What the Attempt at Feminist Rebranding Can Teach the Liberty Movement


Via Flavia Dzodan, here’s something ridiculous: The 3% Conference is holding a contest to “re-brand feminism.” Check out the full promotional poster here.

For readers who can’t make out the small print, the relevant copy reads:

THE CHALLENGE: Let’s face it. Feminism has been given a bad rap, and gotten a bad rap. Is it really humorless, man-hating, elitist, white, privileged, dogmatic, judgmental, and over? We don’t think so. Feminism is responsible for women voting, driving, going to school, owning property and having their own credit cards. All good, right? Yet American women are losing their reproductive rights and are the only citizens of an OECD country to lack maternity leave, as well as experiencing violence, rape culture, inequal opportunity and atmospheric sexism. Plus the wage gap.

The contest is being promoted by Vitamin W, which at first I thought was a scammy bottled water company but turns out to be a “a women-owned media platform delivering thoughtful news for professional women.” The contest winner will be announced at “The 3% Conference,” a tradeshow for female ad agency “creatives,” and the winning project will be licensed under a Creative Commons license and “free to be used by all,” which I suspect reinforces the stereotype that women are paid less because they’re supposedly willing to work for peanuts.

To start with the easy, obvious criticism: this campaign would appear to target educated white employed feminist women and/or Marissa Mayer who are in all likelihood out-earning their male peers and not poor immigrants/minorities who live in violence-prone projects raising three kids on minimum wage (at Wal-Mart, natch) and minimal government assistance. A large swath of modern feminism is, in fact, “elitist, white, privileged,” and if you don’t believe me, just read whatever’s posted at The Atlantic’s or Slate’s lady-blogs. I’d put money on the winner of this contest having a degree from an American college and a blog.

Here’s where the contest really goes off the rails: Advertisers are attempting to re-brand feminism. Perhaps I’m being overly-pessimistic, but this trips my suspicion alarm. Advertising is built on aspirational messages. Its aim is to make you think “I am the kind of person who buys organic dish detergent/Dove beauty products/Obamacare/a college education for my daughter.” Look at the contest ad again. The woman presented is a chic, young, lean, white woman in a business suit whose androgyny is more sexy than transgressive. Does that look inclusive or intersectional to anybody else?

You can make Jennifer Lawrence or Zooey Deschanel the spokesmodel of your movement and half the country will sign up. I wonder whether any of the finalists will incorporate images of fat, black, homeless women? (“I don’t know, can they twerk?”) How about a 60-year-old double-mastectomy patient? Trans-women? Can anybody who’s not Sheryl Sandberg or Lady Gaga make feminism “meaningful and relevant to a new generation?” Hell, at this point, I’ll settle for an ad featuring real businesswomen and/or strippers wearing comfortable shoes. (“They help me Lean In-to my 60-hour work week.”)

My favorite radical internet feminist put it best: “Every so often there emerges from the fetid mists some chumpass jacknut who would take a crap on feminism by co-opting it as a gimmick to help hawk thigh cream and tampons.” Preach it, woman!

There’s a lesson here for libertarians. Every few years, some young former LP campaign “strategist” starts pushing around his grand ideas to re-brand libertarianism, claiming that if we just change our messaging and public image, voters will flock to us. Experience shows us that brand-dilution is the more likely result, which explains how we went from The Feminine Mystique to Sarah Palin as a feminist icon and Chicks on the Right in under 50 years.

Even today, we’re watching this same strategy fail spectacularly within the GOP, because as I’ve written before, re-branding a movement is a superficial move promoted by campaign and PR people. It doesn’t address the fundamental shortcomings within the movement itself. In the GOP’s case, the big problem is its aging, tradition-based voter block with its 20th century social politics. Feminism’s problem has long been its failure to represent other disenfranchised groups (women of color, gay women, women without a formal education, etc). And for libertarianism, it’s the long history of being a movement associated with either kooky extremists, or rich white guys who enjoy “ruffling feathers” with their “subversive,” “un-PC” politics.

From a 50,000-foot view, each of these movements has had an impact. Democrats are increasingly courting “big business” and supply-side job-creation policies. Women are reaching the same levels of achievement as men. And the liberty movement’s philosophical roots are influential along the entire political spectrum. I don’t know whether these movements are officially over—I hope not—but I think we’re right to be suspicious whenever some PR charlatan shows up with big ideas for a new branding campaign. If you do not address the tensions within your movement, if you do not focus on the people on the ground making your movement actually happen day-to-day and the real-world constraints those people are operating under, then what you have can no longer be called a “movement.” Instead, you have a creative commons-licensed brand, free to be used by all.