Commodity feminism refers to the way feminist ideas and icons are appropriated for commercial purposes, emptied of their political significance and offered back to the public in a commodified form – usually in advertising. The term pays homage to Marx’s notion of “commodity fetishism” and is often framed within contemporary Marxist and feminist terms.
The concept of commodity feminism is most commonly associated with the work of Robert Goldman, who elaborated it in detail in his 1992 book Reading ads socially. Writing in a US context, Goldman argued that advertising underwent a radical transformation in the late 1980s when it was forced to address three closely related challenges: sign fatigue – a condition in which viewers of advertisements were quite literally suffering from exhaustion and ennui on account of their daily bombardment by images in postmodern consumer culture; increasing viewer skepticism, particularly among a younger, mediasavvy generation who had grown up with fast-paced MTV (and, after the mid-1990s, the Internet) and who were suspicious of any attempt to sell them anything; and finally women’s anger at being addressed constantly in terms of idealized images of feminine desirability.
From the beginning of the second wave, feminists had identified advertising as one of the key sites for the production of sexist imagery. Throughout the subsequent decades women voiced their anger about being treated like objects to be visually consumed. By the end of the 1980s advertisers were beginning to recognize the significance of women’s hostility to being objectified and fed with unattainable, perfect images of femininity, and they started to rethink their advertising strategies. This was also prompted by women’s increasing financial independence, which meant that advertisers needed to address them in new ways: it is no good showing a woman lying on or draped over a car, for example, if the aim is to sell that car to women.
Goldman argued that advertisers’ response was to develop commodity feminism – an attempt to incorporate the cultural power and energy of feminism while simultaneously domesticating its critique of advertising and the media. An example of postfeminism, it represents an aesthetically depoliticized version of a potentially oppositional feminism. It turns social goals into individual lifestyles, and has fetishized feminism into an iconography of things: a product, a look, a style. Just as femininity is portrayed through a narrow range of signifiers, so now is feminism conjured up through an increasingly predictable lexicon – shoulder pads, briefcase, location in an up-market work environment, etc. Advertisers assemble signs which connote independence, freedom, and bodily autonomy and link them to the purchase of commodities. In this way, feminist goals like independence and control over one’s body are emptied of their political significance and sold back to women as choices about what to consume. Far from being straightforwardly positive images, these newer representations invite women to become liberated and take control of their own lives by acts of individual consumption – rather than collective struggle for social and political change. Feminism, signified in this manner, becomes just another style decision.
Commodity feminism can take many different forms. Pantene’s (L’Oreal) advertising slogan “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” is an example of a campaign that tries to appease women’s anger at being addressed in terms of unattainable images of glamour (while still nevertheless using an image of an extraordinarily attractive woman). The global campaign for Dove products, organized around the company’s apparent anger at the “narrow stifling stereotypes” of women’s appearance, is a similar example – in this case backed up by the language of campaigning, and the establishment of a charity designed to promote “real beauty” and to tackle body image disorders among young women. The iconography of the Dove campaign and its use of “ordinary” women also link to the trend toward photographic hyperrealism and neo-feminism within contemporary advertising, which targets women’s skepticism about the claims made in some adverts for their products, and promotes an unpretentious, authentic, “real” look.
A different strategy can be seen in the attempt to create a détente between feminism and femininity. Frequently this is achieved by presenting visual signifiers of female success, such as a business suit, a car, own home, with signifiers of conventional femininity, such as long hair, makeup, conventional attractiveness, so as to imply that there is no tension between being a successful and powerful woman who is taken seriously in the workplace, and being sexually attractive to men. The struggling subject of some feminist perspectives, then, is recast as a kind of superwoman – powerful, respected, successful, as well as effortlessly beautiful and desirable (and in some cases also a perfect mother). Other examples of commodity feminism include the shift from presenting women as passive sexual objects to presenting them as active, desiring sexual subjects; the use of gender “reversals” within adverts; and the increasing evidence of revenge themes in advertising (Gill 2006).
The notion of commodity feminism is an important corrective to views which see advertising as “becoming feminist” or simply “reflecting” feminist ideas. Advertising is involved in what Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism described as the “cannibalization” of ideas: it may wear a feminist mark today if that will help it to sell, but it may well wear a different mask tomorrow. Commodity feminism has clear links with “commodity racism,” and with the packaging of alternative sexualities in a hypersexualized, ultra-glamorous, depoliticized “queer chic”.
The notion also has strong resonances with the much older ideas of “incorporation” and “recuperation,” which speak to the ability of mainstream political or commercial cultures to “take on” and absorb radical dissent – neutralizing its revolutionary or transformative potential, while appearing to be open to its significance and challenge. Such processes are well documented in political movements; commodity feminism might be understood as a specific example that relates particularly to advertising, marketing, and “promotional culture.”
- Gill, R. (2006). Gender and the media. Cambridge and New York: Polity.
- Goldman, R. (1992). Reading ads socially. London and New York: Routledge.
- Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Leiss, W., Kline, S., Jhally, S., & Botterill, J. (2005). Social communication in advertising. London and New York: Routledge.