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Sold! The Illusion of Independence

I am awash in a “Dark Angel,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” glow. I have seen American women kick butt and, in my heart of hearts, I know this much is true: it’s good for the economy.

Fantasy programs like “Dark Angel” and “Buffy” are just the tip of the iceberg. From Nike to Gatorade, American advertisers are sold on the image of independent, resourceful, kick-butt girls. They are obsessed with prepubescent girls in long cascading tresses who sweat when kicking winning soccer goals; who look you straight in the eye when choosing running shoes; who rule in designer threads, and who guard their Pepsis with the ferocity of mother lionesses.

If the mass media sees profit in girls that JUST DO IT, can equality between the sexes be far behind? Feminism must be making progress if imaginary kids are trading in princess crowns for soccer balls and standing tall instead of serving supper, right?

Not if history teaches us anything. During the 1910s, advertisers routinely pirated slogans from the woman-suffrage movement. Women “voted” for toothpaste, soup, crackers and dubious medical elixirs long before they elected political candidates. The revival of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s prompted a similar appropriation of feminist rhetoric. Remember the Virginia Slims’ “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign that suggested smokes for women represented the height of advancement?

Advertisers’ celebrations of independent womanhood did not ring in warm and fuzzy ages of gender parity. Celebrations of kick-butt girls do not guarantee your daughter will be one.

What the marketing of kick-butt girls does guarantee, and what advertisers’ co-opting of feminist ideals has always guaranteed, is that when it comes to equal rights, it’s the right to consumer desire that rules. Go for it girls! Want the same sports equipment and soft drinks that boys hoard? Go ahead. With children between 2 and 14 responsible for $25 billion in spending each year, and with teenagers burning through $94 billion, you youngsters have earned it.

Still, selling Americans on kick-butt girls has got to be better than selling them on junior Betty Crockers, right? Not entirely. Girls win if commercial representations of independent, resourceful little sisters help them feel validated and strong. They also win when the media offers them multiple images of femininity, as opposed to one homogenous notion of sugar and spice and everything nice, or, for that matter, one homogenous notion of tomboyish wildcats.

But at least you know what you’re fighting against when you’re pitted head to head with June Cleaver. The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less obvious threat to women’s struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has few greater enemies. It breeds complacency. Worse yet, it implies that feminism is obsolete. Who needs it? Girls today can do anything. They can be anything. I’ve seen it on TV so it must be true.

Unfortunately, however, wearing a sports bra will not make you a world-class soccer player. Shared longings for Tommy Hilfiger togs will not take you far if you count among the one in five American children living in poverty. Looking brutal in your bad-ass running shoes will not help if you are one of the up to 25% of American girls who will be sexually assaulted before she reaches the age of 18.

Even in a world void of such hardships seeking empowerment through consumerism is bound to fail. Americans are encouraged to believe that buying the right whatever will fill their deepest desires. But it can’t. The rewards of consumerism are inherently transitory. They are supposed to be. In a consumer economy it is not enough for people to need things. They have to want them, and they have to constantly want more of them, so when the perfect whatever leaves you cold, you turn to the next whatever, and the next, and the next. Finding fulfillment through consumerism is like trying to control a sweet tooth by eating low-fat cookies. It just doesn’t cut it. You end up eating the entire box, and then, desperate for satisfaction, you splurge on a hot fudge sundae and end up feeling guilty and fat.

Worst of all, when that next whatever doesn’t change you into Britney Spears, or when you can’t afford that next whatever in the first place, you’ re told that it’s your own fault—that you are flawed, when, in reality, the problem lies with a culture that does not distinguish between utopian commercial promises and systematic class and gender inequality.

So what’s a real kick-butt girl supposed to do? Don’t buy the hype. Don’t buy the fantasy. And remember, the real “choice” is not between Pepsi or Coke or even Dr. Pepper. The real choice is to see the world through your own eyes instead of mass-mediated lenses.

by Margaret Finnegan for the Los Angeles Times
January 1, 2001