The “F” Word

In the November 2013 issue of Elle magazine an attempt was made to ‘rebrand’ feminism. Elle paired three feminist groups with advertising agencies, each producing separate ad campaigns with slogans such as “if he does the same job ask him his salary” and “sod the stereotypes”, listing some of the most common sexist stereotypes women face.

The F Word

Most responses to the rebranding have agreed that the advertisements themselves are effective, but they have also raised concerns about whether or not rebranding is a necessary, or acceptable, process for feminism to undergo.

That famous Pat Robertson quote that paints feminists as aggressive, man-hating lesbians is nearly twenty years old, but still frighteningly similar to public perception of feminists today. This stereotype is so often used to discredit feminists as hysterical or irrational, that there is an understandable desire to change the way feminism is viewed.

This is what Elle magazine set out to do – to make feminism more enjoyable and approachable. It’s an admirable cause, and impressive that a fashion magazine would take such a clear political stance. However, the fact that it is a fashion magazine also calls in to question Elle’s motives. It would be difficult to argue that Elle was a feminist publication; like much of the fashion industry, it tends only to represent the ‘ideal’ woman in its magazines, which is an increasing source of pressure for women.

Their passion for women’s rights is dubious considering none of the three campaigns happen to tackle the issue of women’s objectification in the media. It also can’t be forgotten that Elle is a business, and they are trying to sell a product. At a time when feminism seems to be slowly increasing in popularity, Elle’s campaign could merely be a cynical attempt to bring in profits. Most concerning of all, is that feminism is not something that should be sold.

By trying to make feminism seem less threatening, there is also the potential to make feminist activists less effective. Social change cannot happen unobtrusively. ‘Rebranding’ suggests as well that feminism is a brand, and to put it in this context is to trivialise the social and political significance of the feminist movement. The last thing feminists want is for feminism to become a meaningless accessory.

One way that Elle’s campaign has succeeded is by earning the support of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Women and Equalities minister Jo Swinson. Nick Clegg said the rebranding is “a simple step, which could have a big impact”. Both Clegg and Swinson spoke to Elle about their ‘Make Them Pay’ campaign, and how women should “feel free” to ask men about their salaries, and to take the initiative to seek pay rises where the pay is unequal. Swinson also told Elle that she would “absolutely…without hesitating” refer to herself as a feminist.

Only days earlier, David Cameron announced that he is in fact a feminist, after his initial awkward rejection of the label. In an interview with Red magazine, he said he believed in equal rights for men and women, but that “I don’t know what to call myself”. Channel 4 News queried him about this discrepancy, and before changing his stance, he first clarified that “if [equal rights for women] is what you mean by feminist, then yes, I am”. Though his dismissal in the Red interview is disappointing, claiming the word ‘feminist’ for himself and defining it in clear terms is a “simple step” forward.

If the Prime Minister is willing to reclaim the term ‘feminist’ then feminists must be doing something right. This growing political support is largely the result of a gradual increase in support for feminism. This is coming particularly from social networking sites, where there is more and more information available to young people about equal rights. Rebranding might be effective in temporarily bringing feminism back into public consciousness, but not in creating the permanent change that is required.

‘Rebranding’ however well intentioned, is not the right way to go about supporting the feminist cause. Perhaps a campaign in GQ magazine would be more effective than in Elle but regardless, genuine change will happen only when information about equal rights issues is accessible, and there is an open discourse surrounding them. This is what Elle has provided – the ad campaigns have put useful statistics and ideas into mainstream media, and encouraged a discourse amongst politicians that could really benefit the feminist movement.
The attitude toward feminists is what should be rehabilitated; whether a feminist conforms to the stereotypes or not, they should be respected and heard. Feminists should not have to focus their efforts on rehabilitating feminism’s image. The core values of feminism are what is important, thus anything achieved by a ‘rebranding’ can only be superficial.


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May 2021
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