Little girls, big monsters

I recently started watching ‘Foundation‘ – a series based on a set of books by the same name by Isaac Asimov. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi movies and novels, but I’m really feeling this new one. I like the premise of it – the prediction of the ultimate demise of a civilisation. I haven’t read the novels yet, but after having seen the series (at least the first two episodes) I think I know my next book purchase. I’ll admit, the fact that Lee Pace plays Brother Day (the emperor) is a big reason why I’m enjoying the show so much.

I still haven’t gotten over my obsessive need to research books and find out what everyone else thinks about them before I buy them – and so I’ve been on forums discussing this series too. While going down the rabbit hole, I landed on a book club discussion with Margaret Atwood on her book Cat’s Eye. A bit of a jump from science fiction I know.

Now Atwood is a favourite of mine, and I finished reading Cat’s Eye very recently (I think I mentioned it on this blog as well). On the fact of it, the novel is about friendships and bullying, and how often the two coincide in the same person. More than anything though, the book is about time, and specifically what it does to our memory. The things we remember. This is how Atwood describes it, and honestly, now that I’ve heard her say it, it makes a lot of sense. It is a book about the ravages of time. What seem like huge crises when they are happening are barely remembered later on. Especially the childhood stuff.

I don’t like how a lot of people insist on talking about childhood as the happiest time of our lives. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the only reason I look back on my childhood with any fondness is because I have forgotten most of it. This is not to say that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, my parents did everything they could to make sure I have a good one. But, I also think that experiences are a lot scarier as a child because everything is happening to you for the first time. You have no precedent for any of the stuff that happens to you, and while this makes your enjoyment in the new more pronounced, it also makes the bad things really bad. And the thing is, as a child, not many of your concerns will get taken seriously. Everyone else is a giant, and they seem (or at least seemed to me) to be very unconcerned with things that go on in a child’s life for the most part. I speak for myself here, but I think I have only become happier as I have grown older.

When asked to talk about what the book is primarily about, Atwood responds by saying it is a book that shows that little girls are not “sugar, spice and everything nice.” There is a great line in the book which sums this sentiment up, “little girls are only cute and small to outsiders, to each other they are life sized.”

A question Atwood gets asked quite often is how she reconciles the character of Cordelia (the antagonist and childhood bully) with the feminist aspects of her writing. The response – what does feminist aspect even mean? If you think about it, for the longest time, women have been allowed to inhabit one of two characters according to Atwood – the whore or the angel. All the grey area in the middle is usually reserved for men. Male characters are allowed to have layers because they are treated as human beings. Atwood says her characters are simply human beings, and so it is more than natural that some of the women might be grey. I’ve heard this sentiment before too, when a lot of people were asking George R.R. Martin how he manages to write female characters so well and give them so much depth. His reply was similar – he said he treats them like human beings. And thank god he did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the absolute joy of a character that is Cersei Lannister.

But I don’t think this discussion on the kind of spaces females are allowed to habit are limited to fiction. Even in the treatment of real women, I’ve seen mainstream media try to fit them into one of these two moulds often. Like the discussion on Elisabeth Holmes (of the Theranos fame). I remember how the discourse on this woman went from all positive (a genius) to all negative (the worst kind of scam artist, someone who would intentionally get pregnant in the middle of a court case to delay the proceedings). But if you contrast this with the treatment of men who have had a similar fall from grace you’ll see what I mean. Take Dominic Strauss-Khan for example. I saw the documentary on his case (available on Netflix I think) a while back. Throughout the documentary, numerous people, whenever they mentioned his predatory behaviour (let’s be polite for a minute) would almost always mention how he was a great economist, or how save for this one fault he was a great man. You see what I mean? Layers and complexities of character that are so readily accepted in a man seem unfathomable in women. When in fact, it should be the opposite if anything. In the words of Granny from Downton Abbey, “I am allowed to be contrary precisely because I am a woman.”

Feminism and Consumerism

Photo by Anderson Guerra on Pexels.com

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.