Remember this Dove ‘Onslaught’ advertisement that I like? Well, many feminists don’t like it, including this fabulous feminist mother blogger who I actually discovered through her post on that ad. It has been interesting to see how feminists have variously responded to this advertisement. Make no mistake, ‘Onslaught’ is an advertisement, it is trying to sell products to us while also being ethically opposed to the beauty industry. Some of us are comfortable with that cynicism and some of us are not.
I tend towards pragmatism and it shows in my feminism. I’m a work your way up through the patriarchy and then initiate change kinda thinker rather than a dismantle the patriarchy because it is an oppressive system and anything else could be selling-out thinker. I’m not quite a radical feminist but some of my favourite feminist friends are radicals. I need exposure to radical feminism and I seek those feminists out regularly because they sharpen my thinking even when I don’t agree with them. I can become de-sensitized spending all my time working within the patriarchy, I need the vision of how things could be and the clarity of how messed up things are, that radical feminists provide. I think my response to this advertisement reflects my pragmatism. See what you think?
Two Knives hates this ad. Briefly, here’s why. The advertisement advocates parental responsibility for protecting little girls from the self-esteem destroying agenda of the beauty industry while taking no responsibility themselves as a big profitable company selling us beauty products. She also doesn’t like the fact that Dove’s parent company, Unilever creates some of the least-liked advertisements by feminists of all time. I agree with both of Two Knives’ points and I think that if Dove is going to enter the ethical debate on the beauty industry then they have to be prepared for some scrutiny. Two Knives has recommended a very good post over at The Situationist, also hating this ad.
Mostly because the darling Two Knives has asked for it in her post, here’s my response to The Situationist’s very well argued points. This is too long for a comment so I’m making it a post instead.
First, the problem with the concept behind the Dove beauty campaign in general.
Dove’s claim that beauty comes in “all shapes and sizes” seems to mean that beauty comes in “a few more shapes and sizes — particularly if the women are laughing and playing together in their underwear.”
This advertisement is not about the message that women can look real, look like themselves, and that’s beautiful, and if it isn’t beautiful it’s interesting, and looking interesting and comfortable is just as valid as looking beautiful. This ad is selling beauty products so the message is that women look beautiful when they’re groomed, regardless of whether they’re typical models or not. Dove is using the imagery of traditional beauty advertising as a way of reaching viewers and making this point. The Situationist isn’t keen on that Real Beauty campaign photo with the women standing around in their underwear, arms draped around one another, laughing. What do I say to this? Well, you know, this is of course the kinda thing I’m always doing with my girl friends. Standing around in our underwear together and laughing and talking about feminism - that’s real, that’s real beauty. I’m kidding.
This photo says women are sexy when they’re having a good time in their underwear, and hey what do you know, women are still sexy laughing in their underwear even when they’re bigger, or paler, or shorter, or whatever than the usual models? So I’m ok with that image because I think it would defeat the purpose if they completely subverted it and showed fully dressed women, ignoring the camera/viewer, and just living their lives, for instance. It is not perfect as an image of female empowerment, but I’m a pragmatist remember. And I think the women look confident rather than sexually submissive and I’m very happy about that image of ‘sexy’. I’m not sure if The Situationist is also unhappy about these women being in their underwear but I rather suspect so. I wonder though, if they were fully dressed would I be thinking, what, us curvy women are not good enough for your underwear shoots?
What is the implicit message to those girls and women who don’t measure up to even the “lowered” Dove standard? And what is the message of these particular images — where groups of young women reveal their “inner beauty” by standing in their underwear touching, rubbing, and giggling?
Do we have to think “lowered”? Is that really what this photo implies, because it if is then the ad has failed? Can we not think ‘expanded standard’ because I think the benefit of that particular photo is that they have used all the same tricks of the trade that other beauty photographs do – they’re not looking ‘real’, instead their skin is blemish-free and smooth, and their hair is glossy. I think it would be a different message if this ad used a photograph of women not looking so luxuriously glowing. This photograph is saying that women, photographed and groomed well look ‘beautiful’, a beauty compatible with the traditional views of beauty. This is a very capitalist message and if capitalism pisses you the hell off then you’re drawing your line right here. I don’t think this ad is really about the “inner beauty”, I think it is entirely about the exterior, the bits of yourself that can use beauty products. Because it’s an ad, of course, and I’m ok with that notion.
So, what about women in wheelchairs, and women with scars, and women with really thin hair, and women with mastectomies, and obese women, why aren’t they in this ‘Real Beauty’ photo? Well, yes. Dove has a way to go, pull your socks up Dove-y. But baby steps, baby steps, people because this is the beauty industry we’re talking about. (You see what I mean about how I’m a pragmatist and I need to hang with the radical feminists?) But what’s more, Dove is talking to the beauty industry customers and just as the beauty industry is rigid in its thinking about beauty, well so are the majority of their customers. These womens’ bodies might only be just outside the traditional beauty standard but remember we live in a world where this photo of Britney Spears was considered fat. For this ad to work customers have to think that they’re not buying the product for a “lower standard” of beauty but rather for a real real beauty, a legitimate beauty, a beauty equal in value to the supermodel definition of beauty – a beauty that they can also attain and that recognises their own body’s beauty. If the ad was jam-packed with every woman who has been excluded by the stifling standards of traditional beauty then the ad would risk looking like “hey there, we’re all the losers of the beauty race” instead of “hey there, ever noticed that we’re gorgeous”. I hope their future ads go on to include other women marginalised by the beauty industry but I also hope they don’t put us all together in one ad as blatantly as an ‘after-school special’.
Is it ok for Dove to make money from selling products to women to improve their perfectly normal, lovely bodies so that they conform with an artificial beauty construct? Well, that is another question. I’m not expecting miracles with the beauty industry (it won’t happen overnight so to speak) but I’m pleased to see this discussion even if it is part of a campaign to sell products. The ‘Onslaught’ video works, it reaches people, it summarises the destructiveness of the beauty industry, and it does this in less than two minutes. Sadly, the beauty industry knows how to talk to us but this time they’re talking to us about the problem with the beauty industry (granted their solution isn’t perfect) and if we’re listening then others companies in the beauty industry may follow too. ‘Onslaught’ isn’t the answer to the problems of body image and the beauty industry, but it is contributing to the discussion. Because Dove wants to make a whole lot of money they’re prepared to sink the cash into a slick, appealing video and distribute it widely, something us feminist mothers aren’t able to do. There is no virtuous purity in this world, exploitation and privellege are all around us, we’re steeped in it, and everyone has to draw a line somewhere with what they’re prepared to live with, even radical feminists. I choose to draw my line around Dove’s campaign. They’re ‘this close’ to plopping over the edge of my line, but not so close that I’m prepared to stop defending them yet.
P.S. The rest of The Situationist’s post is also terrific and mostly about parental authority and I’ve talked a lot about the problems with the parental authority model here and here and everywhere so I won’t talk about it again now. Well done to The Situtionist and Two Knives for great writing and keep up the scrutiny.
P.P.S I really am kidding with that title, no-one sends me free stuff and if they do I will tell you about it, promise.