In the film The Insider, the story of a scientist turned tobacco industry whistleblower, there is a key scene in which he gives an account to a reporter about nicotine. The company, he revealed, not only knew that nicotine was addictive; every other aspect of the cigarette including the tobacco functioned as a nicotine delivery device. Tobacco was incidental. The nicotine was the product. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcWi7DRWPq4
Women’s magazines, both online and offline, host advertising on their pages and on their websites. The articles in women’s magazines and news-sites are incidental. “Content” exists merely as a delivery device for advertising.
Next to the checkout in the supermarket you can spot magazine covers with stories about celebrities who are “too thin” next to stories about celebrities who are “too fat”. Mixed messages hit an audience where it hurts. At the same time as triggering female insecurity, magazines encourage women to be “empowered” by presenting different ways in which it can be bought in the form of fashion tips and beauty advice. Herein lies the hook: conflicting and contradictory messages about modern feminine identity inflames ambivalence. Media influence encourages women to self-obsess over the most trivial minutiae. Women’s unstable identity is then remedied through the act of consumption. If you can’t be confident about who you are or what you are doing with your life, at least you can be confident about what you buy.
Unlike the tobacco/nicotine example, the relationship between content and advertising in magazines or online news-sites is not a secret. Say Media, the web advertising firm who own xoJane, state clearly on their own website:
“The lines are blurring between where readers consume content, how they buy things, and how all of the ideas generated from lifestyle content turn into either identity, or preference, or purchase behavior. Our technology platform seamlessly integrates content and marketing into an experience that connects with readers in personal ways.”
When integrating content and marketing advertisers rely on a few repetitive themes: happiness, youth, success, status, luxury, fashion, and beauty. “Independence” and “empowerment” is just another one of these themes. Marketing company PHD describe their “encourage/empower” marketing strategy like this –
“Monday is the day to encourage the beauty product consumer to get going and feel beautiful, so marketing messages should focus on feeling smart, instant beauty/fashion fixes, and getting things planned and done. Concentrate media during prime vulnerability moments, aligning with content involving tips and tricks, instant beauty rescues, dressing for the success, getting organized for the week and empowering stories.”
“Empowering stories” are also known as opinion pieces written by feminist writers. Websites which describe themselves as “proudly female biased” push the marketing strategy of “encourage/empower” by juxtaposing stories about men’s objectification of women with advertisements for makeup and floral dresses. Empowerment for the reader is about sharing and commenting on these feminist stories, then expressing emancipation through the radical act of shopping.
The product being sold by lifestyle-feminism is “independence,” or rather, the illusion of independence. In Australia and other Western liberal democracies women face real problems. More women live in poverty than ever before. Women living in extreme poverty can expect to have shorter life-expectancies than their mothers. More women suffer from depression and anxiety than ever before, an epidemic speculated to be linked to environmental stress. Such problems are not remedied by slogans like “celebrate yourself!” or an ongoing fixation with personal identity. Inconveniently, they also aren’t solved by pointing the finger at men.
Articles published on Jezebel and Daily Life such as “Why do men get relationship brownie points?” and “The trophy wife still exists” and “Being a woman in public” serve no ultimate purpose except to encourage female self-obsession. Identity politics, once useful for Western white women in the ’70s and ’80s when women’s liberation and queer activism was establishing itself, seems to now be playing itself out in absurdity.
Historically, identity politics has been about the experiences of oppression. Today, white middle-class women in Australia are not a victim-group, yet according to lifestyle-feminism even the “trophy wife” is oppressed. Women are victims for not getting “brownie points” in relationships. Women are victims for looking younger than their actual age as one Daily Life writer points out:
“Waitresses have skipped my glass when pouring wine at restaurant tables and someone at work asked me recently if I was a fan of Justin Bieber. Frequently, I feel patronised and underestimated, and being taken seriously can be a challenge.”
Women are also victims for leaving the house:
“You can see him in your peripheral vision and you can feel him looking. You’re at a distance, but your hair is pretty bright and you’re wearing lipstick so you know he noticed you. Keep reading, keep looking down. You briefly wish you were less attractive or had mousy hair or had an invisibility cloak.”
Here, unchecked victimhood has metastasised into narcissism. And just to remind you – these aren’t quotes from personal diary entries – these are articles vetted by editors and published on “news” websites.
If oppression today is leaving the house looking attractive, or looking young for one’s biological age, we can be fairly confident that “oppression” is now being confected, manufactured, made-up or imagined. In creating perceived needs (like not getting “brownie points” in a relationship) the focus remains forever on the self. Any resolution to this perceived need or oppression remains forever in the realm of individual consumption. Society is left existing merely as a backdrop.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: to understand where real power lies you need to follow the money. The people profiting from Jezebel and xoJane are not the “writers” with their opinions (who are incidentally paid next to nothing, or who write for free). It isn’t even the editors. And it certainly isn’t the readers. Jezebel is owned by Gawker media which is owned by Nick Denton. DailyLife is a Fairfax publication whose chairman and CEO are both men. Say Media is owned by Matt Sanchez. It is ironic, but not suprising that each one of these pseudo-feminist platforms can be traced back to a male owner, CEO or chairman.
You don’t see media companies owned by Donald Trump hosting opinions written by Occupy Wall Street activists. We don’t see mining companies publishing the opinions of environmentalists and anti-fracking protestors. Lifetsyle-feminism, on the other hand is pseudo-activism. Its symbiotic relationship with advertisers and marketers reveals just how “subversive” it really is.
And if you don’t think advertising can have a perverse effect on a culture just look at the uptake of smoking in developing countries or the obesity epidemic. While capitalism brings wealth and greater living standards to any society which embraces it, traditional ways of living are inevitably lost. Home-cooking gets traded for fast-food. Anything that is modern is morally “good,” anything that is traditional is inherently bad. Western culture has in many ways become homogenised and standardised. Starbucks is the same in Los Angeles as it is Sydney. This standardisation is why the same women’s “issues” that are discussed on American web-platforms are discussed on Australian ones.
But back on xoJane’s “about” page one can read: “xoJane.com is where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded. xoJane.com is not about changing yourself to fit any mold of what others think you should be. It is about celebrating who you are.”
And it’s about encouraging women to buy things.