On January 13th, Gillette released a commercial that shows off various scenarios of “toxic masculinity” and urges men to step up in these situations so they may be the best versions of themselves that they can be. The commercial was immediately met with both backlash and praise, with thousands of consumers threatening to stop purchasing Gillette while others applauded the brand for taking a risk in promoting an initiative for positive masculinity. Despite being aimed at men, Gillette is just one of many companies in a long and controversial line of femvertising advertisements.
Femvertising refers to media campaigns “that employ pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls” (Skey). Although the Gillette ad is not the traditional form that femvertising takes, it produces a powerfully feminist message in its undoing of toxic masculinity. This commercial is just one of many that have come out within the past few years: the Always #LikeaGirl campaign, the "Inspire Her Mind" Verizon Commercial, and Dove’s #RealBeauty campaign are just a few of many femvertising pieces produced in the past few years. And history tells us that femvertising isn’t just a modern-day occurrence. In the 1920s, American Tobacco Company used advertisements about the Suffragettes to promote smoking as an activity enjoyed by strong, independent women. In the 1970s, Revlon’s Charlie White scent was sold as a product for the “new woman” (Penny 21). Despite the controversy that surrounds many femvertising ads, brands have consistently performed better post-femvertising campaigns, and marketing polls show that 81% of women believe positively portrayed women in advertisements have a significantly important impact on the next generation (Skey).
But here’s the catch…
Feminist advertising, no matter how well-made or influential to the next generation, is inherently part of a neoliberal capitalistic machine. For a socialist feminist, this presents a dilemma. Like classical Marxist feminism, socialist feminism stems from the belief that capitalism and other economic institutions and structures are inherently linked to women’s oppression. However, Rosemarie Tong posits that socialist feminism differs from classical Marxist feminism in that it does not put the blame of women’s oppression solely on capitalism but tries “to understand women’s subordination in a coherent and systematic way that integrates class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity such as race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation” (Tong 73). She further adds that socialist feminism believes women’s oppression under capitalism is an interactive system where women’s work – whether inside or outside of the home – is undervalued and underpaid, made more complex by the various other systems of oppression (94).
I consider myself a socialist feminist because it makes more sense to me to think of oppression not as something borne from capitalism but rather as an interactive system where various structures can either further or lessen women’s oppression. Socialist feminism is the type of feminism that works hand in hand with intersectionality and acknowledges that while all women may be oppressed under capitalism, a working-class white woman has different experiences from a working-class black woman, a trans woman has more employment hurdles than a cisgender woman, and so on and so forth.
On the surface, socialist feminism would not support femvertising in any capacity. While there is no way to know whether companies actually believe in the messages that they portray in their feminist ads, it is safe to assume that most femvertising is done purely for profit, not for the radical ideas feminism was built on. Instead, femvertising sells watered down feminist messages that make no tangible change. As Laurie Penny says:
“while progressive ideas can be used to spice up a confectionary campaign, social justice itself is hard to sell. The kind of feminist change that will make a material difference to the lives of millions, the kind of feminist change growing numbers of ordinary people are getting interested in, is about far more than body image… It’s about boring, unsexy, structural problems such as domestic work and unpaid labor, racism and income inequality. It’s about freeing us to live lives in which we are more than how we look, what we buy and what we have to sell.” (21)
Although femvertising can change people’s perspectives, it does no real work in undoing the economic systems that continue to oppress women. Rather, it gives into those systems, rebranding feminism as a product to buy rather than a practice to live by. On top of this, most companies that participate in femvertising campaigns have serious problems with pay inequality, have frequently faced lawsuits for discrimination against women who work for them, and often produce their products in overseas sweatshops that take advantage of non-Western women (“Calling Bullsh*t on Faux Feminism a Marketing Commodity”). While femvertising may look good for feminism on the surface, the reality is that it is just another cog in a capitalistic machine that continues to oppress women.
But wait, there’s more…
As someone who is interested in rural communities and literacy, I believe there are a multitude of literacies you can both learn and unlearn, including feminist literacy. I would define feminist literacy as self and communal knowledge of the ways in which society and culture oppresses both women and men. Like any literacy, feminist literacy is something that you learn, practice, and adapt to fit the needs of changing structures and situations. Both my undergraduate and graduate careers have brought me a surplus of texts on feminism, yet I am still learning and adapting what I believe and practice in my feminism. This is feminist literacy.
On the other hand, feminist literacy does not have to be the reading of academic texts, participation in class discussions, or musing about feminism on graduate student blogs. Even before I first encountered the word feminism, I was practicing a sort of feminist literacy by giving attention to the ads, television shows and films, and books that spoke about feminism without directly referencing feminism. This type of feminist literacy was important, as it was early access to feminist medias that prepared me to accept the type of feminism I would encounter in the academy. And as someone who grew up in a tiny, rural town in Alabama, access was the most critical factor in determining my literacy.
Discussion of rural literacy, regardless of form, is an issue that socialist feminists should be interested in as it is inherently an issue of class. Statistics have long shown that rural areas are deeply affected by poverty. Laura Lester notes that “educational and familial resources, experiences, and opportunities may be significantly affected by poverty, especially in rural communities plagued with minimal educational revenue” (Lester 408). In rural areas, it is difficult to practice traditional literacies, let alone niche literacies in feminism. To assume that rural people can get the education they need in multiple and varied forms of literacy by going to college or leaving the limitations of a rural area is a classist notion, as it suggests that the capitalistic mechanisms that limit rural literacy itself are easily escapable.
Although socialist feminists and a variety of other academic-activist types claim to care about class issues in rural areas, when they suggest that easily accessible, if problematic, forms of literacy are wrong, they are limiting the opportunities for access to rural peoples. Though femvertising is merely a mechanism of capitalistic structures, it can be a critical point of access for feminist literacy to rural peoples. Not all rural women are going to go to college, but most rural women can follow advertisement campaigns that promote body positivity or undo gender stereotypes. Not all rural men are going to leave their home towns, but they can watch commercials that encourage them to undo toxic masculinity. Even with a watered-down message that is merely trying to sell a product, femvertising can have an impact in promoting feminist literacy in rural areas.
This is not to say that femvertising will ultimately educate people in rural areas on feminist issues, but it is a point of access to feminism that most rural people would not get otherwise. It’s a fledging, but important, form of feminist literacy. As a socialist feminist, I am not ready to fully reject femvertising nor am I ready to fully embrace it. It’s a dilemma for sure, but one that I think is worthy of more thought.
Lester, Laura. “Putting Rural Readers on the Map: Strategies for Rural Literacy.” Reading Teacher, vol. 65, no. 6, Mar. 2012, pp. 407–415. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/TRTR.01062.
Penny, Laurie. “First, the Admen Stole Feminism -- Then They Used It to Flog Cheap Chocolate and Body Lotion to Us.” New Statesman, vol. 143, no. 5205, Apr. 2014, p. 21. EBSCOhost, libproxy.unl.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=95495007&site=ehost-live.