Friday, May 04, 2007

Advertising, "Empowerment" and Feminism

The greatest reward of hosting The American identity Literary Contest has been meeting talented young writers. Part of the fun is keeping in touch with the prize winners.

In March, fiction prize-winner David Wonpu invited me down to see his play "Cool for One Night" which was staged at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. It was an ambitious, well-scripted semi-autobiographical play performed by student actors. I was very impressed and look forward to seeing more of David's work.

Special Prize winner James Robidoux has been studying in Japan this past semester, and has promised a short report on his experiences. As someone who studied Japanese in college and who has many friends in Japan and Asia, I await his "fresh perspective" with great interest.

Non-fiction prize-winner Bethan Eynon sent me this update on her studies and career aims:

"I graduate this June with a BS in Journalism, a minor in Sociology, and a Women's Studies Certificate. Until then, most of my energy is going toward finishing my honors thesis, in which I'm looking at the use of feminist ideology, specifically empowerment, in advertising to motivate women's consumption. My conclusion is that feminist ideology, when co-opted by marketers, is used to further a capitalist, patriarchal system that feminists actually work to subvert.

As for the future, right now I have absolutely no idea! I want to take a year or two off before going to grad school, so it looks like I'm going to go the "job" route. Ideally, I'd like to end up working in the non-profit sector, which it turns out is hard to break into at an entry-level when you're also looking to make a salary to live off of.

Perhaps after I graduate I'll also expand the essay that I sent you. I've written a few short pieces on the same topic, and your contest made me seriously consider writing the rest down and sharing it with more people. In fact, I had never spoken a word of what I'd written to my family, and winning the contest forced me to open the dialogue with my parents. It was a very tentative conversation, but also very good in the long run--keeping silent on such issues isn't going to change anyone's perspective. A lot of my friends were shocked, too, and had nothing to say other than, "I had no idea..."

Around the same time last year, I ran across a blog on xanga of an adoptee who expressed feelings of mixed identity similar to mine, and I realized that it's not that no one else has these struggles, it's just that no one voices them. And that's the point of your contest, right? So thank you very much for your efforts to spread awareness."

If you haven't read Bethan's winning entry, I highly recommend it. You'll understand her comments once you've read her essay. If you know of a suitable job opening in journalism or Media Relations/ Communications in the private sector, let me know and I'll pass it on to Bethan.

Her Senior thesis topic has been relevant for 30 years. Marketers have been exploiting "feminist empowerment" since the 70s. If you're old enough, you will recall the Virginia Slims cigarette ads, "You've come a long way, baby," which overtly suggested that killing yourself with cigarettes was a sign of empowerment. I have long admired Microsoft's ads. Their depiction of women working productively and professionally in an "Office" environment is always subtle and powerful. Take a look at a recent MSFT ad, which I have marked up very slightly:

please go to to view the marked-up ad.

While I can't say for certain this is Paris, it looks like Paris--with all that "Old World" charm and promise of high-powered corporate positions and travel such a posting implies to American readers. "Smile. You're going to work." Great line, but our professionally dressed young model isn't smiling. She does, however, have the faintest Mona-Lisa-like hint of a confident upturn in her lips. Also note that she is so high-powered, she doesn't even need to carry a laptop or a briefcase. All that awaits her at the office.

If this isn't empowerment, I don't know what is. The outfit, the lack of lowly corporate-world accoutrements like laptops, the poise in her walk and expression--all speak to a position at the top of the corporate game. The ad is trumpeting not just female empowerment via Office2007, but the allure and virtues of global corporate life. Actual corporate life is a series of harried trips and dull, stupifying meetings filled with pointless Powerpoint slides and "marketing targets" and the like. You don't get to walk around Paris feeling smug--you're a corporate donkey who needs to generate $5 million in sales or you're toast.

Naturally, I had to subvert the ad's many subtexts. First, Mr. Softee is not about empowerment--it's about profit. (Mr. Softee is stock market slang for Microsoft, as its ticker symbol is MSFT.) And empowerment is not about your corporate office in Paris--it's being freed of the corporate treadmill entirely. Lastly, productivity is not about using software or phony "passion" for your corporate gig (which you're only using to get a better gig elsewhere)--it's about building your own business and your own life.

Thank you V.K. ($5) for your very unexpected and thoughtful donation. I am greatly honored by your support. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

New feature! Readers Journal.
You might have noted a slight re-design and the addition of a new feature in the top-right of this page. At the suggestion of polymath reader "Protagoras", I've launched Readers Journal as a compilation of readers comments on the week's topics, and as a home for reader's full-length essays. It would be much easier to be "assimilated" by a blog template but at this point I stubbornly prefer to forego online threads and to continue handcoding my site.

My reasons are many, but the most important one is to pare the content and reader comments down to a managable size so you can read everything quickly. There are nine great comments which I heartily recommend. Instead of slogging through 172 comments as on other sites, here you get nine diverse, thoughtful views from other readers.

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