COMMODITY FEMINISM AND THE DANGERS OF NIKE

Women, have defined and been defined by the means of consumption through patriarchal capitalism. Mass media, companies and advertisers have defined women as a niche market and utilize this markets interests through both commodifying the feminist ideology and shaping the subsequent ‘likes’ of women as a whole. This has negative impacts for women as the mass media market commodifies the entire feminist ideology to sell it back to the female consumer. This oppresses women, strengthens capitalism, increases the connection between patriarchy and capitalism and is in opposition to the purpose of feminist ideology. This paper will explore the issues of commodity feminism through defining the ways commodity feminism influences society and hinders women through the theoretical framework of the political economy of communication. This subject will be approached through first exploring the history of the creation of women as a niche market within the context of the First World War where women entered the workforce and worked at, what were previously defined as, male jobs.
This framework will help to provide understanding as to how many of the issues prevalent within the introduction of women to the workforce are reflected in society today. A look at how women as niche markets in modern day society and the consumption of media, will explain how capitalism is still inherently male and how this negatively impacts women. Lastly, the paper will use examples and case studies of advertising campaigns, to look at how advertisers use commodity feminism as a niche markets in mass media and what the implications of this are on women, consumption patterns and the feminist movement. Advertisements from Nike will be looked at in detail to describe the ways commodity feminism is utilized to sell products and ideas. The paper will also look at the subject through the lens of a radical feminist political economic approach, to examine women’s role in product creation, consumption, and commodification.
Feminism, through the lens of the political economy, is described to “examine the gendered production, distribution and consumption of goods, resources and now ideology to stabilize unequal social relations” (Lee 2012). Gendered production and distribution of resources has been prevalent since the production and consumption of commodities existed. The introduction of women into the workforce occurred during World War One when “men were drafted into the army, and production needs skyrocketed, and female labour became a hot commodity” (Dumenil 2017). From the introduction of females in the workforce, women have fought against the inequalities of gender domination within the workplace. This occurred when men returned from war and expected women to return to the kitchen. Women then began the fight against patriarchy because they wanted to remain within the workforce.
The introduction to women in the workplace created the female gender as a niche group. Lee states that the “international finance group have identified women as a niche group” (Lee 2012). This creation of a female audience leads to products created to be directly sold to women, by targeting fears and insecurities. The selling of products is also furthered through commodifying issues of interest that pertain to the chosen niche group as a whole, such as feminism. A niche group is defined by Riordan as using women or things that women are interested in, to sell a product and “commodify niches” (Riordan 2002).
The introduction of women into the workforce saw the rise of women as a niche market and introduced issues surrounding women in the workforce that continue to plague society. Women, during World War One, had “limited opportunities to find equality in the workplace” and “women often earned less than men for working the same job.” (Dumenil 2017) Harvey examines the introduction of women into the production market place, stating that “the transformed power of women in labour markets, exploits the role of women” due to the inequality in pay for the same work (Harvey 2008). This inequality and exploitation through pay exemplifies how women in the workforce are oppressed by the work that they do.
These issues, which arose at the early age of female production at work, are echoed in present day concerns, as even though men have returned from war into the workplace, women continue to face inequality in both pay and opportunities. Production and consumption stands to be highly male contested, as Riordan states that women’s work remains “de skilled and underpaid” (Riordan 2002). Examples of how women are still underpaid today are extremely prevalent. Recent examples include a study done by Forbes, which determined that women are paid 80-90% of a man’s wage for doing the same job in 2016 (Webb 2016). This inequality in pay, is a by product of patriarchy’s relationship with capitalism.
A feminist political and economic approach to viewing this issue, deems the pay gap and relationship of patriarchy and capitalism, to be of great importance. The “feminist political economy stresses the importance of ID, subjectivity, pleasure, consumption and visible and invisible labour” (Riordan 2002). Therefore the unequal pay between men and women has deep implications into other aspects of female identity. Shopping releases dopamine and can give a ‘shopper’s high’ in the pleasure center; however this pleasure can become harder to attain as many women suffer inferiority complexes from being bombarded with an ideal of beauty that can be impossible to attain, unless certain products are purchased and utilized. The inferiority complex transfers to the difference in pay that women receive for doing the same work. Women thus have a harder time achieving pleasure from both the products they consume, and from the work that they do to afford those products.
Invisible labour can be explained through an analysis of the effects of a citizens constant differentiation of commodities that affect daily lives and act as a type of work. Dallas Smythe describes this invisible labour to mean that audiences are always working to differentiate commodities even in their seemingly ‘free time’, so citizens never truly receive a break from labour (Smythe 1977). Invisible labour, in terms of a feminist lens, can refer to the differentiating advertisements for commodities that are ridden with commodity feminism. Rosalind Gill for the Encyclopedia of Communication, describes commodity feminism to be “the way feminist ideas and icons are appropriated for commercial purposes, emptied of their political significance and offered back to the public in a commodified form – usually in advertising”. (Gill 2008). Examples of the use of commodity feminism in advertising can be seen prominently through Nike ads, spanning over the past 20 years, as the concept of commodity feminism became a popular way to sell products to a female niche market.
The increase in usage of commodity feminism in advertising diverts from the traditional commodity based advertisements, which capitalize on flawless images of women, and is used to instead sell a product through a flawed usage of feminism. This process is described by media theorist Robert Goldman, as the process of commodity feminism (Goldman 1991). The deviation from traditional modes of advertising to utilizing ideological connection to commodities, can be exemplified in Nike’s 2015 ad “Inner Thoughts” which utilizes the key concepts of commodity feminism in an attempt to lure female audiences to consume their product. The Nike ad depicts women working individually towards overcoming issues of body dysmorphia and negative public opinion to reach their workout goals. The women in the advertisement are both working out and working against their “inner thoughts” to achieve health and thus gain individual freedom and self control. This individual freedom is an aspect of the new feminist movement in which independence from male figures and strength of the individual is a sought-after goal.
Within this specific advertisement, a woman states “Come on, yoga, change my life” and the actresses work out wearing Nike clothes, in an attempt to become healthier and attain what is perceived to be control. The gaining of self control is stated by Goldman to signify feminism but does so in a way that actually corrupts the ideals of female individual freedom (Goldman 1991), by making feminism into a commodity. The underlying motives of Nike’s advertisement are seen through the shield of feminism and connote the familiar representation of women, to deceive audiences into consuming product through methods of envy, desire and power (Goldman 1991), prominent throughout the video.
The idea of using feminism to increase consumption, creates what scholar Riordan calls synergy, and this one idea “spins off into many commodities” (Riordan 2002). Feminism as a commodity is utilized by such brands as Dove in their 2015 campaign Real Beauty, Loreal’s “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” (Gill 2008), and Under Armour’s “I will what I want”. The danger of the commodification of feminism as seen within these advertisements, reflects the basis that “consumption is an integral part of the reproduction of capitalism, class inequalities and women’s oppression” (Riordan 2002). This quotation explains the link between women’s oppression and consumption, by demonstrating that the use of feminist commodification only further deconstructs and oppresses women as part of a moving cog in the machine that is patriarchal capitalism.
Commodification of feminism has inherently negative effects on the understanding of the ideology of feminism. Media scholar, Zeisler speaks about commodifying feminism in the form of products, stating that “feminist apparel is having a moment, as superficial and consumer driven, rather than framing feminism as something you do” (Zeisler 2017). Not only is feminist ideology commodified production and advertising, oppressing women, it is also contesting the concept of the feminist movement, a movement with the means to diverge from the societal oppression of women. This ironic truth is that it describes the ways in which capitalism and male based bias in product production is withholding progress for women to overcome adversity and to be seen as equal both in the work force and world of consumption.
The influence of consumption on society speaks to the prevalence of important issues brought out with the use of commodity feminism to sell products and the impact it has on women and societal constructed views of women. In addition to the issues that commodifying feminism brings up for women in terms of consumption, male domination in the sphere of production, further threatens feminism. Ellen Riordan states that “a disproportionate amount of commodities are produced by predominantly male controlled corporations” (Riordan 2002). This is seen throughout the Nike advertisement with the concept of the male gaze used in the structure of creating the video.
The camera angles utilized in the advertisement, describe the format that capitalism exists in as one of patriarchy. Camera shots in the ad focus distinctly on the women’s butts. These clips are shot from behind, as she walks, or from an aerial view, to simulate a male looking down upon her. This male gaze is seemingly useless, as the ad targets a female audience; however Robert Goldman describes this advertising tactic as deriving from the female “internalization of the male gaze” (Goldman 1991). The adoption of viewing other women in the same manner as men view women, is so that women can view themselves through the “imagined fetishes of men” (Goldman 1991).
The use of the male gaze in advertisements specified for female audience, is used so readily that it becomes normalized. Riordan states that “capitalism naturalizes male bias” (Riordan 2002) and follows the male approach to carrying out various things, strengthening male domination and oppression of women. Scholar Mcguire, speaks on the hegemonic norms as existing because the “elite must convince subaltern classes of the systems’ values and norms” (Mcguire 2017). This convincing of norms is then perpetuated through advertisements such as Nike’s, as the elite function as patriarchal capitalism and the subaltern class as the female consumer. The male gaze utilized in the advertisement is a direct reflection of the male way of doing things, as it derives from men’s way of viewing women and leaks into the sphere of female representation as being normal.
This is not the first time Nike has utilized the concept of commodity feminism to boost revenue. Media scholar, Zeisler depicts the Nike ad entitled “If You Let Me Play” as commodity feminism. The ad aired in 1995 and featured girls reporting statistics of the benefits to young girls playing team sports. Such statements from the girls included “I will learn to be strong” from playing team sports (Zeisler 2017). The concept of strength links to the ideals of feminism as the major theme of the Nike campaign. Zeisler describes that the writer of this ad campaign, Janet Champ, spoke regarding the ads success stating that “it isn’t advertising; its the truth” (Zeisler 2017). This statement describes the true purpose of using feminism within advertisements.To sell a product. Despite Champ’s statement that the ad isn’t advertising, that is the exact purpose of the commercial. Commodity feminism is used to distract audiences into believing that the purchase of a product is the purchase of feminist ideals and will further lead to a stronger feminist identity for the individual consumer.

A radical feminist approach, through the lens of the theoretical framework of the political economy, describes capitalism to be inherently linked to patriarchy. This reliant partnership, between these two constructs, is seen through historical evidence of the production systems in the pre-World War era through to the current framework that consumerism functions in. Patriarchal capitalism implements negativity into what it means to be a feminist and to be a woman through the aspect of commodity feminism and its reach in influencing means of production. This negativity can also be linked back to the era of World War One when the first issues with women working within the patriarchal work force emerged. These issues include under pay and less opportunities for women, and appears to be the same issues that are prominent in modern day.
The inequality of capitalism exemplifies a bias in what type of products are being created. The male dominated society is able to choose what products to sell to women due to a larger number of men having say in production creation, and from men’s ability to access leadership roles far more easily than women. The patriarchal hegemony in advertising has implemented feminist ideals to sell products through a process of commodity feminism. These examples of Nike advertisements, garners an understanding to how this process of commodity feminism has been seen throughout the span of 20 years, from the 1995 advertisement forward to the 2015 commercial. An understanding of the feminist sphere of the political economy, provides insight into how commodity feminism is used in advertising and how inequality for women in the workplace, such as lower pay for equal work and fewer opportunities for women at work, thereby oppresses women and hinders the progress of feminist ideals.

One Response

  1. Brilliantly written. There is so much of thinking that has been put into this, I realized it with every detailed quote you gave. I did have to read it twice sometimes, because these were new to me. I never realized the impact that was done from the point of post-war to the modern day were all linked. Being in India and having to see women be between four walls, makes me think, why has our society become rigid? It never struck me that there were so many bits and pieces supporting the restriction of women. I always doubted commercials done by companies to be faux feminist cooperations. It was really nice reading about something so complex in a short and descriptive way. Hope to read more.

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