Empower This: Your 'Go-Girl' Boosterism Isn't Actually Feminism

Discussing Femvertising and Pinkwashing With Andi Zeisler, Co-Founder of Bitch Media

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Andi Zeisler
Andi Zeisler Credit: Bitch Media
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Call it pinkwashing. Call it femvertising. Andi Zeisler calls it marketplace feminism, and she isn't buying it. The author of "We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement" and co-founder of Bitch Media, defines marketplace feminism as the "mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity anyone can adopt."

To Ms. Zeisler, this squishier version lacks the political underpinnings of the multi-generational feminist movement; it is a shallow representation of its contextualized precursor, and one advertisers have grown to love -- and bank on.

"Empowertising and femvertising are both ways to talk about the business of selling to women without conflating examples of that business with actual feminism," she writes in "We Were Feminists Once." "But celebrating the ads themselves simply celebrates advertisers' skill at co-opting women's movements and selling them back to us -- and then rewards us for buying in."

In her book, published earlier this year, Ms. Zeisler goes far beyond blasting advertisers for reinforcing unattainable beauty standards. She takes brands -- including Verizon, Always and Dove (which she refers to as "empowervertising's top banana with its Campaign for Real Beauty") -- to task and questions the motives behind all the you-go-girl boosterism.

"Oh yeah, those beaming women on Dove's groundbreaking billboards were shilling a line of lotions and creams meant to smooth out cellulite," she reminds us in the book. "The ads were both a symptom and an effect of marketplace feminism. By addressing something feminism had long sought to remedy -- the narrow prescriptiveness of mainstream beauty standards -- Dove positioned itself as a progressive brand, even while performing its 'firming' bait-and-switch. And those who identified it as a blatant shill were accused of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is often praised for advancing the commercial and corporate conversation around women's issues is scrutinized:

"Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' is so successful in part because of how seamlessly it leads women into what appears to be feminism in every way -- except for the part where it asks those women to mold their individual selves to an existing, unequal corporate culture rather than collectively endeavoring to change that culture."

Ad Age, which is referenced more than once in Ms. Zeisler's book, asked her about sexism in the ad industry, what makes an ad like Nike's "Let Me Play" stand out, and if she thinks ad exec Madonna Badger's "Women not Objects" campaign can make a difference.

Ad Age: Do you believe there is entrenched sexism in the advertising industry?

Andi Zeisler: There's entrenched sexism in almost every industry, but in advertising it's particularly well documented. Media critics like Jean Kilbourne and Sut Jhally have been pointing it out for years, and numerous studies on how advertising images in particular affect girls and young women are really striking. Women and men in the industry regularly testify to the gendered power imbalances and institutionalized sexism at their agencies and beyond. Male creative directors have seen no problem in publicly objectifying women.

AA: You are skeptical of the motives advertisers have for connecting their brands to feminism and ideas of female empowerment. Why do you think consumers seem to embrace these surface-level connections -- or do they?

AZ: I do think consumers embrace ad-industry overtures to ideas of "strength" and "empowerment" and other feminist-adjacent ideas, and often that's less because they're great or super progressive and more because they're simply different than the bulk of what is and has been out there. It makes total sense! When an industry has always appealed to women's sense of shame or insecurity in pitching beauty products or menstrual products or whatever to them, an ad that simply doesn't do that is really notable. It often does feel like scrambling for crumbs, as with some of Dove's Real Beauty ads. "Oh, it's okay that I can be a size 8 instead of a size 2!" is not, or should not be, a world-shaking revelation. But it is counter to so many received messages that, by comparison, it seems positive.

As a media critic, I've seen a lot of passing the buck in terms of responsible images and language and portrayals. I've heard a lot of people protest that advertising just reflects the world around it. That may be true, but it also creates that world and perpetuates the beliefs and ideals of that world.

When brands do something progressive -- like Cheerios and their interracial-family commercial -- the brand and the advertising gets the credit for helping to transform culture by "normalizing" mixed-race families, and everyone can feel good about it. It's only when people point out ads that are lazily sexist or racist or otherwise offensive that the response from the industry is like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! We're just reflecting what's already out there!" You can't have it both ways. If you're going to pat your industry on the back for helping to foment change, you also have to be able to own up to leaning on stale or stereotyped images and ideas to make shitty ads.

AA: You've suggested that campaigns including Nike's 1995 "If you let me play" ad actually can have and have had a positive impact on women. Why? What's the difference between the ads and messages that play a legitimately positive role and ones that fall flat or seem phony?

AZ: That ad did have a positive effect on women, but so much of its power was about context, about the place and time and climate in which it was made. At the time, so many young women weren't even aware of Title IX. There were a lot of studies coming out about girls; these found that once girls become gender-socialized, usually around puberty, they lose their self-confidence, become more passive, and begin thinking about themselves only in relation to what other people want from them. This was also a time when feminism was becoming relevant again after more than a decade of backlash, much of which was fueled by media and popular culture, including advertising.

It's key to note, though, that the message of empowerment was hardly about all women. Nike's use of sweatshop laborers -- most of whom were women in Indonesia -- really pointed out the way "empowerment" was a term used to flatter Western, middle-class, and usually white consumers, and has nothing to do with the larger issue of gender equality. So when we talk about the impact that campaign and others like it had, it really is an impact on individual self-esteem that conveniently drove brand loyalty.

When you look at who creates ads, who a brand's parent company is, that often reveals a lot. Unilever, Dove's parent company, also owns Fair and Lovely, whose skin-lightening cream is sold throughout South Asia. So on one hand they're pushing Dove, which is ostensibly changing beauty standards and telling women to love their faces and bodies; and then they've got Fair and Lovely perpetuating the idea that dark skin is unattractive. I think the question is, are brands and agencies who make overtures to female empowerment with their products and their creative also going to be accountable on a systemic level? Because the former without the latter isn't really progress, it's pandering.

AA: Ad exec Madonna Badger introduced her new "Women not Objects" campaign at Cannes this year, even as corporations present at the festival solicited attractive women to attend their schmoozy networking parties. Do you think her efforts could actually have an impact?

AZ: So many of the issues with marketplace feminism's efficacy have to do with the difference between individual efforts and systemic change. And, not to sound like a broken record, but the campaign at Cannes really highlights the way that industries like advertising and Hollywood that have been extremely slow to change with regard to gender tend to highlight individual people and projects but otherwise maintain a structural status quo.

But Madonna Badger's very public pledge that her agency will no longer objectify women, and the metric they've implemented to make decisions about that, is definitely a challenge to the industry to step up. As people like [Jean] Kilbourne have noted over the years, advertising is risk-averse in many ways, so a key part of evolving representation in ads is changing the profile of the people making creative decisions at the top level in the industry itself. This isn't to say that having women as creative directors will magically banish objectification from ads. But the more women are in those positions, the more likely it is that their work will reflect different perspectives that don't hinge on the cliché that sex sells.

Just in the past five years, there's a lot more awareness of gender imbalances, and many more ways to draw attention to them on a mass scale, especially via social media. So the question of whether #WomenNotObjects can have an impact has already been answered, in some ways, by pushback that's occurred over the last several years with ads from Belvedere and Bud Light as well as others. Consumers have more of a voice than they've ever had, and brands and agencies can no longer expect to avoid accountability.