“We’re Bikini Kill, and we want revolution, girl style NOW!”
That was beloved punk band Bikini Kill’s hell-in-a-feminist-handbasket spitfire cry on their debut EP in 1992, more than 20 years ago.
Back then, strong-minded female-fronted rock groups like L7 and The Breeders ruled the airwaves. As a teenage girl in Los Angeles at the time, I adored these bands who sang about young female empowerment, expression and equality as part of the riot grrrl scene 20 years after Gloria Steinem co-founded feminist magazine Ms.
There was a heart-thumping sense of pride, then, calling oneself a feminist.
In 2013, more than 40 years after Ms. unveiled its first issue in January 1972, declaring on the cover “WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT,” the word “feminism” elicits a hot poker reaction, bringing with it blindly perceived connotations of man-hate and extremism.
In response to the tarnished feminist rep, British women’s lifestyle and fashion magazine Elle UK led an ambitious, yet questionably ironic, charge for its recent November issue. The glossy paired three prominent advertising agencies—Mother London, Brave and Wieden + Kennedy—with three feminist groups—Feminist Times, teen activist Jinan Younis and satirical website Vagenda—to create three ads to, in the words of Elle, “rebrand a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.”
One ad says “If he does the same job, ask him his salary.” Another ad lists sexist slurs, and on the back proclaims “I’m A WOMAN AND…” with space for the reader to write down her own self-definitions. The third ad is a springy flowchart that asks “Are you a feminist?” and cites stats of gender inequities.
Can feminism be distilled into a brand, to be potentially “rebranded,” especially by a commercial fashion magazine whose pages are filled with models fitting a very narrow ideal of womanhood? No, and yes.
“The problem with feminism as a brand, ever, is it’s not owned by anybody. The ‘brand’ of feminism lives inside anyone thinking about the term, or reading the article,” says Rebecca Weintraub, a University of Southern California clinical professor of strategic communications. Weintraub graduated college in the ‘70s during the heyday of Ms., when feminism as an inherently radical social movement pushed against the long-held perception of women just being in the home. “Now there’s more acceptance for women playing a variety of roles,” she says.
Today women covet fashion or don’t, hold CEO positions and also choose to stay at home, if they’re economically able. That sense of modern-day embedded empowerment without definition is entrenched within a consumer-driven economy.
“One of the things that a lot of critics have looked at is the co-opting of feminism. A lot of women like the core concepts of feminism, but it has been so demonized, similar to any kind of political movement that has been demonized and then commercialized, such as rap,” says USC associate professor of sociology and author Karen Sternheimer.
Yet maybe the sheer MENTION of feminism, even bound by marketing terms, in a mainstream outlet such as Elle UK is a positive step towards a broadened sense of awareness. That awareness feels even more dire considering recent so-called studies such as media planning agency PHD’s survey of dates and times during the week that American women feel the least attractive, to spur targeted beauty product messages and promotions (i.e. Monday morning: worst! Thursday: best!).
Shaking up young women about feminist issues, and drawing them out of complacency means reaching out to broad audiences beyond the pages of Ms., Weintraub said.
“If what you want to do is make feminism relevant in 2013, you’re going to need to bring it to where women are in a variety of places, and one of them is Elle,” says Weintraub. “Personally, the battle that I think feminism won is that you can be a feminist and wish they would airbrush you, and that you can be a feminist and think that if you do wear makeup you’re tying yourself to misogynist chains. There isn’t one kind of feminist.”