Lifestyle feminism, because you’re worth it

Because you're worth it 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. 

6 Comments

  1. Eric

    What do you think of the make-up tutorial trend on youtube?

    I recently discovered them and was fascinated by the breadth and complexity of women’s make-up. It’s like women paint a fully layered portrait every morning on their faces, wash it away at night, then paint another one on their face the next morning. And that’s just part of the daily beauty routine with hair, clothing, and accessories. There are even make-up tutorials for no-make-up looks. It all seems very exhausting and burdensome. Many of them look fine with little or no make-up, yet the girls and women doing the videos and commenting are hard-core enthusiastic about “all things beauty”. They seem to do it to satisfy themselves more than to impress other people, although the latter may be the stated justification. To your post, featured in the make-up tutorials are many beauty products, much of it expensive.

    Their enthusiasm is strong enough where I don’t believe their enthusiasm is manufactured or induced by advertisers. The market doesn’t seem artificial. The advertisers and products may give them the form, but the ‘beauty’ drive in the girls and women seems innate.

  2. Mike from the Pioneer Valley, MA

    Eric, I see it only in a few large cities. Not to say it’s not out there and sprouting. I just see so little of it. What impresses me more in real life is how BAD American female-bodied people are at the arts of beauty and style. Especially in clothing.

    Not to rely too heavily on that old canard about Frenchwomen (Italians and Spaniards too), but compared with their European and Latin American counterparts in self-presentation, American FBPs are terrible! They seem to have only dungarees and sweatpants in their closets, are virtually indistinguishable from male-bodied persons in the general American outfit of blue jeans and some kind of pullover shirt, and move like dockworkers. I hope that doesn’t sound too ungallant. I don’t mean to be. But I’m struck by how similar the MBP and FBP physical types are in the US. No wonder “equality” should move so far, so fast here because we’re indistinguishable to start with on some score.

    It makes some sense historically, I guess, in that FBPs needed to be hardy and practical to migrate across such a huge wilderness and convert it into farmland and settlements. A certain amount of “mannishness” is going to be bred into them and the spirit of being tough and rugged is one they can retain with pride. Not really a lot of cause for those Old World refinements of femininity. Maybe we’re far enough past our pioneer orientation now that we’re catching up—and in our characteristic DIY fashion!

  3. yup

    I’d hope Mike is aware that most women did physical work in Europe too and needed to be ‘hard and practical’ as well.

    I guess those supposed differences are to be expected since his theory seems to arise from biased observations about the “New World” and a certain romanticization of Europe in the first place. 🙂

  4. Holly

    It’s funny I was just thinking about the same thing recently.

    For me it’s often down to intent, there is a massive difference (or so I believe anyway) between a woman who spends hours and hours on her complex make up because she feels pressured to look good or hates her natural face or feels she just can’t leave the house without it and a woman who wears the same amount of make up for pure enjoyment or putting on and wearing make up. Some women will spend alot of time on the beauty process because it brings them genuine happiness to do so and I think that’s a good thing personally.

    Most of the popular make up tutorials aren’t for everyday make up, their often fancy dress or special occasion (I myself don’t wear make up at all except for parties because it’s fun) and like you said most of these you tuber’s seem motivated purely by their own enjoyment of make up michelllephan for instance said that she got into make up because she did art and saw it as an extension of traditional pen and paper art. I think that inevitably they must play a part in the whole consumerism cycle this article mentions but purely speaking from the viewpoint of me and my female friends we just watch them for fun and wear make up every now and again to dress up.

    I also think women do have an innate drive to pursue beauty and this doesn’t have to be an unhealthy one even if it can get hijacked and moulded by certain media but I also think youtube tutorials sit a bit outside of this probably because despite companies funding them or being advertised it’s essential a one woman operation without the need for complex advertising strategy or target audience manipulation.

  5. Vesperae

    Just an FYI…

    The last Virginia Slims print ad that you featured with your piece is actually a fake. I made it in Photoshop as equal parts humorous editorial commentary and Smoking Fetish entertainment. 😉

    I am sincerely flattered that you thought it was real, however…

    🙂

    V

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