“It’s all about empowering women. We wanted to showcase those women in the tech and digital industries all over the world who normally don’t get the recognition they need and deserve.”
My ears pricked up. So many media organisations write about the abstract need for representation in male-dominated industries, but rarely follow through with dedicated, long-term support of such figures. Intrigued, I settled in to watch the trailer for the upcoming documentary being previewed to my journalism class.
A huge abandoned warehouse filled the screen. Dark, imposing, and sinister, the camera pulls back from the towering windows and reveals a slim blonde woman with a pixie cut. Dressed in a skimpy tank top and jeans, despite the apparent wind blowing all around her, she wanders through the buildings, glancing around her in trepidation as the camera follows her from above.
Tech leaders? I thought to myself. Where does this come in?
After a couple of minutes of abstract graphics dancing across the screen and fast-paced music, the thin white woman’s antics finally give way to the actual entrepreneurs themselves. She is merely an actress appearing to give an acceptable face to this documentary. The true, predominantly Asian, often queer, identities of the women actually featured in the documentary clearly were not worthy of acting as representatives of their own businesses. Rather, their stories were packaged up nicely with a pretty face of feminism and then sold to a willing faux-liberal public.
The Branding of Feminism
To an extent, we need an element of commodification of feminism. It’s why I don’t bypass discussions of whether we need a new word for the feminist movement. It’s why consideration should absolutely be given to the way actions and issues are phrased, not just the motivations behind them. Any movement needs branding to convey its message, and feminism is no different. We can go back as early as the suffragette movement in early 20th Century UK and see the colours of purple, white, and green unifying the women across the country. Not only does clear branding create a sense of identity among the participants themselves, but also makes them stand out clearly to others. Exposing groups in this way, through thoughtful branding from the group itself, makes it harder for opposition to sweep them aside.
Yet with any form of branding, comes the valuation. With a movement as widespread and varied as feminism, there are countless subsections. If we do not take those nuances into account, TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) can be lumped in with all queer feminists. A non-intersectional white feminist refusing to accommodate the experiences of people of colour can be taken to stand for all white feminists. There are varying levels of privilege within feminism, and we must all take this into consideration when constructing our ideas. With one broad definition of feminism, often constructed by men, it can then be turned into a weapon that only makes us weaker.
Making Money, Not Movements
Advertising agencies and media corporations’ main goal is to know their audience and feed it what it wants. Organisations that target younger or millennial audiences, especially in the West, know that a liberal focus can easily take off, especially in online media. Take a look at Teen Vogue as just one example. Their social commentary and damning condemnations of celebrities in the perceived political or social wrong has won them huge amounts of loyalty from young people around the world.
With this liberal edge in mind, it is then hardly surprising that feminism has been swallowed up into a media machine. Always’ #LikeAGirl and Gilette’s #TheBestMenCanBe are prime examples of brands taking on feminism messages that, although they are undoubtedly worthwhile, are ultimately used to increase brand loyalty and then sell their products. If these marketing campaigns failed to do so, they would be dropped, regardless of the potential social worth of their messages.
And another part of the problem? Our media does not have an intersectional face. In the top 40 advertising brands in the UK, less than 20% of characters were from any minority group. This includes ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, or LGBTQ+ people. The feminism we are sold in ads is not the intersectional feminism we need to be pushing for.
Likewise, the white-skinned, blonde-haired, thin-bodied woman scampering through a treacherous tech world she doesn’t fully understand, with just the right amount of tattoos and piercings to make her seem radical, is not an accurate representation of the actually powerful women the documentary about tech leaders was supposedly seeking to showcase. In the same way, the appropriate face of feminism that we see on talk shows, in advertising, in comedy, in podcasts, in film, is allowing merely the smallest slice of feminism to be seen.
Not only does this eradicate the stories of the women that deserve to be seen, it also leads to profit off the backs of, in this case, women from ethnic minorities. A European documentary will reap the revenue of Asian stories, packaged with a white-washed frontwoman. It is a hypocritical attempt for the audience and corporations alike to be able to pat themselves on the back for their social progress. We need to do better.
Have we sold feminism?
It’s unrealistic to expect brands not to hop on social bandwagons, nor is that even something that would be positive in itself. We need representation of movements. But what cannot happen is to allow the product we sell to be sub-par. Feminism for the masses is fine, but the masses do not get to dictate what the product is. No one can be truly free until we all are; that’s why the face of feminism that we all see and present to the world needs to represent us all to the best of our ability.
Remember this when you create a product, contribute to discussions, even send a tweet. We are all as feminists part of the message. We are all undoubtedly advertising the movement in our own ways. Be sure that what you are selling is the product that the world needs.