Getting a feminist makeover

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New makeup ads use feminism as a marketing ploy

By Ljudmila Petrovic
Photos by Vaikunthe Banerjee

Advertising companies are often accused of objectifying and sexualizing women. One of the most famous attacks on this phenomenon has been Jean Kilbourne, the woman behind the documentary Killing Us Softly. That film deals with the effects of advertising on women’s self-image, and points the finger at these companies for portraying women as they do. The first version of the documentary came out in 1979; since then, not only has Kilbourne continued to make these documentaries, but others have joined her cause.

This kind of attitude is not surprising or new to anybody in 2012, but if advertising companies were to change their portrayal of women, would that really be for the better?
Flipping through any magazine, you will find ads on every other page. When it comes to magazines targeted at women, most of these ads are likely to be for various cosmetics. I usually skip the ads without looking at them, but on this particular magazine-flipping session, I realized something that I hadn’t before: these advertisements weren’t making women like sex objects at all. On the contrary, they were using empowerment and strong women as their platform: mascara ads telling women to be fearless and strong, and lipstick ads telling women to be the ones in control.

Now, this sounds great: women are being told to embody empowering qualities, rather than to be thin and submissive. But this really means that advertising companies are using the feminist movement to market their products. Since the rise of Sex and the City and Cosmopolitan, mainstream feminism has taken a different approach; upon which these companies can build platforms. No longer is the image of a feminist that of a hairy-legged man-hater; now it is Samantha Jones, who “has sex like a man” and always looks fabulous. This is the image of a woman that advertisements now use. The message may in itself be a good one, but the fact that feminism is now being used as cosmetic marketing is a worrisome trend that may affect the way the movement develops.

This message also remains somewhat subliminal: the very nature of advertising means we are constantly being bombarded by messages meant to sell us the product. However, in the case of these make up ads, it appears that we are told to be strong women. But the implicit message is that makeup is power, that it is beauty that makes you a strong woman, and not just natural beauty, but an image of beauty painted by these companies.

I’m not anti-cosmetics. I wear makeup, and so do most women that I know, if not all of them. But for decades, we have been told to be skinny, submissive, and sexy, and now we are told to be empowered feminists. The problem with this is not what we are being told, but rather by whom. The fact that this sort of sublimation is coming at us from all sides may change the face of feminism, and as a generation, we may begin to believe that makeup is not only an image of beauty, but also an image of feminism.