Friday, January 21, 2011

Beyaz: The Popular Feminism of Mass Media and Mad Men

I have emerged from a (very) extended blogging hiatus to vent some outrage over a commercial I encountered this week while spending time at home with my daughter (who is now six months-old, by the way). Is this the most timely and vitally important blog post to be written after several months of silence? Probably not. But, its what I'm feeling passionate about at the moment. The following thoughts may be somewhat disorganized since I'm writing on the fly (in-between grading, reading, cooking dinner, and nursing Emmelia). But, hopefully they'll make enough sense for a good conversation.

The commercial in question is for a new form of artificial birth control (ABC) called Beyaz, produced by Bayer Corp. You may be familiar with a former version of this known as Yaz, which became famous when the FDA forced Bayer to air commercials correcting false and misleading information about their product from previous advertising. Eventually, Bayer pulled Yaz from the market and reformulated it into the new and improved Beyaz. I'm not going to go into what this new version contains or why it would be appealing to young women. I'm more interested in the advertising being used by Bayer Corp to market this new product.

(I should specify that the following description is based on my memory of the commercial after viewing it three or four times. I have been unable to find an online version of the commercial for the purposes of verifying my description, but I am confident that what follows is very close to the actual content of the commercial.)*

The Beyaz commercial features a number of young, beautiful (and thin), twenty and thirty-something women, who are clearly from the middle to upper classes. They are shown shopping in what appears to be a very high-end department store. It reminded me of The Galleria of Dallas shopping mall or the specialty shops of Highland Park (an affluent part of Dallas). While a voice-over trumpets the benefits of the "choice" available through ABC and the special ingredients and benefits of Beyaz, the women are shown "shopping" for a variety of things.

One woman pushing a shopping cart approaches a display of good-looking male dolls in glass cases (think Ken dolls in a variety of colors and dress), with a sign that says "Life Partner" (or something to that effect) in front of it. As she reaches for one, another women swoops in and steals the "man" she was selecting. She looks shocked for a moment, but then turns to consider her choices again.

Another woman peruses a display of homes in a variety of forms: a condominium in a sunny beach setting, a cottage in a mountainous landscape, and more. She gets to the end of the line to see a pink-colored home with manicured lawn. The sign in front of the display reads, "Buy a home." With a look on her face that says, "Ah, yes, that's what I was looking for!" the woman claims the box with this home inside it and places it into her shopping cart.

Another woman is breezing through the displays down a center aisle, only to be approached by a stork carrying a "bundle" in purple cloth. Although the bundle is never identified for what it is--a child!--the woman waves the stork away and continues on her merry way. When she reaches the end of the aisle she claims the prize she was apparently shopping for all along: a large model of the Eiffel Tower, with a sign on it that reads "Trip to Paris."

The commercial draws to a close with the voice-over describing the potential side effects of Beyaz and the kinds of women who shouldn't use it. The on-screen women exit the shopping mall and pile into a nice car with their respective choices. The last woman's "Eiffel Tower" is tied to the top of her car and they drive away--apparently happy and fulfilled with their loot.

Upon first viewing this ad, I was outraged, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. After taking a few days to reflect, I've concluded that the content and implications of this commercial represent elements of what I call "popular feminism." In saying this, I am distinguishing popular feminism from other feminisms (secular, Marxist, Christian, and others). (See my clarification of the distinctions here.) I see popular feminism as a vacuous and morally disastrous ideology propagated mainly by American mass media--especially magazines, television, and movies--in partnership with the advertising industry (not to mention all of the women who unwittingly parrot the ideals). I am convinced that popular feminism is a bastardization of most of the uniting tenets of substantive feminisms, especially the form of Christian feminism to which I'm committed, and I join others in denouncing this cultural phenomenon as a backward move for women. (Read more about my concerns about popular feminism and abortion here.)

Just as important to me, however, is that the ideas of popular feminism present in this commercial are offensive to the convictions of Christians, too. I'll attempt to explain some of the reasoning for my outrage below.

I should begin by framing my rant with the fact that the marketers for Beyaz chose a shopping mall as the setting and overarching metaphor for their advertisement. This betrays two things. First, the marketing firm that produced this ad is convinced that American women are best appealed to through the avenue of material consumption. That is to say, they've bought into the stereotype that women love to shop and, therefore, will relate easily to this metaphor as they make their choice for birth control. This isn't surprising, I suppose. I think what bothers me more, however, is the second issue: that the appeal of this shopping metaphor will likely go unchallenged by the women who watch the ad.

By and large, I think middle-class American (white) women have accepted the idea that they are primarily consumers and that they reveal the extent to which they've achieved success and liberation by their ability to consume. In the words of Susan J. Douglas, "[F]antasies of power also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff -- the right stuff, a lot of stuff -- emerged as the dominant way to enact being an empowered female." For most women, I don't think it will seem inappropriate to compare matters of sexuality, maternity, and children to shopping in a mall.

So, what exactly is wrong with using a shopping trip to talk about artificial birth control? Where do I begin?!

First, the ad assumes that the "liberated woman" is the woman on artificial birth control. I know that it is not popular for feminists to question the use of artificial birth control. Indeed, birth control was one of the driving issues of the feminist movement from early on. But, some women (including myself) have begun to question whether the "magic pill" offered by the pharmaceutical industry really delivered the "freedom" and "choice" that was promised.

Broadly speaking, since the distribution of the Pill began, unplanned pregnancy and unwed motherhood has skyrocketed. By and large, men have been released from their obligations to the women they impregnate ("Weren't you on the Pill?!") and unwed mothers and their children now make up the poorest households of the American population.

Certainly, women were having sex outside of marriage and getting pregnant unexpectedly long before the Pill. But, what happened with the Pill was the creation of an illusion of control over one's reproductive processes. Women were promised the ability to have sex willy-nilly like men (whether that's an ability worth having is a major problem of its own!) without the consequences of pregnancy that are, let's face it, entirely natural for sexually active women. The Pill promised the divorce of sex from procreation, but it was a promise that it couldn't keep. It is a natural function of (most) women's bodies to conceive a child after intercourse (during a certain window of time). And, in normal usage, many, many women on the Pill do so, despite the pharmacological intervention.

When it is expected that a woman can control her ability to reproduce, two things happen. First, she is (often) unprepared for the incidence of pregnancy and, if unmarried, (often) in an unstable economic and social position to bear and raise a child. Second, her male partner is even more unprepared for the incidence of pregnancy and has recourse to blame the woman for foolishly "getting pregnant" even while using the Pill. (I am generalizing here, of course. I know this isn't always the case in all instances of unplanned pregnancy.) Both of these results are based on the foolish presumption that the Pill can separate sex from procreation. Yes, pharmacology can go some of the way to doing so, but in the end, it just can't beat nature.

What is my point with all this? The Beyaz commercial is selling the untruth that hormonal birth control can offer women liberation. From a feminist perspective, I say this is false. The liberated woman is not the woman on birth control (at least, not necessarily). First of all, you can't reduce female liberation to the Pill. Second of all, one could argue that the truly liberated woman is the woman who is living in harmony with her body's natural processes and making responsible sexual choices based upon this knowledge. Moreover, the truly liberated women may be the woman who partners with her mate in determining when is the right and wrong time for sexual intercourse based upon their readiness to procreate. This way, the couple shares the responsibility for reproduction (it does "take two to tango," after all).

From a Christian perspective, the Beyaz marketing is false, as well. True liberation--or women's flourishing--is only offered to women through discipleship to Jesus Christ and obedience to the Way of Christ. A Pill is not going to provide the kind of choices that will make for "life abundant." (This is not to say that I think Christian women can't use the Pill. I'm just saying that the equation of artificial birth control with liberation is highly problematic from a Christian point of view.)

Another problem with the commercial is that it is selling the idea that the liberated woman is a consumer of "things"--men, homes, trips, etc. The liberated woman is a woman with choices. And, choices means choices in consumption. The woman with choices is able to pick out her man. (Do I even need to point out how degrading it is for men to be pictured as Ken dolls in glass cases? If a commercial for men showed women in the same position, there would be a public outcry!) She can do whatever she wants: buy a house, get a promotion, go on a fancy trip. And, the implication is, THAT is what life is all about! I won't both to belabor how wrong this is from a feminist and Christian point of view. Surely, we can all nod our heads in agreement on this one.

This leads me to the last major issue I have with this commercial: it includes a child in the same category as a man, a home, a promotion, and a vacation. It makes a child just one more thing for a woman to add to her "shopping cart" of life. In this ad, a child is like an accessory a woman can choose to purchase, provided it matches her outfit and choice of outing. And, by portraying the child as a faceless bundle being delivered by a stork, Beyaz perpetuates the idea that a child is alien to a woman's person--alien to her body and her life--something that must be incorporated when the time, money, job, life is just right.

The truth is, children are (for most women) the natural product of a sexual relationship. As a Christian, I believe the appropriate sexual relationship takes place in a marriage. Our bodies are designed to procreate and no Pill on the planet can change that. Furthermore, just because there are pharmacological means of altering a woman's ability to conceive, that does not make a child an accessory to a woman's life--something to be consumed like one consumes a fancy trip to Paris. Children are both a natural outworking of two people becoming "one flesh" and a unqualified blessing from our Creator. The Beyaz ad betrays these truths, fueled by American consumerism and popular feminism. In my estimation, it is a horrific product of mass media and "mad men" and I found it ugly and offensive.

Obviously, much of what I have said above is partial and remains only partially explored. But, I hope it provides good food for thought. Feel free to respond with your objections and qualifications.
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*YouTube now has a version of the offending commercial on its website. My description isn't entirely correct in its sequence, but I think its close enough. Enjoy!

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

wow great post - I just saw this ad on TV and was appalled...I could not believe what I was seeing - as soon as the stork approaches the woman who is 'looking' for that unspecified something, it becomes very clear she is NOT looking for that...I couldn't believe how perfectly, though, it summed up the current mindset of the average American woman caught up in consumerism (which is many of us) - that you can choose to do what you want, when you want and 'choosing' to have a child is something that is outranked by a trip to Paris.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the 'heads-up' about this ad, Emily. I haven't seen it yet, but I will be looking for it.

Your pictures of your daughter are wonderful, and I imagine she is joy to care for. God Bless.

Christiane

Biteofpunkinpie said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE everything that you've said here. I actually just found your blog while looking for that same commercial to show a coworker when discussing how much I disliked their point of view. You've articulated all of the major points very well and I plan to share a link of what you've said.

One of the things I hate the most is in relation to your last point, that children are an 'accessory' to be 'chosen' when it is convenient. How degrading it is that the greatest gift a couple can be given is being sold as something shoo away for a vacation?!

Sigh. Our country (and world) has such a long way to go.

p.s. youtube has the commercial up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rFv0rMWHSg

Anonymous said...

Agree wholeheartedly!Anti child, anti family garbage! Boycott Bayer Co.
Beyaz commercial is terrible-targeting 14 year old "adults" with claims that this drug will fight acne.
I'm trying to go through FDA to get this drug pulled. Not much luck. much red tape
For now, at least sending Emails Boycott Bayer company

Larissa said...

I felt exactly the same way.

At first glance, it seems an innocuous enough commercial for birth control, but when I finished watching, I was left with this unease, that I couldn't identify. I watched it a few times again, growing more and more upset each time.

I won't repeat your sentiments, but I'm glad to know that there are other people who are seeing through the condescending bull**it.

Kristel said...

I just saw this commercial on tv and I was just as outraged! I couldn't believe it. You have definitely articulated very well why this commercial is so offensive. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I stumbled upon your blog through a Google search. The themes of Christianity, patriarchy, and the feminine have been on my mind lately, and it was refreshing to read your perspective on these issues. Your post reminded me of Thomas Merton's essay "Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message."

Best wishes,

Matt

http://books.google.com/books?id=iJbwWTtCSWwC&pg=PA25&lpg=PA25&dq=Thomas+Merton+is+love+a+package+or+a+message&source=bl&ots=t1wH2P_Rkn&sig=s4oRjieb1xZQKA1JBktN6cAfgbk&hl=en&ei=mNxGTbj4I4jPgAeJkrjUAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Wordyless said...

You and I agree on this commercial. I posted a very short rant about it at http://wordyless.com/2011/01/the-beyaz-birth-control-commercial-pisses-me-off/

I like your post because you were able to say all of the things I wanted to say, but couldn't put into words.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post! I was also offended by this commercial. I looked it up to see if others also were bothered by it. I'm glad I'm not alone. I wonder if people have sent any email to the people who made this commercial?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting about this! You have it all spot on. I also was looking for this ad after talking to a family member who was also offended. Your points are just what I was feeling. When you degrade being a mom, you degrade all women regardless of whether they have children or not. And the consumerism of this ad is degrading to all, men, women and children. Horrible!!

mkat83 said...

I am SO glad that I am not the only one who is absolutely outraged each time I see this commercial. I also think it is CRAZY that they tout the fact that it includes folic acid. Why on earth would that matter if the pill really worked all the time? Well, we know it doesn't so how nice of them to "prepare" a woman's body to have a healthy baby in case the pill fails. Good grief....

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your post. As a fellow Christian, married woman, and graduate student, I totally agree with your perspective. I, like previous posters, was outraged by the commercial and was looking for a version to post on Facebook with my own rant when I came across your post.

Anonymous said...

You pointed out in your post that consumer feminism was mostly geared toward American white women, but I can confirm that as a 30-something black Christian female, we get the same messages. The woman who picked out the dollhouse for her shopping cart was black.

I was so happy to read your post - I feel uneasy every time I see that commercial and I went so far as to post an anti-Bayer message on my Facebook page. Thanks so much for articulating what so many women need to hear.

Children aren't an item we pick off a shelf. My 3-year-old son has changed my life for the better in every way, and along WITH him I can take a trip to Paris, buy the pink house and enjoy my "Ken" husband (barf) without sacrificing anything!

Anonymous said...

I think your points on this commercial are essentially spot-on. I am a 28 year old white male, atheist, and have no children currently.

The first time I saw this commercial I was absolutely appalled at how it presented itself to women, and the overarching theme of artificial birth control it tries to portray as a whole. I can only imagine how much more offended I would be if I were a woman being targeted by this ad.

From the beginning where it portrays men as nothing but supermodel dolls locked inside glass cubes, to the heartless portrayal of newborn human life as nothing more than a bundle being carried by a stork, only to be quickly turned away -- by a vacation?! Disgusting.

I think you formulated this blog in quite a poignant way, and fortunately it was the first link that came up on Google when I searched for "beyaz commercial". Not even requiring a keyword like 'offensive'. So I can only hope a great deal of people are digesting your views, if not necessarily responding.

The few people I have seen on other sites try to defend this commercial in any way seem to utterly disregard, or are just unaware of the many subtle messages being sent throughout. I believe this is a depressing problem in American society today; is that so many of us just take things for granted and don't read into it -- especially advertisements. (Something I often have complaints with, and something I think should be scrutinized quite rigorously).

Unfortunately this commercial is just one of many I have had problems with and voiced my opinions on. Although this is likely the most subtly offensive ad I have ever seen, or at least that I can remember.

So thank you for your fantastic post! I will be directing everyone I meet with similar views on this and other offensive ads straight to this page.

(...and I wonder why the Beyaz ad is no longer available on Youtube).

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog after googling "Beyaz commercial is depressing"- I knew I couldn't be the only one disturbed by it! I agree with you 100%. You summed it up so well.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I came across this blog when searching for opinions about the commercials and was not at all shocked that there are people who are just as disturbed by the commercial as I.

I felt this commercial was saying that women who have children are incapable of having all of the other opportunities on the shelf. As if having a child will be the end of all luxuries we seek before children.

chrissie k said...

Just wanted to post pretty much exactly what every other person commented -- just so you know that you are being heard! Saw the ad, was bothered by it, tried to look it up online (I watched it muted), and ran across your post (LOVED IT!) Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts OUT there. You are beautiful.

Angela said...

This was really something I needed to read. I have been wrestling with the issue of family planning and birth control since my husband and I got married. I want to glorify Christ and receive children with gratitude, and I hate it when I hear messages from the secular culture that children are a burden or a disposable choice. We need to diligently second-guess things being pushed on us by our secular culture, especially the advertising industry. I was mostly bothered by the way it portrayed having children as getting in the way of things. Your post is challenging me to reconsider the reasons why we are postponing starting a family. My husband and I believe there is wisdom in family planning, but we also need to ask the Lord to protect us from the wrong attitudes about children and life choices that this ad perpetuates. The part about consumerism hadn't even occurred to me, so I appreciate your insight on that as well. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

First let me preface this post by saying I haven't read every response, so I don't know if anyone else has pointed this one thing out or not, but I'm going to play "devil's advocate" here.
One of the very first choices the woman sees is grad school. This of course stuck out to me because I'm currently in my undergrad with dreams to get my PsyD or PhD and open a private practice. I'm also married. My husband is also a full time student. We live off of financial aid and pursuing our dreams isn't exactly the prettiest picture right now for our finances. If I were to become pregnant and give birth to the child it would be entering into a situation/family that simply is not ready. And, all those other things noted in the commercial are all things my husband and I want before we bring a kid into our world. We're both young (early 20's) and want to travel around Europe without responsibilities because in our youth both he and I had to grow up too fast in our families. I just personally feel that by judging this commercial in the ways it has been judge is going to the same level everyone is saying the marketing firm has gone, by labeling those that chose the pill or other birth control.
With the religious element being brought into it, both my husband and I subscribe to the Christian faith and are in leadership positions in our church and came to the decision that these family planning methods are essentially the equivalent of other medicines out there. God provided scientists the knowledge to help us do what is right for us.
I guess my whole point is that this post and these comments are labeling/looking down on those who chose to postpone children but I seriously see family planning as a modern miracle because I'm able to be with my husband and follow God's plan with more of a calm spirit. I am not a shallow consumerist going out and having sex with any guy I want. I am a young driven female that has goals, and dreams of a family when it is logical. But bringing a kid into a family where the parents are living off of scholarships and student loans without as much as an undergraduate degree yet is not a good thing.

Akosua Rose said...

Very good post. I just saw this commercial on t.v tonight and initially I just laughed. IT was so ridiculous to me that a woman could wave off a baby like that as if it were just an inconvenience. I see that the landscape is changing as far as what it is to be a woman these days, but that commercial was just so freaking superficial. It's depressing to think that we could have a generation of children being raised by parents who are addicted to convenience.

Heather B. said...

Thank you for posting this. I am in an english class right now where I have to pick a commercial and write why it is and isn't irrational propaganda. I chose this Beyaz commercial for the writing assignment. Thank you again for posting this. Your ideas intertwined with mine. God Bless!