A few days ago, I spotted a video on Facebook that made me pause. If we live in similar social media bubbles, you’ve probably seen it too. It was a holiday ad for Audi, featuring Pixar-style animation. The video opens on two shelves of children’s toys in a department store. On the left, Barbie dolls are illuminated in pink. On the right are stacked blue boxes of model cars and trucks. The camera zooms in on the girls’ side, where a Barbie kicks at her horse and buggy, frustrated with the low-tech ride. Spying the other options across the aisle, she grabs hold of a strand of Christmas lights and swings over to the boys’ shelf, where she finds a toy Audi. Excited by what she sees, she steps inside, hits the ignition, and zooms through the store.
This is not the only time the company has embedded a “feminist” message in their advertising. During the latest Super Bowl, the luxury car retailer aired a commercial calling for an end to the gender pay gap. The ad featured a young blond girl racing a go-cart against a co-ed group of opponents. Looking on from the stands, her father laments that his daughter’s determination will not be fairly compensated by her employers, indignant that “despite her education, her drive, her skills, and her intelligence, she would automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets.” The pro-woman campaign was only one installment in a broader phenomenon that has burgeoned in the wake of the Women’s Marches in January. Tapping national interest in gender equality, a swarm of companies—from Pepsi to fashion retailer Wildfang—have begun touting their products as instruments of women’s empowerment.
Advertisers’ sudden interest in female freedom begs unsettling questions about what it means for brands to declare themselves activists for women’s equality. Should we read these corporate shows of solidarity as beacons of hope, inspiring viewers with progressive messaging? Or are advertisers merely co-opting feminism as a timely marketing tactic, tapping national interest in gender equality in order to turn a profit?
Many social media channels have lauded companies’ apparent interest in feminism, optimistic about ads’ capacity to empower young women. Yet other writers have taken a more critical stance, questioning both the integrity of companies’ activism and the particular strand of “feminism” they are perpetuating. Jessa Crispin tackles both issues in her recent book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. Criticizing contemporary feminism for going corporate, Crispin argues that the movement requires radical rethinking in order to have any political value. Now mainstream, Crispin observes, feminism is packaged and sold in a form as inoffensive and toxic as aspartame, looking pretty while utterly lacking in power.
The hypocrisy Crispin identifies in “feminist branding”—which, she alleges, sells ideals without realizing them—crystallized in the recent controversy over “Thinx,” a company that sells “period panties for modern women.” The brand used scandal to solicit attention, leveraging outcry at their “graphic” advertisements—which featured blood red oranges and dripping eggs—to earn the accolades of sex-positive feminists. Yet while in its ads, Thinx challenged the pervasive misogyny of period-shaming, the company was less generous to its own workers. In a recent exposé for Racked, Hilary George-Parkin revealed a string of policies—including inadequate maternity leave and hostility toward salary negotiations—that indicated Thinx’s female employees faced a far less tolerant reality than the “feminist utopia” its ads promised. Advertising an image without supporting it, they exemplified the superficial, flaky feminism Crispin condemns, driving progress in principle but not practice.
If feminism has been appropriated as a marketing strategy, the rhetoric surrounding it has also become corporate, giving the word a sterile flavor. To be sure, feminist advertisements can send girls and women positive messages. This is no small feat in a consumer culture that continues to breed and feed off of women’s insecurities. Yet while some ads might spark substantive conversation, most tout a vision of feminism that is specific and restricted. The Barbie ad is a testament to female success—insofar as success is a luxury car. The father in the Super Bowl ad is indignant not about his daughter’s right to reproductive healthcare, or safety from sexual assault, but about her ability to thrive in a corporate marketplace. In this sense, both ads frame feminism not as an intersectional struggle towards equality, but rather a matter of individual women gaining entrance to the luxury world previously foreclosed to them.
This individualistic vision—in which female power is won through personal purchasing power—is also a limited one. If these ads promote “self-empowerment,” the “self” being empowered is not universal. Rather, companies speak to a specific brand of woman: one who sees herself in the Barbie doll and blond model featured in the Audi ads. It is this woman—white, straight, upper-middle-class, cisgender, and able-bodied—who is being invited to join the thrill-seeking, martini-drinking, Audi-driving fold of the male elite.
The feminist constructed by these ads springs from a more general streak of individualism permeating popular feminism. Audi’s corporate woman, who shares the ambitions and appetites of her male peers, finds a younger double in the trope of the freewheeling “chill girl,” unafraid to break the same rules as boys. Nicholas Stoller caricatured this attitude in his 2016 blockbuster Neighbors 2, which told the story of a “feminist” sorority whose sisters wear groutfits, smoke weed, and throw tampons at their neighbors in defense of their right to party. Determined to defeat the patriarchy by indulging in the same reckless activities as frat boys, the sisters embody the self-centered vision of women’s empowerment figured in Audi’s Barbie. This is a far cry from the intersectional feminism forwarded by feminists of color, socialist feminists, and queer and disability activists, who recognize that gender equality is not simply a matter of individual women’s advancement into previously male spheres, but of working together to dismantle the interlocking systems of oppression that allow some of us to succeed while others stumble.
To be sure, the corporate world has struck up a romance with feminism, promoting a superficial vision of “women’s empowerment” that favors individualism over solidarity, and defines freedom as freedom to consume. Yet if contemporary feminism is riddled with blind spots, it is precisely because of what the present movement overlooks that activism needs a future. The contradictory title of Crispin’s book echoes a long line of writers who have apologized for engaging feminism even as they sustain it. In the introduction to her 1949 work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir claims that feminism is so exhausted a subject as to be hardly worth arguing about. “Enough ink has spilled over the quarrel about feminism,” Beauvoir reflects. “It is now almost over; let’s not talk about it anymore.” Beauvoir follows this statement with over 750 pages on the “situation” of Western women.
For nearly a century, feminism has been passé and problematic, unsexy and irrelevant, torn down by the very women who support it. If corporate feminism is the end of feminism, then it is the end of a movement that has been ending for generations—and continues to thrive, most indebted to its harshest critics.