The Trojan Horse is a story about subterfuge. After a ten-year war with the Trojans, the Greeks built a wooden horse and parked it outside Troy’s gates. After this, they pretended to sail away. Believing the Greeks to have surrendered, the Trojans pulled the horse into their city and celebrated it as a victory trophy. Unbeknownst to them, a band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside – they climbed out as night fell – opened the gates for their army to walk in and the city of Troy was destroyed.
Like a Trojan Horse, mass-media depictions of “female empowerment” often work as a subterfuge for specific commercial agendas and ironically some of these agendas do not promote women’s empowerment at all.
The subtle corruption of the feminist cause by the commercial agenda can first be observed in advertising from the 1920s, when the tobacco industry appropriated the ethic of women’s liberation to sell cigarettes. In 1929, the industry infiltrated an Easter Parade of suffragists in New York with models who marched while they were smoking; they called their cigarettes “torches of freedom”.
Secret documents obtained by health researchers show how feminist slogans were co-opted by tobacco company Peter Morris to sell the female-marketed Virginia Slims from 1968 to the 1980s. Their strategy was to create an aspirational image of the modern young woman where smoking = independence. Adverts ran with captions that said “you’ve come a long way baby” and millions of dollars were invested buying space in women’s magazines. In four years cigarette sales to girls increased by 110%.
In more recent times, as smoking rates have plummeted, alcohol abuse has sky-rocketed. Not coincidentally, alcohol industries have focused increasingly on marketing to girls. Drinks are tastefully named ‘Girls’ Night Out’, ‘Cupcake’ and ‘Happy Bitch’. Looking at statistics on female alcohol use, I came across a quote from a researcher at a Women’s Health Centre in British Columbia. She said “the saddest thing now is how alcohol is being marketed as girls’ liberation.”
The tactics used by cigarette and alcohol companies are for the most part deliberate and relatively transparent to the discerning consumer. What is less transparent, however, is the way in which mainstream feminist discourse reinforces this consumer culture often without acknowledging it (or even being aware of it).
In her essay Facebook Feminism, Susan Faludi exposes the Lean In campaign of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, as one giant Trojan Horse for a ruthless free-market agenda. At its time of launching, ‘Lean In,’ the organisation that claimed to be spearheading a revamped feminist revolution, was recruiting young women not as employees, but for internships that were unpaid.
Having interns work for free might be in the interests of a CEO looking to cut costs, but will be of questionable benefit to a recent graduate saddled with student debt. An organisation advocating female empowerment on the one hand, while recruiting young women to work for no pay on the other, exhibits a special kind of double standard.
But female empowerment, as Sandberg preaches it, is all about submitting to the forces of the free-market. Accelerating one’s career output, keeping up with the ever-increasing pace of life. The gold-standard of success is to become a Fortune 500 CEO and the only thing holding women back from this pinnacle, are their selfish working husbands, or their internal mental barriers.
What this discourse inadvertently does, is make ordinary women feel guilty for not working harder or for taking time off to have babies. It makes ordinary women long for the lifestyles of elites who have post-graduate credentials and nannies to do their child-care, whilst at the same time it makes rich women disdainful of their poorer sisters in less well-paid jobs.
This is a problem. Some of the fastest growing occupations in Western economies are those in which women already outnumber men, such as the caring and health professions. The occupations of nursing and midwifery, childcare and aged care are burgeoning under ever-increasing demand. But they are also relatively low paid and without many opportunities for career advancement, compared to industries such as mining and tech, dominated by men.
Breaking glass ceilings is a noble cause, but it will only ever be achieved by a small percentage of women. It is just not realistic for women who do not employ ancillary workers to do childcare or who do not have stay-at-home husbands. Instead of tirelessly campaigning for more women on executive boards, real benefits for women would come from advocating for better conditions in occupations where women already predominate.
Yet because caring for others is not glamorous, high profile figures whom the media love will not be championing such messages anytime soon. Looking after others jars with the glorification of autonomy that characterises contemporary feminism. And it is easier to sell women alcohol and Facebook as symbols of liberation than it is to imbue care-work with prestige.
There is nothing wrong with promoting a commercial agenda. But if we are to submit our lives to the forces of the free-market we need to be careful that we are not being sold glossy versions of exploitation. We need to be wary of how corporate interests promote female empowerment, because just like the Trojans, we may unwittingly open ourselves up to corruption in the form of hollow victory trophies.