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(Re)Branding Feminism

2011 March 16
by Sarah Jackson
Photo showing shop window sale signs and female headless mannequins dressed in red shopping bags. Creative commons picture by Gerard Stolk, 2011

CC picture by Gerard Stolk, 2011

“Great brands tell stories. They’re a mix of truth and symbols.” Brand strategist Alison Camps kicked off the (Re)Branding Feminism conference on 1st March with an introduction to the concept of branding, and some examples from her career. The one she selected as a case study with particular relevance for feminism was Skoda in the early 1990s: the “brand from hell.”

The conference was very firmly about considering representations of modern feminism and not making plans about how best to ‘sell’ feminism to the masses. I’m a persuader by trade, so I have a practical interest in how best to present feminism to an indifferent, sceptical or rabidly hostile audience. But I also love my gender theory, so a spot of academic inquiry made a nice change from activism, and I was sad I could only attend the first day.

Mothers and daughters and sisters, oh my!

My favourite paper was Jean Owen’s ‘Of feminism born’, which looked at the prevalence and problems of using familial metaphors in the feminist movement. The political concept of sisterhood began as a strategy of resistance to masculine structures of patriarchy and ‘brotherhood’. It is undeniably powerful, especially for women that have experienced the isolation of being the lone feminist voice in their community. But sisterhood has become a “universalising metaphor” that “implies an all-encompassing, somewhat stifling organisation”. And now that feminism is intergenerational, parental hierarchies have re-emerged – we are not only sisters but cultural mothers and daughters of feminism.

Through this way of talking about ourselves, Owen argued, we risk “pandering to fantasies of a matriarchy” and create a falsely cosy, sentimentalised idea of what is in reality a diverse and radical movement. In my experience, contemporary feminism already has tremendous respect for previous generations, but by formalising it in this way we undermine our own project of equality and put in place privileged feminist ‘bloodlines’. Owen advises that “we need to remove ourselves from the trap of family” and predicate our movement on a “more involved social model”.

I agree with all of this. In fact, my main problems with ‘sisterhood’ are that this language pretty definitively excludes men and reinforces the gender binary that I want to dismantle. That’s a long-term goal, by the way. Short-term is sorting out some of the urgent problems in the current system.

Selling feminism

Catherine Redfern (of Reclaiming the F Word, and, um, The F Word fame) spoke about the cyclical nature of calls to rebrand feminism, which can be measured in women’s magazine features. The call makes a couple of big assumptions: that feminism is in crisis and that applying marketing principles will help.

Redfern calmly exploded the first theory by referencing the research for her book with Kristin Aune which showed that feminism is a growing, thriving movement, and questioned the second. Mainstream representations of feminism are too narrow, and don’t reflect the pluralism of the movement. But the F Word survey showed that women became feminists when they learned about feminism, and not when it was packaged with a free lipgloss. Who is a feminist because it’s fashionable? Surely we are insulting young women somewhat by trying to package it as something ‘cool’.

The other papers were very interesting, and included a brief history of the stiletto heel, a smart analysis of those Suit Supply ads and the ‘desire of indifference’ and an introduction to the Brinkley Girl. But the only one which directly commented on the idea of ‘branding’ feminism was from Catherine Maffioletti, who made some good points about the tension between the “wild and divided” nature of feminism and the patriarchal (and capitalist) project of naming and fixing its meaning in a saleable product. As Maffioletti said, “branding difference is an impossible project”. Feminism is “emergent”, “a mobilising force”, something alive and oppositional that can’t be pinned down, boxed up and sold.

I’m not a marketer, but…

As the day went on I started to feel the burden of pragmatism weighing on my shoulders and spoiling the fun, as it often does. There’s a little voice inside me always wanting to know: what are we going to do about this? What’s the plan? That’s not what the conference was about, but I started wondering about practical applications.

I think a serious attempt to ‘rebrand’ feminism would be madness, because it is “wild and divided”; it’s plural and adaptable, and means too many different things to too many people, and I’m nearly ready to argue that’s one of its strengths. As Catherine Redfern pointed out, feminism is a leaderless grassroots movement; who would have the audacity to try and redefine it?

But I reckon that as individual feminists and as groups of feminists, we could do a lot more to broaden representations of feminism, to counter the negative stereotypes, to make the case more effectively without letting the end run away with the means.

You don’t have to call it marketing. It’s as simple as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding their criticisms and concerns and addressing them, learning what they want, and showing them how you can help.

Or if that sounds too cuddly, you can call it propaganda.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah J permalink*
    March 16, 2011

    In case of confusion, the conference was actually a couple of weeks ago on 1 March, I wrote it last week!

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 16, 2011

      Edited! I’m a silly editor for not catching that! x

      • Sarah J permalink*
        March 16, 2011

        You’re a *busy* editor! ;-) x

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