Monday, January 24, 2011

The Kiddos...

Here are some recent photos of the kids. Emmelia is six months and William is almost 21 months. They're such a challenging joy to raise!

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.
*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!