Maybe it’s the exploitation of pseudo-feminist ideals under late-stage capitalism.
Last month, Mattel.inc released a new advert entitled ‘Imagine the Possibilities’. In case you didn’t know already, Mattel produce Barbie dolls. This advert was meant to sell Barbies to us using the message that little girls who play with Barbies are little girls who grow into career women, because Barbie herself is a career woman. The advert was received largely positively, but for me, I was left feeling a little unsettled.
Among a plethora of openly misogynistic adverts that display women in humiliating, exploitative ways, one might wonder whether there is anything wrong at all with an ‘empowering’ advert for a Barbie doll. I would argue that it isn’t the content of the ad itself which is problematic (it’s actually rather sweet), but the mentality behind it.
This is the mentality of companies exploiting a renewed interest in feminist ideals in order to sell us products. Feminism is no longer a dirty word, and announcing with pride that you are a feminist is no longer the kind of declaration that gets you ignored at a party. In fact, saying you aren’t a feminist is now much more the exception than the rule, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by big companies such as Mattel. This still seems like a good thing, right? Even faceless, profit-orientated corporations now want to be considered feminist. Feminism is mainstream, and surely that’s what we always wanted?
Yes and no.
My problem is with the concept of companies using their idea of feminism to sell us their products is the idea that you, a woman, living in a still-patriarchal world, CAN achieve your dreams as long as you buy our products. You CAN be a strong independent woman who don’t need no man, as long as you have flawless eyeliner, which we happen to be selling! You CAN demand equal pay, as long as you spend a good portion of your hard earned wages on leg waxes and lipstick and high heels to crush the patriarchy in!
What about the countless women who work in the factories that produce Mattel’s Barbie dolls? Does Barbie also inspire them to bigger and better things than a 13 hour work day in a Chinese factory where they lose their wages if they take a sick day? What about the women who cannot afford the products they promote? The women who aren’t willing to conform to the very narrow standard of beauty promoted by make-up and doll companies? Where do they stand in this new world of “feminist” consumerism?
I do not doubt that some CEOs and advertising directors of major corporations do consider themselves to be feminists, and aren’t endorsing feminist ideals purely for the purposes of selling products, but fundamentally, companies are there to make profit. They want you to buy their products, and if they go about that by heavily implying that you are lacking without their products, I have a problem with that. Feminism is about achieving gender equality, and in this case, seems to be about making sure all genders can be equally crushed in the merciless gears of the capitalist profit machine.
Regarding the Barbie advert – whilst it was somewhat adorable and not openly toxic, I am still not entirely sure why little girls need to have a Barbie in order to imagine themselves as a lecturer or a palaeontologist. I had Barbies when I was a wee one, and mostly ended up cutting off all of their hair and/or sending them on wild adventures through my room where they had to fight my other toys. But I’d have done this regardless of whether the toy at hand was a Barbie or not, and I certainly didn’t need an unsettlingly proportioned female doll in order to imagine myself in a career.
The world is tough on young women, and so they feel they have to be tougher. And it’s much easier to feel like a badass when you have your Maybelline red lipstick and your Armani leather jacket and your Jimmy Choo heels. Women have to try so much harder to validate themselves in a world that is constantly telling them that they are mediocre in comparison to their male counterparts, and companies seem to be waiting, predatorily, to strengthen flagging self-esteem with make-up and high heels and career-orientated dolls with unrealistic beauty standards.
I like make-up. I like feminine clothing and looking pretty. But I often wish I didn’t, because my confidence as a woman should be inherent regardless of whether I look pretty or not. And in this day and age, it is very, very difficult to look pretty without purchasing something.
Those “empowering” sorts of adverts may not be doing the same harm to women’s self-esteem as the many blatantly misogynistic ads, but their effects may be more insidious. Companies are for profit – they are not there to help us achieve gender parity. Companies have their own interests in mind, not ours.
Whilst an “empowering” advert for a doll may not be the most dangerous threat to women’s rights today, it is certainly not something we should consider revolutionary. Feminism should not be for profit.
[Morgaine Das Varma]