Published in the Spring 2008 issue • Media Savvy
The onslaught of ambivalence
A funny thing happens when I ask my feminist friends what they think of Dove’s “Campaign For Real Beauty.” People from whom I expect bold, confident opinions respond with qualifications, disclaimers and paragraph-long explanations that meander back and forth between underwhelmed appreciation and reluctant skepticism.
This is strange. After all, isn’t this the ad campaign that sticks it to the beauty industry’s shallow depiction of women? It seems we should be excited about Dove’s ads, which have ranged from billboards featuring women of various shapes and sizes celebrating their so-called flaws (wrinkles, freckles, curves) to the notorious “Evolution” ad, which deconstructed the ad industry’s photo manipulation.
Suddenly, conversations feminists have had among ourselves for decades were in the mass media and on the public agenda. Finally a corporation was promoting images of “real” women (or as real-looking as industry standards allow) and being honest about the levels of fakery attempted to sell us things we don’t need.
It even went beyond imagery. Jumping into the good-corporate-citizen fray, the company established the Dove Self Esteem Fund, which donated money to eating-disorder groups and is on a heavy-duty empowerment kick (posters in subway stations encourage you to text “u l%k gr8” to friends).
The fact that Dove’s campaign was dreamed up in a corporate boardroom and designed, ultimately, to sell beauty products, was almost excusable. Their message was a welcome relief in a sea of violent, objectifying, degrading corporate imagery. As Shameless blogger Stacey May Fowles wrote, “I admit I have been a part of the ‘at least Dove is doing something’ camp for a long time now.”
For a while, I was too. I acknowledged that Dove—which has access to money grassroots groups can only dream of—was cleverly challenging dominant images by presenting the public with an alternative (although the extent of their alternativeness is debatable) and engaging in the type of accessible, slick media literacy usually found in Adbusters. I also hoped they set a new precedent: after outing the marketing strategies of the entire beauty product industry, how can you go back to old formulas?
But it soon became clear that the campaign’s positive message was diluted by the contradictions of the integrated corporation Unilever, which owns Dove. Unilever’s other brands continue to use more questionable marketing practices. Hyper-sexualized women still slink through ads for Axe, and SlimFast pushes the promise of weight-loss milkshakes, unaffected by Dove’s assertion that “real women have curves.” Then there’s Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening cream marketed heavily in India, which capitalizes on privileged notions of Western beauty. As Munisha Tumato wrote in The Tyee, “Unilever runs its skin-whitening ad campaigns in India like state-issued propaganda.”
These examples are almost funny, but what really disturbs me is that the Dove debate has brought on the worst possible feeling, one that scares activists and ad execs alike: ambivalence. That’s dangerous territory when you’re in the business of visceral appeal.
Ambivalence is a feeling of neither-here-nor-there-ness. It is defined as “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion)” or “continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite).” It explains the uncertainty I felt when I saw Dove’s viral video “Onslaught,” which pounds viewers’ eyes with a montage of ad imagery and warns parents to talk to their kids before the ad industry does.
Standing alone, it’s a powerful video. Put in context of Dove and Unilever, it’s neither here nor there, and I was left feeling surprisingly blank. As Shameless blogger Thea Lim wrote, “it reeks of a good guys and bad guys approach, where parents and Dove are the noble protectors, other beauty companies are the bad guys, and girls are the helpless victims of vicious beauty campaigns.” Not only does the ad create a fake distinction between Dove and other beauty companies, as Lim noted, but the message itself is politically neutralizing. It may open our eyes (which, I’d argue, are already wide open) to the bombardment of damaging imagery we face everyday, but it doesn’t allow us any way to resist. In fact, it makes clear that things are the way they are, and they’ll never change. Rather, it is us who has to change.
Ambivalence is paralyzing. When corporations try to capture the energy of women who resist dominant messages, we are left confused and wavering, and have few effective ways—and little motivation—to fight back. Perhaps this is the limitation of waging our battle with images. As Dove has demonstrated, you can create the most open, honest, powerful images in the world, but that does nothing to change the underlying structures that generate those images. Our energy needs to be directed toward changing economic and social structures that rely so heavily on commodifying women’s bodies for profit. And if that’s our goal, ambivalence will get us nowhere.
Nicole Cohen is the co-founder of Shameless and a PhD student at York University.