Fem­i­nism is On Brand

Ex­am­in­ing the Trend of “Woke Cap­i­tal­ism”

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Phoebe Fisher Com­men­tary Writer

In our cur­rent cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, the aim of al­most every com­pany’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing process is to max­i­mize their profit. In the pur­suit of that goal, in­dus­tries rang­ing from film to re­tail have been in­creas­ingly more pro­gres­sive in their mes­sages. These com­pa­nies have rec­og­nized that “woke” cul­ture and “trendy” fem­i­nism are on the rise, and have up­dated their rhetoric and brand­ing ac­cord­ingly.

When we ex­am­ine the eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tion of a com­pany that sells some­thing with a “good mes­sage,” their im­pact must be con­sid­ered along­side their in­tent. That is to say, it is im­por­tant to ex­am­ine where the prof­its of these sup­pos­edly “woke” prod­ucts go, and how that im­pacts the com­pany’s orig­i­nal de­ci­sion to sell that prod­uct. For ex­am­ple, the cloth­ing store For­ever 21 has be­gun sell­ing shirts and ac­ces­sories with the word “fem­i­nist” or “girl power” on them, us­ing the main­streamiza­tion of fem­i­nism to tar­get a spe­cific mar­ket. How­ever, the profit from these prod­ucts goes di­rectly into the com­pany’s board and share­hold­ers’ pock­ets.

For­ever 21 is one of the 77 Los An­ge­les gar­ment fac­to­ries that were un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the US De­part­ment of La­bor in 2016. This in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that work­ers were paid poverty wages, that go from $4 per hour, and av­er­age at $7 an hour for 10-hour days, sig­nif­i­cantly below the min­i­mum wage in Cal­i­for­nia. Al­though the com­pany may ap­pear to ad­vo­cate for marginal­ized groups with their prod­ucts, they are at the same time ex­ploit­ing their work­ers who are pre­dom­i­nantly women of colour. This is an in­stance of a com­pany prof­it­ing off of so­cial ac­tivism as a trend, and get­ting di­rectly re­warded for par­tic­i­pat­ing in “wo­ke­ness” through cap­i­tal.

How­ever, com­pa­nies such as Kid­dbell, which sells an abun­dance of cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories with phrases like “my body my choice” and “Black lives mat­ter” on them, have a more eth­i­cal ap­proach. Most of their prof­its go to help causes and or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Planned Par­ent­hood, The Cen­ter for Reproductive Rights, and The Na­tional Do­mes­tic Abuse Hot­line. This shows that de­spite be­ing a for-profit com­pany that uses “woke” cul­ture to its ad­van­tage, Kid­dbell fol­lows through by mak­ing some eth­i­cal de­ci­sions on what they spend their profit on. In “Is fem­i­nism trend­ing? Ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proaches to coun­ter­ing (Sl) ac­tivism,” Ju­liann Guil­lard dif­fer­en­ti­ates be­tween ‘to­ken sup­port’ and ‘mean­ing­ful sup­port’ of a cause. She ex­plains that to­ken sup­port takes the form of “on­line ac­tivism – sign­ing an on­line pe­ti­tion, lik­ing a Face­book post or group, re-tweet­ing a post, etc.” whereas mean­ing­ful sup­port is de­fined as “con­sumer con­tri­bu­tions that re­quire a sig­nif­i­cant cost, ef­fort, or be­hav­iour change in ways that make tan­gi­ble con­tri­bu­tions to the cause, such as do­nat­ing money, time, or skills.” While cor­po­ra­tions still up­hold an op­pres­sive cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, they some­tiomes give back to the con­sumers they profit from by demon­strat­ing a real com­mit­ment to some anti-op­pres­sive causes.

An­other way to an­a­lyze the im­pact of re­tail ac­tivism is to look di­rectly at the way com­pa­nies brand them­selves. The sole pur­pose of ad­ver­tis­ing and brand­ing is to per­suade a tar­get au­di­ence to pur­chase, or oth­er­wise sup­port, a prod­uct. Brands fo­cus on ap­peal­ing to a spe­cific group of con­sumers that will be able to gen­er­ate a max­i­mum profit. Once a tar­get au­di­ence is iden­ti­fied, the mar­ket­ing strate­gies and meth­ods of ap­peal adapt to it. “Woke peo­ple,” es­pe­cially young so­cially-con­scious mil­len­ni­als, have de­vel­oped as a de­mo­graphic fi­nan­cially wor­thy of be­ing a tar­get au­di­ence for many for­profit in­sti­tu­tions.

Teen Vogue is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this strat­egy. The pub­li­ca­tion was dwin­dling in sales in 2015, then re­vamped its im­age and mar­ket­ing strate­gies to be more po­lit­i­cal and sup­port in­ter­sec­tional fem­i­nist views, which be­came pop­u­lar amongst their au­di­ence. The mag­a­zine also now fo­cuses on a dig­i­tal for­mat, keep­ing up with its younger read­er­ship. Ad­di­tion­ally, Elaine Wel­teroth was re­cently named Ed­i­tor-in-chief of Teen Vogue at age 29, and is the first African Amer­i­can in the pub­li­ca­tion’s his­tory to hold such a po­si­tion. The mag­a­zine’s dig­i­tal ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor is Phillip Pi­cardi, a 25 year old gay man, who has ex­plic­itly re­ferred to the Teen Vogue read­er­ship as “woke.” The New York Times re­ported this shift, re­fer­ring to Teen Vogue as “the teen’s guide to Trump’s pres­i­dency.” This “woke” re-model has proven ef­fec­tive; Teen Vogue’s web­site got 7.9 mil­lion US vis­i­tors in Jan­uary 2017, up from 2.9 mil­lion the year be­fore.

Many other com­pa­nies have turned to a more po­lit­i­cally en­gaged and “woke” mes­sage to in­cur more sup­port and suc­cess, though not al­ways done as well. The 2017 Pepsi com­mer­cial fea­tur­ing Ken­dall Jen­ner — which was even­tu­ally taken down — is an ex­am­ple of prof­itable “wo­ke­ness” that was ill-in­formed. The com­mer­cial showed a protest, clearly in­spired by Black Lives Mat­ter and other re­cent demon­stra­tions in the US, only with marchers hold­ing signs with phrases such as “join the con­ver­sa­tion,” and peace sym­bols, in­stead of ac­tual po­lit­i­cal de­mands. The com­mer­cial ends when Ken­dall Jen­ner re­solves the is­sue by hand­ing a Pepsi to a po­lice of­fi­cer who was stand­ing against the protest. The com­mer­cial seems to sug­gests that any white woman with a soft drink can re­solve sys­temic po­lit­i­cal con­flict. The fact that Ken­dall Jen­ner is a white woman who of­ten par­tic­i­pates in prob­lem­atic prac­tices such as cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is not ad­dressed. Ac­tivist Deray Mckesson, who was in­stru­men­tal in or­ga­niz­ing protests in Fer­gu­son fol­low­ing the mur­der of Michael Brown, said to NBC News, “this ad triv­i­al­izes the ur­gency of the is­sues and it di­min­ishes the se­ri­ous­ness and the grav­ity of why we got into the street in the first place.”

Al­though Teen Vogue and Pepsi both aimed to profit from their par­tic­i­pa­tion in “wo­ke­ness,” there is a staunch dif­fer­ence be­tween them. Teen Vogue did use their shift to po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ism to gain more suc­cess and view­er­ship, but also com­mit­ted to hir­ing marginal­ized peo­ple in a range of high-level po­si­tions. It is not just a cor­po­ra­tion, but a type of news out­let; their prod­uct is their mes­sage. The Pepsi com­mer­cial, how­ever, com­mod­i­fies and over­sim­pli­fies the ef­forts and strug­gles of or­ga­ni­za­tions like Black Lives Mat­ter and the Women’s March. The ad­ver­tise­ment ap­pro­pri­ates so­cial ac­tivism for profit. We must re­main crit­i­cal of the ex­ploita­tion of “woke cul­ture” and of re­tail ac­tivism by cor­po­ra­tions as it grows in pop­u­lar­ity. This in­cludes Cover­girl’s Lash Equal­ity cam­paign, Amer­i­can Ea­gle’s #AERIEREAL, Dove’s Self-esteem Pro­ject, and many oth­ers. Any dis­cus­sion con­cern­ing in­tent vs. im­pact is go­ing to be nu­anced and not a clear story of “evil vs. good” com­pa­nies, but where you put your money mat­ters. In a flawed cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, the dol­lar is power; use it wisely.

These com­pa­nies have rec­og­nized that “woke” cul­ture and “trendy” fem­i­nism are on the rise, and have up­dated their rhetoric and brand­ing ac­cord­ingly.

“Woke peo­ple” [...] have de­vel­oped as a de­mo­graphic fi­nan­cially wor­thy of be­ing a tar­get au­di­ence for many for-profit in­sti­tu­tions.

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