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THE FUNHOUSE MIRROR
It doesn't matter what they say. I mean, yes, I kick like a girl, and I swim like a girl, and I walk like a girl, and I wake up in the morning like a girl because I am a girl. And that is not something that I should be ashamed of, so I'm going to do it, anyway. — ALWAYS, #LikeAGirl
Always, the feminine hygiene company, debuted their #LikeAGirl campaign in the summer of 2014. The campaign was directed by Lauren Greenfield, better known for her monographs Girl Culture and THIN, and for her critically acclaimed documentary Queen of Versailles; she is deeply invested in girl culture, both publicly and politically. The campaign's website sports the tagline "Fighting to Empower Girls Everywhere"; the company has formed partnerships with UNESCO, as part of their Global Puberty Education program, as well as the Lean In Foundation and the Girl Scouts.
The #LikeAGirl ad begins with Greenfield posing as the director of a video shoot, asking a group of young women, in their late teens and early twenties, to "show me what it looks like to run like a girl." From the beginning of the ad, the focus is on the female body itself — bodies that move, throw, run. As the ad continues, the young women answer Greenfield with caricature. They run in exaggerated movements, flailing their arms, fussing with their hair. They run slowly, inefficiently, unfocused and untrained. Follow-up questions — "show me what it looks like to fight like a girl" and "to throw like a girl" — find similar results: flailing arms, embarrassed laughter, clearly ineffectual body movements. The ad then cuts to text: "We then asked young girls the same questions." The ad returns to Greenfield with a group of younger girls: one identifies as ten years old; others look even younger. In contrast to the women in the ad, the young girls respond earnestly, forcefully; they run, fight, and throw with strength and confidence. One young girl, when asked what it means to run like a girl, says, "It means run as fast as you can." The ad then cuts again to text: "When did doing something like a girl become an insult?" The implication is clear: the answer to this question comes with the gap in ages between the two groups. Doing things "like a girl" becomes an insult somewhere during adolescence. The tone of the ad then changes, offering more empowered responses. A young woman is asked, "What advice do you have to girls who are told you run like a girl, hit like a girl, throw like a girl, swim like a girl?" She answers, "Keep doing it 'cuz it's working. If somebody else says that running like a girl, or kicking like a girl, or shooting like a girl is something that you shouldn't be doing, that's their problem. Because if you're still scoring, and you're still getting to the ball on time, and you're still being first, you're doing it right." The ad ends with a final screen of text: "Let's make #LikeAGirl mean amazing things. Join us to champion girls' confidence at always.com." The intention is clear: Always wants to intervene in the early onset of what some have called the gendered confidence gap (where boys and men are more confident than girls and women in their everyday lives) before it crystallizes into a full-blown crisis (Kay and Shipman 2014b).
Always and its #LikeAGirl campaign are part of a constellation of recent corporate players invested in resolving what they deem a "girl crisis" — namely, "plummeting self-esteem and confidence" — through ads and campaigns that encourage empowerment for girls and young women. These corporate campaigns are an increasingly common form of corporate social responsibility, in which the company's efforts are not attached to a particular political goal — such as fair trade or environmentalism — but rather to the more diffuse realm of gendered subjectivity. Of course, companies such as Always have massive advertising budgets, so campaigns such as #LikeAGirl can be highly produced and distributed, and have an already established presence within an economy of visibility. Examples of popular feminism such as this campaign are privileged within this economy, as advertising, of course, has media visibility as its central logic. While the Always campaign gained considerable visibility throughout 2014, it wasn't until a shortened version aired during the Super Bowl, the professional US football championship game, in February 2015, that the campaign became even more widely visible. The Super Bowl is one of the most watched live sports broadcasts in the United States, and because of the wide audience, companies compete by creating remarkably expensive ads to be shown during the show. Adobe ranked Always' #LikeAGirl the top digital campaign of the Super Bowl, based on mentions in social media (Friedman 2015), and it was broadly noted that this was the first time a feminine care product was advertised during the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is notorious for its male-targeted ads, though the landscape has been changing in recent years as women viewers have been recognized as an important consumer demographic. The Super Bowl has also been recognized as an exemplar in a changing advertising landscape, where companies are shifting advertising tactics to appeal to women. Indeed, during the Super Bowl in 2017, the car company Audi explicitly referenced the gendered pay gap as part of their ad. Rather than use idealized versions of women cleaning the house, taking care of children, and so on, companies such as Procter & Gamble (the parent company of Always) and Audi are now selling products based on messages of female empowerment (see also Zeisler 2016).
Always' #LikeAGirl campaign is a compelling example of the increasing prominence of girls' confidence within advertising and corporate campaigns. By asking viewers to "join" them in championing girls' confidence, Always positions itself as part of a broader empowerment movement, itself supported by popular feminism. As I argued in the introduction, popular feminism is feminism that marshals the "popular" in various ways: it is expressed and practiced on multiple media platforms, it attracts other like-minded groups and individuals, and it manifests in a terrain of struggle, with competing demands for power. While there are different forms of popular feminism, there are some, such as expensive ad campaigns, that are more easily circulated within an economy of visibility, a context that is particularly amenable to corporate media campaigns. That is, Always, like every company, needs to sell products in order to survive — and feminine hygiene products no less. Thus popular feminist ads are connected to an aspirational notion of consumerism and are a part of a broader brand culture; indeed, popular feminist ads are an important way that popular feminism itself is branded.
The Always campaign offers one iteration of popular feminism and female empowerment; throughout this book I'll explore some of the different versions of empowerment supported by popular feminism. Popular feminism exists along a continuum, and thus the definition of empowerment that is marshaled at any given point on that continuum will also have different dimensions and definitions. As I'll detail throughout this book, popular feminist explorations and affirmations circulate in and across multiple media platforms with ease and frequency, creating a frenetic landscape of feminist discourse. There are significant differences within and between feminisms and their goals, and they can't be generalized. Within popular feminism, that is, there are varied goals under the broad rubric of empowerment: intersectional feminism, corporate feminism, feminist consumption, and so on.
In this chapter, I examine the economy of visibility that supports popular feminism and popular misogyny. The economy of visibility is validated and affirmed within neoliberal capitalism, which is dedicated to seeking out new markets and brands in all facets of life. Here, I discuss the branding of popular feminism and popular misogyny. Of course, popular feminist and popular misogynist brands did not simply emerge in the twenty-first century but are instead connected to historical processes of branding politics (Arviddson 2006; Hearn 2008; Banet-Weiser 2012).
In the twenty-first century, both girls and women use popular feminism to construct themselves as empowered entrepreneurs, and popular feminism becomes a platform for economic success. At the same time, there are many heterosexual men who seem to find themselves in a masculinity crisis — a crisis that is often blamed on those same empowered entrepreneurial women, as well as on global economic recession. This crisis often manifests in popular misogyny. Like the Always ad that laments the plummeting self-esteem in adolescent girls, the market for self-esteem has recognized men and boys as consumers as well, positioning men as incurring injuries due to low self-esteem. For example, men's rights organizations have had a heightened visibility over the last few decades largely because of online communication (which allows people to connect more easily), and often focus on building self-esteem and confidence. This focus is manifest in visual campaigns that mirror popular feminist campaigns, marshaling the themes of popular feminism — such as self-esteem, confidence, and competence — and applying these themes to themselves. Like much of popular feminism, these campaigns purport to challenge existing social relations; I argue that this mirroring effect is that of a funhouse mirror, in which politics and bodies are distorted and transfigured so that men — heterosexual, white men — are the ones who appear to be injured by widespread inequities and structural disparities. Men's rights campaigns are often framed as a route to return to the way things "should be" between men and women (before those angry, pesky feminists got in the way).
Thus, at the heart of confidence and empowerment campaigns for both women and men is the dual dynamic of injury and capacity: women respond to the injuries caused by centuries of being undervalued as citizens and overvalued as objectified bodies. Men, in turn, call out this injury, and claim that in the current moment, it is men who are injured — by a series of wounds caused by women and feminists. Both popular feminist and popular misogynistic campaigns seek to demonstrate individual capacity as a way to suture this wound, to overcome this injury.
This dual dynamic of injury and capacity characterizes how popular feminism and popular misogyny function in the current moment. To think through the ways in which this dynamic functions, I'll first discuss the ways that popular feminism has been harnessed for marketing and advertising purposes, as a way to construct a popular feminist brand. I use the space of advertising and its representations and discourses as a kind of heuristic guide, a way of tracing the trajectory of the residual and emergent iterations of feminism and misogyny. A primary mode of address in popular feminist advertising is what I call sentimental earnestness. A similarly earnest mode of address is used in campaigns created by men's rights organizations; in both media forms, earnestness works to shore up popular feminism and popular misogyny. The intense conviction that propels earnestness is, not surprisingly, different for popular feminism and popular misogyny, but in both, earnestness frames and shapes how and in what ways women and men are both injured and infused with capacity.
Sentimental earnestness is both a central logic in popular feminism and a mode of address that can be thought of, in advertising industry lingo, as a "unique selling position"; sentimental earnestness is a distinct mechanism that connects certain feminist messages to particular products. The sentimental earnestness of popular feminism seems, first and foremost, recuperative: this manifestation of feminism sees girls and women as being "in crisis" — a crisis due to insecurity, or a lack of self-confidence, or a lack of leadership, among other things. Indeed, postfeminism is in some ways blamed for being complicit with the perpetuation of this crisis, because postfeminism is partly a response to what was considered a kind of hand-wringing feminist discourse that positioned women as victims.
Popular feminism, in many ways, is a return to earnestness, a return to a focus on gendered injuries, by centering on the cultural, economic, and political injuries women experience by living in sexist societies. Yet it is also distinct in the way it marshals entrepreneurialism and feminine capacity as a response to these injuries. I argue that the qualifier to feminism, the "popular" of popular feminism, and the sentimental earnestness that is the dominant form of address in popular feminist ads, do important cultural work in shoring up a particular feminine/feminist subject. Popular feminism harnesses feminist politics to an economic context, even if this harnessing is one of avowal and recuperation with popular feminism.
Popular Feminist Advertising
The 1990s witnessed the emergence of a particular "crisis in girls" (Hains 2012). This "crisis" was ostensibly caused by widespread exclusion of girls from math and science programs in schools, rising numbers of white middle-class girls with eating disorders and other body-image issues, and reports of general low self-confidence that, depending on how you listened, emerged from the erosion of the traditional nuclear family or from media representations of hypersexualized teenagers who wore their skirts too high and their shirts too low. This new crisis was broadly lamented, by parents and politicians and reporters, and also detailed in research reports, including, in 1991, the influential American Association of University Women report, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, which connected girls' low self-esteem and confidence to the low success of girls in science and math (Hains 2012). This report, as well as subsequent others, stimulated a national conversation and response, including renewed efforts to encourage girls to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, educational programs focusing on body image and bullying practices at schools, and changes in public policy so that girls were included as valuable citizens (Hains 2012; Projansky 2014; Hasinoff 2015).
Yet, while girls experience a crisis in confidence, there is a simultaneous link made between girls and power — namely, the power to consume. This power manifested, starting in the 1990s, with the slogan "girl power," and the industry that grew rapidly to capitalize on it (Banet-Weiser 2007; Negra and Tasker 2007; McRobbie 2009). Girl power proved a potent means to sell clothing, sports, and young adult literature (among other things). As important, girl power is not simply a commodity in its own right but also refers to girls as powerful consumers, who represent a primary market (where girls have their own income), a market of influencers (where girls influence their parents' consumer choices), and a future market (where girls' consumer loyalty is cultivated as future customers) (McNeal 1992; Banet-Weiser 2007).
The simultaneous positioning of girls as "in crisis" (and therefore in need of empowerment) and as valuable consumers, has helped to create a market for empowerment. The power of girls has, for much of recent history and in innumerable ways, been legislated against, policed, and regulated. Thus, our very recent association of girls with power — and indeed, even celebration of the fact that girls could be powerful — is innovative and even radical. However, that celebration should not be taken at face value. That is, when we celebrate girl power, which girl are we actually celebrating? It is clear that she belongs to a particular race and class — typically white and wealthy enough to purchase the latest trends and a smart phone — and thus has the economic and cultural privilege required to access power.
Alongside the efforts to empower girls through external mechanisms — policy, education, consumption practices — there has also been a mandate to "empower oneself," especially in the context of neoliberal capitalism and the privileging of the entrepreneur as the identity to aspire to. This dual dynamic, of empowering women through external mechanisms and the neoliberal imperative to empower oneself, forms the crux of the current "confidence movement," which aims to inspire self-confidence in girls and women (Gill and Orgad 2015). While there are different definitions of what "confidence" means for the confidence movement (as I argue in chapter 3), much of the "confidence problem" is located squarely on the body and in one's self-image. And the "solution" to this problem is often found in branding and advertising, which have harnessed the goal of self-confidence and attached it to products (Zeisler 2016). As the Always ad campaign emphasizes, girls are widely believed to have plummeting self-confidence in adolescence and young adulthood, so Always and other companies have targeted this demographic with messages that focus on self-love, self-esteem, and body positivity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Empowered"
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
1. The Funhouse Mirror 41
2. Shame: Love Yourself and Be Humiliated 65
3. Confidence: The Con Game 92
4. Competence: Girls Who Code and Boys Who Hate Them 129
Conclusion: Rage 171
What People are Saying About This
“This is a brilliant, incisive, and compelling read that helps us to think together two seemingly contrary trends: the current power of popular feminism alongside the chilling rise of vicious misogyny. This marvelous and brave book is a must-read.”
“In this carefully researched and theoretically daring book Sarah Banet-Weiser tells an engaging story about the social and cultural life of popular feminism in the age of social media and self-empowerment. Sorting out the connection between popular feminism and popular misogyny, Banet-Weiser shows how the cultural pressure to be seen and the social pressure to be liked form the perfect conditions for popular feminism, patriarchy, and misogyny to thrive. We need this important book now more than ever.”
“Put down that ‘Cats Against Patriarchy’ mug and hear a bitter truth: the friendly glimmer of popular feminism is shadowed at every turn by a virulent misogyny that's proven just as valuable in the cultural and political marketplace. In Empowered Sarah Banet-Weiser draws on years of scholarship to examine this fast-curdling symbiosis, tracing its persuasions and promises with an engrossing urgency.”