Elizabeth Kissling is Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and of Communication at Eastern Washington University, and the current president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. She is the author of Capitalizing On The Curse: The Business Of Menstruation. Here she talks about postfeminism and advertising.
You recently gave a talk at the Science of Gender and Sex conference at the Lewis & Clark college in Portland, can you tell us about the subject you were speaking on?
I looked specifically at the most recent commercial for the birth control pill Seasonique - the one with the tagline ‘Repunctuate Your Life’ - in terms of post-feminist media culture. I’ll define this term, as I know it’s contentious - some people think it means post-feminism as in after feminism, as though feminism is over, which of course is not true. It’s like the bumper sticker says: ‘I’ll be a postfeminist in the postpatriarchy.’
I’ve been influenced by British academics Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill. McRobbie sees post-feminism as taking feminism into account in order to dismiss it. So, feminism is represented in mainstream media and at the same time dismissed. Gill discusses the defining characteristics and argues that we should see it as a sensibility. Postfeminist media culture has an emphasis on femininity being a bodily characteristic. Femininity has been understood as nurturing behavior, emotionality, but now it’s about how your body has to be feminine. Also, women are positioned as a subject – they have sexual desires but are at the same time objectified. There’s an emphasis on sexual difference, influenced by the ideas of evolutionary psychology that say we are hard-wired to behave as women, and men as men. Other characteristics are increased sexualization of culture over all and the belief that consumption can solve all our problems. McRobbie and Gill have in their writing looked at television shows like Ally McBeal, Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives. I’ve used this perspective to study the Seasonique advertising - which I believe fits seamlessly into postfeminist entertainment media.
How does the Seasonique advertising illustrate these ideas?
The Seasonique commercial starts out with a woman asking the question ‘Who says you have to have 12 periods a year?’ and repeats the question ‘Who says?’ eight times in the 60 second timespan, sometimes forming a whole question and sometimes using just those two words: ‘Who says?’. This is taking feminism into account to dismiss it. The dictating authority they’re speaking of could be a feminist academic, it could be the medical-industrial complex, or it could be your mother – it doesn’t matter because the point is you don’t have to listen, as you’re an individual and can decide for yourself. It assumes you enact your individuality through consumer choice and this idea is a big part of post-feminism. It’s also a big part of neo liberalism.
The advert frames taking the pill as an act of defiance whilst incorporating key feminist values – self-definition, control of your body. The contradiction between controlling your body and submitting to the medical-industrial complex by taking the prescription is glossed over. The six women starring in the commercial are shown one by one and have no apparent relationship to each other. So there’s no collective, political action here that would relate it to real feminism – it’s individualism.
They ask, ‘Do you know there’s no medical reason to have a period on the Pill?’ They argue that it is not a real period, so there’s no reason to have it. On Seasonique’s website they call it a ‘Pill period’ and frame it in such a way to make it very easy to decide that having no periods is a good idea. The choice is that either you’re not menstruating or you are having a fake period - they don’t compare Seasonique to the actual menstrual cycle. This normalizes being on hormonal contraception, as well as ‘questioning’ authority again - suggesting we are being duped into having periods we don’t need.
How does post-feminism relate to neo liberalism?
The non-menstruating woman could be seen as the ideal neo-liberal subject. A women’s menstruating body is leaky, it swells, it’s unpredictable, her emotions are heightened – therefore this body is seen as a problem in a neo liberal economy. A menstruating woman can’t present herself as a rational, self-actualizing subject, she isn’t able to participate in consumerism 24/7. A non-menstruating body is much better suited to market success in the consumer economy. Wendy Brown says - ‘Neo-liberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for ‘self-care’ – their ability to provide for their own needs and serve their own ambitions.’ Basically, the capitalist free-market rules all. It is necessary that women are fully available, including sexually available. One member of the audience during my talk argued that it is ‘more convenient’ to not have periods. But it is inconvenient because of the way we define structure work structure in this economy. Professionals are expected to work 60 hours a week. It’s a point of pride to get by on very little sleep. We are expected to always be ‘on’.
There’s a scene that was part of a Sex In The City episode in which Charlotte is talking to Miranda about leaving her job once she gets married, and she gets very agitated with Miranda’s response, repeating over and over, ‘I choose my choice. I choose my choice.’ Just because you chose it it doesn’t mean it’s empowering. There was a story in The Onion a while back with the headline, ‘Newsflash: Everything Women Do Is Now Empowering.’ So much of advertising suggests this – that you made the choice to buy the brand because you’re an individual. I have students in my classes who argue ‘It’s my choice to shave my legs, it just makes me feel better, I choose to.’ It’s just a coincidence then, I say, that all women feel better the same way?
What’s your view on the Kotex adverts that will be airing soon in which typical commercials for tampons and pads are mocked for being unrealistic and absurd - for suggesting women want to wear white spandex and dance when having their period, etc?
The corporations are claiming credit for something we have been saying for years. This corporate authority reinforced the environment of shaming and secrecy around menstruation and now is turning around and saying they’re over it, when we’ve been over it for a long time. The thing is, they’re selling the same products, they’re just packaged differently. Kotex’s PR firm sent me samples and if anything they’re more environmentally unfriendly because of all the dyes used. The tampon applicator itself is neon. Even your tampon now has to be stylish. The boxes are like something you’d get at the cosmetics counter. They’re certainly capitalizing on something of an attitude change amongst women - a resistance that’s forming.
But this ‘anti-ad’ idea was started by Sprite in the mid-1990s with their slogan ‘Image is nothing: Obey your thirst.’ The industry now knows people are very cynical about marketing. We like to think of ourselves as smart, we like to think that we are not duped by adverts. We think that it’s our choice to buy one brand over another. No one ever wants to admit they picked a brand because they liked the commercials.
Only one television network so far has agreed to carry these Kotex adverts. Three networks rejected them because they use the word ‘vagina’. When they suggested changing this reference to ‘down there’ it was accepted by one of the three.