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My feelings about International Women’s Day are a bit like my feelings about Christmas: what’s meant to be a celebration all too often degenerates into internecine squabbles and vacuous corporate messaging. At Christmas companies spout pieties about peace on earth; on IWD they spout platitudes about women’s empowerment. Sometimes these are embellished with eyecatching gimmicks, and sometimes this strategy backfires. This year, the energy company Shell announced that it was temporarily rebranding itself as ‘She’ll’—a gesture so lame that for a while people believed a tweet which claimed it was a prank played on the company by someone else.

In the run-up to IWD 2020 I was approached by a couple of PR consultants myself. They asked if, in exchange for a sum of money, I would put my name, my expertise, and in one case this blog, in the service of a language-themed corporate campaign. The first of these correspondents told me the identity of the client was confidential: it would only be revealed to me if I agreed to be involved. Since I declined, I will never know who I was being asked to get involved with. The second identified the client as Avon, the world’s fifth-largest beauty company and its second-largest direct sales company. I said no to that as well. Just to be clear, I would say no to any proposal of this kind. But I’d never expected to actually get a proposal, let alone two in quick succession.

Maybe I should have seen it coming, though, because I do know the corporate world is obsessed with language as a tool for empowering women. I’ve written many times about the pervasiveness of the ‘deficit model’, according to which women are prevented from achieving their true potential by their weak and unauthoritative style of speaking. This idea has spawned a large and lucrative industry devoted to fixing (sorry, ‘empowering’) women through workplace training, personal coaching, self-help books and articles in women’s magazines. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know what this advice consists of: lose the high squeaky voices, the uptalk and the vocal fry, cut out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ and stop larding your emails with emoji. You’ll also know what I think of it: that it’s linguistically naïve, sexist nonsense whose main effect is to make women feel self-conscious, anxious and inadequate.

But this remains a minority view. Whenever I criticise the deficit model I always get pushback from women who say they find the narrative of empowerment through language uplifting and inspiring. That’s probably why the narrative is also used to market other kinds of products to women.

A few years ago I came across an example on an Indian website. It started like this:

If you think about it, women are always apologizing – even when it’s not their fault. Especially when it’s not their fault. In the boardroom. When asking if someone’s got a moment to talk. When accidentally bumped by the gent who just sat in the next chair. While handing baby to daddy. In the process of recovering their legitimate share of the quilt at bedtime. While opening the passenger door of the car. It’s like they are genetically hardwired to apologize for being there, for bringing themselves to notice, for leaving the kitchen, for abdicating parenting responsibility however brief it may be, for being greater than the sum of the parts society (mostly the male bits) expects them to be. It’s the residual guilt of generations of conditioning.

In this text, the deficit-model claim that women apologise too much is presented in a less judgmental way. The writer seems to be commiserating with women rather than blaming them for being such wimps. But while it wasn’t hard to follow her line of thought, I couldn’t quite see where the writer was going with it. What message, exactly, were readers meant to take away?

And then all was revealed:

Stop it, says this advertisement by shampoo brand Pantene. Don’t be sorry. If anything, be sorry about not being sorry. Instead of apologizing, shine strong – like your Pantene-shampooed hair.

What I was reading was an ‘advertorial’, or in more contemporary parlance ‘native advertising’. It was designed to look like regular editorial content, but in fact it was part of a global campaign promoting Pantene shampoo. Embedded in the text was a link to a video of the TV ad, ‘Sorry not sorry’, that had launched the campaign in the US. The ad presents a series of vignettes (the same ones rendered verbally in the text already quoted) in which women apologise unnecessarily, followed by the ‘stop saying sorry and shine strong’ message. US audiences reportedly loved it, and it also got a lot of attention in the media. Clearly, as the trade publication Adweek commented,

talking about sexism and feminism and female empowerment is a great way for brands to build buzz.

Actually, the Pantene campaign doesn’t so much talk about sexism and feminism as obliquely allude to them; in the text I’ve quoted the clearest reference to sexism (‘mostly the male bits’) is literally a parenthesis. But since 2016 the buzz has got louder, and the brands, or at least some of them, have got bolder.

Avon’s IWD campaign is a case in point. It’s called #SpeakOut (notice the echo of recent feminist hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp), and it’s explicitly about a form of sexism. As the company’s website explains:

Through conversations with our global network of women, we have discovered that in languages and cultures across the world there are words and phrases used specifically to describe, criticise and negatively stereotype women. For example, being called ‘Lippy’ in English, ‘Vorlaut’ in German, or ‘Mandona’ in Spanish, to name but a few. Through the #SpeakOut campaign, we are urging women to reclaim this stereotyped language and be proud to speak out and share their stories.

In Britain the campaign has produced a promotional feature in Marie Claire magazine headed ‘It’s time to reclaim the words used against us with the #SpeakOut campaign’. The words ‘in partnership with Avon’ appear just below this title, making it clear that this is commercially sponsored content. Unlike in the Pantene example, however, what’s being promoted isn’t Avon’s products, but rather its ethos and history as a company which has always believed in empowering women. It’s given generations of women whose domestic responsibilities precluded regular employment a way to earn money selling products to their friends and neighbours; in 1955 it established a Foundation for Women which supports breast cancer charities and organisations working to end domestic violence. Now it’s taking up the cause of women’s ‘equal right to voice’ and encouraging them to be ‘proud to speak out’.

The core of the feature is a conversation in which a group of women–and one man, from the male allies’ group Good Lad–share their stories and their views. One of the women is a linguist, and she is given the role of explaining what research has shown (for instance that women’s speech tends to be evaluated less positively than men’s). The others are a rapper, a journalist, a trans woman who’s an Avon representative, the CEO of Avon and the editor of Marie Claire. They talk about their experiences of being silenced, ignored or dismissed, and affirm the importance of ‘amplifying women’s voices’.  Apart from one predictable irritant (there’s a lot of emphasis on how important it is to bring men into the conversation—because god forbid there should be even one day of the year when women don’t have to tell men they’re important) I thought this was basically fine. It’s not my kind of feminism, but it’s certainly an improvement on the cynical faux-feminism of ‘stop apologising and buy our shampoo’.

Campaigns like these raise a larger question: whose interests are being served when companies take up feminist concerns and use the language of feminism in their messaging? Obviously they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they think there’s something in it for them. But should we condemn this corporate appropriation of feminism as inauthentic, self-serving and axiomatically antithetical to our goals, or is it possible to see it as enlightened self-interest, something which—if it’s done right—can serve women’s interests too?

With Pantene and ‘Sorry not sorry’ (or Shell and ‘She’ll’) I think it’s clearly self-serving: it’s the feminist equivalent of ‘green/pinkwashing’, using symbolic resources (logos, packaging, advertising copy) to associate your brand with a cause while doing absolutely nothing practical to advance it. But Avon is arguably a more complicated case. It does have some claim to be a historically woman-centred business, it puts a fair chunk of money where its mouth is, and I’m sure many of the women who work for it are genuinely committed to the causes it supports. But this pro-woman stance contains a number of contradictions which are hard for feminists to overlook.

First and most obviously, Avon is part of the beauty industry, which has long been criticised by feminists for relentlessly exploiting women’s anxieties and insecurities. Clearly the company is aware of this, and it attempts a quasi-feminist defence in a section of the website called ‘The Power of Beauty’. Beauty, it says, is ‘not vain or frivolous, for many women it is key to building confidence and self-belief’. In other words, it’s empowering. But this misses the point of the feminist objection, which is not that the beauty industry encourages vanity and frivolity: the  problem is rather the role the industry plays in defining what will count as a desirable or even just acceptable way for women to look. Not only does this ideal demand a significant investment of time, attention and money, it’s also sexist, ageist and (if we look globally) racist and colourist. Why should women’s ‘confidence and self-belief’ depend on conforming to oppressive beauty standards?

Another contradiction emerges if we consider Avon’s business model—recruiting women to sell products to other women in their own communities. The prototypical Avon representative is a woman whose main occupation is unpaid care-work in the home, and who is looking for a way to make money which is compatible with her domestic role. It’s true that Avon is meeting a need by providing earning opportunities for women in this position, but it is also profiting from the patriarchal social arrangements that create the need in the first place.

Avon’s feminism, and indeed corporate feminism in general, exemplifies what Catherine Rottenberg calls ‘neoliberal feminism’. This doesn’t focus on large-scale structural issues like the exploitation of women’s unpaid care-work, but rather ‘exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve “a happy work-family balance”’.  Unlike 1990s ‘post-feminism’, which suggested that women (at least in the West) were already equal and no longer needed feminism of any kind, neoliberal feminism does acknowledge the continuing existence of gender inequality and injustice. But the solutions it proposes are ‘individualised–such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse’.

The #SpeakOut campaign is clearly in this mould. As I’ve already said, I don’t disagree with its general aims; nor do I dispute that individual ‘speaking out’ can be a powerful gesture (think of #MeToo). But if it isn’t a prelude to any kind of collective action, it’s hard to see what the gesture accomplishes. Second wave feminists also held ‘speak outs’ on issues like rape and illegal abortion, but they were clear that this wasn’t just an end in itself: it was meant to deepen their understanding of the problem so they could figure out what needed to be done about it. The work of actually changing things came later, took longer, and demanded a serious commitment from the activists involved.

The corporate messages we get on International Women’s Day generally aren’t a prelude to anything. They’re just a fleeting moment of feelgood celebration before it’s back to business as usual until next year. Shell’s ‘She’ll’ campaign, for instance, has produced a video in which images of girls and women are overlaid with uplifting statements that begin with the words ‘she will’, like ‘she will be respected’, and ‘she will be heard’. In future, they’re telling us, women will be equal. But when will this happen, and how will it come about?

That’s a detail too far for the people who make these ads, but feminists know the answer: it will happen, if it does happen, through the efforts of women themselves. Today and every other day, it’s those efforts we should be celebrating.