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What’s Feminist About the Female Empowerment Brand?

Photo of Selling Sunset on Netflix. By Clara Handler, Getty images

Bad Feminist* confession:  I binge-watched all of Selling Sunset and I know I’m not alone. The Netflix reality series follows the lives of six “elite” women real estate agents who sell luxury homes in LA, and is nearly three times more popular than similar reality shows.

My Selling Sunset spree was entirely predictable. I compulsively watch all The Real Housewives franchises. Any reality TV show populated by wealthy women can count me in. It’s definitely not about the drama. It’s about witnessing a cultural miracle: women with lots of money and time to themselves.

Kelly Diels. Photo by Clover and Bee Photography

I’m a feminist marketing consultant and founder of a multiple six-figure business, but I grew up working class. My grandmother had her first child at 15 and washed linens in the hospital laundry; my mother was an office assistant who got married at 18 and had me at 19; and my aunt worked at McDonald’s. All of them took care of their kids and homes largely unassisted by their husbands. So for me — and, I suspect for a lot of women — peering into the lives of working women who have oodles of leisure time and cash is a thrilling yet foreign experience.

But Selling Sunset is familiar on another level. There is a moment when one of the glamazon real estate agents explains her identity and brand aesthetic like this: “I’m Gothic Barbie.”

Gothic Barbie? Like, Doctor Barbie? Architect Barbie? Yoga Teacher Barbie? Real Estate Agent Barbie! Watch these beautiful Career Barbies work! That is actually the premise of the show. It’s also a social mandate. Barbie is the Platonic ideal for ‘woman’ in western culture. This is who little girls of all classes are socialized to be. This is what professional success for women is supposed to look like, no matter what the occupation.

So, yes, I recognized Selling Sunset’s Career-Barbie formula because, like most girls in our culture, I grew up with it.  I still see it — and try to resist it — every single day in the business world.  In conference keynotes, on podcasts, on Instagram, and in their online business programs, women leaders and business coaches teach us that professional success means becoming Career Barbie or what I call a Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand.

There’s a step-by-step formula for it:

Step 1. FEMALE: The first rule is be beautiful and show it. Get hyper-stylized, hyper-feminine photos of yourself taken, preferably in luxury locations.

Step 2. LIFESTYLE: Build authority over other women by displaying the enviable  power tools of (white) femininity: beauty, decor, shoes, bags, clothes, children, husbands, vacations.

Step 3. EMPOWERMENT: Use the language of social change and promise that women’s financial lives will improve if they emulate your empowered, embodied example.

Step 4: BRAND: Now you have one. Yourself! Use this caricatured version of you to sell and build wealth and personal power (but only over other women).

Women influencers, business leaders and reality TV stars create Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brands teaching us that being white, thin, young and pretty makes it easier to win attention, get jobs and make money. The prerequisite for professional success is white beauty.

Hmm, that’s also what Barbie taught us, and that brand is 61 years old.

There is nothing new about this exclusive, privilege-based success strategy. What’s changed are the mediums in which we consume it (Instagram, online courses, reality TV and cell phones). And what we now call it: empowerment. We used to call it patriarchy.

Kelly Diels is a feminist marketing educator, writer and coach based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Diels specializes in feminist marketing practice for culture-makers and aims to raise awareness about how business-as-usual formulas actually reproduce oppression. Check out her new program, FLORA, and seminars at www.kellydiels.com


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Related Reading:

A Conversation with “WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE” author Andi Zeisler

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Woman is Wolf to Woman

Artist Unknown

 

Hobbes’s commonly cited phrase “man is wolf to man” refers to the prurient horrors humanity can do to itself. That metaphor poses men as a wild animal capable of barbarous atrocities against his own species and, ultimately, himself. Note how the word “man” implies the whole of humanity; philosophy cannot assume subjectivity without first supposing that the subject is masculine. Historically, women were designed to compete, determined by chauvinist hegemony and simmering misogyny, tamed to deliver; women tend to turn on each other. With that estranged camaraderie, a woman can be wolf to woman. She often views other women as an enemy. What is she like? ponders the friend or acquaintance of a cheated woman. Too often, women try to thwart other women because they are seen as dangerous competitors. I’ve noticed in my psychotherapy practice how women rashly ask about the other woman, assuming she is the provoker, inferring her hostility. This other woman becomes a measuring rod: Is she younger? Prettier? Better? Wolf woman is gossip, tattler, looking for the flaws, searching for “buts.”  But…she has cellulitis, but…her breasts are not real, but… she is a fake blond.

Have you ever noticed how women stare at other women? Scanning, perusing, noticing, even before a man does. Slaves in a harem, always wary there is a mistrustful one, plotting and scheming among them creating a relentless and exhausting struggle for defense of territory, security and self-preservation. Too many hens in the same hen house. In such an environment, nothing is more difficult to achieve than the applause of another woman.

Feeding the Wolf

Men blame women and women blame women. Women’s hostility to each other often seems unfounded, but in reality, it covers up a camouflaged accusation to our sex. The decree that the other woman provoked him, endorsed by a justifying narrative of a rapist society, is the most atrocious consequence of the historical women’s objectification by men. A woman-object also makes herself into a thing, viewing other women with suspicion. Isn’t she skinnier, smarter, sexier? A fundamental hostility against each other is established as the other woman becomes an adversary, a threat, with an ongoing reciprocal rivalry. That, in turn, gives more absolute power to men.

And some women even cheer and applaud misogynist narratives while condemning feminists. With self-esteem dependent on men, some women conform to the objectifier, who they estimate superior, validating locker room rhetoric used to minimize and humiliate them. Like a Stockholm hostage, a woman can adapt manners, beliefs, behaviours, and symbols of her captor. That dissenting feminist is, once again, inadvertently coerced. Systematically disempowered and underprivileged, women identify with the opposite gender, joining with them because they cannot transcend them. Exercising masculine oppression, paternalism, even naiveté, men can be arrogant, aggressive and disdainful to women, all while they are still enchained to a woman’s appeal. That is our ransom and some don’t want to forsake it.

But What If…

But what happens if we decide not to be that woman? The one designed, shaped, constructed by the male narrative.

Masculine domination is so anchored in our social practices and our unconscious that we can hardly perceive it: symbolic violence, like male privilege; invisible dominance, ingrained in the very blueprint of what women must be. Implicitly and explicitly controlled, not gently but pervasively by everyday practice, women behave as men’s accomplices.

What are we really up against when we try to escape being men’s object? When we don’t comply with standards of femininity? When we attempt to break out of norms we didn’t create? The “reward” for such renegade behavior often, dangerously, is low self-esteem or diminished self-worth.

But if we don’t break out? Objectification confines women to sex. We become that desired enemy, needed but rejected. The abominable statistics of sexual abuse indicate how easily a man can usurp a woman’s body. An objectified woman, virgin or whore, is made frail, dependent, alienated, undermined and robbed of intrinsic worth. In my work as a mental health professional, I see how male abusers deny, minimize, and blame, on the premise that women are guilty on two fronts: They tempt so they deserve the usurpation. Abusers see their victims as objects and, by grabbing that body, they rationalize abuse as a righteous act, as if the temptation a woman arouses justifies his taking power and control.

How on Earth Did We Get Here?

History, as written by (predominately) men, has concocted this recipe for femininity, a formula of social and moral imperatives that straitjackets what a woman should be. We became rather than were born. Men in male-controlled society made us become the other gender, a weak and dominated one, perhaps to assuage some sort of anxiety about their own virility. But it has gained historical validity to the extent that most men cannot fathom the scope of gender inequality. Their privileges are as invisible to them as the injustices against women.

Some women don’t see the extent of the damage either. Simone De Beauvoir said, “Women don’t call themselves we.” We distance ourselves from other minorities and activist movements of equality or civil rights. Women don’t make revolutions. We don’t overthrow, usurp the dominance. The truth is, we have not achieved more than men are willing to concede.

Equality is a Truth

But equality is not a mere ethical claim. It is more than an amendment to patriarchy. Equality is a truth, a certainty, a must, and a given; it belongs to the realm of what it is to be human.

So what happens if this truth brings us together? If we unite to break free from straitjackets? To reveal intrinsic repressive and abusive power and control mechanisms. To recover the strength of unity. To understand that our simmering hostility to each other only serves male dominance?

It is only through feminism, that women can form a united front. And activism is the only way women can bring about transformation in ourselves, not just socially and politically, but by refusing to be wolf to women in our mundane realities. Feminism must be code, to imply unison and cohesiveness. It must breach the solitude of a few agitators and coalesce women of the present and future into a common cause.

Challenge, Change, Camaraderie

Feminism is not revenge, anger or aggression. It is not blaming or victimization either. Feminism does not entitle women to take over men. That would simply chain us to the same patriarchal practices of dominance and supremacy.

Feminism means coming together. It requires identification and understanding of the processes underlying gender identity. Feminism requires challenge and change. And if anything, and for starters, it means women is wolf to women, no more.


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And They Said It Would Never Happen

We have come a long way in a short time from Stephen Harper’s regressive “War on Women” days.

In the span of just over two years, Canada now has a prime minister who comfortably calls himself a feminist on the world stage, a 50-50 gender ratio cabinet in its federal government, and our new Status of Women Minister, Maryam Monsef, reminded the audience of over 300 at the UN Global Compact Network Canada Gender Equality Conference in Toronto on April 4 that the federal government’s 2017 budget is the “most feminist budget this country has ever known.”

At this time last year, Kate McInturff, a senior researcher and gender equity and public policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives wrote a feminist critique of the Liberal 2016 budget, saying it did “not offer enough real change for women.” But this year, with more than 60 budget measures targeting gender issues including the introduction of the GBA+ program, McInturff wrote that “the 2017 federal budget gives me more cause for optimism.”

That said, critics’ arguments of this year’s budget are valid. The money allocated is not nearly enough given the magnitude of the task, plus Canada still lags behind European countries when it comes to gender equality policies. Headlines like the one published in the Toronto Sun on March 21, “Trudeau gets an ‘F’ for his armchair feminism,” remind us that not everyone is pleased with the pace of change.

But with grassroots feminist activism as fuel, and feminist media as its storytellers, the door that has been opened by recent world events and the resulting re-uptake of feminist values means there are grounds for hope.

Enter a New Feminist-Led Era

Over the past 100 years, feminist theory, ideology and the feminist movement itself have evolved. Mainstream feminism has embraced the concept of intersectionality (the idea that we have multiple identities, and that oppressions related to each are interconnected). Today, feminism is a mature, pluralistic movement with as many dimensions and interpretations as any centuries-old social movement.

Some elements of the feminist movement are radical, while others are conservative or liberal, resulting in some disagreement on how to best go about achieving gender equality. Neo-liberal feminists believe the best way to advance gender equality is by empowering the individual, i.e. “change the woman, change the world,” while others believe that for gender equality and equity to be both achieved and sustainable, we need to fundamentally change the system (versus fight for ways to join it), namely the patriarchy, the legal system and/or capitalism.  

To newcomers, the sheer number of interpretations of feminist philosophy can be confusing and overwhelming. However, there is general agreement about one thing: feminism aims to realize gender equity so that all may have the opportunity to thrive and flourish individually and in family, community, political and economic life as their authentic selves. Most would agree that being a feminist means also actively working towards systems change to achieve this outcome versus simply and passively standing by and “believing in equality” or buying a “Feminist as Fuck” t-shirt from H&M. 

Sign of the Times

A dipstick way of gauging the popularity of a subject is to consider how many hits a topic generates on Google in any given year. Based on this approach, we see that a search for feminist content in the year 2015 produced 78M hits. In 2016, the same search yielded 111M hits. Granted it was the US election year, but nevertheless, it is a 70% increase. Conversely, Google hits on the topic “entrepreneurship” during the same years show no material change between 2015 and 2016. So far in 2017, the word feminist is still trending high; and actually, beats the “in” word entrepreneurship by 16%. 

We can also look at book signings and publishing trends. Amazon listings show that 387 books on feminism were published in 2016. There were also 448 books published on entrepreneurship and 2,384 books published on sex. What this tells us is that feminism as a topic is almost as hot as the entrepreneurship topic for publishers placing bets on what will sell. And sex, well, that is an evergreen subject if there ever was one, but still a useful benchmark of how many books a universally hot topic nets in this kind of analysis.  

The number of Google hits and books published does not qualify as scientific research, and neither does the incredible anticipative interest so far in the feminist horror, ten-episode, drama series “A Handmaids Tale” (Series Premiere April 30), but it does indicate that the feminist conversation is persistently growing and that the plot is thickening.

Looking at electoral politics, it appears that feminist philosophy is trending around the world. In February, Sweden in many ways one-upped us all when it declared itself to be the first feminist government in the world. Not long after, Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallström delivered the first “feminist foreign policy” in the world.

Pew surveys show that even in Trump’s neo-liberal, Republican America, the vast majority of voters across the political spectrum are in favour of gender equality and equity.

In the private sector, we find that corporations, where performance depends on unleashing human potential, are increasingly working toward gender balance. And those that are not are increasingly being compelled to step it up by securities regulators and government-imposed quota programs. As the business case argument goes, gender equality just makes good business sense.

We also find that many companies these days are marketing products as “feminist” products, also known as marketplace feminism. While it’s something I personally disdain, the fact that feminism is today something that sells versus repels is also an indicator of how perception has changed. 

This Is Great But…

Clearly, people today are re-embracing feminist philosophy. And ergo, so are politicians and companies, especially the corporate sector. However, when we look at how feminism is being adopted in these realms, there is growing concern that feminism is being seen as a simple numerical representation by gender or as a good business case for increasing profits and growing economies.

Is this what feminism is really all about? Making more money and getting more votes?

Embracing the Bigger Opportunity

“Their Game, Your Goal” by LiisBeth feature artist, Anne-Marie Hood

This month’s newsletter illustration (above) by LiisBeth artist Anne-Marie Hood is entitled “Their Game, Your Goal.” She explains: “A game of darts requires focus and skill. The point is to win, just like in traditional patriarchal practice. But what would happen if we approached the board with a different goal in mind? What doors would open? Which ones would close? What skills would we need to develop to change systems? What kind of darts might have the greatest effect?”

Hood points out that feminism is about more than labour force participation rates or the number of skirts (or pantsuits) at the boardroom table. Feminism actually represents a much larger opportunity; it creates conversations that shift our collective consciousness, changing the way we think about the world, organize work, design new ventures, orient our economy, and view each other. Feminisms of all kinds (and there are many) help us envision a whole new set of possibilities, which results in stronger communities, resilient economies, healthy environments, and futures that articulate different forms of being and belonging—placing the well-being of people and the planet at the centre. Mainstream feminism envisions a true balance between feminine and masculine forces within each one of us, within society, and within nature.

In other words, a feminist utopian future looks a lot different than our current reality.

For game designer and writer Naomi Alderman, a feminist-informed future is “a world where neither gender nor sex are destiny. It’s not a world where anything is ‘taken’ from anyone—it’s one where everyone’s possibilities are enlarged.”

Lois Wilson, a feminist scholar and author, characterizes one feminist utopian vision¹ as a just and equitable world where “those on the edge and those at the centre walk together and indeed join hands to create a new reality.” In this utopia, there is no growing gap between the rich and the poor. They are understood as two sides of the same coin, as connectional rather two unconnected realities. To separate them is to put the affluent in a lifeboat and all others into the sea. This ideal imagines a more just and equitable economic order globally that does not impact women negatively; imagine a community—a world—in which the world’s spending priorities are changed, where other feminist visions for a better future include one where we “embrace nurturing and integrative power,” one where everyone is safe and secure, and one where the environment is fully restored.

Based on these ideas about what a feminist-informed future looks like, it seems today’s emphasis on fixing the representation gap is a sort of first-responder feminism—totally necessary, but not the final destination. Yes, it’s a good thing. But it does not challenge the status quo regarding how we live and work on this planet.  

How to Create a Whole New World?

It is also unlikely that any politician or government can lead this type of challenge to the existing systems and still remain in office. In the end, deep cultural and systems change is up to each one of us. Revolutionary thinking and social change comes from the edges of society, not its contented centre.

I, for one, am grateful that Justin Trudeau is bringing the feminist conversation back into the mainstream light, that this has encouraged many to rediscover its ideological value and relevance today, and that he has put at least some money behind his words. But I don’t expect him or his government to do all the work.  

It’s really up to us.


Footnotes and additional reading:

¹ Margrit Eichler et al., 2002, Feminist Utopias: Re-Visioning Our Futures, Inanna Publications, Toronto, ON

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists By Necessity: LiisBeth Newsletter, May 2, 2016

The Visceral, Woman-Centric Horror of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Atlantic, April 25, 2017