If you’re unfamiliar with International Women’s Day, perhaps the best shortcut to understanding is to think of it as Feminist Christmas. For many years on March 8, groups of people with little in common have congregated, made agonising efforts not to yell at each other and then completely drank away the memory of the holiday’s origin story — now believed by many not to be the fight for dignity in toil, but unhindered publication of nipple shots on Instagram.
But it was never a sell-out like December 25. For decades, feminists were able to celebrate, or mourn, this day outside the margins of commerce. This year, though, there will be gift bags, private funding and substantial corporate interest. Just like Christmas, IWD has become far less a moment to address our noblest potential and much more a way to sell women pointless shit.
Currently running on network TV in time for IWD are the maniacally tasteful short films made last year by director Jane Campion for ANZ. In an affecting series shot largely in black and white and scored by an angry feminist flautist, these works bear the shareable hashtag #equalfuture and have as their subject wealth equality. Which is a fun twist for a bank, one of those institutions that largely shapes our nation’s unequal financial playing field.
In a behind-the-scenes special, where Campion can be otherwise observed introducing her young female actors to the concept of the “safe space”, the voice of ANZ’s global wealth CEO is heard. Says Joyce Phillips: “When women help themselves, they naturally help others as well.”
Phillips can be read in two ways, here. And neither of ‘em is, in my view, much chop. Either she means women are more inclined than men to be helpful, which is sexist hearsay, or she’s basically upchucking the worst of Adam Smith.
My money — or what little I have of it, #AsAWoman #equalfuture — is largely on the latter. This is the new meaning of Feminist Christmas, borrowed from the oldest and most damaging traditions of male liberalism. If only we are permitted to act freely in the market, the market will act benevolently. Unfettered commerce means freedom for everyone. And probably nipples freed by the invisible hand on Instagram as well.
Similar campaigns by large corporations are routinely applauded as Teachable Moments. The world’s second-largest consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble, received plaudits for its #LikeAGirl campaign, devised to sell scented sanitary pads to teens. The world’s third-largest consumer goods company, Unliever, has employed a group of “self-esteem experts” in its latest efforts to sell scented soaps and empowerment. Department store David Jones has just posted some videos in time for the big day. Watch a group of ladies in immaculately pressed linen engage in the feminine fresh work of talking “about what it really means to be a woman in today’s society”. Or, if you prefer, cheer the good work of French luxury goods manufacturer Kering, which has partnered for feminism this week with luxury liberalism manufacturer the UN. Recently, Kering confirmed that it would not use child labour in the outsourced production of its high-end clothing. The women textile workers who marched in 1907 against child labour would, perhaps, not be tickled pink to learn about a century of such glacial progress.
There is a strong view, though, that progress toward equality is being made — the many well-regarded critiques on poverty by monopoly data providers notwithstanding. There is a view that campaigns like ANZ’s #equalfuture are, at worst, evidence that interest in true material equality is at some kind of fever pitch and, at best, offering a positive message to our youngest women. You’d be a Grinch today for suggesting otherwise.
Well, colour me greener than the meanest anti-holiday ghoul, this is not the true meaning of Feminist Christmas. Just as one corrodes the hope for Christian generosity by commodifying it, one negates the spirit of IWD through erasing the memory of its foremothers who forewent their factory wages to march for bread and roses.
Self-esteem and uncensored nipples are not qualities antithetical to the aims of feminism — a movement that remains, at least nominally, focused on material equality. But when this brief ecstasy comes at the cost of sponsorship by the very institutions that ensure material inequality, it’s time to revive the tradition of yelling at each other over dinner about the boring stuff of politics.