By Elizabeth King
Many of us have heard of green-washing: when companies whose products and operations harm the environment create PR campaigns that suggest the company keeps the environment in mind in their decision-making. BP has been going at this full force ever since their record-breaking oil spill in 2010. Five years later, they are still creating feel-good type commercials to communicate all the good they have done for the Gulf since the spill. They tout their efforts and funds directed towards the clean-up, but the fact is they still sell a product that pollutes our air and water: oil. The message is that they aren’t doing any harm, but essentially the opposite is true.
Similar ploys are being handed to us in a huge way right now, but in the form of appealing to feminist values in order to sell to women. Advertisers call this femvertising, I call it “femme-washing.” Femme-washing is when corporations make a shallow attempt to appeal to feminist values or take a “pro-women” stance (looking directly at you, American Apparel) without taking a critical stance against patriarchy, or making strides to elevate the status of women. Femme-washing can also be PR stunts where companies pat themselves on the back for not being overtly sexist, and implying that they are feminist heroes for doing so. At it’s core, femme-washing is the co-option of feminist values for financial gain.
Let’s examine some corporate femme-washing that is happening around us right now, and talk about how to spot and resist these messages.
Recent Instances of Femme-Washing
Examples of femme-washing have been popping up all over the place lately. Here are a few you’ve probably seen recently.
1. The Dove Real Beauty Campaign:
Most likely you’ve come across the newest installment of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. In the ad, women approach a store and can choose to walk into a door with a sign reading “Average,” or a door right next to it with a sign that says “Beautiful.” The women who walk through the Average door were then asked why they chose that door, and are more or less told that they should feel good enough about themselves to choose the Beautiful door. Lindsay King-Miller just posted an incredibly poignant piece for Bitch about the major problems with Dove’s ongoing equation of beauty with confidence. She immediately points out that while Dove is ostensibly sending a message about empowerment and self-esteem, all their ads ultimately achieve is a reiteration of the dangerous message that beauty is all that counts when it comes to self-love for women.
2. American Apparel’s “Pro-Women” Ad
American Apparel, a company with no shortage of heinous instances of sexism, just released a print ad on the back cover of Vice magazine that the New York Daily News is calling “feminist” and “radical.” The ad shows smiling photos of women who work or used to work at American Apparel, and a message that begins with “Women have always been in charge at American Apparel.” They want to signal that they’re cleaning up their act, and have always cared about women, despite their very long history of degrading ads. At least at this point in their image reform, this appears to be purely a PR stunt. American Apparel tried to use degrading sexual images to sell clothes to women, and when there was backlash (read: profits could suffer), they decided to try to sell themselves as a brand that empowers women. It’s alarming that this is being framed as “radical.” Is it really radical to show women at work in a corporate setting? This isn’t a feminist ad, it’s merely an image much more in keeping with the reality of middle class women’s lives than the offensive photos they’ve used in the past.
3. Pantene’s “Not Sorry” Commercial
Last summer, Pantene came out with a commercial that shows women apologizing at home, in the workplace, and with significant others when there was no need for them to apologize. This commercial was tough for me personally, because it really is an important message: Women don’t need to and shouldn’t apologize as much as we do. We should get to live in a society that doesn’t expect us to feel bad for being assertive and confident. The second part of the ad shows these same scenes, but without the apologizing and with some of the women saying “sorry not sorry.” Honestly made my heart swell when I first watched it, of course it did. I’ve experienced this exact thing and so have all women. The problem comes in when we remember the product: shampoo. What do hair products have to do with removing unneeded “sorrys” from our vocabulary? Not much. The key with this ad campaign is that while the message is very empowering, it is being espoused in the name of selling shampoo to women. Being reminded that we’re supposed to equate our power with the shininess of our hair takes the ad from empowering to a little insulting in no time flat.
Why We Need To Notice And Care
These examples should help to clarify what femme-washing is, and how it differs from messages and corporate actions that would actually advance the feminist agenda and empower women. If the ostensible motive is public image or marketing, it’s femme-washing. If the company touts surface-level girl power messages but doesn’t have policies, programs, or the corporate structure to match, it’s femme-washing.
While it’s easy to take these ads and messages at face value and feel that these companies are truly making things better for women, there are a few problems with accepting and celebrating these messages. One is that we’re still internalizing or even supporting these messages feeling that they are feminist in nature, when really we’re having our actual feminist values co-opted for the financial gain of these companies. This should make us angry, not give us cause to support these brands.
Another issue is that it makes it easy for us to forget that these businesses ultimately have one goal, and that is to make money. The truth is that there is still a lot that needs to change on a very large scale before corporations will prioritize women’s rights and feminism as much as they do their own profits. It’s so important to remember that when it comes to any brand, their primary interest is selling us something, and if they have to loosely associate themselves with seemingly feminist principles, they will.
So What Can We Do About It?
Since utterly avoiding all brands that aren’t doing their part isn’t necessarily realistic for everyone, much of what we can do centers on strengthening our own critical thinking and media literacy chops. Educating ourselves about media literacy in general is a huge step in the right direction. A lot of people choose to avoid these corporations altogether, and either DIY what they need, or buy it second-hand. Being vocal about our frustrations will also help keep these issues in the public eye, and let companies know that they still have quite a bit more work to do.
The most important thing is to notice femme-washing when it’s happening, and not let ourselves be so quick to internalize or praise any messaging before we’ve taken the time to critically analyze it. Keeping an open dialogue about this with each other and holding companies accountable may not immediately cause the demise of femme-washing, but it will at least ensure that we continue to differentiate between true empowerment and cheap sales tricks.