Thursday, January 29, 2015

Femvertising: feminism as a marketing tool

To gain an edge on competitors, companies feel pressure to stand for something more than the product they are selling. In the past decade, companies have started “femvertising,” seeking to speak to women and feminists through their advertisements. This trend makes sense considering women account for 85% of purchasing in the United States.

Dove was one of the earliest companies to join the femvertising movement, with its real beauty campaign in 2004. The campaign seeks to widen the definition of beauty beyond the unattainable definition generally put forward in the media. I remember when I first saw these Dove commercials as a 14-year-old and thinking “wow, this is different.” Since then, the company has launched subsequent campaigns aimed at rethinking portrayals of beauty in advertisements.

Observed alone, these ads seem to step in the right direction, celebrating beauty of all forms rather than only the stereotypical portrayals otherwise found in the media. However, the company that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns Axe. The Axe that sells toiletry products to men, primarily using the hypersexuality of women as a means of selling its products.

Axe commercials generally show scantily clad women with stereotypical “perfect” bodies fawning over men who use Axe shower gel. Some commercials end with the slogan “The cleaner you are. The dirtier you get.” The different messages the Dove and Axe commercials send is a harsh reminder that companies are in the business of selling products, by capitalizing on trends that interest buyers.

Should we be asking more from companies that promote feminism in their advertising? I believe we should. By running the real beauty campaign and simultaneously airing Axe commercials, Unilever is turning the ideas of feminism and female empowerment into mere commodities, just as it has turned the hypersexualization of women into a commodity. Instead of merely putting forward ideas for the sake of selling a product, companies that promote female empowerment in their advertisements should practice what they preach.

When questioned regarding the hypocrisy between the advertisements for the two products, a spokeswoman for Dove said that each brand “is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience." Essentially then, Dove markets female empowerment to women because only women are interested empowering women. Axe is not marketing female empowerment to teenage boys and men, because the company believes they are not interested in it. Although the idea behind the real beauty campaign is a good one, perpetuating the stereotype that men are not interested in the empowerment of women seems to run counter to the intent of the feminist movement.

This is not all to say that an increase in femvertising is not a welcome and positive change. If nothing more, it can show girls that traditional female stereotypes are bogus and that its okay to be a career driven woman or to have hips. And, studies show that women are responding to these advertisements. In a survey this year by SheKnows, 52% of women said they have purchased a product because they liked the way that the company portrayed strong women in its advertisements.

While I celebrate the increase in female empowerment in advertising, there is still a long way to go in changing advertising and more broadly, the media. I hope for a day when advertisements featuring strong female characters becomes commonplace, and it is no longer noteworthy that such commercials exist. Not only advertisements directed at women, but directed at everyone—including men.

Monday, January 26, 2015

State of the union: the (hidden) cost of childcare in 2015

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he highlighted several issues surrounding gender equality, including maternity leave, equal pay, and affordable childcare. In focusing on affordable child care, he referred to it as a “must-have,” and specifically discussed giving middle- and low-income families a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year. Given some of the ways in which the lack of affordable childcare adversely affects women and their access to the marketplace, the concrete policy President Obama presented was rather encouraging.

Currently, from 1990 to today, the rising and inaccessible cost of childcare has reduced the percent of families able to pay for childcare from 42 to 32 percent of US families. Meanwhile, the annual cost of childcare can range from $5,496 to $16,459 for an infant, and $4,515 to $12,320 for a 4-year-old. While for upper- and middle-class women, the rhetoric surrounding childcare is one of choice – i.e. choosing between staying at home to care for their kids or sending them to high-priced childcare – for single and low-income mothers, there is no such choice.

Many women in single- and low-income households cannot afford to stay at home to care for their children. And when more than 40 percent of mothers are unmarried or split from their partner before the child is 5 years old, affordable childcare is even more of a necessity. Unfortunately, an equality feminist rhetoric of workplace empowerment, choice, and equal opportunity only marginalizes the position of those in need of childcare most – low-income families who cannot afford to stay at home. In the case of childcare, this strand of feminism only represents a fraction of privileged women's position.

In her piece in California Magazine, Tamara Straus quotes Arlie Hochschild’s assertion that American capitalism is in part to blame for neglecting childcare as a prominent social and gender equality issue—by embracing empowerment, capitalism has sidetracked caregiving. As a result, childcare becomes a hand-me-down issue, from men to women, and from high-income women to low-income women. Straus blames the lack of affordable childcare as a reason for the dwindling of the feminist movement:
We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.
At the end of the day, choice rhetoric, which seems to be touted by equality feminists, only speaks to the experiences of privileged working women and leaves behind the experiences of low-income women. So in turn, the materialization of President Obama's remarks on affordable childcare presents great potential in leveling the playing field for low-income women, and perhaps even revitalizing the feminist movement.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Upper versus working class women

So far, I have observed a recurring theme of discussion in our Feminist Legal Theory classes: the ostensible divide between upper and working class women. I have deeply thought about this concept previous to taking this course, and I have ultimately decided that the divide between upper and working class women is real. Recognition of this divide has to underpin one’s analysis of gender inequality and the struggle for gender equality. In other words, the division should be analyzed and understood for the sake of constructing effective means of attaining complete gender equality.

First of all, what makes the divide between these poles of a socioeconomic bifurcation real? In other words, is this ostensible division simply a false dichotomy as it relates to the struggle for gender equality? I do not think so. This is not a spurious division; it is material, and unfortunately those who concern themselves with eliminating the oppression of women too often ignore it. Point blank, the struggles and immediate interests of upper class women are completely different—and even, at critical times, adversative—from those of working class and impoverished women. In conceptualizing the oppression of colored peoples, I employ the same analysis as I do in this context. Indeed, this is not an unprecedented outlook. During the Civil Rights Era, leading figures often spoke and rallied in terms of the division between the “black bourgeoisie” and the vast majority of black people, the poor.

Upper class women face struggles and seek to fulfill interests that lower class women do not share. For example, upper class women as such strive, and rightfully so, for positions of executive power or means of maintaining a family without compromising their endeavor for financial success. What is more, and perhaps most importantly, they seek economic parity with their male counterparts. In attaining these goals, upper class women can utilize the various organs of the political and legal establishment.

Impoverished, working class women face an entirely different beast. Their struggles stem not only from their exploitation as women, but also from their exploitation as working class individuals. They are oppressed twofold, much like a black worker is oppressed once because he is a worker and twice because he is black. To drive the point home, a black, working class woman is oppressed threefold: once as a worker, twice because she is black, and thrice because she is a woman. Tragically, working class women have no recourse available through the political and legal establishment.

On its face it appears that, regardless of this division, working class women and upper class women can fulfill their separate needs without interfering with each other’s interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, the cause of working class women’s oppression is enforced by a political and legal system, which inherently and necessarily represents the interests of propertied individuals at the expense of the property-less. It follows that for impoverished, working class women to liberate themselves, they must aim their guns, so to speak, at that very state of affairs. However, it is this very state of affairs from which upper class women base their existence as such. Upper class women seek to better themselves within the confines of this social and economic paradigm. As soon as working class and impoverished women begin to encroach upon this lopsided organization of power, upper class women stand in belligerent opposition. This is where the material division comes into play. Oprah, BeyoncĂ©, Martha Stewart, and Hillary Clinton are concerned with the plight of the majority of women only insofar as this majority’s plight does not threaten their existence as such. In effect, that is no concern at all. Similarly, Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and practically every member of the National Basketball Association do not care about the struggles of the scrounging and soiled street-corner, Sacramento black man attired in sagging and decades-old FUBU and Sean John. Chris Rock’s famous standup routine all too vividly captures this attitude, and it is analogous to the gender question I have broached.

Through the aforementioned, I hope one can see why the concept of “trickle-down economics” applied to the gender question is absurd. I believe there is no point in me explaining why the very concept of “trickle-down economics” is laughable, considering the contemporary economic depression birthed after decades of that sort of rhetoric. But, do not get me wrong. If upper class women desire to attain positions of unrivaled executive power, more power to them. However, the moment impoverished women, with no stake in that matter become opportunistically utilized in attaining those goals, my conscience will not allow me provide support in the matter.

As we spoke of this issue in class, and as I wrote this post, I thought of a little-known Langston Hughes poem, Madam and Her Madam. I feel that in artistic terms, it captures the essence of my contentions:

I worked for a woman,
She wasn't mean--

But she had a twelve-room

House to clean.

Had to get breakfast,

Dinner, and supper, too--

Then take care of her children

When I got through.

Wash, iron, and scrub,

Walk the dog around--

It was too much,

Nearly broke me down.

I said, Madam,

Can it be

You trying to make a

Pack-horse out of me?

She opened her mouth.

She cried, Oh, no!

You know, Alberta,

I love you so!

I said, Madam,

That may be true--

But I'll be dogged
If I love you!


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Does this sorority make me look bad? Why Greek life shouldn’t discredit your feminism

“Oh, you were in a sorority? (long pause) That makes sense.”

What is it? My bright blonde hair? The way I talk? Do I just seem like a sorority girl (whatever that means)? But the better question is, why does it always seem to discredit me in some way?

I’ll admit it: I was (and technically will always be) an Alpha Phi. I rushed and became a member of the sorority the week before UC Davis started when I was eighteen. My college experience knew nothing else. I was Vice President of Marketing, where I helped raise over $8,000 dollars for charities related to women’s heart health. I eventually became President, where I did more than I can even recall. Sadly, post-college, these confessions typically embarrass me and I just pretend Alpha Phi didn’t exist in my life. But why?

The recent publication of a sorority’s pre-rush “beauty standards” reminds me exactly why. This story spread like wildfire to media outlets, on Facebook, and throughout Twitter. The “standards” put in place by this chapter not only create unhealthy images for the young women in the chapter but dramatically produce a repulsive image of sororities. Because of publications like this, Greek life naysayers have effortlessly concocted a one-dimensional view of sorority sisters – one of rigid beauty standards, promiscuous costumes, and guzzling alcohol with their favorite fraternities. And who can blame them? I’m the first to agree that there are some extremely crucial problems plaguing fraternities and sororities at both a university and national level. But should those issues define who I am just because I was involved in a similar organization?

Sororities were initially founded when women were considered unqualified for higher education and men dominated college campuses. Sororities became a way for women to connect intellectually and socially -- they would meet to pray, sing, and write poetry together. While this is a stark contrast to the stereotypical vision of the modern day sorority girl, the foundational principle of connecting on a deeper level with other women still exists. I’ve experienced firsthand that sorority involvement can actually enhance feminism (as it did mine) in certain ways:

1. Sororities can give you the opportunity to surround yourself with strong and diverse women who share many of the same goals and values as you (and other feminists). The young ladies I surrounded myself with were of all different shapes, sizes, ages, races, religions, sexualities, etc. The diversity of women contributed to the richness of the environment and taught us how to respect and appreciate each other’s differences as both adults and women. Further, the majority was also intelligent and driven, constantly pushing me to be the best I could be.

2. Sororities also give women a support structure during and after college. They can provide connections and support academically, professionally, and socially. Not only did I make lifelong friends, but I was also encouraged by fellow sisters to attain academic excellence and received assistance navigating my professional life from both peers and alumnae, too.

3. These organizations allow you to experience all aspects of “femininity”. Because my sorority had over 120 members, I quickly learned that every woman was truly unique in her own way. It encouraged me to accept all aspects of femininity – those considered  both “traditional” and “untraditional".

Although Greek Life may perpetuate gender roles in certain ways, it can actually encourage feminism in young women as well. At the end of the day, it’s true: “Stereotypes of sororities are more dangerous to womanhood than sororities themselves.” Feminism is not only women’s equality but also the right for women to make their own choices. Just because some women choose to join a sorority does not mean they should be considered inferior feminists.

As I have readily admitted, some of the habits traditionally enforced by sororities may preserve some antiquated gender roles. However, it also needs to be understood that an organization dedicated solely to women can have feminist advantages, too. Becoming a member of a sorority was a choice I made and something that shouldn’t embarrass me or discredit my belief in gender equality. Rather, the women I created relationships with and the organization I was a part of only fueled my desire to become a powerful, independent female that defies gender stereotypes. So, contrary to popular belief, being in a sorority didn’t make me an inferior feminist; it made me a better one than I used to be. And, that's not something to be embarrassed about.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Gender inequality as a human issue, not a women's issue

I have always firmly believed that gender equality is not just a women's issue. Living in a world of economic, social, and political gender inequality affects the quality of life for all persons -- male and female, child and adult. The disadvantages for women with regard to gender inequality are more obvious and we have touched on many of them in our recent classroom discussions: lower salaries as compared to males, the need to make a "choice" between family and career, and underrepresentation in the political sphere, to name a few. However, males are also adversely affected by gender inequality. Men that do not fulfill male stereotypes may feel emasculated by society, or may have trouble advancing in their careers or displaying sensitivity. Children who grow up in families where gender norms persist will likely have less interaction with their fathers, higher expectations of their mothers, and may feel neglected by one or both parents as a result.

Of course, these examples speak mainly to the experience of many middle- to upper-class persons in developed countries. But gender inequality is also a global issue. In some countries, the effects of gender inequality are much more dramatic -- for example, the practice of female genital mutilation in various regions of Africa and the stoning of female adulterers in parts of the Middle East.

One of the things that I have been struggling with since my feminist awakening is what seems to be a general sense of apathy among my male friends to the problem of gender inequality. Of course, when I ask my male friends whether they think gender inequality is a problem and whether something should be done about it, they invariably say "yes," and I don't doubt that they mean it. But most of my male friends do not seem willing to speak up or do something about gender inequality. On the rare occasion that I post an article with feminist undertones on social media, I receive plenty of recognition from females, but I rarely (if ever) receive comments or "likes" from my male friends. This may seem an unfair gauge of male concern over the gender inequality issue. But anytime I speak about a particular instance of gender inequality in the media or my personal experience, my female friends are always more impassioned about the injustice of the situation and take a more proactive approach, speaking in terms of what can or should be done. Most of my male friends may sympathize, but they (and the conversation) move on quickly. There have been times where I feel genuinely depressed about what seems to be a lack of meaningful support from my male peers, who all pay lip service to the importance of gender inequality when asked about it, but seem disinterested in actually speaking up in support of female advancement. For some, perhaps their apparent disinterestedness has more to do with their uncertainty as to how they can contribute to the feminist dialogue.

In September, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (best known for her role in the Harry Potter series) gave a speech at the UN that resonated deeply with me. Among other things, she spoke about the adverse impacts of gender inequality on males and children, and the importance of male participation in the feminist movement. Her speech (which you can watch here) shed a spotlight on the UN HeForShe campaign, which defines itself as follows:
HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality developed by UN Women to engage men and boys as advocates and agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights. The campaign encourages them to speak out and take action against inequalities faced by women and girls.
On a tangible level, HeForShe seeks to engage civil society organizations, men's groups, universities, schools, corporations, and local government officials worldwide in launching campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality and of male participation in its promotion. As part of these efforts, HeForShe has made available an "Action Kit" in the form of a PDF document that provides information about the campaign and outlines steps that the institutions listed above should take in its support. People around the world are invited to show their support of the campaign by using the hashtag #heforshe.

For me, HeForShe represents several steps in the right direction. It is the first campaign I have seen that invites males into the feminist dialogue in a nonthreatening way. I am so excited to see where the campaign goes, and to use it as a platform to invite and encourage my own male friends to participate in the movement for gender equality.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How a million (mostly rural, poor) Texas women became constitutionally irrelevant

That is a slightly amended version of the headline for an op-ed I published in the Austin American-Statesman yesterday.  Here's the text of my piece:

The fundamental rights of millions of Texas women are at stake in a case in which the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Wednesday. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Lakey, will determine the constitutionality of a Texas law that imposes ambulatory surgical center (ASC) regulations on abortion providers. The judges will essentially decide if women living outside the state’s major metropolitan areas, and who therefore must travel considerable distances to reach the few abortion providers able to comply, are constitutionally relevant.

If the 5th Circuit upholds the Texas HB 2 requirement that abortion providers meet ASC standards, the number of providers in Texas will drop from 16 to eight. All remaining clinics will be located in major metropolitan areas in northern and eastern Texas: Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Already, 25 Texas clinics closed last year as the result of the 5th Circuit’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Texas v. Abbott, which upheld Texas HB 2’s requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Access to safe and legal abortion in Texas — already decimated by Abbott — is at risk of vanishing.

In October, the 5th Circuit ruled that the ambulatory surgical center requirement could go into effect pending full consideration of the law, the task the court took up this week. That October decision provides insights into the court’s thinking. First, the court treated a one-way trip of 150 miles as a constitutional “safe harbor” — a distance that did not impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. This effectively doubled the distance that other courts have suggested is constitutionally acceptable. Second, the court held that 900,000 Texas women — 1 in 6 of the state’s reproductive-age females — who live farther than 150 miles from an abortion provider are too few to matter in challenging the constitutionality of the law as written. Both rulings are inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedents, as well as with recent decisions of other U.S. Courts of Appeals.

Among those deemed constitutionally irrelevant by recent 5th Circuit decisions are numerous women in South and West Texas, some of whom live hundreds of miles from the Interstate 35 and 45 corridors where abortion providers are expected to meet the ambulatory surgical center requirements. Many of those women are disadvantaged by more than geography; they are among the poorest and most disenfranchised populations in the state and, indeed, in the entire nation. In the four counties that constitute the Rio Grande Valley, for example, the poverty rate is a whopping 38 percent. These women previously had abortion access in McAllen and Harlingen, but if the court upholds the ambulatory surgical center requirement, they will have to travel about 250 miles to San Antonio.

The Abbott and Lakey rulings have revealed judges who appear not only oblivious to their own socioeconomic and metropolitan privilege but also grossly insensitive to the day-to-day realities of the less fortunate denizens of Texas, whose lives are also governed by these judgments. If the 5th Circuit in this case holds that women do not face an undue burden when they must travel 250 to 300 miles one way to exercise their constitutional right, the court will reinforce the sense it is grossly out of touch with the realities of Texas’s poor and rural populations.

The 5th Circuit has an opportunity in Lakey to show that it is neither clueless nor callous. It can do so by retreating from the metro-centric path it has been forging. The court should now demonstrate that it takes seriously the constitutional rights of all Texans — including poor and rural women.

* * * 
Coverage of the oral arguments in Lakey is here (from the New York Times), here (from NPR) and here (from the Texas Tribune).  As you can see, there is lots of talk (in the media coverage and in the oral arguments) about distance, but not about "rural" as such--and not about poverty.  

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.