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III Empowerment, Confidence and Subjectivity

'I'm Beautiful the Way I Am': Empowerment, Beauty, and Aesthetic Labour

Sarah Banet-Weiser


The early twenty first century has given rise to an ongoing girls’ ‘confidence movement’ (Gill and Orgad 2015). This movement is decentralised, taking place in non-profit organisations, state-funded initiatives, advertising campaigns, marketing, and social media. Hundreds of organisations have emerged globally that focus on the empowerment of girls and women (Banet-Weiser 2015). Corporate culture has also joined the empowerment conversation, creating a slew of campaigns and advertisements shown on television and social media. One after another, companies like Verizon, CoverGirl, Always, and Dove have churned out emotional advertising campaigns, urging us to pay closer attention to

S. Banet-Weiser (*)

School of Communication, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

© The Author(s) 2017

A.S. Elias et al. (eds.), Aesthetic Labour,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-47765-1_15

girls and the opportunities available to them both personally and professionally. Ostensibly, the varied strands of the girls’ empowerment and confidence movement seek to mobilise publics to collective action and to create a collective subjectivity around the need to be more gender inclusive.

Alongside a cultural landscape of protest and challenge against wide- reaching gender discrimination we have also seen a rise in creative industries that correspond with neoliberal capitalist imperatives about the self-governed entrepreneur. This mobilisation takes many forms and targets many demographics, from classic Silicon Valley tech start-ups to ecommerce to YouTube and other social media partnerships. The cultural and economic conditions of neoliberal capitalism have transformed the nature of creative work, and digital media in particular are shaped by a utopic vision that technological spaces afford possibility for anyone who wants to take advantage of these spaces (Gill and Pratt 2008; McRobbie 2015). While women are notoriously underrepresented in leadership positions in the tech industry, in the realm of social media entrepreneurship, girls have had more of a presence, especially in those areas that are seen as traditionally feminine, such as fashion blogging, shopping sites, and beauty vlogging (Duffy 2015; Banet-Weiser and Arzumanova 2013).

In this essay, I focus on the intersection between the recent increase in girls’ empowerment and confidence campaigns and the growing presence of a particular genre of entrepreneurship on YouTube: the make-up tutorial, or beauty vlogging. On the face of it, there is a seeming contradiction between initiatives that claim to empower girls and women to resist unrealistic and exclusionary standards of beauty, and media productions that instruct or discipline them along these same lines, offering tutorials on how to precisely achieve these very same standards. Yet, I argue in this essay that corporate confidence campaigns and beauty vlogging together produce a gendered logic that is not contradictory but rather complementary. This gendered logic centres the ‘empowered’ feminine body as the source of aesthetic labour. The audiences for the corporate campaigns, as well as the fan bases for beauty vlogs, are encouraged to perform aesthetic labour on their own bodies. To demonstrate how this is achieved, I first analyse two recent commercially visible advertising initiatives, Always’ #Like a Girl and CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan. Both of these campaigns address discriminatory practices that exclude or diminish girls. I then focus on the recent rise in YouTube beauty vlogging as a potentially lucrative practice for girls and young women.

Despite the fact that these tutorials instruct girls how to apply makeup and thus discipline themselves in conventional hetero-feminine ways, they also, like the confidence campaigns, position girls as self-empowered and entrepreneurial. This contemporary iteration of empowerment prominently positions the individual girl as what Angela McRobbie calls a ‘better economic subject’ in a context of aesthetic labour and neoliberal entrepreneurialism (McRobbie 2009). This is where the corporate confidence campaigns and beauty vlogging intersect, because in both, girls and young women are encouraged to be good economic subjects, in both the production and consumption realms.

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