Actual Empowerment Doesn't Matter You Can Buy it at an REI Near You
2017 is the year of bigley news: Women are people too. True savvy, successful business people have recently discovered that half of their consumers identity as women. And what do women want? To be empowered, to be free, to be strong, to be agents of their own lives, to make choices for themselves, to have clothes that fit, to have color options that they like, to be able to smile when they want, to be able to scream when they want, to be able to shop in a store that is littered with advertisements that depict images of women in all their diversity: fat, thin, white, black, Latina, Chinese, transgender, short haired, long haired, pink haired, blue-wearing women, pink-wearing women, old, young, middle-aged – so many diverse women! That’s what women want, amiright? To see themselves in advertisements so that they can feel good about spending their money. And in order to feel good we have to feel empowered.
Brands and companies all over various industries are jumping on the bandwagon of loving women, just as they have already jumped on the environmental bandwagon. McDonald’s billboards obstruct our view of the actual outdoors with a serene, majestic pacific northwest landscape complete with a bald eagle soaring high over the iconic, glowing, yellow, “M.” Nothing says nature like a Big Mac and a large diet coke, of course. What’s even hotter is seeming environmental, political and activist-y. The best part about loving women and nature is that it doesn’t take much work these days. Companies, who have for so long been ignoring women and minorities, and all their personhood, can simply spend a bunch of money hiring a freelance creative team of white men and wrangle a crew of token diverse women to take some artsy and “bold” photos. Wham, bam, thank you m’am, here’s your payment, (if they even pay the models or “talents”), and they’ve got a new marketing campaign that will make women feel good about pouring out their wallets.
Commodity activism is a timeless strategy. Harry Jenkins, author of Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, defines commodity activism as “a process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits.” Commodity Activism panders to a society that runs on consumption and commodity. A hallmark of our country is to spend money and purchase items to feel good about ourselves and to “improve” our lives. The problem is that these are superficial band-aids for deeply rooted, systemic issues. It is a façade, a dream, to believe that buying new shampoo will suddenly revitalize you, or that purchasing that car will make you feel as free as that long, dirt road (that is winding through land that was colonized and mapped and sold and tapped for gold and drilled for oil). These feelings elicited by advertisements entice people. The bottom line is profit and if exploiting feelings makes people buy things, well, that’s just the American Dream where we compete for resources and space, and having money and things equates to freedom and choice.
Many outdoor campaigns are touting “diversity” and “inclusivity” in the outdoors for the gumby or expert. They are all about inclusion. They don’t want anyone to feel excluded. The outdoors is for everybody. This all sounds really nice on paper. The companies may hire a really talented copywriter that can string words together in pretty sentences to make you feel good about their sleeping bag, or water bottle, or cooler, that, by purchasing their cooler, you are supporting a company who supports the idea of diversity and inclusivity.
Jean Kilbourne, an internationally renowned, pioneering activist, speaker, and writer, dedicated her life to the groundbreaking work of revealing the harmful connection between advertising and several public health issues, including violence against women, eating disorders, and addiction. To prevent these problems, she launched a movement of media literacy to enlighten consumers to the dangers of advertising. Now her approach is mainstream in most prevention programs. For years advertisers played into women’s deepest insecurities. An ad for sneakers says, “When was the last time you felt this comfortable in a relationship?” A woman in a cigarette ad says, “Until I find a real man, I’ll settle for a smoke.” “You can love it without getting your heart broken,” says an ad for a car, because buying a car makes up for toxic masculinity and also means that you can be a silly, emotional, heartbroken woman without worrying about it judging you. You can find security and a sense of love through buying this thing. The moral of advertisements: you can buy security, love, and comfort.
As with all movements, the feminist movement is not exempt from co-optation. As feminism has evolved, broken and gained new ground in many ways, as politicians utilize talking points about LGBTQ rights and equality, as racial justice finds its place in newspaper headlines, advertisers saw empowerment trending and couldn’t wait to cash in. Welcome to the age of “empowertising,” a term coined by co-founder of Bitch Magazine, Andi Zeisler. This is one step further from Jenkins’ commodity activism. Jenkins writes, “I think that commodity activism can be an important form of social activism, if the goals of such activism are not primarily organized around the accumulation of profit or building a corporate brand. For example, activism about girls’ self-esteem is hot right now – a whole industry has been built around it. With the Dove, ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, the company encouraged a sort of ‘co-production’ with consumers, and called attention to the exclusionary (and often racist and classist) norms of beauty culture.” Experts in advertising have discovered white feminism: the promise of rebellion, connection, and control through buying products, not through actual feminism: participating in a historical and political movement via (gasp!) actually being active within it and involved.
Empowertising is almost laughable, but like all truly horrifying things, ultimately it’s just downright scary. Women believe they are being seen and heard through this kind of advertising. Women are convinced that this is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction. But it’s only muddling feminism into a slippery, downward spiral of fake empowerment with the end goal of turning this audience into loyal consumers.
REI recently jumped on the “social and economic equality of women” bandwagon, without even needing to mention the social and economic inequality women face. Their campaign, “Force of Nature,” heralds 2017 as the year they pay attention to half of their consumer base. Ever since this country saw its first woman presidential candidate we are making moves to ring in that cash register. Don’t worry women, you haven’t seen a woman president yet, but we’ve got your back with our advertisements – spend your money with us! REI does, to an extent, back up their talk with donating money to non-profits who deserve the support and recognition like GirlTrek, Camber Outdoors, and the YMCA’s Bold/Gold initiative. They have become such a huge company at this point that reaching out and giving away some of their pocket change will in turn allow them to ring in millions of new loyal consumers, and every bandana or shirt will flash the REI logo – ingenious, strategic marketing.
In their video “Force of Nature,” various women, of various ethnicities and ages, can be seen smile-less, with dirty hands, power poses, playing guitar, jumping over rocks, holding a heavy bundle of wood, making a try-hard face on the side of a boulder, some are mean-mugging, some are exuding joy on a tire swing in a dress over water, kicking it in the campground, yelling, throwing sand, punching a bag, and one woman is even wearing a batman mask! These women were filmed in awe-inspiring mountainous environments. All the “shoulds” that our society tells women are splashed across the ready for Instagram b-roll (“you should be careful, quiet, nice, you should smile more, you should grow up, you should wait your turn, you should, should, should, be graceful, delicate, polished, cute, successful, perfect”). And the wise woman narrator says, “These are the voices we have heard our whole lives, but they get harder to hear the further out we go.”
REI is acknowledging that these voices exist and that inequality exists, but escaping into the wild is how to get away. Yes, women, you heard the advertisement, let’s just take a trip into the backwoods or go for a hike, or go shopping at REI, a company that “gets us,” so that we can ignore the reality that our country has still not yet reached equality for all. But have no fear, REI is here to tell us to buy into their over 1,000 events designed for women, so that even if we can’t truly be empowered in this lifetime, at least we can feel like it…sometimes.
The problems with this campaign are many as it blazes forward under the umbrella of white feminism. It focuses solely on women as females, as if the two are not separate things. It is a prime example of gender-essentialism – back into the tired binary we go. The racial divide is not noted once. Black women, people of color, economic disparity, are not discussed. The loaded dice, which ensures an excess of women who do not have the time or resources to enjoy the outdoors, are not discussed, meaning that the systemic issues at play are being ignored. Much of this is all a band-aid for deep wounds. REI does nothing to mention the systemic issues at the root of the lack of women in the outdoors. For someone to be viewing this ad-campaign would mean that they are REI members or shoppers, and that they are on a higher economic level because REI members have the time and money to be signed up for their email list, as well as have the time and money to be paying attention. In order to reach the women who would most deeply benefit from time spent in the outdoors, REI would need to do some heavier lifting. They promise to offer classes, workshops, and routines, all through REI no less, that ensure women getting outside, but only if they pay REI for these opportunities. If they wanted to make real, systemic change they would support and promote women who are already doing these workshops, trainings and retreats.
Open letters to the industry (when the person writing the letter is the industry), calling out the “absence of women,” and getting “political,” has become a trend in marketing. Almost as if a movement is happening. Almost. But not quite. It’s just another way for consumers to spend, and for CEOs to reap the benefits of capitalism where the money and power is in the hands of one percent of the population.
Advertising has a dreamlike promise always leaving us wanting more and feeling rather hollow in the end. Because they are offering us no real substance, no real change, no real salvation. There is no real satisfaction because products cannot bring us personhood, agency, and empowerment, despite what brands want to make us believe.
Take, for a prime and timely example, Pepsi’s latest commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, a white woman. In this two-minute video, millennials can be seen protesting in the streets as Kendall Jenner watches from the sidelines posing for a modeling shoot. But Kendall can’t resist the political energy, so she gets rebellious, throws off her blonde wig, wipes off her lipstick, and casually saunters her way through the crowd, fist-bumping, and coyly smiling, sometimes laughing with newfound “diverse” friends until she haphazardly and innocently makes her way to the front of the march and finds herself catwalking her way up to a relaxed police officer. With an exaggerated hip, she limply hands the resolute officer, who is just standing there with his other militarized police homies, as the crowd behind her cheers and waves and laughs and smiles, (because racial justice marches are full of fun and pep), and the cop takes a big swig and smiles. The crowd goes wild and Kendall Jenner falls back into her allies’ ranks in celebration of justice finally being won! Everyone hugs, high-fives, and cheers.
Just like a hippy protesting war by placing a flower in the barrel of a gun. Just like the iconic photograph by Jonathan Bachman, in which Ieshia Evans stands in front of a line of police in a flowing dress, exuding all the calm of a clear day. Except this Pepsi commercial is nothing like these events at all. It rewrites the true narrative of political protests and ignores the very real events of police brutality. This is what an actual force of nature looks like:
There is extreme whitewashing: the woman in a hijab takes a backseat, plays photographer to Kendall's white savior moment. It glazes over minority voices and how this commercial is commodifying racial struggle. Institutionalized racism will not be solved by drinking a Pepsi, just as much as gender equality will not be solved by becoming a member of REI or enrolling in one of their workshops. Now, when the time is ripe with businesses and politicians being obsessed with appealing to women by talking about empowerment, (and that’s it, they are just talking about it), now, after many years of being fully aware of just how “uneven the playing field” is, REI wants to join in - just another example of how many brands are following this trend of seeming political without actually being political.
This is everything that is wrong with white feminism. First, some don’t even want to “use the label” of feminism, which is the biggest slap in the face to the historical movement ever. Advertisements go so far as to acknowledge the issues, but are nowhere to be found when it comes to actually protesting the injustices that women and all minorities face. These companies use strategically written ads in a way that alludes to them being the first ones to address these issues when in reality there have been decades upon decades of struggle against misogyny and racism.
REI’s parody of women empowerment is an insult to women who have been involved in the women’s liberation movement, and who are actively pushing feminism forward through the real thankless and tireless action of protest. There is nothing anti-status quo about this ad campaign. In fact, it is very much in line with the ideological movement that we find ourselves within during this Trump era. Trump has capitalized on this phenomenon too, this disdain for establishment. However, whiteness remains the status quo, no matter how many times you put a black woman in the picture, no matter how many times you use the word “diverse,” and “inclusive.”
This brings us to an interesting and controversial place: the discussion of whether or not companies and brands, who’s bottom line is profit, can be allies in the fight for women and minorities gaining true agency (freedom, autonomy, rationality, and moral authority) in this world. Some may argue that brands becoming more diverse in their ad campaigns is a huge sign that feminism is “working,” or that big brands are finally listening. Some may think that because they are now creating plus-size clothing that they truly respect and value the humans who are deemed “plus-sized” in our world. However, as Andi Zeisler points out, “…the idea that purchasing itself was a feminist act became a key tenet of emerging marketplace feminism, an embrace of feminism that’s depoliticized, decontextualized, and less about ensuring equal rights for women than about empowering them as consumers.”
Feminism was co-opted as soon as it arrived in the form of palatable, commercial versions of what it means to be female, or woman, or whatever. The idea and feeling of being empowered is all that matters. Drawing on feminist language and theory to sell a brand is driven by the promise of a woman’s choice in whatever she desires to consume. The American Dream teaches us that being elevated and liberated means that we have the ability to spend money, to consume what we choose, and that these things will allow us to achieve a place of status in the hierarchy. But all of this, consumption, money, and hierarchy, are anti-feminist ideals and they only contribute to the toxic and violent paradigms that our culture feeds and breeds.
Despite the fact that true empowerment and freedom come from understanding history, understanding our place in it, and subverting our culture of elitism, narcissism, exclusionary independence, patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, people get glossy-eyed over the kind of feminism you don’t have to work for, but that you can just buy, cheerlead for on the sidelines, and wear on a t-shirt or pin.
These days anyone who identifies themselves as a feminist can purport any choice as a feminist choice regardless of the true value of the choice being made. I’m eating this chocolate because I’m a liberated woman! I’m smoking this cigarette because feminism! I’m downing this whiskey in my newly purchased Doc Marten’s as a blow for women’s and racial equality!
REI’s campaign is much like Verizon Wireless’ “Inspire Her Mind,” campaign. In 2014 Verizon launched an ad that starred a girl in various stages of life being discouraged at every turn by a voice that sounded like a concerned mother or father yelling, “Don’t get your dress dirty!” as she stomps through a creek, or “Why don’t you hand that to your brother?” as in the drill as she endeavors to build a rocket in the garage. This campaign was all in the name of saving girls from being steered away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Always menstrual products also went this route with their “Like a Girl” campaign.
The problem is that these brands position themselves as allies who are conscious of the issues women face, however, advertisements have one mission: to sell a product, not reflect the nuances of a social movement. REI’s campaign is harnessing on empowertisement. REI wants women to feel empowered, but they definitely don’t want to conflate their business with actual feminism. The Advertising Benchmark Index measured the Verizon and Always ad effects, and Ad Age reported in September 2014 “that not only do a majority of consumers feel the ads promote a positive message for women, [but] they have a strong, positive impact on the brands’ reputation…” Indeed, a positive message is promoted, and the most important outcome and main drive is the positive impact on the brands’ reputation. Who wouldn’t want to buy a fleece from a company who puts women on a pedestal, even if that pedestal is photoshopped and only exists in certain conditions under a certain light, at a certain time of day?
Getting political is really hot right now. Jumping into activism is really hot too. Getting political, active, and jumping on the “women are equal too” bandwagon is really, really, really hot. You don’t even have to mention that dirty, filthy “F” word…fem – let’s just not go there. Loving women is so spicy, burning, hot, in fact, that you might even get laid. You can add “feminist” to your Tinder profile and get at least ten more swipes to the left? Or, is it right? They just did a survey on this actually, or something, so it’s proven. Psychologists with PhD’s agree too. They went to college and call themselves doctors, so you know that they know what they are talking about. You don’t even need to know anything about the history of feminism, you don’t need to know that it’s a movement ripe with complex ideas that take time to read about, digest, and think about, you can just say “I love women,” and feel good. In America we are all about patting ourselves on the back, feeling good, and most importantly making money. Our American society, which functions within capitalism, a profit-driven, consumer-driven business model, (insert president who is as business as it gets) wants everyone to dream about dollar signs and wants everyone to feel things, like feel, like, empowered and free, instead of like, actually being empowered and free.