Apparently feminism has a branding problem. In September, VITAMIN W launched a contest encouraging people to come up with creative solutions to address feminism's “bad rep”, and this month, Elle magazine published a spread asking three advertising agencies to “re-brand a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity”.
While the efforts are being applauded by some, the rationale being “the more feminists the merrier” one supposes, the question remains: Is feminism a product simply in need of better packaging?
The idea behind these efforts to re-brand the century-old movement is not only that people just don't get feminism, but that women are afraid to take on the label because of negative connotations.
According to a poll commissioned by Ms. Magazine, the Communications Consortium Media Center, and the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), 55 percent of female voters in the US identify as feminist. For a movement that challenges the ruling party, those numbers aren't half bad.
Over two decades ago, Susan Faludi published Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, yet her introduction could have been written today. In it, Faludi talks about the vilification of feminism – the media blamed the movement for robbing women of their happiness and called it a failure. Yet onward we marched.
There is a reason that feminists are labeled as ugly, extremist, man-haters, and that reason is sexism. Feminism isn't palatable and that is the point. Women shouldn't have to love sex with men, shave their legs, be beautiful, or be quiet and polite in order to be respected. In fact, even if women do all that they're supposed to and even if they play the role of “woman” perfectly, they are still not respected. Women lose either way.
The accolades women get for being beautiful, agreeable, lovers of men are temporary and superficial. Getting invited to the boys club only to find themselves relegated to sex toy or cook is exactly what led women to start a radical feminist movement in the first place.
What women are afraid of when it comes to identifying as a feminist is justified. Being a feminist means questioning things we take for granted – it means understanding that a choice to get breast implants or to take our husband's name in marriage may not simply be an individual decision, isolated from social context. It also can mean having difficult conversations, as often even mentioning the fact that patriarchy is something that exists can cause anger and defensiveness from those who had come to believe they were living in an equal society.
And it isn't only men who might react negatively to the argument that perhaps there is something troubling about the fact that, while Robin Thicke was permitted to keep his pants on during this year's VMA's, Miley Cyrus was not offered the same privilege, and that that “something” is inequality. Women, too, have been sold the idea that sexism is something that happens in faraway lands and that women who insist on railing on about objectification and porn culture are prudish harpies, stuck in the past.
Myth of postfeminist society
Today, women – particularly women in the West – are told they exist in a postfeminist society and are free to do what they wish. This often translates into the idea that choosing to wear stilettos, taking up burlesque as a hobby, or using Instagram to show off one's bikini body are feminist acts because the women making these choices are doing so out of free-will. Because we are no longer faced with the same barriers to education, jobs, and financial independence we once were, many young women are led to believe feminism is no longer needed.
Not only are women everywhere still facing oppression, but feminism isn't only about making choices. Feminism is also about ending violence against women, which remains prevalent everywhere, it is about creating a world where single mothers are able to survive and thrive, and it is about addressing gendered racism, for example, the fact that aboriginal women are the fastest growing population of prisoners in Canada. Rape isn't something that only happens in other places; neither does prostitution or domestic abuse.
But re-branding feminism is unlikely to address any of these issues, as these issues are not particularly glossy or sellable to begin with. Feminism becomes popular when feminism becomes sexy and untroublesome. You'll notice that mainstream media is suddenly very preoccupied with the feminist movement whenever the “feminist movement” is blonde, thin, and topless. The irony of Elle magazine, a publication that has long been among those responsible for reinforcing unattainable standards of beauty and perfection for women, attempting to re-brand feminism should tell you something about what their gussied-up feminism would look like.
The stereotypes that make feminism look bad are, in fact, the reason feminism exists in the first place. The notion that "lesbian" is an insult is homophobic and the ever-popular claim that feminists are all bitter and undersexed is just old-fashioned misogyny. Perhaps the problem, in terms of feminism's image, isn't bad marketing but sexism.
Education is key
Feminism is a movement, not a product. I have yet to see Marxists working on their marketing campaign and I fear that efforts to re-brand feminism are based on the notion that many see feminism less as a radical movement than as a personal identity like foodie or soccer mom.
If the problem is that people misunderstand the term, education, for example, incorporating women's studies into elementary and high school curricula, would be a more effective solution than a glossy marketing campaign.
Feminists will continue to be called man-haters so long as they threaten to undo patriarchy, a decidedly unfashionable pastime. Part of joining a movement that goes against the grain is that you risk being unpopular with those who are invested in maintaining the very power and privilege that is being challenged.
Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, Canada. Vist her website at Feminist Current.