Encourage improvement of media’s approach to feminism
In light of International Women’s Day on March 8, it is important to reflect on how the portrayal of women in mainstream media has dramatically changed over time. For example, detergent commercials of the 1950s — which usually showed women in domestic settings like kitchens and laundry rooms — have now been replaced by those that feature men as homemakers. One can argue that the mainstream media, particularly with its marketing strategies, has embraced the feminist movement by daring to depict women being successful in fields usually dominated by men, such as business or sports. However, as much as they should be praised for beginning to teach young girls that their sex should not define their path, they should also be critiqued. The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote a scathing indictment of how mainstream media and major corporations engage with the feminist movement. In her Feb. 8 piece titled “The Case Against Contemporary Feminism,” Tolentino argues that “feminism has become a self-serving brand popularized by CEOs and beauty companies.” What Tolentino means is that in their advocacy for the equality of the sexes, the mainstream media is not sincere. As Richard T. Craig’s “African Americans and Mass Media: A Case for Diversity in Media Ownership” points out, their end may not necessarily be the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. Their end may be profit.
This argument is more conceivable in the context of commercials for beauty products, an idea which Time’s Jessica Roy touches on in a Dec. 10, 2013 article. Roy argues that beauty companies like Dove and Pantene use feminism as a marketing tool to make their products stand out. Her claim is not at all unfounded, considering that a “Labels Against Women” Pantene campaign started in the Philippines achieved considerable commercial success, with 8.6 million views as of 2013 and an advertising slot on ABC, according to a Dec. 20, 2013 Washington Post article. The advertisement had a feminist message in that it explored gender-based stereotyping, giving several examples of qualities or traits that would be celebrated in men but shunned in women. In a Jan. 12, 2015 article for the Telegraph, Lauren Davidson explains why big corporations like Dove and Pantene are using feminism in their commercials. She says that women are increasingly becoming the decision makers when it comes to household spending. A July 22, 2016 Bloomberg report revealed that women make up 85 percent of all U.S. consumer purchases, according to a Dec. 23, 2013 article in the Telegraph. Hence, it is understandable that feminism is being used to make otherwise generic products stand out. With famous brands using feminism to increase their sales, popular culture has become saturated with it. Still, one may ask what the problem with this dynamic is. Isn’t this actually the goal that feminists want to achieve? Isn’t it wonderful that feminism is now trendy, that it’s being widely disseminated in commercials like the Dove Real Beauty Campaign or in music videos?
In a March 3, 2016 interview with the Huffington Post, author and co-founder of Bitch Media, Andi Zeisler, illuminates how mainstream media is a capitalist industry. “Corporations are not in the social justice business — they’re in the money business, and ultimately capitalism is not something that is compatible with social movements,” Zeisler said. Mass appeal is an idea that is very important to commercial brands. It is how they fashion their product in such a way that makes it appealing to a broad audience. The product has to be one that crosses a number of demographic and psychographic boundaries. This means that when a brand uses feminism to make itself unique, it has to deal with feminism in very broad and simple terms, without, as Zeisler says, “any complexity or nuance.” In the end, the feminist movement and mainstream culture are engaging with one another at the expense of the former. By dealing with feminism without complexity or nuance, mainstream media is hindering the feminist movement; it is making it vacuous and ineffectual. Meghan Trainor’s single “NO,” for instance, was hailed as being feminist by critics like Fuse TV’s Eimele Linder, but not everyone agreed. Though the song discusses the importance of consent, its lyrics reduce the matter to just how women should not allow men to talk to them at parties and come dangerously close to victim blaming. Trainor’s lyrics evade the more critical issue tied to consent: men not asking women, sober or inebriated, for permission to have sex.
By not discussing such a contentious issue, Trainor’s “feminism” is undermined. There are indeed mainstream pop songs that have successfully explored the complexities and nuances of contemporary feminism. A great example is Beyonce’s “Formation,” which grapples with the idea of gender equality from the perspective of America’s Black women, a demographic that is not being represented enough in the media. The idea with Beyonce’s “Formation” is that, unlike Trainor’s “NO,” it sincerely embraces feminism, as it is unconcerned with pleasing a wide audience. Some of its lyrics and messages did clearly make some demographics unhappy, as seen in the outrage after she performed at 2016’s Superbowl. Hence, “Formation” is the essence of what feminism is in that it is subversion. Feminism is subversion, and subversion is not concerned with mass appeal. Subversion is aware that, inevitably, some groups will be offended by its cause.
Mainstream media is also furthering conflicts within contemporary feminism. This is seen in how a growing number of women of color are unhappy with how primarily white, cis-gendered, and privileged women do not acknowledge their privilege and ignore the additional struggles that women of color must endure. Mainstream media further problematizes this issue, as it has long idealized white, cis-gendered privileged women, giving them precedence over queer women or women of color in terms of representation. By representing white, cis-gendered women more, the media has also enabled them to make their perception of feminism the universal or definitive perception of feminism. This may be an issue of these women not acknowledging their privilege. However, it may also be an issue of mainstream media not representing women of color or queer women enough. In a speech at the 2015 Emmy awards, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis famously said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” The problem with representation of women from different demographics in mainstream media also goes back to the idea of mass appeal. Regarding commercial beauty products like foundation, brighter shades are advertised more frequently as corporations believe the market for lighter skin is larger than that of dark skin, according to a March 19, 2014 New York Times article. This disincentivizes major corporations from making or advertising products that cater to the needs of women of color. To this end, an incomplete narrative of what it means to be a woman in America is developed by mainstream media in everything from commercials to television shows.
Mainstream media and giant corporations’ embrace of feminism should be recognized and appreciated. Gone are the days in which both worked against the progress of women, showing them in only domestic, servile settings or power positions lower than those of men. However, this embrace should also be critiqued, as it may not come from a place of sincerity, but rather from an economic perspective. Audiences and markets can exercise a certain amount of vigilance by discerning if their campaigns or songs are sincere enough in their calls to action. If mainstream media and mega corporations are sincere, audiences can tell by how they treat feminism and women in other areas. This means that their products would be less concerned with mass appeal than they would be with fighting for the equality of the sexes.