For its November issue, Elle has devoted eight of its glossy pages to “Rebranding Feminism”. It asks three leading feminist groups/thinkers to show Elle readers why feminism still matters and pairs them up with three advertising agencies in order to do this. Each of the campaigns takes a particular issue and runs with it. The recently launched Feminist Times singles out the issue of equal pay in its advertising campaign with the tagline: “If he does the same job ask him his salary”. This simple but clever campaign assumes that once women become aware of inequality, particularly the kind of inequality that is easily identifiable and directly affects them, they will feel empowered to act. As the ad points out, “On average British women earn 15% less than their male colleagues. That pay gap is unlikely to close until 2057.” It urges readers to “get more demanding” and to close the pay gap sooner.
Jinan Younis, a feminist campaigner, set up a FemSoc in her school as a safe space to discuss the kinds of pressures young women face in a society that frequently fails to see women as people. The experience of being subjected to humiliation, intimidation and sexual violence as a woman is something Jinan feels should be openly discussed but when she set up a FemSoc in her school many were dismissive of feminism or even openly hostile and threatening. For Jinan, the most important message that feminism embodies is that women are human beings and should be treated as such. Her feminist flow chart provides the kinds of deeply disturbing statistics that should turn even the most apathetic, apolitical women into supporters if not active campaigners for feminism. For instance, 400k British women were sexually assaulted last year and 70,000 women were raped. The verbal abuse Jinan herself received is shocking and suggests how social networking sites are often anything but safe spaces for discussion.
Finally, the “ladybros” at Vagenda magazine develop an advertisement that resists “the stupid little boxes” that seek to define modern femininity. They produce a list of sexist stereotypes that are probably familiar to most of us: “girl next door”, “career woman”, “bimbo”, “slut”, “yummy mummy”, “thinking man’s crumpet” etc. In response to these limiting and limited definitions of modern womanhood, they invite readers to “show us what a real feminist looks like, loves and does.” This campaign addresses an issue that readers of Elle will be all too familiar with given that they are bombarded with images of women as glamorous, sexy, beautiful, young and (predominantly) white and able bodied. But while Vagenda’s campaign might seem misplaced in the pages of an aggressively stylish glossy magazine, its desire to embrace difference, to identify the multiple and various ways of being a “woman”, is a bold and daring move. It is particularly smart to do this in the context of Elle, a magazine aimed mainly at women in their twenties and early thirties (before kids, anyway) and a magazine capable of addressing women who don’t usually see themselves as activists or political campaigners.
The idea of “rebranding” feminism suggests that it is getting a glossy makeover courtesy of Elle magazine. But if you read the advertisements carefully, it is clear that something else is happening. The political aims of securing equal pay, ending violence against women and accepting and even celebrating diversity are by no means new. It is Elle that is being restyled, albeit in a small way. This is particularly evident with Vagenda’s advertisement listing all those sexist stereotypes. It sits opposite an ad featuring Rosamund Pike for L.K. Bennett. Rosamund is channelling a retro sixties cool – she sports heavy eye make-up, a slightly dishevelled bobbed hairstyle and killer stilettoes. It’s not that this image of a sexy, sophisticated femininity is particularly degrading or offensive but it does sit uncomfortably with the Vagenda ad that invites readers to actively construct their own identities in their own language. In other words, Vagenda’s insistence on diversity raises questions about the lack of it in the pages of Elle. And this can only be a good thing. It is to the credit of Elle’s editor in Chief, Lorraine Candy, that she’s willing to open up a debate that raises fundamental questions about fashion, femininity and women’s own complicity in the reproduction of constraining stereotypes. I’m sure this wasn’t the main aim of the rebranding exercise but I think it’s one of the outcomes; feminism makes us rethink the stultifying versions of femininity that the media and advertising churn out not only in magazines such as Elle but on every page, screen and billboard you care to look at. By inviting women to talk back, to resist the sameness of a commodified womanhood, the Vagenda ad dares women to explore and express their differences.