Tag Archives: commodification

The Case of the Cursing Princess

Last week we saw a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”

Some commenters fell immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee.  There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity.  What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.

For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better.  For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing.  That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.

FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again.  I hope to update this post if I do.  On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”

Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover.  More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.

A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes.  So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious.  Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels.  The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock.  FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.

The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out.  The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.

Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is.  For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this.  In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.

Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors.  A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing.  There was nary an f-bomb in the mix.  This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows.  The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8′s gimmicky, egregious act.

Elline Lipkin is a scholar, poet, and nonfiction writer. She is the author of two books: The Errant Thread and Girls’ Studies. This post originally appeared at Girl w/ Pen.

“Rental Dreads”: Female Sex Tourists in the Caribbean

Flashback Friday.

While preparing a lecture on sex tourism, I ran across this video about men who have sex with female tourists in the Caribbean:

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on there, no? I was fascinated by the female hotel owner who talks about the men “preying” on the female tourists, clearly placing the power in the hands the men who, she argues, use the female tourists for money but don’t really care about them. I tried to imagine someone talking similarly about female sex workers “preying” on foreign men’s need for affection and attention.

This might make for a great discussion about perceptions of sexual agency: how do gendered sexual norms, economic differences, and the different races and nationalities of the individuals involved affect how we think of their interactions and who we see as the victim?

In her chapter on sex tourism in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality), sociologist Joane Nagel discusses the role of racialized sexualities in making some groups attractive tourists looking for an ethnosexual adventure. In the Caribbean, dark-skinned men with dreads are particularly attractive to some female tourists because of stereotypes of Black men as extremely sexual and masculine, which plays into fantasies of being swept away by a strong, skilled lover. At the same time, White Western women may represent the possibility of a better life (through continued gifts of money even after the vacation is over) and sexualized adventures to the men they sleep with while on vacation. Nagel argues that these encounters generally reinforce, rather than challenge, existing racial and gender inequalities, since they play on stereotypes of sexualized Others as animalistic, primitive, and, in the case of men, as super-masculine (and super-endowed).

Then again, Nagel also questions whether any relationship between tourists and “local” men should count as sex work. The individuals involved don’t necessarily think of their interactions in those terms. And who is to decide if a particular situation is “sex tourism” as opposed to a “real” relationship? How does that assumption invalidate the possibility that Black men and White women might have real, meaningful relationships? Or primarily sexual relationships, but with both partners respecting the other?

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The White Woman’s Burden

Flashback Friday.

Below is a remarkable commercial in which a white woman is told that if she buys Pampers, the company will donate vaccines to children in other countries.   Thanks to Kenjus W. for the submission.

It is an example of “activism by purchase,” which we have discussed at length on this blog. Apparently Pampers will only help keep babies alive if you buy their product.  How nice of them.

It’s also a fascinating example of the way in which white Westerners are seen as rescuing the rest of the world. This white mother with her white baby represent the West (erasing the diversity of people who live there). And she and her baby are counterposed to all the other mothers and their babies representing different racial groups (which are assumed to be coherent categories, even continents).

In the narrative of this commercial, all women are bonded by virtue of being natural nurturers of babies (and I could take issue with that, too), but the white Western woman is the ultra-mother. They may be sisters, but there are big and little sisters in this narrative. The babies run to her as if drawn to her ultra-motherhood and she treats them all, just for a moment, as if they were her very own.

Pampers wants you to think, of course, that when you buy a pack of Pampers, you are “helping” Other mothers and can save those Other babies.

This is just another manfestation of an old colonial belief, the white man’s burden, or the belief that white men had to take care of the rest of the world’s people because they were incapable of taking care of themselves.

Great find, Kenjus!

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Commodification of Easter Festivities

Flashback Friday.

The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is.  As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified.  Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders.

We sometimes post instances of commodification that tickle us.  Previously I posted about a company that will now put together and deliver a care package to your child at camp.  A parent just goes to the site, chooses the items they want included, and charge their credit card.  As I wrote in that post: “The ‘care’ in ‘care package’ has been, well, outsourced.”

I was equally tickled by a photograph, taken by sociologist Tristan Bridges, of pre-dyed Easter eggs:

This is a delicious example of commodification.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you.  No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.

While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction.  We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.

For more on commodification, peruse our tag by that name. This post originally appeared in 2012.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Breakfast of Stereotypes

Adrienne K., who blogs at Native Appropriations, recently put together a post about food products that feature stereotypical images of Native Americans. I’m reposting some of them here, but check out her original post for more.

It started out with Calumet baking powder:

Adrienne explains,

In my head, I thought “I could make some stereotype biscuits for breakfast!” Which got me thinking. How many products with stereotypical imagery could I fit in one imaginary breakfast?

Excluding vintage products and items that weren’t easily available, she still found an awful lot. Indian Head corn meal, anyone?

Land-O-Lakes butter:

The Sue Bee Honey logo:

Umpqua ice cream:

Pemmican beef jerky:

And you can top off your meal with Cherikee Red soda:

Adrienne explains,

In isolation, each of these would seem like no big deal–these are the “good” stereotypical images. The “noble savage.” No wild eyes or big noses, just headdresses and Indian maidens. But when taken as a collective, is it any wonder that most people in the world think of Native peoples as headdress-wearing Plains chiefs or buckskin-clad Indian women? I’m not saying there isn’t stereotypical imagery of other racial/ethnic groups in branding, but the ubiquity of Native imagery is striking.

Check out her blog for her full discussion of the problems with the repetition of these limited, anachronistic images of Native Americans.

Black People: “Let Your New Life Begin”

My Occidental College colleague, politics professor Caroline Heldman, snapped this photograph of a billboard on an L.A. freeway.  It suggests that one may celebrate Black History Month by calling 1-800-GET-THIN.  The billboard is another stunning example of the trivialization of black history by companies using it only as an excuse to market their product or service.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Commodification of the Ghetto

In this minute-and-a-half, sociologist Nikki Jones talks about the way that the idea of the ghetto has been commodified — especially in rap and hip hop — in ways that informs Americans who don’t live in inner-city urban areas, but potentially mystifies the reality of that life as well:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Judging Inner Beauty: Models and Emotional Labor

Bare Escentuals, a cosmetics company specializing in mineral makeup, has a new ad campaign that hinges upon how it found “the world’s most beautiful women…without ever seeing their faces.” Models and actresses showed up at the casting call and filled out questionnaires about themselves, which were given to Bare Escentuals. The company then cast the campaign solely on the basis of the questionnaires, choosing models not for their looks but for their “inner beauty,” posting a series of videos about the women on their website:

The campaign uses its selection process as a touchstone for all its taglines, pitting “pretty” against “beauty”: “Pretty can turn heads…beauty can change the whole world.” The commercials and print ads showcase the selected models in their daily lives: We see Lauren, a volunteer firefighter, hoisting a water hose from the ladder truck; we learn that Keri enjoys skateboarding and learned Farsi to communicate with her in-laws. This is meant to let us see the model meeting the company’s definition of beautiful by being themselves.

On its face this seems a logical, even praise-worthy, response to the constant barrage of unrealistic messages hurled at women every day about what appearance they should aspire to. But in so doing, the campaign commodifies women’s inner lives in addition to their beauty. Viewers are asked to reward the company for putting the models’ personalities on display; we’re expected to judge the models, albeit positively, for going above and beyond the model call of duty — she’s a volunteer firefigher! she has a sword collection! she blogs! By parading the inner (and formerly private) lives of the models for profit, the company appears to be showing us “real” women instead of the professional beauties that they are.

The customer takeaway is supposed to be that Bare Escentuals, more than other companies, recognizes that beauty comes from within. But the net effect is that we are shown how “being oneself” is now subject to standards of beauty. The same labor that has always gone into looking attractive — the labor that models have professionalized and monetized (smiling, appearing natural in front of the camera, speaking the company line) — is now applied to “being yourself,” which has been turned into a field of commodified emotional labor.

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Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes at The Beheld, a blog exploring the role of beauty and personal appearance in our lives through essays, cultural analysis, long-form interviews, and more.

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