an “opportunist-feminist,” meaning that she only appears to care about feminist issues when it can benefit her. Swift has been in the spotlight for almost a decade, yet has rarely used her platform to address women’s issues. The most prominent event of this “opportunist-feminism” came during the Women’s March. Swift has been widely criticized for showing her #girlpower pride with a single, ambiguous tweet during the march.
At face value, Swift is supporting women and is finally using her platform to address the importance of feminism. However, the ambiguity of this tweet is problematic. Swift hasn’t really said anything of note — she is simply proud to be a woman. There isn’t anything controversial about this statement. All of Swift followers, pro-feminism and anti-feminism, can get on board with this tweet. Swift has not upset anyone, yet is still “speaking for feminism”. However, Swift is the real winner here. She will still be regarded as a feminist icon, but she has not lost any of her fans since her statement regarding the women’s march is completely vague.
Lena Dunham is also highly regarded in mainstream media for being a feminist icon. According to the media, Dunham is a feminist icon because she created a television show that not only has a female lead, but also depicts women having sex. Dunham does not fit the Hollywood stereotype of being tall, thin, and conventionally attractive, either. For these reasons, Dunham is a champion feminist who is creating equality for women everywhere (or at least Hollywood).
Despite her accomplishments, Lena Dunham has also been criticized by the public for her brand of feminism. Dunham has been given the title “marketplace-feminist” by many, this is in regard to the launch of The Lenny Store. The Lenny Store sells feminist apparel such as buttons, stickers, incense holders, and nail wraps. According to The Lenny Store website, the aim of the shop in to support “grassroots feminist businesses,” however there is no information provided on the website to indicate how much money is given back back to these ‘feminist business’ or why a 2inch cotton patch costs 20 dollars in the first place.
Swift and Dunham have produced an artificial version of feminism and embody Young’s definition of cultural imperialism. Both of these women have defined feminism and what it means to be a feminist. Since they have created their versions of feminism in the public sphere, they have created a stereotypical brand of feminism. In turn, their version of feminism has been stereotyped as the only feminism. As argued by Young, while this stereotyped version of feminism exists, feminisms that do not look like either of these brands are made into the Other.
Feminists who speak out about issues other than Hollywood’s restrictions on women’s attractiveness, or how women are slut-shamed for enjoying sex, do not look the same as Swift and Dunham. Since these brands of feminism are different, the integrity of one is questioned. Again, Swift’s feminism is fairly easy to get on board with. Dunham’s is slightly more controversial. But, do either of these feminisms address the “real” feminists issues? Is slut-shaming the main issue oppressing women?
Swift and Dunham’s brand of feminism cannot answer these questions, or at least they have not tried.
Furthermore, it must be addressed that these versions of feminism are indeed brands — simplified versions of a movement and ideology. Perhaps this is why these deeper questions cannot be answered.
Another one of Young’s five faces of oppression is exploitation. Exploitation can be defined as using an individual’s power of labor to turn a profit without giving the individual fair compensation.
These exploitative means are regularly practiced by Forever21. Forever21 has been criticized for severely underpaying its workers in Los Angeles, with an hourly wage of four dollars.
When this is issue is combined with the fact that Forever21 prints several “feminist” shirts, the basis of these facts act in opposition of the other. It is difficult to support a movement based on equality while wearing a shirt made in a sweatshop.
This issue boils down to the fact that feminism is trendy. Forever21 does not print FEMINIST tshirts to raise awareness about the importance of the movement. Forever21 prints these shirts because the movement is popular and it will make them money.
This exploitation of both the workers and the meaning of the feminist movement are problematic. Again, by selling these tshirts, the standard for “what a feminist looks like” is shifted. In this context, a feminist looks like someone who wears cute shirts and buttons but does not necessarily do anything else to support the movement.
Most importantly, when cultural imperialism and exploitation work together, these two faces of oppression create a dangerous reality for feminism.
Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham’s versions of feminism, which exist through social media and decorative buttons, have created a stereotypical version of feminism. In these feminisms, individuals are encouraged to show their support of the movement by wearing shirts with FEMINIST stretched across the chest. Individuals who demonstrate their support of the movement in vary ways outside of the Swift and Dunham method, such as calling legislators about women’s issues, are “Othered” and not given attention in the public sphere.
In this problematic reality for feminism, men are still in power. To explain this reality, Sandra Bartky’s article “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” and the concept Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, and Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon are essential.
The panopticon is a prison building that is structured in such a manner that in the center of the building resides a guard, on the outside walls of the panopticon reside the prisoners. Due to the structure of the building, the guard can see all of the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. The purpose of this structure is to “induce in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Bartky, 27).
This concept can be applied to the current state of pop feminism as well. At the center of this panopticon is capitalism. In this metaphor, capitalism is exploiting people and the feminist movement for monetary gain. These profits continue to make the rich richer and demean the feminist movement. Despite capitalism being in the center of the panopticon, it is still largely invisible to the majority of people.
If companies are in power, then men are in power because there are far more CEOs that are men than women. Therefore, men are controlling things such as what shirts Forever21 sells. This is the center that is visible to the masses. If capitalism is the center of the panopticon, then men are the next line of defense.
Mainstream culture is also in the center of the panopticon. Capitalism, and in turn men, control mainstream media as well. This is what has created the “trendiness” of feminism.
With all of these forces controlling the center of the panopticon, the message of feminism is demeaned and made into an artificial movement with no deeper meaning than cute shirts and buttons.
By addressing these capitalist means of supporting feminism, the original question must be addressed: who benefits from this message of empowerment for women?