A+ Gender & Sexuality

Selling an illusion

8 Mins read

Words: Holly Campbell


Scanning the covers of recent issues of Glamour and Grazia, there is an overarching rhetoric of female empowerment. Hollywood actresses, self-declared feminists and women-of-colour Zendaya and Lupita Nyong’o appear as cover stars on the texts alongside messages of independence and empowerment.

In the context of the frame, this visual discourse is a radical advancement from headlines centred on beauty-centric self-improvement and the idealistic, passively portrayed all-white cast of women that have adorned the pages of women’s fashion magazines for decades.

On the surface, the feminist tropes of activism, social change and independence appear as a cause for celebration. These sentiments fill the covers of the popular cultural mediums that have long been critiqued by feminists for their detrimental ideals of women. Now, here they are, reaching the same demographic that feminism targets whilst encouraging feminist themes.

Surely this is progressive? Through the medium people are engaging in feminist conversations on a mass scale whilst more diverse representations of women are being made. So, why is it then, that as a feminist, I only feel let down, disaffected and angry at the empowerment-fuelled messages spanning the pages?

There’s no denying that feminism has resurfaced like never before. Mediated representations of feminism, including explicit mainstream representations of the political movement, have flooded popular culture and mass media.

However, this presence of feminism in the mainstream is divisive within the feminist academy – celebrated by some for engaging women in issues of gender equality whilst criticised by others for its distraction from the ‘real’ hard-pressing issues, such as abuse or rape.

This current sociocultural climate of heightened empowerment-centric discourse has given rise to speculation of a fourth feminist wave as a new generation of grass-roots and online movements take action toward gender equality. We’ve seen global women’s marches and high-profile cases of sexual harassment gain mainstream news coverage and widespread viral social media support. There’s no doubt that we’re amidst a huge shift that is threatening long-standing patriarchal structures. There is real change happening.

Inevitably, celebrities, brands and advertisers are making explicit affiliations with feminism and the notion of female empowerment. Named Merriam Webster’s word of the year in 2017, feminism is trending. From Topshop and H&M to Chanel and Dior, there is no shortage of brands riding the feminism bandwagon and profiting from it.

Through social media, instances of the blatant appropriation and commoditisation of feminism by brands are well criticised. They are often challenged by questioning along the lines of “how does this feminist-themed product truly benefit women?” to which the answer is usually “it doesn’t”.

The empowerment sentiment of mass produced ‘feminist’ emblazoned t-shirts, sweaters and mugs purchased on the high-street tends to reach no further than the first-world consumer’s fast fashion wardrobe or social media post. No matter how well-intended the purchaser is, these superficial expressions of a popular trend sustain abusive supply chains that oppress third-world women.

Of course, challenging this is necessary. Yet, there is a less widely considered critique of the type of feminism that has abounded popular culture – the type that is mediated through the catwalks, clothing stores and women’s fashion magazines.

Given that popular and visual culture has historically conformed to a patriarchal regime that oppresses and restricts women, this seemingly sudden mainstream usurping of feminism is surprising.

Mass media functions to shape collective western consciousness. In western culture it’s hegemonically controlled and founded on the interests of a neoliberal consumer society. Moving from a linear, post-Fordist regime where mass consumption was constructed as homogenous and consumers desired a small range of tangible products, culture has now become globalised and digitalised. Now, mass audiences are treated as heterogeneous with a plethora of choices for consumption. In this information age, the abstract notion of the brand reigns and the logic of difference and choice dominates markets. Yet, this does not signify emancipation from capitalism – capitalist dominance has merely become flexible and taken on a neoliberal form.

Expansive choice regulates consumption. And, relative to mainstream culture, the notion of feminism becomes a radical, different and new option.

Mainstream feminism pacifies the potential for the critique of dominant social structures by a new generation of women – a generation that is becoming increasingly economically mobile and empowered.

In this context, feminism is mediated through a particular field of accepted representations wherein it performs a double-edged function. On the one hand, it brings the movement to the fore of collective consciousness and engages women – satisfying mass calls for change and difference. On the other, it disables the full potential of collective structural action by constructing consumption as a means for action and by fragmenting and individualising women.

Examining the type of feminism on offer to women and girls through contemporary popular culture representations offers insight into this double-edged nature, revealing it to be an insidious accomplice of neoliberalism.

Embodying mainstream women’s culture, women’s magazines are cultural artefacts providing a concentration of popular women’s content. Each issue acts as a snapshot insight into today’s popular construct of the ideal woman; her ideal look, her views and her behaviour.

Across the genre of contemporary women’s fashion magazines, their standardised format loosely encompasses the categories of beauty, fashion and lifestyle. As the notion of feminism has become embraced within almost all facets of popular culture, these categories act as a cross-section of themes that publishers deem relevant to young women. Importantly, this is in tension with representations of an idealistic image that advertisers aim to construct to incentivise the purchasing of their product.

The texts’ representations and depictions of women, femininity and feminism itself reveal an ideal image of contemporary feminism – one that is inherently constructed as beneficial to the aims of advertisers and the revenue reliant publication.

Women’s magazines are embedded within a political economy in which their appeal to advertisers determines the parameters for the representations in their content.

Stripped back, they are essentially covert adverts. The magazine constructs an ideal reader – the young, beauty and fashion savvy, upwardly mobile woman with a disposable income to spend on herself. According to Girl Power Marketing, women account for 85% of all consumers in the US. As a result, the advertising space in the magazines becomes highly valuable to marketers. It enables them to reach women who have been conditioned over centuries to believe the patriarchal myth that consumption is the means of achieving a socially constructed idealistic image of beauty.

As commodities in themselves, women’s magazines are fundamentally revenue-driven. The content that they mediate is inherently in tension with a process of negotiation and accommodation between advertisers and the market-determined construct of an ideal reader. Every editorially chosen representation relies on the publication’s relationship with its advertisers – an industry that has historically relied on patriarchal capitalist conventions that perpetuate and reinforce women’s oppression for economic gain.

Inevitably, discussions of women’s issues, representations of women and feminism must complement the market-driven desires of these advertisers. No matter how well-intending or feminist-informed an editor may be, the medium cannot escape this commercial influence on its content.

A women’s magazine editor may want to run an article on the beauty industry’s systemic privileging of white women. However, when the following pages are filled with adverts for a makeup brand that uses images predominantly of young white women to sell its products, the potential for radical conversation becomes considerably diluted. It would spark too much critical or collective inquiry to the detriment of the brand and its adverts.

No matter how contradictory, messy or disorganised the visual and discursive arrangement of women’s magazine contents may seem, they are bound together with one coherent necessity – to please advertisers by creating revenue.

Of course, relatively risqué topics are broached in the mediums. Cosmo became one of the first women’s magazines in the mid 1960’s to feature articles that explicitly discussed sex and featured women in minimal clothing on its cover. In the name of empowerment, this veered from its conservative roots of cooking, family and celebrity.

But by their very nature, mainstream women’s magazines can only be as radical as their market permits. So, if sex sells, then so does Cosmo. And if popular feminism sells, then so does Glamour.

The feminism being sold in these magazines can be clearly identified. And its negotiation of the tension between complementing brand adverts and satisfying the interests of its readers is obvious.

The type of feminism evident in mainstream women’s magazines is one of individualism. It champions women’s economic empowerment and entrepreneurialism. It encourages women to be independent, climb their career ladder and earn.

Economic and editorial restrictions limit the potential for mainstream women’s magazines to publish content that challenges dominant power structures. Instead, and conveniently to neoliberalism, the apparently radical representations of women that embody assertiveness and economic independence only reflect and accommodate free-market conditioning.

Feminism is demonstrated in the magazines by individualistic and economic terms. The Glamour issue examined takes aim at closing the wage gap and cover star Zendaya talks of becoming empowered through her entrepreneurial success. Grazia advises readers on how they individually can ‘take down’ the entirety of Hollywood’s abusers – by spending their money elsewhere – and in an interview with Lupita Nyong’o she says: “my success has brought me freedom”; her success being a woman of colour to make it in Hollywood.

Not only are the measures of success shaped by economic terms, but the magazines construct a new role model. The feminine entrepreneur; the wealthy woman who is admirable for breaking social boundaries despite the barriers of discrimination that she should face.

Of course, the resilience and determination to become one of the few women of colour to make it in Hollywood is astoundingly admirable. It contributes to visibility and diversity in historically white and male-dominated spaces and allows young women to be inspired.

However, the idea that freedom can be gained through being extraordinarily talent and successful and rising to the top of an industry contributes to the mediation of a very clear, consistent and unrealistic message: success means to be the first or only woman to break a discriminatory boundary.

This message replaces the unattainable pursuit of beauty with an unattainable pursuit of single-handedly changing long-standing social structures and burdens women with the self-responsibility of an entire political movement.

This version of feminism becomes of neoliberalism’s closest ally as women are separated and individualised. Free-market, entrepreneurial and business-minded notions of success are operating under the name of women’s empowerment and equality.

When an advert featuring a young, thin entrepreneurial supermodel is placed next to 10 top tips to be more assertive with your boss the discourse serves an illusion of empowerment – the not-so-secret double-edged formula that tells women of their propensity to empower themselves whilst ensuring that she continues to spend and prop up the regime.

This new ideal is embedded in the restrictive performance of femininity that has long characterised women’s fashion magazines. Images of slender, white, clear-skinned and perfectly primed young women continue to dominate the pages. The features continue to encourage women to shave, pluck and tighten. The new role models, whilst they traverse the tradition of cover pages dominated by white women, still conform to the patriarchal construction of the feminine beauty ideal.

Women’s bodies and behaviour continue to be regulated in the texts with features on beauty products, rituals and practices and consistent images of idealistic women – who, by buying the product, you can look like too.

The detrimental impact of these images is well-researched and critiqued and contribute to eating disorders, low self-esteem and body image issues for women.

Through adopting messages of popular feminism, women’s fashion magazines combine a disempowering narrative of bodily self-improvement and unattainable perfection with a neoliberal rhetoric that encourages the entrepreneur role model ideal. The texts serve to bombard and overwhelm women with the self-responsibility of attaining bodily perfection as well as the prompting the internalisation of an entire political movement to individual women – in the name of feminism.

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