A few months ago Elle magazine rang to say how exited they were to hear about our launch, and keen to collaborate with us! “Awesome,” I said. “We are very excited that you are excited!”
Like PRs, women’s magazine editors deal in hyperbole, so I took their breathless account of the global impact and reach of their ‘rebranding feminism project’ with a pinch of salt.
Feminism has an image problem, they averred. To make the f word relevant to Elle readers it needs to be detoxified, denuded of all its bad karma, then remade as something practical and appealing, like a vintage throw (or words to that effect.)
This task clearly couldn’t be entrusted to feminist organisations – we were part of the problem surely, so were surprised to be invited to take to part in the Elle project. It made more sense when we learned we were to be partnered with an ad agency! The branding experts would know how to make a silk purse from the sows ear of feminism. They would create an alluring feminist ad that would run in the November issue of Elle, we would sit around in their offices drinking endless cappuccinos – at least that’s how I pictured this collaboration. I was reassured, but scared as it meant surrendering control and becoming ‘muses’ rather than equal partners.
We thought and thought about whether to take part. My best friend counselled against it – “that’s never going to work hon,” she meant on a personal level. Politically we don’t think feminism has an image problem – the puritanical, anti-fun feminist looms large in the media’s consciousness, but not in mine. I’ve never met her, even in the women’s groups I attended in the 80s.
I did meet lots of hairy legged, DM-sporting lesbians. My uni women’s group was a blast – there were no vagina awareness workshops, but a lot of laughs. We always ended the evening downing pints in a lesbian nightclub called Folies. I have very fond memories of my hairy lesbian friends of that era – they were committed, but not joyless.
These days, it’s compulsory for a feminist to appear fun, fashionable and uncommitted. The ‘This is what a feminist looks like T shirt was an attempt to rebrand feminism – implying that the only acceptable feminist is one who doesn’t look, sound or act like one. Hairy Mancunion lesbians couldn’t wear those T shirts; they are meant to reassure the mainstream that feminists are ‘normal’: ‘this’ and not ‘that’.
I started Feminist Times because I wanted to have a forum to explore the tyranny of the choice agenda. In fact, post-feminism is much more judgemental and excluding than the other sort. And ironically, a lot angrier. If you’re looking for angry feminists, they’re not working for Feminist Times.
A friend recently wrote to me about an angry-post feminist he’d met at a party: “She was banging on about modern feminists, so I asked her what she meant; I think it meant the freedom to be a shopping, spa-going, celebrity endorsing, brand-aware member of the twitterrati, a kind of subtle, playful, ironic feminism that leant more towards feminine and chic.”
To help me decide whether to take part in the Elle project, I did a list of pros and cons, as my father is wont to do. In the pro column was the idea of reaching a broader audience: I want Feminist Times to be part of mainstream debate, so I thought I could survive a short stint as a muse for an ad agency if it meant getting our message across to a big audience without compromising its integrity.
My friend Kat from UK Feminista had also been love bombed by Elle, but managed to resist. She said they couldn’t take part in a project because they didn’t think feminism needed ‘rebranding’. Nor could she justify the time it would take away from campaigning. She was busy with the Lose the Lads Mags campaign and couldn’t take time out to brainstorm in Shoreditch
By that logic I couldn’t really spare the time either – we were meant to be putting together a brand new online magazine after all, but I agreed, then put the whole thing out of my mind. One morning, we found ourselves talking intently about our anti-consumerist message to a room full of intelligent and well-dressed people in an East London space. Funky doesn’t begin to describe the HQ of Mother, the agency we were partnered with. My eight-year-old loved the elephant’s behind in the breakout room but was disconcerted by the lack of a whiteboard.
“How do they brainstorm without a whiteboard?” Anna asked.
Mother seemed like Feminist Times’ dream date. They ‘got’ our sense of humour, shared our cultural references and seemed in synch with our punk spirit. They took copious notes while we were riffing about our vision of a feminist utopia, where PR people would be put to work as carers. They seemed to agree that the ad should have an anti capitalist message. Awesome! The only downer was one of the Mother women, who kept bringing the conversation back round to body hair.
We couldn’t believe that for these women, who said they had only come to feminism through Caitlin Moran’s book a few years ago, that the choice of whether to have a Brazilian or not was so empowering. We doubted their stats and Deborah sent through the results of a quick Google search that suggested maybe not as many women as they imagined were compelled to have all their pubic hair ripped out.
I loved the ad people’s outfits – the woman opposite was wearing a vintage baby doll dress with colourful eighties mid heels and incredible robot necklace. The cappuccinos flowed, but I didn’t feel remotely compromised. I loved being a muse and would happily have stayed there all afternoon, improvising on the theme of my personal feminist philosophy, but eventually I had to get my daughter home so I made my excuses. We had been brainstorming for five hours but it felt like five minutes.
We were excited to see what Mother came up with. In the dialogues that followed, they said that Elle had vetoed anything with an anti-consumerist message. That was disappointing but understandable. The first idea from them was called ‘Proper Cunts’ – they would ‘crowdsource’ a variety of different vaginas and create a photomontage, which would make the Elle reader think twice before getting a Brazilian.
I was worried that the cunt shots would be differently objectifying, like the Channel 4 ‘real sex’ show that’s meant to be claiming sex back from the pornographers. Surely the point can be made without the cunt shots, which would look like pack shots?
Deborah thought, in name only, the cunts were punky but we were worried it could be like an early version of Vice. I agreed to run with them after Mother put my mind to rest, but was relieved when Elle vetoed the idea. They’d be “taken off the shelves” if they ran the Proper Cunts ad, apparently.
The November issue of Elle has the ad we eventually signed off. It’s about equal pay, the line of least resistance. It seems to blame men, rather than capitalism for the pay gap, and holds them personally accountable for it.
“If he does the same job, ask him his salary.”
They said this was very un-English to ask people about their salaries – we agreed but we tried to get them to change the emphasis so that the iteration was addressed to the underpaying boss, rather than the over-paid man. Apparently it’s illegal to ask a boss to disclose the details of wage differentials.
The pay gap felt like a more ‘serious’ and ‘worthy’ issue to pin our colours to than bikini waxing and, crucially, was something that was accessible to Elle readers. But it didn’t set our pulse racing and nor did it capture the issues we felt most strongly about.
The problem with ‘rebranding feminism’ is that feminism isn’t a brand to begin with. It’s a process rather than an idée fixée. There’s no easy way of capturing that process in an A4 visual advert – believe me, we tried – so any ‘rebrand’ would inevitably have been a compromise. A woman’s magazine, an advertising agency and the team from Feminist Times were never going to be easy bedfellows, because they exist to sell products and we are explicitly anti advertising; our slogan is ‘life not lifestyle’ and they make their livings from ‘lifestyle’.
With Elle’s deadline looming, we signed of the ad. The funny thing was that no one was enamoured of this idea – it was the least popular with all of us, including the people from Mother, but it was the one that appeared in the magazine. The experience was a fascinating parable about the constraints the mainstream media is operating under. My time as muse for Elle has taught me that women’s magazines are structurally incapable of originality. I don’t blame the Elle team for this, any more than I blame well paid men for the pay gap.