Feminism is a brand that’s been thoroughly trashed. If it was a commercial product, it’d be a good time to buy in, because when stocks are low they only have one way to go.
But feminism is more like a concept brand and unlike a commercial entity, it can’t be liquidated, dissolved or dismantled. It won’t cease to exist as long as the conditions that gave rise to it persist. And that’s just the West — feminism in the developing world is the proverbial sleeping giant. So if it’s here to stay, but nobody’s buying what we’re selling, what can we learn from the marketplace about rehabilitating it?
In the 2000 cultural manifesto No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Naomi Klein argued that even social movements had been co-opted by capitalism, incorporated into brands, and sold back to the very people who had created their original value. The book was scathing about the power of multinationals to undermine cultural change by manipulating the expectations of consumers and building “brand architecture” that made their “products” impervious to reasoned critique.
If people love Nike, McDonald’s and Coke enough, they’ll continue to buy it even if they know it hurts child workers, makes kids fat, or rots their teeth. But big corporates aren’t the only ones who command unswerving brand loyalty. Consider Greenpeace, PETA or Medecins Sans Frontieres — why do people fall so hard and stay in their thrall? These organisations earn the loyalty of their supporters through hard work, calculated risk-taking and killer branding.
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A good example exists in the acceptance of climate change. This is comparable because as a social movement, it has the evidence to back up its claims, but it needed to find a way to translate that information into understanding, acceptance and action among everyday people. Enter Al Gore. Before he “lost” the 2000 election and sharpened his focus on climate change, the broader environmental movement already had its heroes and champions; Ansel Adams, Rachel Carson, Paul R. Ehrlich, David Attenborough, David Suzuki; who made a real impact but never quite nailed it — people had to know about it, care about it, and do something about it. An Inconvenient Truth disseminated this message on a large scale in the West, and it’s worth examining its model of success.
First, the “brand” had to be purged of its associations with hippies, kooks and crazies. Enter the former vice-president. It had to amass solid evidence in such enormous quantities, that it became churlish, then foolish and then impossible to argue with. The film made this information intelligible by providing context and capitalising on existing knowledge and a vague sense of impending doom.
It also had a viral dimension, so that every person who saw it voluntarily took on the role of influencer, educator and activist within their personal sphere. Now this might’ve been the family, the school, the church, town, city or state but the message was clear: now you know, now you look at your life, now you act. We can learn a lot from the simplicity and clarity of this message.
Of course, feminism is not exactly like environmentalism. It’s also nothing like Coke or McDonald’s or Nike, in that it doesn’t have an unlimited marketing budget, shady connections or a vice-like grip on governments. And contrary to the belief of some, Germaine Greer is not in some Vatican-like central command, stroking a white cat and issuing edicts for all to follow or else.*
What it does have is the commitment, knowledge and skills of countless men and women who believe that people shouldn’t be held back because of their gender.
It has a broad cross-section of adherents who understand and make and live their own feminism, without a doctrine or a leader, which is its greatest strength and weakness. And it also has the powerful incentive of a better, safer, fairer world for everyone if it succeeds. As movements go, it’s a rare one that exists primarily to do itself out of business, and perhaps the principles of the marketplace will provide the model for feminism to do just that.
*Though I kind of wish she was.
* Karen Pickering is the host of Cherchez la Femme, a monthly digest of pop culture and current affairs from a feminist perspective. The first one for this year, Feminism and the Brand, is on Thursday March 3, the opening night of The Dawn Conspiracy, a festival of feminist culture to celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day.