Commercialization of feminism and postfeminism are movements that are interrelated and can be understood as new, ‘sexier’ variations on the traditional feminism. This commercialization of feminism can have major negative consequences for women.
The rise of postfeminism and commercialization of feminism
Celebrity feminists and social media platforms have re-branded feminism (Rivers, 2017). Since the development of social media, feminism gained popularity, however, in a new form. Not the traditional feminism of angry women, but sexy women who own their sexuality and empower other girls, like singer Beyonce and rapper M.I.A., are ruling the new generation of feminists. Despite the effect this might have on young women, celebrity feminism, in general, fails to address the political and societal issues feminism is, in essence, all about. Commercialization of feminism is killing women.
The movement of feminism accomplished its first major memorable achievement around hundred years ago. Since 1917 women in the Netherlands can be elected in the government, and since 1919 women have the active right to vote. In 1956, Dutch politician Corry Tendeloo managed to eliminate the law that women could be fired by their employers when they got married. Subsequently, since 1958, women can handle their own finances, and in 1984, abortion was legalized.
The tough work was done. Men and women were equal by law. The feminist movement was left with an image of butch, man-hating, bra-burning, angry women (Rivers, 2019). A postfeminist movement gained popularity, which results in women thinking men and women are treated equally and celebrating the differences between the sexes instead of questioning them. Postfeminists do not approach women as a marginalized group in society but empower individual women to be their best selves (Gill, Kelan, & Scharff, 2014; Sheeler & Anderson, 2013. This movement is growing over the last few years.
The decreased popularity of traditional feminism and the nowadays popular postfeminism, created an opportunity for organizations and celebrities. They wanted to re-brand the image of feminism in an attractive way for young women, wherefore the feminist movement could gain popularity again (Rivers, 2017). This re-branding is realized through addressing feminist issues regarding equality from a rather postfeminist perspective. Feminism is now, for instance by celebrities, portrayed as an interesting, appealing movement for young females, rather than the addressing of complicated, serious political issues.
Celebrities like Beyonce made this new feminism part of their images as artists, and online platforms, like the Instagram account Feminist, are using interesting facts about feminist history and current accomplishments as their business models. These commercial celebrity feminists are empowering women individually, and this resulted in the re-branding of the feminist movement (Rivers, 2017). Thanks to, among others, Beyonce quoting, for example, feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her song Flawless (Figure 1), feminism gained popularity again.
However, this ‘new’ commercialization of feminism can be perceived as very problematic.
Let me be clear, women empowering other women is a good thing, but we cannot call this feminism. As a result of the commercialization of feminism, the new movement fails to address serious problems regarding the equality of men and women in society. By ignoring these problems and only paying attention to the empowerment of individual girls and women, and defining this as feminism, we are forgetting and ignoring serious problems regarding women in society.
The dangers of the commercialization of feminism
First, despite the legal equality between men and women, women are still disadvantaged by the way society is constructed. To illustrate, the availability of public restrooms discriminates against women (Banks, 1990). Everywhere in large Dutch cities, public urinals can be found. Restrooms for women, however, remain absent, even though men can already relieve themselves more easily in public spaces since they do not need to be half-naked to urinate as women do. When there actually are public restrooms available, lines in front of women’s bathrooms are always a lot longer as a result of the same amount of toilets available for both sexes. Women, actually, need longer to relieve themselves in general than men, and are, moreover, more likely to accompanied by elderly and disabled people, and by younger children who need their help in the restroom.
Besides, there still exists a pay gap between men and women. Female employees only make 82 cents for every dollar a man in the same function earns (Ott & Mack, 2013). Women do not get the same amount of academic publications as men with similar competences do (e.g., Castilla & Bernard, 2010), and women are less likely to receive promotions to leadership positions than men with corresponding expertise are (e.g., Milkman, Akinola, & Chugh, 2015).
As a consequence of the rise of the re-branded, commercial version of feminism, these problems regarding equality are being unnoticed and ignored. This commercialization of feminism, therefore, should not be allowed to be defined as feminism, because it fails to strive for the original objectives of feminism: complete equality of the sexes.
Adding to this, commercialization of feminism not only leads to prejudicing women in daily life and professional settings, but it also disadvantages women in a way that can even lead to fatal outcomes.
For example, medication for health problems is mostly tested on only-male samples, or the test results are not segregated by sex, wherefore the outcomes of the use of certain drugs are not predictable for men and women separately. Consequently, many medications do not benefit women in their health at all. It can even lead to dangerous situations because the female body can respond in a counterproductive way (e.g., Tharpe, 2011). The fact that something such meaningful as health medication is not tested on women, can lead to serious, sometimes even fatal situations.
Not only the drugs, but also the diseases themselves are mostly only studied on men, even though women’s bodies are built differently, have different hormone complexes, and require other treatments than men’s bodies. As a result, autism and other related mental health disorders, for example, are far less likely to be diagnosed in women than in men, because the symptoms vary between the sexes. This disadvantages women (e.g., Szalavitz, 2016).
Also, women are far more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks than men are, since doctors and scientists simply do not recognize the symptoms in women’s bodies as a result of the absence of knowledge about female bodies (e.g., Backholer et al., 2017).
Moreover, menstrual-related diseases, such as endometriosis, are being undiagnosed or even labeled as female hysteria, because of the lack of information about these typically female diseases and disorders (e.g., Boseley, 2017).
The problems mentioned above are only a few examples. Because of the patriarchal systems in society, women are still disadvantaged, which can lead to serious letdown of women in society, severe health diseases being mishandled or undiagnosed, or even fatal results.
Commercial feminism should not be the feminism of this generation
We can change these situations, and we should. However, thanks to the re-branding of feminism, these serious issues are being unrepresented or just ignored because of the assumption that men and women are already equal. Empowering young women is a good thing, but by failing to address problems regarding women with such a major impact, this cannot be defined as feminism. We should appreciate celebrities like Beyoncé for encouraging women to be their best selves, but we cannot call this feminism. Commercialization of feminism is killing women. We cannot change society by only empowering girls, but we can by addressing inequality in society and science by bringing back traditional feminism.
Backholer, K., Peters, S. A., Bots, S. H., Peeters, A., Huxley, R. R., & Woodward, M. (2017). Sex differences in the relationship between socioeconomic status and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Epidemiol Community Health, 71(6), 550-557.
Banks, T. L. (1990). Toilets as a feminist issue: A true story. Berkeley Women's LJ, 6, 263.
Castilla, E. J., & Benard, S. (2010). The paradox of meritocracy in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(4), 543-676.
Gill, R., K. Kelan, E., & M. Scharff, C. (2017). A postfeminist sensibility at work. Gender, Work & Organization, 24(3), 226-244.
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Ott, B. L., & Mack, R. L. (2013). Feminist Analysis. In Critical media studies: An Introduction, 193 – 213. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
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Sheeler, K. H., & Anderson, K. V. (2013). Woman president: Confronting postfeminist political culture (Vol. 22). College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.
Tharpe, N. (2011). Adverse drug reactions in women's health care. Journal of midwifery & women's health, 56(3), 205-213.