I’d really like a t-shirt with the words “Feminism isn’t for sale”. But then I’d probably have to buy it from Topshop or H&M or Zara and I’d end up in a complete metaphysical crisis, crumpled on the floor. How can I pay for a t-shirt profiting from the fact that feminism isn’t a revenue avenue – except it is, now, isn’t it?
I spend a lot of time – way too much time, in fact – concerned with how big brands are profiting from the fourth wave. Round and round I’ve gone, scratching my own eyes out with every feminist messaging corporations ride in order to shift more shoes or shower gel or mascara (without any evidence of treating their female staff fairly).
there is a slimy sticky feeling – big business, still run typically by white men, is making money off a revival of a social movement, of a grass roots surge of activism, of a battle that you can’t put a price on: economic and social equality of the sexes
But so what if they are? The message is still being spread: equality is cool, kids. That’s essentially a Good Thing. Or at least better than mega brands deciding that sexism and discrimination is. Buy a phone case with the Future is Female emblazoned on it (confession: reader, I did) and surely that’s better than 13-year-olds (or indeed 31-year-olds) carrying phones emblazoned with Get back in the Kitchen (even if they’ve just contributed to the Philip Green retirement fund).
But there is a slimy, sticky feeling – big business, still run typically by white men, is making money off a revival of a social movement, of a grass roots surge of activism, of a battle that you can’t put a price on: economic and social equality of the sexes. And yet, am I the only one who feels this? I’ve written about Fairy Liquid suddenly ditching a 50-plus year strategy of portraying a woman at a kitchen sink and promoting “Fair Liquid”; I’ve written about brands advertising unhealthy images of women via the backdoor of Instagram; I've written about how even Dove gets it wrong sometimes and I’ve spoken to Joan, a female run ad agency in New York trying to fix the problem at it’s roots: what if actual feminists were making feminists ads?
But that slimy, sticky feeling isn’t going anywhere.
In our internet age, we’ve gone somewhere and nowhere. Our advertising regulatory bodies will one minute ban an ad for promoting breast enhancements but will give the thumbs up to the barely-there model. We are celebrating diverse model sizes but we’re increasingly putting younger and younger girls on the front of magazines. Using feminism to sell stuff is tangled in our screwed, confused and contradictory narratives on how women can, and should, look in the media.
And so the thoughts go on and on. “I am not a feminist”, Jessica Cripsen recently wrote, so dismayed at our commercialisation of the movement. (I get her frustration but I’m still a feminist). Which is why I instantly fell for 100 Days of Feminist Ads – an Instagram account run by LA copywriter, Eileen Matthews. Matthews told the Drum “With the current political landscape, it felt like an interesting approach to play with ways brands could take a stand on certain issues if they wanted to”.
For 100 days, Matthews is remaking brand logos and tag lines with a feminist message. It’s a funny, clever nod to advertising – an industry responsible for sexist messages and workplace culture – using feminism to sell their products, now that feminism is an accepted, and even fashionable, part of the cultural conversation. Matthews’ humour reflects what happens when big brands try to promote an inauthentic message – or what we might imagine a group of ad men might come up with if trying to sell their stuff to feminists.
For example, a Zippo Lighter appears beneath the words “Ladies, Shall we? Starting fires since 1933”. A Kleenex ad has the strap line “cry like a human”. Windex’s new tag line reads: “Until there isn’t a glass cleaning to clean”. Nike’s “Just Do It” is followed with “But Ask First”.
Right now, the whole advertising industry seems to be wearing a This is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt, much in the vein that Theresa May did – totally regardless to if they are or aren't. Matthews’ work gloriously laughs right back in their face.