We are constantly told that our generation is the most engaged in feminist issues ever. The F-Word, reinvented for the 21st century, is constantly on the lips of our pop stars, our actors make speeches to the UN on gender equality.
Feminism is hot. And this hasn’t escaped the notice of corporations who, in an overcrowded, highly competitive market, must constantly reinvent and differentiate themselves. If feminism is hot, then, by extension, feminism sells, a mantra which drove Chanel’s ‘protest’ at Paris Fashion Week. Karl Lagerfeld crafted a gilded, middle-class, ‘girl-power’ feminism. The models (overwhelmingly white, cis, all able-bodied, all of whom conformed to socially acceptable beauty standards) carried quilted Chanel megaphones and placards with vague, virtually meaningless slogans such as ‘Free Freedom’ and ‘Ladies First’.
As many were quick to point out on social media, there is something particularly offensive about the fashion industry, which still for the most part perpetuates an impossible standard of beauty, and shames women who do not conform to such standards, appropriating the language of gender equality and liberation. While it’s fair to say that #notallfashionlabels inscribe misogynist values, Lagerfeld himself has a pretty appalling track record, defending the lack of diversity on his catwalks by claiming that “No one wants to see curvy women.” He also provides more helpful advice for the offensively curvy: ‘The body has to be impeccable. If it’s not, buy small sizes and eat less food.’ A little too long for a placard, perhaps.
This mindless appropriation of womens’ liberation is disappointing, but also disappointingly predictable. Brands co opt and commodify whatever cultural entity is hip. Punk is no longer merely an all-encompassing philosophy which threatened the fabric of society, but a a style, an attitude which can be neatly packaged to sell jeans, its counter-cultural danger washed away by countless cosmetics adverts.
And this is the crux of the problem. Despite what Lagerfeld wants his audience to think, feminism is not something you can buy. Nor is it a vague concern about ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’, but an intersectional philosophy which struggles relentlessly and angrily for justice for all genders. Chanel and other brands manipulate the consumer to equate buying a handbag or a mascara with an empowering feeling of being part of the solution, of supporting the cause.
Although Chanel’s protest is the most blatant attempt at commodifying feminism I’ve personally ever seen it’s important to locate the brand’s effort in the context of a broader problem. Although in 2014 girl-power advertising is highly visible, its a far older branding strategy, named by Robert Goldman, Deborah Heath & Sharon L Smith as ‘Commodity Feminism’.
The essay, published in 1991, exposes in detail the process by which an advert tells us that a commodity will empower us. The story which it tells, and the way in which the consumer engages with it, is a ‘commodity narrative’. These narratives always address desire-most often about the desire for self-identity, whether it is the desire to be a good mom or the desire for flawless golden hair or the desire for respect. Once a certain desire is identified, in this case the desire to participation in women’s’ emancipation, then a brand must strive to create a series of associations, a ‘formal, binary equivalence with a product image, [so that the consumer may] associate the desire in terms of its object substitute.’
Some argued in the case of Chanel, and in other similar cases like Pantene or Dove adverts, that feminist discourse in marketing is at least a welcome case of diversifying, and challenging the male gaze which has historically defined womens’ place in popular media. But at what cost? Feminist consumerism trivializes and derails feminism in a number of ways. It replaces meaningful engagement and self-education with instant gratification. It obscures the patriarchal roots and causes of structural oppression. To use Goldman, Smith and Heath’s term, what is left of feminism when it has come out the other end of the consumer-capitalist machine is an ‘aesthetically depoliticized feminism’.
This devalued feminism becomes ‘a set of markers-confidence and attitude-which bear the meanings of individual freedom and independence associated with feminism.’ We see this in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, or Pantene’s #shinestrong ad, a more subtle co opting of this diluted commercial feminism.
An article in Marketing Magazine, jubilantly titled ‘Rebranding Feminism: How Brands Should Change to Ride The Fourth Wave predicts a bright future for consumer feminism, which might soon be able to give us our daily dose of equality with our breakfast cereal. “The real breakthrough will happen when the marketing directors and CMOs are millennials (they’re probably at the mid-levels at the moment). There will be that tipping point, not too far in the future, and it will then inevitably shift,” says Bentley.
The author sings the praises of Nike, which has nailed the brand-image of the strong, poweful, athletic woman, a brand which ‘still feels fresh and powerful to a millennial fourth-wave feminist consumer’ (a spirit which presumably feels very powerful to the millennial women workers in its sweatshops in a very different way).
The article is a call to arms, an invitation for all brands to cash in on the ideological gold-rush of pop feminism. ‘So how many more waves of feminism will we need before advertising and marketing catch up?’
Chanel has posed an initial response to its provocative final question. And, as other brands will be sure to follow, we must be sceptical and critical in our readings of popular media, aware of the traps of confusing purchasing power with our power as women to disrupt, protest and organize.