Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What Can We Expect of Our Media Icons?: Thoughts on Beyonce & Pantene

The connection between Beyonce and Pantene may not be readily apparent, but this is one of those perfect storms of media coverage where all the dots have lined up in my own personal Rorschach test.

Some ancient water god entity
"Ooh. Ooh. This one's gender oppression, too!"

It started with this post from Time asking brands to stop using feminism as a marketing tool:

Brands like Dove and Pantene have made millions by preying on women’s insecurities and convincing them they need to buy products to meet societal standards of beauty: sure, you’re beautiful just the way you are, but use our products and you can be even more beautiful.
They were referring to this ad, which has gone viral in the past week or so:

It's a well-edited, clearly thought-out piece that demonstrates the double standards in the perception of behaviors by men and women. A woman working into the evening instead of spending time with her child is "selfish" while a man is "driven." A self-assured man is a "boss" while a woman is merely "bossy." And so on. 

Other criticisms of this ad have popped up, including this one that argues women shouldn't be thinking about the way others perceive them anyway: 
This is playing the victim if I've ever witnessed it, and not all women think this way, nor want to. But thanks for the note, Pantene. 
I assure you plenty of successful, powerful women aren't speaking in boardrooms and worrying about being "bossy" or "pushy." Newsflash: Those kinds of negative thoughts only hinder your success.
The author, Ashley Hesseltine, goes on to argue that most people don't fall into these labels anymore, and those who do aren't worth worrying about anyway.

Trust me. I want to be on her side. I want to believe that this is just a dramatization of sexism for brownie points (and cold hard cash) that have no bearing on real women's lived experiences, but I just can't get there with her.

Everyday Feminism has a post about gender-neutral parenting (which is worth a read in its own right) that opens up with a discussion of the impact of unrecognized gender biases. One impact of these biases shows up in a very real way. When given identical resumes except for the name (one male, one female) science faculty considered the men more hireable and gave them higher recommended starting salaries.

Hesseltine's insistence that these views are the minority positions of small-minded folk best left ignored are certainly comforting, but I don't think they're true.

Which brings me back to the first criticism: should Pantene be using feminist messages of self-acceptance to sell a product that is ultimately about making ourselves more acceptable by beauty standards?

It's a criticism that came up with the Dove "Real Beauty" commercials, too. When I wrote about that one, I tried to place it in a context of what else was out there. After getting bombarded with ad after ad about needing to lose weight or make myself less frumpy, the "Real Beauty" commercials (whatever the ultimate motive of their creators (hint: it's cash), were a welcome breath of fresh air.

My ultimate conclusion on the Dove controversy is basically the same as my ultimate conclusion on the Pantene controversy. I have absolutely no delusions that Dove or Pantene (as commercial entities, as represented by their CEO's, whatever) care about my body image or how good I feel about myself. While I can't venture to guess about the individual philosophies of people who work on the board or the marketing campaigns, I feel fairly confident in saying that neither Dove nor Pantene is a feminist entity.

And--for me--that's okay. We live in a capitalist society, and the advertisers operate to make money. It's the same reason those horribly sexist Axe commercials are created from Dove's parent company: they are catering to their audiences. Axe's audience is horny teenage boys. Dove's audience is--apparently--women who are sick of being told how ugly they are every time they turn on the TV or open a magazine.

Two-Way Street Sign

Media is a two-way street. It has a tremendous impact on how we craft our images of self, reality, and values. But it's also created by us. It's literally created by us in that all media is crafted by human hands and interpreted by human minds. It's economically created by us because what we choose to buy and promote is curated into the mainstream. But it's also more subtly created by us because media responds to the beliefs and values of the society even as it creates beliefs and values. 

For that reason, it is immensely important that we hold media accountable for the messages sent, but it's also important that we use it as a tool to check out our own reflection. 

If more people are demanding that advertisers stop telling them they are ugly, then that's a win. If more people are responding positively to messages that point out unquestioned gender biases, that's a win, too. If the companies are doing it to get rich (they are), that doesn't change the reason they think they can get rich doing it to begin with: because we've changed. Or, at the very least, our existence is recognized because the way that media is shared has changed. Companies are going to have to start paying lip service to values they hadn't considered before, and that's a good thing for anyone who cares about those values.

Which brings me to Beyonce. She broke the internet on Friday the 13th when she announced a surprise album (that, yes, I bought) with videos. Included on the album is a track ("Flawless") with decidedly feminist undertones confirmed by an incredibly feminist overtone. Author Chimamanda Adiche discusses gender inequality before defining feminism as “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.”

The line comes from her TED Talk entitled "We Should All Be Feminists," an excellent talk that is definitely powerful, but that I seriously doubt has the reach of Beyonce's album.

There has been some criticism of Beyonce as a feminist icon. Most recently, I've seen people making the same claim about Beyonce as has been made about Pantene: she's just using feminism as a commercial ploy.

I can't even begin to speak on Beyonce's personal feminist convictions (just as I can't speak to the personal feminist leanings of the Pantene or Dove CEOs). She is, by this point, very much a brand, and I think the clips of her childhood stardom sprinkled throughout her new videos operate to underscore that point. Beyonce is not just a person; she is a product, and she manages the product that she sells very well.

If she is embracing feminism (which she didn't always do), then it's possible that she's doing it for commercial reasons. Maybe it is a marketing ploy.

But if it is a marketing ploy, we need to remember that it's a ploy with consumers in mind, and Beyonce is not (in case you haven't noticed) a little indie artist with a small following. If she thinks that feminism is the ticket to commercial success, it means something. And that something is a good thing.

Sure, the feminism touted by Dove, Pantene, and (as much as I enjoy the album) even Beyonce is not going to have the nuance or depth to it that activists who have devoted their lives to the cause would like. A commercial presentation of feminism (even if its sincere) is going to fall short of many feminists' hopes. To be fair, though, we often can't even agree among ourselves what our feminist hopes are, so it's really not valid to act as if shampoo companies are the only ones confused. But that's okay, too.

After Beyonce's album dropped, I saw someone arguing about gender inequality on a Facebook thread, and they gave Adichie's definition of feminism as part of their argument. Sure, it's possible that this person had watched Adichie's talk or gleaned it from reading feminist theory, but considering the timing it's a lot more likely that she had heard it on the album.

If accepting commercialized versions of feminism to flow into the mainstream gives people on the fence about their own acceptance of feminism as an identity tools to unpack that, then it is doing a lot of good--certainly way more good than a commercial that tells us putting our hair in a pony tail is a personal failing.


  1. I've struggled with the hoopla all week. Inside my head I was thinking "Beyonce? A feminist icon?". I just couldn't wrap my brain around it. I finally decided I didn't have to. She's a powerhouse of a performer who knows how to market and, yes, she may be a feminist and, yes, she may have made all of her moves with a calculating plan in mind, but I still don't care to listen to her music or watch her videos. But if she is empowering a new generation of women to define themselves then more power to her. Unfortunately I am a cynic and I think the image she is encouraging young girls to emulate fits right inside that gender stereotype box we've been trying to escape. I just have to remind myself it's the small steps that are the most stable.

  2. And what does it say about feminism if indeed brands like Pantene and the one Beyonce has cultivated are co-opting it? That it's a hot topic right now-and that's got to be good news.

  3. This is a very well-done piece. I appreciate you wrestling with the tension. There is so much wisdom here. I think I'd have to agree with your conclusions.

    I think some people were critical of the Cheerios interracial families commercial saying that is was just a ploy for attention. Am I under some delusion that Cheerios is really committed to ending racism? Not at all. But it still matters that it was put out there. It just does. Commercials have one goal: to sell something. We all know that. But commercials also, like you're saying, reflect the consumers. So seeing a family that looks like mine on TV, EVEN if it's to sell something? I still have to call that progress.