11, No. 1, December 2009
On Feminism in the Age of Consumption
Nicki Lisa Cole
University of California, Santa Barbara
Alison Dahl Crossley
University of California, Santa Barbara
“The largest growing economic force
in the world isn't China or India -- it's women. The earning
power of women globally is expected to reach $18 trillion by
2014 -- a $5 trillion rise for current income, according to
World Bank estimates. That is more than twice the estimated
2014 GDP of China and India combined” (Voigt 2009)
The above quote from a recent article posted on CNN.com, titled “Women:
Saviors of the world economy?” reflects heightened attention
to both the earning power and spending power of today’s
women. Economists, product designers, and marketers are turning
to women as the consumers who can perpetuate capitalist growth
in this post-economic crisis moment. The FemmeDen, a group of
women researchers who focus on the gendered implications of product
design, write in one of their online publications, “Why
is gender important? Women’s continuing evolution combined
with their increasing buying power has created an explosive business
opportunity in the consumer products industry.” They then
point out that women in the U.S., though once “powerless,” are
now “powerful,” in that they buy or influence eighty
percent of consumer decisions (FemmeDen 2009a).
This heightened attention to U.S. women’s purchasing power
comes at a time when discourses that link women’s independence
to consumption abound in popular culture. Today’s television
line-up, heavy in “reality” programming focused
on celebrities and wealthy women, serves this intersection to
millions of viewers on an everyday basis. Wealth and the ability
to consume are routinely celebrated and held up as exemplars
of the most current iteration of the American Dream, which today
is illustrated as a lifestyle display rather than a particular
set of achievements. Shows such as MTV’s The Hills and The
City, Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (which
now includes New York, New Jersey, and Atlanta, in addition to
the original: Orange County), and E! Entertainment’s Keeping
up with the Kardashians and Kourtney & Khloé Take
Miami emphasize a celebrity lifestyle and all the consumer
trappings that come with it.
These shows are not unique or particularly new. This trend has
grown over the last decade, and has included shows such as Rich
Girls, The Gastineau Girls, The Osbournes, Newlyweds, Run's
House, My Super Sweet Sixteen, MTV Cribs, Life
in the Fab Lane, Princes of Malibu, Laguna
Beach: The Real OC, Newport Beach: The Real OC, So
NoToriOus, Inn Love with Tori and Dean, and Hogan
Knows Best. Although popular entertainment media has historically
represented and focused on the lives of men, now women’s
lives can be found at the front and center as stars of a narrative
in which they are modern day “heroes of consumption” (Lowenthal
In an age in which women’s independence and achievement
are often framed by and articulated through consumer discourses
and practices, what does this mean for the future of feminism
and feminist identities? We wonder about such consequences precisely
because the consumer lifestyle, as the cultural logic of capitalism,
is a fundamentally un-feminist thing. The epistemological
foundation of feminism and feminist identity historically has
been the eradication of inequalities. Thus, feminism is diametrically
opposed to consumer practices which support the dominance of
global capitalism: a system which thrives on the exploitation
of labor, theft of resources, and facilitates vast accumulation
of wealth among a tiny percentage of global elite, while simultaneously
impoverishing the majority of the world’s population. Further,since
consuming is a singular act of identity formation and expression,
we question whether women’s empowerment through consumption
at the individual level undermines the possibility of gendered
social change at the collective level. In responding to these
questions in this essay we critically interrogate the intersection
of discourses of women’s independence with discourses and
practices of consumption, with an eye for contemporary attitudes
toward and definitions of feminism.
The concept of women’s independence in the United States
has long been tied to discourses about wealth, and the accumulation
of material goods and wealth, primarily due to the dominance
of patriarchal hierarchy in our society. The gendered control
of wealth has its roots in the gendered division of labor that
emerged in the context of early hunter-gatherer societies. During
this context, women cared for children due to the biological
reality of breast-feeding. As nomadic hunter-gatherer societies
transitioned into settled, agrarian communities, the established
familial division of labor sustained and became taken for granted
as social constructions of gender and the ideology of patriarchy
emerged and intersected. In settled societies the concept of
property was born and as men were expected to handle familial
business outside of the home, they were granted the title of
property owners and wealth managers, and thus were able to accrue
status unavailable to women (Lorber 1994). In these circumstances
women were economically disenfranchised, which set the stage
for the development of the modern world in the capitalist context.
Within this patriarchal context women were forced into a model
of economic dependence on men. Even in the case of women who
worked outside of the home, they could not own property, and
on this basis were excluded from the political franchise as well.
Thus, it makes sense that early critiques of gendered power relations
and gender roles focused on women’s economic disenfranchisement
and the prohibition on women working outside of the home (Gilman
1998; Woolf 1998). Such critiques reflected the experiences of
upper class white women. Poor women, often women of color, have
historically been required to work outside of the home in order
to support themselves and their families, confined primarily
to domestic and service sectors. Women employed in the paid workforce
beyond these sectors is, broadly speaking, an achievement of
feminism. However, it is also a function of increased production
under industrialization and later phases of capitalism. What
is often framed as an achievement of the women’s movement
must also be recognized as a condition both required for and
stimulated by growth of capitalist production.
The invention of the television heightened the practice of product
advertising, and as television spread throughout U.S. households
during the 1950s and 1960s, a consumer society became the norm
(Marcuse 1964). Many scholars have argued since this time that
the act of consuming, or more specifically, of acquiring goods,
is a primary medium for crafting and expressing identity and
group affiliation (Baudrillard 1981; Jameson 2000; Dunn 1998).
Sociologically speaking, identity formation is generally understood
as a social process that necessarily unfolds in relation to other
individuals and groups that exist in the world (West & Zimmerman
1987; Taylor 1989). Thus, consuming goods allows for one to chart
an identity based on appearance and lifestyle which both illustrates
personal distinction from and sameness to others (Lasch 1979;
In the patriarchal model that has dominated normative conceptualizations
of family during the twentieth-century in the U.S., women, in
the roles of wife and mother, have been charged as managing daily
household functioning, which includes shopping for themselves
as well as for their family. Women historically have been consumer-in-chief
in this dominant model. This trend continues today, as recent
research shows that women either decide or influence eighty percent
of purchasing decisions for goods or services (FemmeDen 2009a).
Advertisers long ago recognized the significance of the patriarchal
model and targeted product advertising to women for a multitude
of products. Historically speaking, advertising targeted to women
has tended to emphasize a woman’s role as caretaker of
a husband or family (in the case of household appliances, food
and beverage, and cleaning products, for instance), or as an
unmarried person seeking to land a man (as with beauty products
Niche marketing trends that rely on gender tropes continue today,
but of course have evolved as norms and conceptions of gender
have. The older model of advertising to women as caretakers still
exists, but newer models have emerged. Recognizing the gains
of the feminist movement throughout the middle and latter half
of the twentieth-century, advertising today interpellates women
as strong, independent decision makers and money makers, and
as sexually driven beings. These trends interact with another
key trope deployed by advertising: that consuming allows one
to express and articulate one’s individuality. Thus, a
trend that we see in today’s advertising, and in popular
discourse in society more generally, is that women are independent
social actors who express their identities and independence through
What we find troubling about this trend is that the notion of
women’s independence, as articulated in this particular
way, is premised on participation in the system of global capitalism,
as opposed to aligned with feminist epistemologies of equality.
This situation today is far removed from Virigina Woolf’s
plea for a “room of [her] own,” in that it is not
about having freedom from patriarchal control in society, it
is about having the freedom and power to acquire the goods that
one wants in service of projecting an independent image and lifestyle.
Problematically, for most women consumers today, as with most
consumers of any gender, consumption is hardly an act of empowerment,
but rather an act that creates debt and further binds one to
the exploitative system of global capitalism and finance. This
is represented and perpetuated in part due to widespread attention
in popular culture today to celebrity lifestyle. Its luxurious
and expensive trappings fuel the consumer desire for goods, both
expensive and cheap (see the vast array of “knock-offs” available
The trend of expressing independence through consumption, coupled
with the popular notion that today’s U.S. is a gender-neutral
space wherein feminism is equated with man-hating renders feminism
irrelevant or unnecessary. However, the increase in representations
of women expressing independence through consumption has generated
new discourses and representations that conflate independence
and consumption. Indeed, in the spirit of ensuring feminism’s
relevance to a new generation of women, third wave feminists
have argued that contemporary feminism is about “judgment
free pleasure.” To these feminists, such pleasures include
shopping at retail stores such as Calvin Klein, without the guilt
that previous generations of feminists often felt if shopping
or otherwise supporting patriarchal businesses or exploitative
consumer goods (Richards & Baumgardner 2000).
Contemporary marketers and advertisers are well aware of the
trend conflating women’s independence and consumerism,
and capitalize on it. A recent study conducted by Boston Consulting
Group focuses exclusively on “what women want,” in
an effort to redirect advertising so that it is most appealing
to today’s contemporary American woman (with the caveat,
from these authors, that the contemporary American woman projected
by this study is white and middle or upper class) (Mead 2009).
This renewed attention to women’s consumer desires also
extends to the realm of product design, as illustrated by the
work of the FemmeDen. Their publications focus on the things
that make women distinct from male consumers, ranging from body-shape
to brain size and chemistry, and how these differences should
be addressed by product designers and marketers in order to better
design for and market to women (FemmeDen 2009a; 2009b).
This renewed interest in marketing to women coincides with the
rise of discourses that links women’s independence to consumption.
A shining example of this conflation is the De Beers campaign
for the “right hand ring” that ran nationwide in
2004. The “right hand ring” was developed as an
ad campaign by De Beers to encourage women (with means) to purchase
diamond rings for themselves, as opposed to, or in addition to
the heteronormative tradition of men gifting diamonds to women
(for purposes of engagement or otherwise). The campaign deployed
a charge to empowerment, stating, “Women of the world,
raise your right hand!” Other ads that ran for this campaign
stated, “Your left hand says ‘we.’ Your right
hand says ‘me.’ Your left hand rocks the cradle.
Your right hand rules the world,” and, “Your left
hand is your heart. Your right hand is your voice” (Schooley
2004). Of the empowerment themed ads, said Richard Lennox, director-in-charge
of the Diamond Marketing & Advertising Group at J. Walter
Thompson, “There has been enormous trade support, and,
from the consumer research we’ve done, there is good evidence
that we have created a concept that resonates deeply with consumers” (Bates
2004). This campaign by De Beers is a clear illustration of the
intersection of discourses of women’s independence and
empowerment with consumer discourses and practices. Another series
of ads by Broadview Home Security (formerly Brinks) is premised
on the idea that there are certain things that single women must consume
if they want to be independent: home security systems which protect
them from dangerous men (See “The
House Party,” and “The
What we find troubling about this trend is that when discourses
of consumption and women’s independence intersect, they
do so in a manner that equates independent womanhood with consumption.
The conflation of women’s independence and consumerism
raises important questions about the shifting nature of feminism
and feminist identities. The implications for this changing terrain
of feminism are exhibited in many third wave feminists’ embrace
of consumerism as both a choice and a source of women’s
empowerment. This is a fundamental problem for feminism, since
consumerism, as the cultural logic of capitalism, is the ideological
and practical means to reproducing hegemonic domination of the
exploitative and oppressive system global capitalism. Although
feminist identities are multi-dimensional, nuanced, and often
times individualist, consumption in a capitalist context is a
fundamentally un-feminist thing. Because we are in a time period
during which the relevance of U.S. feminism is continually contested
and undermined, we feel such discourses and representations are
significant, and warrant critical sociological attention.
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