Monthly Archives: October 2011

Branding Feminism

Branding Feminism: Brand-Slutwalk[1]

By now everyone knows the comment that sparked the first Slutwalk (Toronto) and its wild-fire spread across the globe.  It began with a classic scene of mansplaining[2]: A man  schooling women about how to avoid rape. To make things worse, the man was even more legitimized/authorized as a mansplainer due to his status as a police officer. In this instance the cop advised his audience that if women didn’t dress “like sluts” it might help with the rape-prevention. The feminist outrage spurred by the comment was fierce and a terrible thing to waste—which is precisely what happened when outrage against victim-blaming in a rape culture was (and is) redirected and de-fused into shallow and bubble-headed libertarian credo: If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together – I am a slut. . . stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.  This is Third-wave feminist celeb, Jaclyn Friedman working the crowd at Slutwalk Philadelphia. For those who don’t instantly visualize a Saturday Night Live style parody of feminism, that’s due to years of priming by the “sex-positive-empowerment-industrial-complex” which has hollowed out feminism from within to a one dimensional version of itself. One dimensional feminism means minimally a feminism that joins the pop up individualisms of a neoliberal era.

Thus rather than arousing sheer incredulity from the Left, the pageantry called Slutwalk earns points from the main bastion of liberal-left media, namely The Nation where the usually sharp feminist writer, Katha Pollitt cheers the event:

Here at last is that bold, original, do-it-yourself protest movement we’ve been    waiting for, a rock-hard wall of female solidarity—an attack on one is an attack on all!—presented as media-savvy street theater that connects the personal and the political and is as fresh as the latest political scandal.


Hey Nation magazine! What have you done with Katha Pollitt? Is this a pod Pollitt?? Slutwalk Fresh and Original?

Reality check: Take a look at the NYC Slut-walk video


Critic of Slutwalk, blogger and radio journalist Meghan Murphy observes,. . .the women dancing and posing on stage in their underwear, the women with ‘tramp’ and ‘slut’ inked onto their bodies, the slogans: “I have the pussy so I make the rules”, the pole-dancing, and the men, standing on the sidelines grinning, leering, and taking photos. . .”


Bold? Original? Fresh?


“Media savvy” the protestors have in spades; though “savvy” might be a misnomer. How much real smarts are required to know that the media will slobber all over the image of thin white women wearing lingerie in public in the name of feminism? Isn’t the image of the hypersexualized female the very currency of the media department of rape-culture? Defenders of Slutwalk’s sartorial style rush in to school us critics about “parody.”  Here’s Pollitt again: “Apparently feminists have a sense of humor after all and grasp the concepts of irony, parody and appropriation.”  I suppose that the men on the side-walk are only “ironically” jerking off to the Slutwalk pageantry, keen to the subtle aesthetics of parody employed by burlesque stripper-costumes and women going top-less.  Oh dear, it’s sad to witness stalwart public intellectuals like Pollitt foiled by the same smoke-and-mirror tactics deployed by  the academic sophists, the postmoderns of the likes of Judith Butler, who for years have strained to “resignify” all forms of sexual exploitation as a “parodic reiteration” of “gender” that is the supposed un-doing of “doing gender.”  Of course the only thing that’s parodic about Slutwalk, albeit inadvertently, is the event’s appropriation of feminism; as obvious from any video of Slutwalk and certainly from Jaclyn Friedman’s speech, the appropriation of slut is done in dead earnest.


Branded Politics

Nobody disagrees that SlutWalk is a branding device “that gets attention,” although some who object to the name “Slutwalk”, ask that the event be “re-branded.” In either case the notion of “brand” is treated as if it’s a neutral device of PR for protest. But “branding” applied to activism is not value-neutral; the use of branding for politics shows the extent to which politics itself has been in-corporate-ated by which I mean the extent to which politics is enacted through market models of thought and practice.  Remember that Hope-y-Obama is often referred to as brand-Obama by critics to make the point that what voter-consumers bought to put him in office was a logo that had no real reference to any concrete policies or issues? Slutwalk is only the most recent iteration of brand-feminism; it substitutes its logo for clear thinking and acting on concrete issues. “Brand feminism” implies a one dimensional feminism “framed” within/by a neoliberal capitalist re-shaping of contemporary patriarchy.

Naomi Klein explains branding in terms of a shift in marketing strategies from selling things that are made—and then boasting of their utility in comparison to other products—to selling the logos of the (otherwise identical) things.  Klein points out that corporations require an ever fresh supply (and/or invention) of space(s) to colonize for circulating its brands.[3] No corporation rests until it plant its logo on the moon or at least sing, as in the Coke AD, “We are the world.”

See how the Coca Cola corporation spins its imperial project of “taking over the world” as Kumbaya-ism? Double-thinking is rife in a branded world—testament to the hollowing out of thought itself that is one of its effects: colonization is world-unity; war is peace. Botox (paralysis of facial muscle) is self-expression. Obama is the peace candidate. I’ll pause on this last example since Obama’s oft-noted brand-candidacy—which won Marketer of the Year award[4]—provides an object lesson in branded politics.

Brand-Obama is a key illustration of the way branding works to not only sell an idea of itself but a whole world view and as part of that world-view the self-concept of the consumers. The brand-self sold back to consumers breaks down to aroused feeling states, and fixed ideas/beliefs that fit with those feeling-states which in turn validate the fixed ideas.  Brand-Obama didn’t only sell Obama for president; it gave leftish-ists a “cheap fix of grace” as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it. Flushed with pride in itself as (repeat the mantra after me) “the movement that put Obama in power” the Left-for-Obama was in fact an effect (product) of the brand itself.[5]

Back to brand-Slutwalk which floods participants with the warmth of “empowerment,” a feeling-state that (in addition to the fact that the brand Slutwalk “gets attention”) serves for its defenders as a main justification for the event itself. As for those who object to the name “Slutwalk,” name-change alone would not impact the extent to which the event is an example of brand-feminism.  The problem is not with a bad label erroneously tacked onto otherwise politically good contents such as protest against a rape culture. The problem is that potential protest against a rape culture is itself branded by and through the event itself—an event which the logo Slutwalk codifies. This is because the “protest” is a crowning moment of Third-wave feminism and as such trades on sex-industrial-strength fantasies for its “fresh, bold and original” feminism.


Third Wave feminism

Slut-walk is really the latest iteration of “Third wave feminism.” “Third wave” is all about branding beginning with its trade-marking of the notion of “wave” which in previous eras referred to political movements. The “wave” of second-wave feminism refers to a collective project of liberation demanding wide-sweeping transformation of the entire world.  The “wave” in Third-wave has no referent in a collective movement for political change.  Third-wave in contrast has effectively displaced any collective world-changing project with (individualized) empowerment. In the process, “feminism” is converted from a term referring to a political movement to an identity-term whereby “feminist” has no contents save for whatever empowers the individual woman who chooses the identity for herself.

Brand-Third-wave feminist is an effect of neoliberalism; its notion of empowerment aligns with neoliberal imperatives to saturate the individual with responsibility for her/his fate while erasing the role of institutions of power, and most importantly, depriving individuals of the sense that they can act collectively for change. “Empowerment” is the smiley-face flip side of the kind of “responsibilization” that is preached by the austerity-freaks like Obama telling everyone after bailing out the banks and lining the already-bulging pockets of CEO’s that we “all” have to pitch in, because America is “one family.”  Empowerment is to life-style feminists and leftists what responsibility is to welfare-recipients—either and/or bloated with positive-think or deflated by blame—a mystifying ideology that is not only in the head but part of how we experience ourselves as human beings today: as isolate, atomized, individuals.

A key text of Third Wave Feminism and its branding of feminism is Manifesta, a tract where the alignment between neoliberalism and empowerment-identity-feminism could not be more blatant. In the following passage, authors Jennifer Baumgarten and Amy Richards could be speaking in the overhead voice of an infomercial when pitching feminism to readers:

Maybe you aren’t sure you need feminism …or you’re not sure it needs you. You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are–but with a political consciousness.

Hmmm I guess only your hair-dresser (or today, Brazilian waxer) knows for sure –knows for sure whether you got feminism or not, right? In a stunning reversal of the main tenet of women’s liberation feminism, namely, “the personal is political,” the writers here are assuring women that “political consciousness” needs not interfere with one’s “personal” life in any way whatsoever.  The personal is re-privatized as the domain of individual consumer-modeled choices comprising one’s consumer-modeled identity. Political consciousness can be added and stirred without fear of chemical reaction, i.e. any challenge to the very structure of everyday life in a capitalist patriarchy. The consumer-identity-choices do not just happen to be stock ingredients of commodified femininity: white weddings; waxing, plucking, shaving; shopping. In branding feminism, Third-wave means there will be no interruption in your regularly scheduled programming of/by bourgeois  hetero-normative relations, no break that is, in the program of striving to be desirable to men.

Botox Feminism

Slutwalk is a Third-wave phenomenon, given that it finds its object of protest not in rape-culture but at best, individual empowerment in the form of  sexual and sartorial “self-expression,” and at worst, slut-as-identity.  This is Botox-feminism: the Orwellian reversal type lie in the Botox-promo that paralysis is expression hides a deeper truth: the logic of “self expression” today is really (political and critical) paralysis. “Self-expression” is part of the empowerment paradigm which bases feminism-as-identity on the right to express one’s individual self as one chooses. The logic of empowerment insulates itself against critical thought. Thus, the false promise often heard by spokeswomen of Slutwalk and read on placards is that how women dress or self-present has nothing whatsoever to do with rape.

This is an i-feminism which can not follow a thought through from a correct premise—namely that no women no matter what she wears is to blame for or in any way causes (e.g. “provokes”) rape—to its correct conclusion—that men who rape and the system (culture) that legitimizes rape are the only causes of rape. This is not to say that the event does not address “issues of accountability” but the belief in a phantom of women’s individual sovereignty overwhelms discussion of (male and systemic) accountability and is as sedimented for these Third-wavers as the fantasy of Progress or the American Dream is for others.[6] The main focus, rather than the power relations at stake in victim-blaming and rape becomes as we saw in Friedman’s I am Slut hear me roar panegyric some Madison Ave brand of female pleasure and sexuality.

Friedman claims that we’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business. That’s rich, given that what women do with our bodies is majorly big, big (to the tune of billions) business. Corporate investment in (branding) female sexuality is ridiculously obvious given the accelerating speed and intensity with which ever-new body-modifying and mutilating procedures are promoted as necessary for women’s “self-expression.”  The investment is not only a corporate but corporate patriarchal interest in forever dissecting and subdividing the female body as new space to invent and colonize for branding this body as a sexual commodity to put up for sale, whether literally in the sex trade or less directly in the sense of the branding of everyday life for girls and women in a capitalist patriarchal social order. It is a patriarchal interest to the extent that all men as a social class benefit directly or indirectly from branding the female body. And all men benefit to the extent that masculinity still comes with sex-right attached at birth, meaning the de facto right to have sexual access to the female whether through “the gaze” or “the touch” or “the fuck” or “the sale” or any surplus pleasure extracted from women for men from the branded sexual self-presentation of women. But brand-Botox-feminism means critical paralysis in the face of naming the root power relations at stake in a rape culture; this “feminism” means a feminism that shrinks from putting sexual politics (relations between women and men) at the center of its “critique” of rape culture.


Is women’s choice of dress a free choice?

A main slogan of Slutwalk, usually declared by women dressed in Victoria Secret lace and stilettos, is that however a woman dresses it’s not an invitation to rape. What point exactly is being made by this “look but don’t touch” approach—aside from its conformity to the construct of the “cock-tease”—except again to promote the false idea that how women dress has nothing whatsoever to do with rape, and that thus how women choose to dress is a free choice? But if the choice of sexual self-presentation for women was such a free choice why does it seem to come in only one flavor, namely, some variant of the patriarchal construct of “slut”?  And why does corporate patriarchy have such a mammoth investment in this construct?

The problem ignored by Slutwalk is that how a women or girl dresses and/or sexually self-presents is an obligation not a choice. By this I mean that from day 1 in any girl’s life, female development means learning the obligation to signal sexual availability to the male at any and all times. A sign that this is obligatory rather than optional is what Marilyn Frye calls the “double bind” constraining all choices made by members of subordinate groups.[7] In the case of women’s subordination, sexual self-presentation is a double-bind since whatever choice she makes will be punished (if sometimes both rewarded and punished).  Women are both exhorted to self-present as sexy but punished as sluts; failure to self-present as sexy is punished as prudish, or as lacking any existential validity/worth within a system that bases women’s worth—and indeed very visibility—on competency in displaying sexual availability (aka “sexiness”) without falling into the “slut” category.

Rather than (as often intoned in response to such arguments) denying female agency, if women are obliged to self-present as sexually available, fulfilling this obligation requires a considerable exertion of agency.  To fulfill such an obligation demands the futile enterprise of negotiating a fictional line between sexy and slut, or between good girl and prude. It demands real expertise to forever tinker with one’s own flesh and bone-structure, to make up and modify, model and re-model—and/or to resist any or all of such competency in femininity.  The issue is not the absence or presence of agency but the power to determine the “rules” of the game in which women are compelled/induced to maneuver between (or resist) different shades of the same demands for sexual availability to men. The issue is whether such agency is freedom, and whether a sign of brand-feminism is that it hopelessly confuses (individualized) agency on the one hand with freedom on the other. Because freedom is a collective phenomenon; for women it means the power to determine the rules, not negotiate the rules imposed by elite classes and interests.


Negotiation is not freedom and the reality of the double bind for Women of color

The double-bind does double (treble, quadruple) duty for women of color who have little if any “maneuvering” room to negotiate the fictional line between slut and sexy, and little if any option of self-presenting as “virgin” rather than whore.  Powerful statements from women of color have objected to Slutwalk on the grounds that women of color have been historically configured and concretely exploited as always already slut and thus unrapeable. A striking reminder of the persistence of this historical dynamic comes from no less an estimable source as the New York Times: The Times covered the story of an 11 year old black girl who was gang-raped by insinuating throughout their account that the child had provoked it. See the critique of this as stock rape-culture in its racist mold here.

The main point of the statements which were written by the organizations Blueprint Black Woman and A3firm is that “slut” can not just be plucked out of the air for “appropriation” but has a material history that has branded women of color in more ways than commercially exploiting/re-representing them, that includes the brute incision of colonization and slavery on brown and black female bodies.

In their statement on Slutwalk, the Black-feminist organization, Blackwoman Blue-print highlights the history of sexualization of black female bodies, in part by pointing to the history of African American female resistance to this sexualization:

Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.  Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize.  Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets. 

In their statement, Af3irm—a new anti-imperialist, transnational feminist women’s organization–focuses directly on the agents who/that have sexualized women of color—most broadly colonial regimes and more specifically the sex industry that pimps and traffics women of color as a legacy of colonization that persists to this date.  Speaking as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” they write,

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. . . . This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America.  There are many variations of the label “slut”:  in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. 

In the context of this history of sexualization they point to the fact that women of color are the ones who compose the majority of sex trafficking victims in this country, who comprise the majority of those sold in the mail-order-bride system, who are the commodities offered in brothel houses ringing US military bases in and out of this country, who are the goods offered for sexual violation in prostitution. We who are and historically have been the “sluts” from whom traffickers, pimps, and other “authorities” of the global corporate sex trade realize $20 billion in earnings annually cannot, with a clear conscience, accept the term in reference to ourselves and our struggle against sexual violence and for women’s liberation.

With Slutwalk, a smiley-face logo is slapped onto brute systems of exploitation in the way that Coke affixes a sunshine-rainbowy “we are the world” jingle to imperial corporate colonization. But the branding-mechanisms at work in Slutwalk are even more ingenuous than those used by Coke since for Slutwalk they function to hide the sign-chain of patriarchal—and imperial—remote-controls of women and feminism to which the smiley-empowerfulment-face is tethered.

Against In-corporate-ating feminism

In the world of corporate ads, little says the corporate appropriation of space like “product placement” a real marketing strategy that has effectively colonized everyday life. It is not only that specific logos are inserted into the stream of everyday common-sense by television shows and movies, and not only that they invade everyday discourse by actors on the next park bench paid to enthuse over the newest granola bar or the latest version of I-phone.  Worse than all of that, it is the way in which the strategy both metaphorically and materially makes what it means to be human more and more an effect of the branding process, so that we think, feel, and self-present within terms of branding, ourselves becoming holo (hollow)graphic projections of the process. This includes the branding of “protest.”

In the case of feminism, what should be of urgent consideration is the extent to which those of us who still want militant transformation of the dominant social order are now confronting a neoliberally adjusted patriarchy, which demands in turn a feminism “structurally readjusted” for the very maintenance of patriarchy.  Third-wave brand, and now Slut-walk is an example of this structural readjustment; the latter epitomizes the extent to which we are facing a feminism that functions like a product-placement Ad for capitalist patriarchy itself.

[1] Like most of my work, this article is shaped in part by the collaborative work I’ve done with Nancy Meyer over the past decade. Most recently we have been elaborating a critique of identity politics, and my discussion of feminism as an identity politics here has been particularly refreshed and expanded by this collaboration.

[2] Here’s one handy definition of mansplaining for those unfamiliar with the term:

[3] Naomi Klein, No Logo, Picador, 2000, 2002.

[5] A true sign of brand-leftism is when once-articulate members of the lefty intelligentsia started babbling: Take Michael Moore plugging for Obama on Democracy Now as the candidate of hope. When asked by host Amy Goodman about Obama’s plans to bomb Afghanistan, Moore giggled that he remained “hopeful”– in this case “hopeful” that  Obama would be like other politicians and not fulfill certain campaign promises. Or take Alice Walker’s paean to the shackled slaves who built the very capital where the first black president would soon ascend to office. These were the ancestors, she said, who must have known somehow that their slave-labor was all for this, for him.

[6] I’m not blaming the individual participants or even organizers.  The phenomenon I’m talking about is structural not individual and literally capitalizes upon the understandable (because well-groomed) desires that especially young women have to fit into the social order, to be counted as existentially worthy, through the same means that women have always been counted as worth, via desirability to men. There’s nothing wrong with sartorial sexy self-display per se. The problem is brand-feminism that—as an effect of structural shifts in patriarchy itself– makes this self-display the face of feminism (“this is what a feminist looks” like, i.e. not the hairy sort, not the butch sort, not “ugly,” not “man hating” etc.).  We all want to be recognized, to count, to be visible as human beings—the problem is that this human need is shrunken to fit the demands of market forces in their interplay with patriarchal social control of the female.

[7] Marilyn Frye, “Sexism,” and “Oppression” in The Politics of Reality, Crossing Press 1983.  These essays have not dated at all; like most of Frye’s essays they are feminist classics and are terrific primers in the basics of feminist theory for the “novice.”