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Feminism and Social Justice in a Commercial Media World

Feminism is one of the most important social justice movements of modern times. Its broad goal is to make visible and eliminate the subordination, discrimination, and inequalities experienced by women. Marianne Braig and Sonja Wolte argue that we cannot think of the feminist movement as a homogeneous actor. “Rather, we have to conceptualize it as a plurality of social movements of women—and partially men—consisting of and encompassing diversity and differences between class, ethnicity, and other distinctions.”13 Within this plurality, distinctions between feminist activism and feminist scholarship are often difficult to make. While feminist scholars may be engaged in political activism, feminist activists may also do feminist research.

It was a political impetus that first shaped the agenda of feminist media analysis. Much of the Western feminist critique of the 1960s and 1970s was by women outside the academy—women working in the media industries or feminist groups that were organizing in local and national communities. At a global level, the United Nations International Decade for Women (1975—1985) was a catalyst for political debate about the many sites of women’s subordination. To some extent influenced by these highly visible polemics, women in the academy began to identify—and to address—the invisibility of “women,” as a distinct analytical category, in media and communication studies of the time. As Rosalind Gill has pointed out, one of the most striking things about this early period was the degree of overlap and congruence between the agendas of academics, media workers, and activists.14 The media were seen to be deeply implicated in the patterns of discrimination operating against women in society—patterns that, through the absence, trivialization, or disparagement of women in media content, were famously said to constitute “symbolic annihilation.”15 This general critique quickly came to be positioned around two central axes: (1) an analysis of the structures of media power from which women were excluded and

(2) a focus on the politics of representation and the production of knowledge in which women were defined as objects rather than active subjects.16

The push and pull between theorizing, research, and activism has always been a feature of feminist approaches to the media. For example, feminist critique of advertising—a key site for the production and distribution of sexist media imagery—has built on both scholarly studies of how gender differences are constructed in advertising messages and on activist campaigns that have included boycotting products, petitioning regulatory bodies, posting stickers or graffiti on billboards, giving prizes for “good” and “bad” advertisements, and engaging advertisers in dialogue. Over the years, from one country to another, many of these campaigns have been successful—in the sense that specific advertisements have been dropped or changed, self-regulatory codes of conduct have been introduced, and advertising “observatories” have been established.17 Certainly the advertising landscape today looks quite different from the world of happy housewives, helpless maidens, and passive sex objects that populated advertisements of the 1960s. Market imperatives demand that contemporary advertising reflects some of the changes in women’s position in society. But the industry’s claim that it has absorbed a “feminist viewpoint” or that “the history of advertising is deeply entwined with feminism”18 denotes rhetoric rather than reality. Exposing this rhetoric has been central to the large body of feminist scholarship that has analyzed the specifics of how advertising responds to feminist critique. Essentially, advertising has been given “a gloss for the twenty-first century.”19 In other words, advertising has incorporated feminist ideas, while at the same time depoliticizing them so as to produce more complex representations of the modern woman, whose body and sexuality nevertheless remain vital to the process of selling products.

The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty,” devised by advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, has been one of the most successful, and perhaps also the most cynical, examples of the advertising industry’s eagerness to tap into certain aspects of feminist analysis. A worldwide marketing exercise first launched in 2004, the Dove campaign caused a minor sensation by using “real” women— rather than professional models—in advertisements for the Dove skin-firming lotion (intended to reduce cellulite). The choice of these ordinary-looking women, photographed only in their underwear, was intended to “make more women feel beautiful every day by widening stereotypical views of beauty.”20 The campaign achieved huge media impact, and public reaction was positive. But how “ordinary” were the Dove models? The women selected for the “real beauty” campaigns in both the United States and the United Kingdom were all aged under 30 and were below the body size of the average American or British woman. None showed any sign of cellulite or indeed any other blemish. Following a claim in The New Yorker that the photographs had been retouched, Dove placed a statement on its American and British campaign websites: “Colour corrections and other small adjustments are needed in order to meet professional standards . . . These corrections do not mean that people don’t see the woman as she really is and do not change Dove brand’s commitment to women.”21 The statement reveals the sleight of hand involved in the Dove campaign: even “real” women must meet certain professional standards to feature in the advertisements, whose primary purpose, of course, is to expand the market for the Dove brand. The campaign certainly has been successful. In the year following its launch in the United Kingdom, demand for Dove products rose by 700 percent, making it the fastest-growing beauty products brand in Western Europe.22

The power of advertising is immense not only in terms of its influence on consumers but—in an increasingly commercial media world—on the political economy of the media in general. Over the past two decades, as many formerly state-run and public service media enterprises have ceded control to commercial interests, advertising revenue has become ever more central to the production of content in radio and television, newspapers and magazines, and, most recently, the Internet. This gives the advertising industry immense bargaining power in its dealings with regulatory agencies. The entangled relationships between industry and regulatory bodies present an enormous challenge for feminist activists, who in many parts of the world consider the development and enforcement of policy standards and codes of practice to be a key strategy in achieving gender justice.23 For instance, within the institutions of the European Union, where media and communication have been defined primarily as tradable goods, the commercial principle is immensely influential.

In 2008, the European Parliament approved a resolution on “How Marketing and Advertising Affect Equality between Women and Men.” A nonlegislative resolution, it was a much watered-down version of a draft text adopted several months earlier by the parliament’s Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. For example, clauses in the original that sought the establishment of national media monitoring bodies and of ethical codes or legal rules covering the creators and distributors of advertising were dropped in the final version. This merely calls for adherence to existing guidelines and for training, dialogue, and awareness-raising among advertisers. Yet the response of the European Commission to this rather weak document could be read as an apologia for the advertising industry, the effect of whose lobbying seems obvious.24 Citing (unspecified) “strong evidence” that the depiction of women in advertising has kept up with social change and that existing industry advertising codes deal “effectively” with the objectionable stereotyping to be found in a “small minority” of advertising campaigns, the Commission suggests that “freedom of expression arguably provides a basis for tolerance of stereotyping in advertising given its limitations” (i.e., advertising’s “short-form, ephemeral nature”). Importantly, the Commission continues,

one should take into account the positive role that advertising plays in reducing the cover price of print media and in funding free online media, together with commercial television channels . . . Heavy-handed interventions to limit stereotyping could be counter-productive in terms of overall media policy priorities, since they would divert promotional expenditure outside the media.25

The response illustrates how market-oriented considerations take precedence over social justice arguments in determining policy. Gender stereotyping in advertising is not denied. Indeed it is acknowledged. However, in the logic of the commercial world, attempts to limit it—that are a priori presumed to be “heavy-handed”—would undermine media financing and profit, and are therefore rejected. Also noteworthy is the way in which the concept of “freedom of expression” is used not just to argue for “tolerance of stereotyping” but to support adherence to “overall media policy priorities”—priorities that are of course rooted in another “freedom” discourse, the freedom of the market.

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