QUES­TIONS FOR Andi Zeisler

A fem­i­nist thought leader pro­vides a cri­tique of ‘mar­ket­place fem­i­nism’.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

The term ‘fem­i­nism’ used to have neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, but to­day it seems to have mostly pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tions. How did this oc­cur?

I wouldn’t say that is true across the board. In many places, fem­i­nism still has the same — or even more — neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. But a big part of the shift we are see­ing is due to who is iden­ti­fy­ing with fem­i­nism. In the last decade or so, the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia have had a huge im­pact on how young women learn about fem­i­nism, the con­text in which they learn about it, and the as­so­ci­a­tions they have with it. In the past few years, a lot of celebri­ties have be­gun claim­ing it, so it’s be­come a much more of a pop­u­lar way to de­fine your­self.

When I think about grow­ing up in the 1980’s, my first as­so­ci­a­tion with fem­i­nism was peo­ple mak­ing fun of fem­i­nists — char­ac­ter­iz­ing them as dowdy, hu­mour­less and

frizzy-haired. To­day, many young peo­ple are hav­ing their first ex­pe­ri­ences with fem­i­nism through celebri­ties like Bey­oncé, Emma Wat­son or Tay­lor Swift. That is huge, be­cause these are pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tions. Be­ing able to link fem­i­nism to peo­ple who are suc­cess­ful, glam­orous and con­scious about women’s is­sues is pow­er­ful, and that is a huge change from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

You have de­scribed your­self as hav­ing a bad case of ‘fe­male-em­pow­er­ment fa­tigue’. Please de­scribe this con­di­tion.

I have worked in this field for a long time, so I’ve been privy to many of the de­bates around fem­i­nism — what it means, who gets to be one, who doesn’t get to be one. I’ve def­i­nitely had a lot more time than most peo­ple to con­sider what ‘em­pow­er­ment’ re­ally looks like. I think the fa­tigue has come from see­ing the con­cept of em­pow­er­ment be­ing co-opted by mar­ket forces. When you con­sider the world in which the word ‘em­pow­er­ment’ de­vel­oped, it was re­ally about en­abling un­der-served and marginal­ized pop­u­la­tions to ob­tain the tools re­quired to change their sit­u­a­tions. But over time, em­pow­er­ment slowly be­came a word that is largely de­fined by how women con­sume prod­ucts. That is kind of de­flat­ing, but it’s a clear il­lus­tra­tion of how cap­i­tal­ism works — how it co-opts things that should be about hu­man­ity and makes them about com­merce.

De­scribe how some cor­po­ra­tions profit off of women.

Through their ad­ver­tis­ing, these en­ti­ties spend mil­lions of dol­lars try­ing to fig­ure out how best to lever­age their in­flu­ence to lots of dif­fer­ent de­mo­graphic groups, and fem­i­nism has been a very fer­tile ground for them. They ba­si­cally em­ploy peo­ple to help them fig­ure out what peo­ple care about. Ten or 12 years ago, it was en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, so that’s what they cap­i­tal­ized on; and in the past four or five years, it’s been fem­i­nism and other more gen­eral pro­gres­sive move­ments.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, none of it is new. Ev­ery so­cial move­ment be­comes vul­ner­a­ble to coop­ta­tion at the same time as it be­comes highly vis­i­ble — which, of course, is im­por­tant for so­cial move­ments. But it is kind of a dou­ble-edged sword. In gen­eral, com­pa­nies have made women feel that they are lack­ing in some fun­da­men­tal ways — whether it be as moth­ers, as wives, as at­trac­tive peo­ple, as sex­ual be­ings, etc. The sales pitch might have changed — be­com­ing more about be­ing fem­i­nist or pro­gres­sive — but to me, that is just an­other sales pitch, be­cause these cor­po­ra­tions don’t re­ally care about progress. They don’t have a man­date to make women feel good about them­selves; in fact, they prob­a­bly don’t want that to hap­pen!

What is the smarter ap­proach for com­pa­nies to take?

I don’t know if a bet­ter ap­proach ex­ists, be­cause it would pre­sup­pose that cor­po­ra­tions ac­tu­ally care about any­thing other than cap­tur­ing women’s eye­balls and dol­lars. When peo­ple say to me, ‘Aren’t those Dove ad­ver­tise­ments great?’, my re­sponse is, ‘Well, what is the ac­tual in­sti­tu­tional stake of that cor­po­ra­tion in women’s equal­ity? Where are their prod­ucts made? How are they sourced? What is the staffing like? Who’s on their board? What are their so­cial prac­tices? Do all of those things line up with them ac­tu­ally car­ing?’

You can’t just look at the sur­face, be­cause it doesn’t tell the whole story. If a com­pany is truly in­ter­ested and has a stake in gen­der equal­ity, it has to come from its lead­er­ship.

You have said that when Dove’s ‘cam­paign for real beauty’ started in 2004, it was very ex­cit­ing; but since then, it has fallen out of favour with you. Why?

When the cam­paign started, I no­ticed some re­ally strik­ing, full page ads fea­tur­ing women un­like any I’d ever seen be­fore: There was a 90-year-old woman with lots of wrin­kles, a woman whose face was cov­ered in freck­les, and an ex­tremely dark-skinned black woman. These images were star­tling at first, be­cause they so ex­plic­itly de­parted from west­ern

Cap­i­tal­ism co-opts things that should be about hu­man­ity and makes them about com­merce.

cul­tural norms of beauty. The ads were meant to chal­lenge the idea of ‘how we look at women’, and how we use their phys­i­cal at­tributes to de­cide their value. There was no tra­di­tional brand­ing copy on the ads — just ques­tions like, ‘When you look at this woman, do you see wrin­kles or do you see won­der­ful?’ That was def­i­nitely an in­ter­est­ing ap­proach.

Dove even put out a po­si­tion pa­per when it first launched the cam­paign, and it was co-au­thored by Nancy Et­coff, a Har­vard re­searcher who has stud­ied the cul­ture of beauty and con­sumerism for decades. So, the cam­paign had some in­sti­tu­tional heft. Over time, how­ever, there was more of a prod­uct push: The images were linked to the ac­tual prod­ucts Dove was selling, and it soon be­came clear that the ads were just a new way to ask women to ‘mea­sure up’. Sud­denly, they weren’t do­ing much to change the cul­ture that they had pur­port­edly set out to change. The mes­sage seemed to change from, ‘Let’s re­de­fine beauty,’ to ‘You as an in­di­vid­ual are more beau­ti­ful than you think you are’ — which shifted the onus to change mind­sets from our cul­ture back to in­di­vid­u­als. It was ba­si­cally say­ing, ‘If you don’t think you’re beau­ti­ful enough, that’s on you, and your per­cep­tion of your­self needs to change; we can help you do that with our prod­ucts’. That is very dif­fer­ent from, ‘We need to change how we as a cul­ture con­nect stan­dard­ized beauty with the value of women’.

If you had your druthers, what would the next wave of fem­i­nism look like?

I feel like much of what fem­i­nism should look like ac­tu­ally ex­ists al­ready; it’s just that it’s still not what the main­stream cul­ture wants to buy. If you look on­line, es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia, at the way fem­i­nist dis­course ex­ists right now, there is much more of a sense that fem­i­nism is not this mono­lith that peo­ple have to pledge their faith to; in­stead, it’s an evolv­ing set of ethics that peo­ple have to con­stantly learn about and shift their ex­pec­ta­tions of.

In the U.S., the as­cen­sion of Ivanka Trump is an amaz­ing ex­am­ple of how this idea has pen­e­trated main­stream cul­ture. Ivanka has a new book out that is pur­port­edly about women and suc­cess at work, but all the re­views I’ve read are not­ing the fact that the kind of fem­i­nism she’s talk­ing about is not in line with most women’s re­al­ity. The fact that re­views in The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal are ac­knowl­edg­ing this — that never would have hap­pened, even 10 years ago. So, fem­i­nism has evolved and the way that it’s hap­pen­ing right now is ex­actly as I would want it to be.

For far too long, ed­u­cated, white mid­dle-class women have set the terms with re­spect to what other women should be con­cerned with. I don’t want fem­i­nism it­self to look any dif­fer­ent: I just want peo­ple to make an ef­fort to un­der­stand it in all of its com­plex­ity and nu­ances.

Ev­ery so­cial move­ment be­comes vul­ner­a­ble to coop­ta­tion at the same time as it be­comes highly vis­i­ble.

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