The Oxymoron Of "Corporate Feminism"

By now, you’ve likely seen the new Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which purports to change the way women see themselves by attempting to show that women judge themselves and their appearances too harshly. Simultaneously, we have Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg promoting her new book, Lean In, touted by corporate media as the new feminist manifesto, encouraging women to “lean in” to their work environments and further their careers.

And so it appears that feminism is having a corporate moment. But rather than embrace this new feminist facade, the truth remains that when feminism becomes embroiled in corporate interests, the already-marginalized in our society are sidelined, omitted, and simply oppressed under a more progressive guise.

Sheryl Sandberg should not be excluded from feminism because she is a corporate businesswoman. That’s no different than excluding a woman on welfare from feminism because of her economic status. But Sheryl Sandberg isn’t just being included in feminism; she is largely being heralded as the face of the feminist movement. A COO of a major American corporation rapidly ascends to the forefront of feminism because of one book, while thousands of online feminists and grassroots activists have been doing community organizing and feminist theorizing for years, to little public fanfare. And it’s no wonder that Sandberg, a white, thin, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied woman of distinct economic and educational privilege, is incessantly framed by corporate media as the new feminist leader: she’s the perfect package of privilege to promote a water-down brand of feminism.

In the meantime, we see Dove seemingly challenging the hegemonic beauty norms that for years, have made their parent company Unilever (also the owner of Slimfast and Axe Body Spray) billions of dollars. The campaign reveals that “we are more beautiful than we think,” but according to whose standards? Against whose beauty standards are we measuring ourselves?  We have internalized the regulatory practices perpetuated by Dove’s own advertising to the point that it is entirely naturalized, as evidenced by this campaign.

Women have been conditioned for decades to believe that they are never enough, that if you buy this cream, this pill, this soap, you will temporarily feel better until it’s time to go out and buy more cream, more pills, more soap. This new advertising campaign from Dove is simply another corporate ploy to make you spend your money on their product. Dove is not interested in your well-being; if they were, their parent company Unilever wouldn’t be promoting sexist and exploitative Axe Body Spray ads like this. Dove’s new advertising campaign is nothing more than a faux feminist bandage on a corporate exploitative wound.

So what do Sheryl Sandberg and the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign have in common? They are both mainstream, corporate visions of feminism, sidelining actual critique in place of a narrow reaffirmation of the virtues of capitalist consumerism. There is a vibrant online feminist community, dedicated to interrogating oppression and challenging the patriarchal power structures that perpetuate misogyny, racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other forms of bigotry. But that community is completely absent from the mainstream corporate visions of feminism, and for good reason; much of the online feminist community exerts substantial energy to critique capitalist and consumerist oppression. Corporations hoping to profit from feminist posturing avoid the wealth of feminist work that critiques the very power systems that they themselves perpetuate.

“Corporate feminism” is an oxymoron. Feminism cannot hope to be a real movement for social change if it is pandering to the same structures it is supposed to be critiquing. Social justice movements are meant to challenge and dismantle oppressive power structures, not silently profit from them. Sheryl Sandberg may be a voice within feminism, but she cannot be lauded as the face of the movement any more than Dove can be commended for taking a stand against the very sexism and exploitation from which it profits. If we truly want a feminist movement that will work to eradicate misogyny and end patriarchal oppression, we cannot align ourselves with the corporate system that actively oppresses us every day. If we’re looking for a radical movement for social change, we need look no further than ourselves.