It was in the first half of the 20th century that Western feminism was first meaningfully wooed by commerce, and it was in October 2014 that the takeover became complete.

In 1929, The American Tobacco Company successfully increased sales of its Lucky Strike brand with a campaign called “Torches of Freedom” and sold ciggies to the suffragettes. An ingenious and formative PR stunt charmed the post-war Western woman into disease when spokesmodel Bertha Hunt joined New York City’s Easter Parade with a durrie in “rebellious” hand. This act of consumption reconfigured by a brilliant Mad man as courage was followed by a series of advertisements that said “An Ancient Prejudice Has Been Removed”. Women were now free to spend money on shit, and when Bertha lit her cigarette, the future path of Western feminism was illuminated.

This way to the mall.

When second-wave feminism was buoyed by the economic need for women to work, industry turned again to its old tricks with the theft by the Philip Morris Company of feminist consciousness-raising with the “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign of giddy liberation for its Virginia Slims brand. Bra-less chicks, some with Black Power afros, exchanged one form of oppression for another. The decisive statement of falsely Independent Girlhood came, perhaps, with the L’Oreal series of “I’m worth It” ads, whose history is comprehensively but uncritically documented here in a New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell. This statement of feminine self-worth accessorised by lustrous hair colour continues with a range of role-models (TM), including the tedious Beyonce, who herself employs flat expressions of feminism to sell her shit, still advising my gender that we are Worth It and that the measure of our worth is the purchase of cosmetics.

Ilon Specht, the young woman who devised L’Oreal’s award-winning campaign, which has endured for 40 years, believed that she was engaged in good works. When Gladwell spoke to her more than 25 years after she had what she characterises as a feminist epiphany in the offices of McCann Erickson, she still believed that she was selling more than hair dye. And Gladwell seems to as well. The incorrigible liberal is inclined to support anything to which a message of “freedom” and “choice” is appended, and Gladwell sees this, as many do, as a moment documenting a thrilling time in which women were finally awarded the marvellous opportunity of joining the labour market and spending their own wages with the force of a sailor on shore leave.

If you believe that the market is a backdrop for absolute freedom, you might concede to Gladwell’s assessment. If you believe that the market sometimes functions to sell us — most particularly us women, who can’t seem to stop buying things — a false idea of our own legitimacy, then you might believe, as I do, that the use of “progressive” politics as an advertising strategy just demonstrates to us the ineluctable nature of our own ideology. Whatever the case, you might see that recent successful cases of feminist sales form part of a history begun with the Torches of Freedom.

It was last week that my social media newsfeed was choked with the stink of “freedom” and “choice”. A turd of a video depicting little girls parroting the opinions of big girls attained the ultimate YouTube success when it was banned from view. The for-profit company FCKH8 had employed some child actors to swear about oppression in order to sell a T-shirt. Now, I have no personal objection to grade-school cursing, and the image of slightly dishevelled babies in princess outfits saying “fuck” is one I find quite funny. But surely, to pay little girls to talk about the likelihood that they will be raped is a culture industry labour practice at least as questionable as that which required the 13-year-old Linda Blair to employ a crucifix as a dildo in the filming of The Exorcist.

“When ‘feminism’ has been bought, sold and made powerless by the same processes that keep women enslaved to consumption, it is no longer feminism.”

Child labour aside, this campaign can claim no fundamental difference from the Torches of Freedom. That the FCKH8 company is not yet publicly traded is irrelevant when we consider that its theft of principles for profit is identical to that of Philip Morris. Of course there is a widespread view, a la Gladwell, that anything that gets us talking about important issues is, at least, partially good. I tend to believe that such discussion cannot be partially good when it is fundamentally corrupted and comes, as it did, from a radical-wear provider that has been, quite rightly, critiqued for its earlier use of the Ferguson protests to make a buck. We hate racism but we love making money from it.

Lipstick, cigarettes. T-shirts. No matter the nature of the product or the scope of the company flogging it, the mechanism is the same. If one is profiting from consumption of an item derived from genuine dissent, one cannot claim pure or even half-noble motivations or results. Let’s set a Marxist critique of consumption — the chief economic work of women — aside for a minute and talk not just about the exploitation of labour and the corruption of dissent and consider that it is not just capital that makes this process so stupendously fucking hateful. It is the way in which a message T-shirt and its promotion can become an apparently legitimate basis for discussion.  “At least people are talking about these issues,” say all of the Gladwells, somehow spectacularly unaware that people do talk about these issues and have done for some time and if you are being oppressed, the likelihood that your consciousness of it will be raised by a T-shirt, or the ensuing debate that has as its basis discussion of a T-shirt, is very low.

I am told by internet, however, that oppressors may learn a thing or two by simple T-shirts and that the intended audience for this week’s for-profit progressive success “Hollaback” video will immediately reconsider their lewd ways.  But looking at the Hollaback campaign, intended to end street harassment, one wonders if the intended audience shouldn’t just make their own viral video and T-shirt and “call out” the company for hideous racial stereotyping.

The video that supposes to objectively depict the experience of a New York City woman over 10 hours — and one that also sells a T-shirt — shows unpleasant harassment that is almost unanimously offered by men of colour. The maker of the T-shirt video, herself not white, has defended this editing decision on Reddit by offering that white men tended to offer less audible abuse.

Who cares?  This T-shirt ad purports to be representative of the experience of all women, in which case its producers might have invested in a better microphone with an “invidious white guy” setting. One makes decisions in the production of works. And even if it is the broad experience of a New York City woman that people of particular cultural groups are more overt in the expression of sexism — and I am certainly not saying that this is the case, as my own experience of harassment is one chiefly of very audible white men — it might also be the case that people of particular cultural groups have fucking nowhere else to go but the street.

So if we want to end street harassment, perhaps we should start by asking questions of the street itself.

While the businessmen at Scores strip club can pay for the privilege of lewdness or simply take it out on their personal assistants, the people doomed to New York City’s streets do not share this fortune. And this, let it be said, is not a defence of harassment. But nor is it a defence of a very shitty video made to sell a very particular version of feminism for profit.

But. Honestly. I am boring even myself with the discussion of something that should not be discussed. We can go on all we like with the purely cultural interest of a Gladwell and say “well! At least we’re talking about the racism of feminism!”, but, unfortunately, if we want to talk about that complex matter, we are probably going to have to take the trouble of reading a paper by bell hooks (whose name is pretentiously, but purposefully, miniscule — ed.). Of course, the academic is best known for her statement “feminism is for everybody” — you have probably seen the uncredited statement on a T-shirt made by some white feminist Etsy entrepreneur. But “feminism is for everybody” does not mean that feminism is for idiots who think that a slogan or a video is the basis of a good discussion. Because when “feminism” has been bought, sold and made powerless by the same processes that keep women enslaved to consumption, it is no longer feminism.

But it is a Torch of Freedom.

Peter Fray

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