Ads with a female protagonist are assumed to be empowering women by default. But I wonder: Are all ads with a strong female protagonist actually empowering women? Or are they just selling stuff through the cloak of what Sarah Banet-Weiser, a professor of media and communication at the London School of Economics calls “popular feminism”.
This article poses questions about what we mean by “empowering”, what is the difference between “popular feminism” and “gender parity” and why some of the most famous examples don’t get us any closer to achieving true equality for women.
Empowering vs Enabling:
The first problem we have to address is the entire premise of “empowering” women. As if the problem lies within. If only women were confident and believed they could do anything, they could.
And how do ads show women getting confident? Through cosmetics and products! Take this not-so-old Fair & Lovely ad where the dad yearns for a son and does not really respect his daughter. The upset beti applies to being an air hostess. In order to muster up the confidence for the job, she needs to use the cream to reveal her beauty. Dad is now a convert and calls her beta. Yay! Is the ad really promoting the cause of women? Or justifying the patriarchy? Or just selling a beauty product?
Confidence is a necessary ingredient for success, but it is not a sufficient condition. You could be totally confident, but not be able to succeed because the existing environment does not enable it.
For an ad to move the conversation forward, it needs to highlight how it is enabling the transformation, not just empowering women.
What does enablement look like?
An ad that does a good job of this actually does NOT have any strong women protagonists, but a bunch of cute – and clueless – little girls. Three years ago, on Women’s Day, Ashok Leyland did this ad on girls in manufacturing. It tried to dispel the imagery of manufacturing being the domain of men and showed how women are engineers too. The most powerful element was showing the data point that 30% of their graduate engineer trainees were women. So not only are you empowered to be an engineer, but we’ll enable you to get job parity, and hopefully pay parity too.
Change is a male prerogative:
The undercurrent of many of the “strong female protagonist’ ads is that change has to come from the men. There’s an intriguing series of ads by women’s apparel brand Sabhyata. Stories of change, well told. But the ads reflect reality – the change has to be accepted and/or permitted by the men.
And that’s not empowerment.
Empowerment should be about raising the spectrum of choices for women, empowering them to make their own decisions and take control over their lives. So ads don’t have to put down on paper what they are doing or think is “empowering”. But they have to show women who are exercising their choices and being enabled to do so.
The Levi’s ad from 2017 was on the right track – it showed celebrities talking about how “#Ishapemyworld”. It’s empowering because there are no caveats, no permission-seeking, no “we”, but a simple, powerful, I. Of course, it was a pun on what their jeans do, and they hoped that women would feel comfortable wearing these figure-hugging jeans rather than the hide-your-waist kinds being promoted by Patanjali.
This is not the ‘down with the patriarchy’, ‘let’s mandate gender pay parity’ type of feminism. This is more of a ‘fast-follower feminism” which builds on the current reality with a softer, acceptable narrative.
It’s about making feminism safe for the masses. This is not to say that these ads are bad. If they inspire women, then more power to them. But let’s look at what they are saying and how much progress does this kind of ad really makes in achieving gender parity?
Take the Airtel Boss ad of 2014. The storyline is of a female boss asking a male colleague to stay back and work as she heads home. So far so good – we’re showcasing strong, assertive women, and that it’s ok for men to report to women. Yay! Then, as we say in the ad world, the reveal. We see her in a domestic situation – her reportee is actually her husband, and she is making dinner for him. Boss in office, a wife who looks after spouse at home. Win-win.
It’s not about empowering women in the workplace or at home. The real message of empowerment here is to men – you can work late, and still get your ladylove to cook dinner when you come back!
Why brands dabble with strong female protagonists
Most brands, whatever lofty purpose they may espouse, have to show ROI to their investors and owners. In most cases that happens by selling more stuff. In order to do so, particularly in categories where there is no functional benefit, they have to be likable. If customers associate the brand with an aspirational ideal, then the brand scores on both preference and premium.
Audi has no problem whatsoever with women taking the wheel in other countries, waited till Saudi Arabia relaxed its ban on women drivers to welcome them to the driver’s seat. A classy ad that definitely would have influenced this new market of car-buyers. But we must remember that they did not drive the change itself – just opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon.
In the Indian context where female workforce participation is hovering at just 20%, the female buyer doesn’t have a great deal of discretionary income and is a decision-maker in only a few categories. So marketers have to appeal to women’s aspirations yet not upset the male decision-maker. Hence the delicate dance of a strong protagonist who does not challenge conventions.
Brands tell stories that their consumers AND decision-makers are ready to hear. Ads can amplify the narrative of social change, but they cannot be the drivers of transformation. If we want strong women, we’re going to need policy changes by the government, a civil movement to demand change, and the judiciary to demand equitable enforcement of laws of protection.
This article is authored by Mrs. Jessie Paul, Marketing Expert, Paul Writer.