PSA: Your Girl-Power Consumerism Isn’t Feminism

You have eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man. You have heels that let the world know you’re pissed off and ready to own the day. You came here to kick ass and put on lipgloss, and you’re never out of lipgloss. You are a “#girlboss.”

You are a capitalist, consumerist, feminist. Let that sink in for a bit. You are a woman that bought your way to confidence and power (or at least the illusion of it). Your restrictive diet and workout routine are helping condition you to the perfect size 24” waist (#thrive). You wear a shade of berry-mauve lipstick dubbed “Wifey” so that no matter how hard you work, everyone knows that you look good (#slay). You host wine parties with your girlfriends to binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale (#woke).

I (and I suspect most other women) have been inundated with messages from advertisers telling me that everything I learned in women’s studies was wrong. We can, indeed, have it all, and “it all” no longer means a successful career and a fulfilling personal life. We can live our lives like a Frankenstein’s monster-esque composite of every piece of Cosmo content we’ve ever read — short skirts, juice cleanses, curling wands, smudgy eyeliner, bath bombs, waist trainers, whitening strips. And it’s being sold to us as a strength, as empowerment, as weaponized femininity.

It’s fucking exhausting.

At some point in recent years, the same advertisers that shoved women into darkened corners of shame for not being pretty enough, not being thin enough, not having light enough skin and straight enough hair re-emerged under a sparkly, vamp-red, feminist banner.

Over the last year, I’ve had Super-Feminist Emma Watson’s role as an imprisoned Disney princess suffering from Stockholm Syndrome shoved down my throat; I’ve had glossy-haired women in a Pantene commercial tell me to not say “sorry” so much; I’ve even seen acquaintances fall in with multi-level-marketing (read: pyramid scheme) outfits that have used female empowerment to try to recruit more women to peddle skincare/leggings/nail polish.

How did we fall for this?

It’s a movement that co-opts counter-hegemonic language — the language of resistance, of skepticism, of individuality — for the sake of furthering its own interests. It’s as though creative agencies around the world enrolled in Women’s Studies 101, took half-hearted notes the entire semester and returned to work to ask, “How can I use this to sell shit?”

It’s a not-so-distant relative of the low-contrast, soft-piano kind of Lite Feminism that Dove’s been peddling for the last decade. Sure, it’s more glamorous than Dove’s size-six, freckle-faced, “body positive” revolution, but ultimately it’s got the same message: buy this thing so that you will feel more empowered.

It’s the same kind of movement that tells you you’re “femme shaming” for preferring to watch football and action movies. It’s the shrill voice that pipes in to yell “We don’t tear down women!” when you declare that you didn’t like the latest Taylor Swift release. It’s the movement that took fat positivity and packaged it into a more palatable “body positivity,” epitomized in a Victoria’s Secret ad that featured about a dozen thin, clear-skinned women in bras and the unironic slogan “I Love My Body.”

And it all goes back into our Instagram feeds, our self-care, our daily affirmations. Consumerism has dawned a not-so-subtle veil and found another way to convince us we need stuff.

No, seriously, how did we fall for this?

Advertisements, for years, were the enemy of feminism (and our self-esteem). These were the ads and magazine covers that were criticized for driving us straight to the toilet to hurl up our lunch. We knew what the ideal woman was, and we weren’t her.

Then, something happened. Feminism became cool. It became mainstream. For every Hilton and Kardashian socialite we endured, there was a Tina Fey, a Lena Dunham, a Jennifer Lawrence, a Taylor Swift. It didn’t matter that some of the issues they were addressing were ones that could essentially be summed up as “I didn’t make as many millions as the other millionaires I work with.” They had the platforms, and we had the ears. And brands wised up — they knew they had to win us over.

Because women are still powerful as consumers. According to the Boston Consulting Group, we drive between 70 and 80% of consumer spending and influence 91% of household spending. Even in categories like auto and home improvement, women are proven to have more purchasing power than men. Brands need us on their sides. To put a point on it, they’re not pumping us up now for the sake of being nice to us. It was never about us.

I’ve previously written on TFD about how terms like “shaming” and concepts like anti-femininity are often used to push us into being exactly what society has wanted us to be for the past century or so. Back then I wasn’t sure what the solution was, either. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still like fashion, makeup, and even pretentious, low-sugar, clear alcoholic beverages with limes on the side.

But I’ve stopped kidding myself into thinking that those things are inherently feminist just because I chose them.

Now, I have accepted that as a single consumer, I don’t have the power to take down the Misogyny Machine, and that even if I purchase a liquid eyeliner pen knowing very well it won’t help me defeat the patriarchy, that purchase is still mostly lining the pockets of powerful men. I can’t pat myself on the back for enjoying these things, even if I am more “aware” than I once was.

But detaching yourself is the first step. Knowing that you can’t buy your way to empowerment will undoubtedly curb the quest to simply consume, consume, consume. When you realize that ticketed wine event isn’t just a middle finger at misogynistic judgment and shame, maybe you decide to stay home instead. When you realize after buying yet another tube of Smash The Patriarchy Red lipstick, you still feel afraid to go out without makeup, maybe you clean out your collection.

When you realize that brands are still trying to tell you which box to fit in — even if it’s a slightly different-shaped box — you become just a little wiser.

Bree Rody-Mantha is a business journalist and dance teacher living in Toronto. In her spare time, she enjoys sport climbing, lifting and running the vegan food blog, Urban Garlic. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Unsplash

  • Court E. Thompson

    I’m feeling very confused by this piece. Is this about advertisers branding products and campaigns as feminist (advertisers always try to do what is ‘hip’, so of course they’re going for the feminist spin) or about women thinking they are feminist for or not buying said products? Either way, things aren’t feminist. Ideas are. People can be. Actions perhaps. But things are just things. And the buying said things don’t make a person more or less feminist. Feminism is about the freedom from gender-based restriction to do and be whatever we want. Even if that is a fully made up, blown out, yoga-pant wearing, juice cleansing, LLR-selling SAHM. It’s about choice.

    Meanwhile, “When you realize that ticketed wine event isn’t just a middle finger at misogynistic judgment and shame, maybe you decide to stay home instead.” – …..how did wine get pulled into this? If you want it to be about feminism then only buy from women-owned wineries (the business is quite male-dominated) but there’s no reason to skip the wine.

    • Carolina

      Completely agree and it’s a lovely thing to watch feminism go mainstream! People are understanding it and making up their own minds about it. Yes, it may be through advertisements, but you don’t have to actually buy Dove’s soap to understand the messages they send through their ads.

      • Court E. Thompson

        Randomly I actually do buy Dove soap but it has nothing to do with ads. It actually does leave me more hydrated and lives at a decent price point, especially when I have a coupon.

    • calamity

      But context matters. In a world where gender roles are performed for us and reinforced from us from birth, it’s not so easy to proclaim that you’re made up and blown out and staying at home because it’s your own feminist choice. You put on makeup because it’s fun … but why is lengthening your eyelashes and painting your lips redder fun, instead of painting your forehead blue and drawing roses on your cheeks? Because that’s the beauty standard that the patriarchy has enforced on us. You stay at home with your kids because you wanted them to have a parent at home … but did your husband ever seriously consider whether he should stay home? He’s a parent too.

      You can still make these choices. We’re all human, we can’t fight every battle. But don’t ignore the fact that we’re making these choices in a patriarchy that rewards us for some, and punishes us for others; don’t decide that just because you’re a woman and you made a choice, it has to be a feminist one.

      Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2lmojePnA0

      • Court E. Thompson

        You’re right; many of the stereotypes regarding gender roles are reinforced on us from birth which is why feminism is still a relevant and necessary concept. However, I disagree that the roles are performed for us. We live in a world where a #girlboss is more celebrated than a SAHM and the SAHMs I know feel like they have to vehemently defend their choices. However feminism is still about the freedom to choose and not judge other women’s choices.

        Now I feel like I have to defend myself from some assumptions – I am not a SAHM. I am a 31-year-old legal marketing asst/actor/barre instructor who rarely wears makeup, who chooses to split everything 50/50 with my SO despite his making a lot more money, and works all the time pursuing multiple careers. I put myself first ALL THE TIME. And believe or not, my SO and I have discussed if I ever make any money as an actor (a girl can dream) then he would stay home with our proverbial children.

        “You can still make these choices. We’re all human, we can’t fight every battle.” – Choosing to be a SAHM is not a battle. It’s a choice and the women who make deserve to be respected for that choice. Same for women who wear makeup and leggings and do anything else that we disagree with or wouldn’t do ourselves. We can both respect their choices and simultaneously work for the removal of stereotypical gender roles for both men and women – yes feminism is about men having the freedom to make choices as well.

        • calamity

          I meant the “you” in that paragraph as a generic you, not as a response to your comment in particular. Most of this I actually agree with, but I feel like I have to clear up some assumptions too: I don’t particularly care whether another woman stays at home with her kids (my own mother did; I may do so if/when I have kids) or wears leggings (this I am WHOLLY in favor of) or whatever.

          What I meant by “we can’t fight every battle” is that we should recognize the subtler motivations, and broader implications, of our choices, even if that recognition doesn’t in the end make us choose differently. I’m still going to shave my legs, even though I know that my innermost, freest soul is way too lazy for that. But I take issue with feminism simply being able to “do and be whatever we want,” and that’s why I posted that video. If your (generic you, again) idea of being whatever you want hews 100% to what men/the patriarchy want you to be and do, and you call that feminism, you’d do well to reexamine your ideas and choices.

          • Court E. Thompson

            Feel you on the leg shaving.

            “If your (generic you, again) idea of being whatever you want hews 100% to what men/the patriarchy want you to be and do, and you call that feminism, you’d do well to reexamine your ideas and choices.” – Why? If a woman freely and consciously makes those choices and doesn’t promote these choices as the singularly correct ones, she is, in fact, exerting her right as a feminist, if she defines herself as one. Who are we to judge?

            Feminism isn’t about specific choices, it’s about the freedom to make them. The conflation of the two is a huge reason so many women (and men) don’t feel comfortable defining themselves as feminists.

          • Jay

            this.

      • Carolina

        And now this will be stuck in my head all day lol

    • lateshift

      I think I can clear this up: it’s actually about feeling superior and judgey about other women’s choices and preferences if those choices and preferences happen to be different than your own – maybe it’s a judginess rooted in your own prejudices and insecurities, maybe it’s a judginess based on an incomplete understanding of the theories you picked up in that one gender studies class you took sophomore year – and realizing there’s actually a website willing to pay you (minimal) cash money for your rant, because: clickbaity. That’s basically it.

  • Carolina

    Very interesting rant. Though I think it is unfair to say that you can’t buy into consumerism and still be a feminist. To me, they are two completely separate things. I do agree that you shouldn’t *have* to buy lipstick and #slay at the gym in order to be a feminist and empower women to be themselves, but you also don’t need to do the opposite to prove a point, unless you’re really into that. If you’re really interested in learning about consumerism and its affect on people and society, I’ve been obsessively reading The Book of Life- here’s a chapter on business and the arts: http://www.thebookoflife.org/business-and-the-arts/

    • Carolina

      Also people around you being blind consumers and scolding them for it isn’t really a proactive way to get people to see your point. They might not even see themselves as blind consumers. Anyway, rant over.

    • What Bree is saying here is not that feminists can’t like to buy shit–it’s that choosing to buy some shit isn’t inherently feminist just because it’s what you’re choosing as a woman.

      • Carolina

        I can get behind that. But I still think that in the case of, for example, supporting a skincare line with a female CEO and all-female workers, or supporting clothing brands that take great care for their factory workers should be considered in the realm of feminism. That’s not to say that if you don’t, you aren’t. If, instead, you partake in after school programs for empowering girls, or some other approach, that’s pretty badass. There will never be a perfect feminist, and there are all kinds of feminists.

  • Mj D’Arco

    i call it genius marketing…

  • Jess

    I knew from the title I wouldn’t like your article, but I read it in hopes it would be one of those buzzfeed-esque publications where it turns out to be a fun joke. And, as I’m sure you can assume, I’m rather disappointed in this article and TFD for publishing it.

    Firstly, I would like to note that I don’t believe consumerism and feminism as described in this article are related. You do have quite a few points that intertwine but are in no way related to your point. Your examples of a “a capitalist, consumerist, feminist” are extreme bashing of women who find certain things (health, beauty, homemaking, spending time with friends) important and lumping those individuals into one consumerist (not really a) feminist monster. Additionally, as a kick ass corporate woman in marketing who feels like even more of a boss ass bitch than I already am when I achieve the perfect cat eye, your examples of marketing ploys are genius. A wine company suggesting I buy their wine for an empowering girls night in watching Wonder Woman is brilliant because 1) That’s an awesome way to get my girls together 2) I’m going to drink wine anyways so why not buy from a company that recognizes the feminist movement?

    Please don’t get me wrong, there is A LOT wrong with the world and misogyny is running rampant everywhere you turn. But bashing women wanting equal rights or wanting to feel safer walking alone at night AND wanting that cute Forever 21 plunging top is counter-intuitive and discouraging. This article would have been better served in helping your readers identify the negative aspects of feminism targeted marketing and how to navigate their way between being tricked and encouraged.

    • I didn’t personally take Bree’s piece as “bashing” women in any way. She doesn’t say that there’s anything wrong with liking beauty products or wine. I thought it was more a bashing of the corporate entities who take pieces of feminism to market their products to women in a more 2017-friendly way. As she says, “I’ve stopped kidding myself into thinking that those things are inherently feminist just because I chose them.” And I think that line right there kind of sums up the whole idea behind this piece, which is that buying something is rarely an actual feminist action, even if it is marketed as being so. This post appearing on TFD makes sense, as it is calling attention to a strategy that marketers use to convince us to buy stuff that we probably don’t need.

  • Shae

    Wow. This seems like a way to bring people down for the choices they make, when I am pretty sure the point of feminism is that women’s should be able to choose for themselves. I really read out of this kind of a “no matter what you choose, you’re wrong, even if you believe you may be feminist.”. Telling women their choices are wrong and they need to do things different to be a true feminist, is kind of inherently not feminist.

  • Weronika

    I completly disagree. If those heels, lipstick or eyeliner makes someone feel more of a feminist – why not? I think that sets and settings are very important and if someone needs to bust their feminism by looking the certain way – who are we to tell them that they are not feminists or not feminists enough?

    Is there a definition of this word that excludes women who believe that attending that ticketed wine event will make them feel more of a feminist than not attending? Maybe for that hypothetical woman the fact that she can afford that event thanks to her hard work is a cumulation of her feminism.

    We don’t have to shame women who wants to celebrate their feminity by wearing red lipstick or whatsoverer. Just live how you want to and let other live the way they want to.

    And please, please don’t tell anyone to be wiser or suggest that they just fit in a box made for them by “the Misogyny Machine” just because you don’t want to do certain things they do.

    I’m gonna quote other TFD article ‘Stop Trying To Out-Feminist Each Other’ by Maya Kachroo-Levine: “We have to understand that everyone is going to be different, and telling someone that you are More Of A Feminist Than They Are is a) shitty, and b) distinctly un-feminist.”. Amen.

  • Elizabeth

    It’s interesting to see the responses to this article, as they mirror responses to articles critiquing White Feminism(TM). Mainstream capitalism and consumerism are inherently anti-feminist. They both come at the expense of numerous groups of women: women of color (because being light-skinned is still seen as more beautiful), trans women (because they’re not “””real””” women, no matter how much makeup or clothing they buy), gender non-conforming women (because hairy butch lesbians are still used as the ultimate insult to women), impoverished women (because you can’t be beautiful if you can’t buy the makeup that’s being sold to you), the list goes on. Almost every big brand beauty, clothing, lifestyle company is owned or heavily invested in by men. They profit off of “Eyeliner that can slay the patriarchy!”

    It’s fine to wear makeup, buy clothes, go on juice cleanses, whatever. I’ve done all three and more. But those things are not part of a feminist framework. I think that working toward ethically-sourced products and women-owned brands are a great start, but still buys into consumerism and can still lead to pitfalls. Look at IT Cosmetics! The things we enjoy as women are not free from critique, and we can continue to enjoy them, but we can do so as educated and active consumers. Instead of buying that $25 feminist slogan shirt, consider upcycling several shirts from a thrift store. The take-away from this piece should not be the perception of personal injury. It should be a call for smarter enjoyment of things we encounter every day.

    • So glad to see this response, Elizabeth! (Reading some of the other comments made me feel like I had read a different article than everyone else lol.)

    • delia

      I did the thing where I knew I shouldn’t read the comments but I did anyway; yours it the only one that doesn’t make this sociologist/feminist/critical race/queer theory scholar cringe. Thank you for separating the difference between “feminist” as a personal identity (which is how it’s being sold and marketed and used as a tool of capitalism while continuing the subordination of the groups you’ve mentioned among others), and feminism as a framework of understanding! It still boggles my mind when people claim that feminism–meant to be a critical and radical lens through which to conceptualize the world–“has nothing to do with” a structure like capitalism, which permeates so much of our daily life. It’s like people claiming that they’re “not interested in politics” or are “colorblind”–it drives me up the wall!

      I, too, obviously participate in capitalism and consumerism, and have even done so in the past with great intentions, both to boost my own “feminist” self-image and to support brands and products with “feminist” mission statements–it’s virtually impossible to “opt out” of capitalism. But a feminist framework of understanding allows us to question the very concept of “consuming” and critique its effects–Who benefits? Who does the labor? Where do these resources come from, and where do they go? Why, for instance, is so much of the production of consumer products around the globe (even “sustainable” and “fairly paid) done by female labor? What, for instance, do we consider “productive work,” and why? (Is motherhood labor? Is unpaid housework labor? If a woman decides to hire domestic help in order to juggle the expectations and responsibilities of paid work and motherhood, is that balancing work and family? If so, where do these domestic workers come from, and how are their lives affected?)

      Obviously, I could go on and on (major gender nerd here!), but I’ll spare you! Thank you again for your comment, Elizabeth!

      • Sara

        THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS

  • Summer

    I feel like feminism is one of those things none of us can “win,” no matter what we do. Talk about feminism too much and you’re accused of showboating and lacking privilege awareness. Never talk about feminism and you’re considered apathetic and detached. Buy the products and services of brands who are open about feminism/self-acceptance/equality and you’re a hyper-consumerist with the wool pulled over her eyes who doesn’t realize she’s been duped by strategic marketing. Avoid the products and services of said brands and, well, now you’re just being petty.

    The thing about demonstrating feminism through consumerism is that no matter what we think or how we feel about “the patriarchy,” the fact is that we all, men and women alike, have to look at least semi-presentable when we leave the house for professional reasons. Call it societal brainwashing, capitalism at its worst, everyone in the history of first-world countries having been bamboozled from the advent of sales and marketing—however you want to frame our standards as to how they’ve been shaped—it is just not considered acceptable to leave the house looking like we’ve just rolled out of bed. Which means we must somehow consume products, which means buying things, which means using those things, which means occasionally finding that we prefer the performance of a particular product over another and perhaps we become a coveted repeat customer, and suddenly we find our hard-earned money being funneled into the pockets of the folks who had the audacity to create a product we enjoy or otherwise find useful.

    To be honest, I don’t actually care if a company I buy from is “feminist” or not. If I buy something more than once, it’s because I’ve found the product to be a good value, a favorable balance between cost and quality and ease of access. In a perfect world, perhaps I would be super #woke about every single company I buy anything from, understanding their core principles and causes they openly stand for, deliberately picking and choosing what I spend my money on based how closely a brand’s ideals align with my own. But that isn’t a realistic way to spend my time and I’m not interested in attempting to make it my personal reality. I suspect most of us aren’t. And really, would it matter? At the end of the day, companies exist to make money. We have to buy things in order to function with even a modicum of success in this society, and unless everyone collectively rebukes this notion, things like ‘Trophy Wife’ nail polish are here to stay. I’m fine with it. Really. I want men to stay in their own lane when it comes to reproductive choice and women-specific health issues. I want us to receive equal pay for equal qualifications and work performance. I want men to stop feeling like they’re doing us a favor when they “remind” us to smile or tell us they preferred yesterday’s red heels to today’s black flats. I want people to stop rolling their eyes when something becomes popular because of women, but feeling validated when the supporting audience is primarily men. The issues are so much bigger than lipstick or juice cleanses.

    • Carolina

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

    • Sara

      Summer, normally I am totally raising my hands and yelling “preach” when I read your comments and I always respect your opinion, but on this one I disagree. To me it sounds like the equivalent of “we can’t change the system, so why even try”. I think part of the point of this article (and the author can correct me if I’m wrong) is that buying products that pay lip service to feminism using catchy slogans doesn’t mean anything if the business practices and where the money goes is all part of the shitty heteronormative, patriarchal, Western mode of capitalism, which is exploitative, sexist, body-shaming, among other things. I know it’s a pain in the ass to boycott products you love because they have shitty business practices or political values and it’s hard work to constantly seek out businesses that are run in ways that are in line with your values, but it honestly seems to me like making the best out of the situation. Millennial women are a gigantic demographic and our money talks and I’ve seen so many cases where fear of losing that money and forced corporations to change and I take heart in that and continue to work towards it, even if it means I don’t let myself eat Chik-Fil-A or go to Hobby Lobby.

  • lateshift

    Very impressive army of straw women you’ve demolished there – am blown away by your courage in taking them on….especially on a site whose business model is predicated on catering to precisely the sort of feminist consumerism and financially-focused feminist ideas you seem to loathe. Kudos!

  • Rebecca

    I know this is an old article but “For every Hilton and Kardashian socialite we endured, there was a Tina Fey, a Lena Dunham, a Jennifer Lawrence, a Taylor Swift.” — girl, what?? Did you seriously write an article about feminism and then compare women’s contributions to a movement a lot of them haven’t even claimed?? Also Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lawrence, and Taylor Swift are all problematic in their own way, because they’re people, who btw contribute largely to our consumerist culture.