OPINION: “Celebrate Women”: Feminist Marketing Campaigns are Condescending, Cringe-worthy, and Unnecessary

By Rebecca Christiansen

I work in retail. It’s a great job—in a bookstore, a place I’ve always dreamed of working—but it’s still retail. Aside from the usual customer service woes, there are a lot of annoying things the retail worker has to deal with, especially from the higher-ups in the company. The retail worker is the soldier on the front lines, representing and executing all kinds of silly PR strategies. In modern, progressive, savvy companies, that means PR campaigns that reek of third-wave feminism.

The company I work for is mercifully free of social justice crap on the human resources end. Our corporate response to the #MeToo movement was just an email CC’ing everyone in the company with a general “we’re pretty sure none of you do this, but to be clear, don’t touch people” message. Things could be a lot worse, especially since we have a female founder and CEO. It’s sad that just the fact of a female chief executive can make one suspicious of a company, but in a word full of “ban bossy” Sheryl Sandbergs and “gender discrimination still hurts” Susan Wojcickis, the concern is, unfortunately, justified. The female CEO of the company I work for supports a conservative political party and is religiously observant. I call her Based Female CEO in my head and count myself lucky.

But even companies headed by based ladies aren’t immune to third-wave nonsense. Recently we rolled out a seasonal “story” called Celebrate Women. A few months late for International Women’s Day, the timing of the campaign baffles me. Three of the book tables in the front-of-store area spotlight female-authored books, one for thrillers, one for poetry, one for general rah-rah-we-have-vaginas non-fiction books. In addition to books, we also sell an array of lifestyle, home, and fashion products, and the Celebrate Women theme extends to them, too. We have little makeup pouches with floral patterns and the words “GRL PWR,” “GET IT GIRL,” and most cringeworthily, “FUTURE IS FEMALE.”

As we were setting up this seasonal refresh, I had a feeling I just couldn’t shake: isn’t this kind of championing kind of insulting? If we, as a society, truly believe that women are capable, competent, and intelligent—and Based Female CEO proves that they are—aren’t these campaigns a bit condescending? I’m an author. If my book was chosen to be on one of those front tables that are reserved for female-authored books, I would feel a bit ruffled. Are my genitals, chromosomes, long hair and nails the reason my book should be included? Would my book still be deemed worthy if male authors weren’t excluded? Is my book there because of or regardless of my gender? It only takes a few questions for inclusion on a female-only table to become an insult instead of an honor.

In focusing on the immutable characteristic of sex and gender, this campaign also erases the individual accomplishments of the women it’s celebrating. The first display when you walk into our story is covered in a giant banner branded with the slogan and the faces of famous female authors like Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, and popular poet Rupi Kaur, among others. Their names are absent from the banner and their portraits are filtered over with jewel-tone colours, their faces fading into the background. If you didn’t look carefully and recognize them—Gloria Steinem is probably the most recognizable, and Margaret Atwood’s face is well-known to savvy bookstore shoppers, but the others are not—most people would have no idea who these women are. Their accomplishments don’t just take a back seat, they’re erased altogether. The campaign isn’t “look at the books these women have written and the things they’ve accomplished,” it’s just “look at these women.” How is that not misogynist?

Luckily, the campaign is backfiring, at least among employees. My coworkers will hold up the “FUTURE IS FEMALE” makeup bag and roll their eyes, or pretend to slide them off the table and into nearby trash cans. If a space becomes available on one of the book tables, in order to fill it we’ll jokingly ask each other things like, “find me some feminist shit for this table.” Our customers seem to feel the same. Those tables will move maybe a few units per week, but our store has sold over three hundred copies of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life since it came out in January.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are great gains to be made in appealing to the type of people who will clap their hands in glee and exclaim “yaaaasss!” when they see the “Celebrate Women” banner. I’m no PR expert, so maybe I’m wrong to think it’s belittling and disempowering to women to focus so heavily on their gender when celebrating them. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that it may be pro-women, but it’s anti-woman.

Or maybe I’m just an individualist in a collectivist world.