Feminism and Consumerism

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This is a topic very close to my heart. I believe in the first, and live with the realities of the latter. I’ve wanted to write about this for quite some time now, and I probably will again many more times. But I haven’t had the time in the past 24 hours to do this topic justice. I asked my sister for a bit of help, and she was kind enough to send me a write up on this. So, I can’t take any credit for the post today – it is all her.

Eyeliner sharp enough to cut someone, the increasing height of heels over time, makeup always ‘on point’…sound familiar? Women around the world, once powerless, are now capable enough to buy their way to confidence. How many of us really feel comfortable with just the way we are? How many of us can accept the way we look? And how many of us actually stop to think that the ‘powerful-female’ view sold to us by companies is just a money-minting tool that capitalises on the rising importance of feminism and women’s independence and its increasing link to purchasing power in popular culture?

Consumption by women everywhere has seen an explosion in recent times. ‘Women: Saviors of the World Economy?’ was a news item introduced by CNN that brought attention to the heightened earning and spending power of modern women. This can be seen as a breakaway from gendered roles of men as the primary breadwinners and their control over a family’s wealth.

The development of patriarchy along with the emergence of settled societies pushed women into a model of economic dependence on the man as women were increasingly seen as primary caregivers. Post world war, mass employment of women in workplaces like factories, offices etc. was by and large one of the most important events for feminism.

With the invention of television, and expansion of product advertising, a consumerist society became the norm. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the women who didn’t work, were given complete control of the domestic sphere, which influenced many companies to make these house-wives their product targets. They recognized that a woman was responsible for shopping for her entire family and therefore, produced goods and services that emphasized on their domestic roles. And in this model, women for the first time became the chief consumers. A survey done by FemmeDen in 2009 showed that women either make decisions for or purchased 80% of the total products / goods for the family.

Marketing tropes have, however, changed over time in consonance with the change in the ideas of feminism and gender roles. They have progressed from the older model of advertising women in familial roles to a newer model of independent decision takers, money-making, sexually emancipated beings. These trends intersect with the modern market’s underlying crux; consuming allows one to express their individuality and articulate their autonomy. For the longest time, men exercised financial control over women. So the newfound ability of women to spend the money they have earned independently has spurred consumerism in an attempt to establish their identities as ‘autonomous’ entities, free from the control of men.

This led to a second wave of feminism in our market society, that is, ‘judgment free pleasure’. However, this hasn’t aided freedom from a patriarchal society and its implications. Rather, it has become more important to have the freedom and power to acquire the goods that one wants in service of projecting an independent image and lifestyle. Contemporary marketers and advertisers are more than aware of the trends conflating women’s independence and consumerism and capitalize on it.

This renewed interest in marketing to women coincides with the rise of discourses that links women’s independence to consumption or the ability and freedom to consume.

An example of this is the De Beers campaign for the ‘right hand ring’ that ran nationwide in 2004. The ‘right hand ring’ was initiated as an ad campaign by De Beers to encourage women (with means) to purchase diamond rings for themselves, as opposed to, or in addition to the standard tradition of men gifting diamonds to women (for purposes of engagement or otherwise). The campaign deployed slogans of empowerment, stating, “Women of the world, raise your right hand!” Other ads that ran for this campaign stated, “Your left hand says ‘we.’ Your right hand says ‘me.’ Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world,” and, “Your left hand is your heart. Your right hand is your voice”.

Another example is the change in the advertisements of beauty and clothing brands. Earlier, before the upsurge of feminism in mainstream, beauty brands often banked on women’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacies. Your skin is too dark? Lighten it with fairness cream. Your face has too much acne? Get rid of it with an acne removal cream. You feel you’re too fat? Don’t worry there’s vanity sizing. Too much hair? You ‘need’ waxing. And in turn such insecurities have, throughout history, been institutionalized, instilled, and cemented in women by such beauty products. Many of these brands based their product advertising solely on the grounds that a woman ‘needs’ these products to be the best she can. The idea behind these beauty products being projected as ‘need’ based rather than ‘want’ based products is that such materialistic goods can act as supplements for intrinsic confidence. This has become a vicious cycle. The more women use these products, the more they feel they need them.

This cycle needs to be broken. In lieu of this, in 2006, Dove launched their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which was an unconventionally fresh look for an ad campaign, unlike any before it. Instead of showcasing photo shopped, airbrushed models, the ad highlighted the beauty of imperfection by hiring ordinary women. In a positive response to this ad campaign, Dove’s revenues for this year were one of the highest to have been made by any cosmetic company in history.

A problem with linking consumerism with feminist ideologies is that it can sometimes be too presumptuous in assuming that having the ability to spend means independence. It does not. Even dependent women form a large part of the demand for these goods. Another problem is the moral implication. The idea of ‘womanhood’ shouldn’t have to be sold. And yet another is that autonomy cannot be equated with independence. Blind consumerism is not the answer to breaking patriarchal norms. We need to realise that no one is perfect. Women are not perfect, and that is alright. Nobody can be perfect. Nothing can replace inner confidence, intelligence and an inherent sense of comfort with oneself. Telling someone ‘not feel insecure’ sounds condescending at best. The effort should be towards accepting oneself for what they are; insecurities, warts, and all.

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