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Feminism as a commodity

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Influencers and gender equality consultants often describe themselves as feminists. But what happens when feminist engagement is turned into a profession or commercialized? Researcher Magdalena Petersson McIntyre has investigated this in a new study.

Is it possible to see lip augmentation as a feminist act?

Given that the feminism we see today is based on keywords such as freedom of choice and self-realization, the answer is not given. This is the opinion of researcher Magdalena Petersson McIntyre, who conducted the study Commodifying feminism: Economic choice and agency in the context of lifestyle influencers and gender consultants at the Center for Consumtion Research at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg. “Many of those who do it like to describe it as a feminist act and refer to it as freedom of choice. Whether it is, or not, depends on how we define feminism,” she says.

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Magdalena Petersson McIntyre
Magdalena Petersson McIntyre
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Many of those who do it like to describe it as a feminist act and refer to it as freedom of choice. Whether it is, or not, depends on how we define feminism

In the study, Magdalena Petersson McIntyre followed and interviewed influencers, but also gender equality consultants, i.e individuals  hired by companies and organizations  review them  from a gender or gender perspective. Magdalena Petersson McIntyre chose the two groups because their activities in some sense relate to turning a feminist commitment into a professional activity, or a commercial activity: “I was interested in investigating what happens when feminism becomes a kind of product or service in a market.”

Describe themselves as feminists

Both influencers and gender equality consultants often describe themselves as feminists, albeit in slightly different ways. There are also other similarities, Magdalena e says:

“For example, both groups wanted to achieve self-determination and the power  to control the content of their lives, while at the same time influencing  others and project their view  view of  issues that engaged them.”

I was interested in investigating what happens when feminism becomes a kind of product or service in a market.

“Many researchers have pointed out that the feminism that confronts us in new media is an individualized form of feminism, where the term “feminism” is used to talk about the success of individual women rather than a collective struggle for justice”, she says, and continues:
“I wanted to investigate these  two expressions of feminism, and  comparing g these two groups with  each other. Above all, I was interested in trying to nuance the image of individualized feminism. I wanted to see if there were new expressions of collectivity. Also, I wanted to get these women to define what they   fundamentally  perceived as feminist.”

“Both in terms of influencers and gender equality consultants, freedom of choice is fundamental. This  has always been central  in the women's movement and feminism; to be able to decide for oneself over one's life, one’s body and desires”, Magdalena  says: “But many researchers have also pointed out that the idea of ​​freedom of choice now is easily detached from issues of real political power. Today when freedom of choice is used as a way to motivate choices that repeat traditional gender patterns, like  choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, to enlarge your breasts, or to be financially dependent on men.”

Today that freedom of choice is used as a way to motivate choices that repeat traditional gender patterns

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The idea of freedom of choice not for everyone

Magdalena Petersson McIntyre believes that the current embracing of freedom of choice can be seen as a result of a perceived lack of freedom of choice,  thus as a way of resisting the choices that many women feel society offers them: “For example, we have a gender-segregated labor market and to a large extent also a gender-segregated education system. Emphasizing freedom of choice is then about feeling that I did not choose a (typical and) traditionally  female profession because society decided it, but because I myself wanted, it will be easier to get together with the view of the individual that largely prevails, which is that we ourselves choose our lives.”
Magdalena Petersson McIntyre also points out that freedom of choice is not a reality for everyone: “The idea of ​​freedom of choice appeals to women who themselves feel that they have freedom of choice, but freedom of choice is not evenly distributed in society. Privileged people generally have greater freedom of choice, but like to see their choices as the result of their own driving forces or achievements,” she says.

The idea of ​​freedom of choice appeals to women who themselves feel that they have freedom of choice

So when an influencer broadcasts her own breast surgery and calls it feminism, Magdalena Petersson McIntyre thinks there are many ways to look at it: “Some researchers would say that it is not feminism because it repeats ideals that preserve patriarchal gender patterns, and influence others to follow the same pattern. In what is usually called third-wave feminism, on the contrary, it is often claimed that all actions are contextual, and that it is not possible to say in general whether a certain action in itself is feminist or not. It depends on the context and what it means for that person, right there. Still others speak of such actions - like calling the broadcasting of one’s breast surgery -  a feminist act. Because  feminism, to them, is  an idea of the body in which similarities are placed between femininity and feminism, and basically everything that is feminine is hailed as feminist. This is problematic.”

Feminism means different things to different people

She believes that this shows that feminism today means so many different things to different people, and that it is important to continue to investigate what people actually mean when they refer to  feminism. Especially considering that feminism increasingly get more and more included in women's stories about themselves and their lives, especially in relation to issues of success, happiness and self-realization. It is clear, however, that the situation really has changed:

“I think it is interesting to compare with when I interviewed flight attendants for my doctoral dissertation in the late 1990s. When asked why they chose to become flight attendants, many answered that they had slipped there on a banana peel, as if it was not a result of choices they themselves made but that it just happened. None of the women I interviewed for this study talked about chance as the reason for their choice of career.. To me, that says something about the fact that women now have an opportunity to t,  express their power to choose, s, that this has become more accepted in our society, but perhaps also more 
expected.”

The study: Commodifying feminism: Economic choice and agency inthe context of lifestyle influencers and gender consultants. Petersson McIntyre, Magdalena.  doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12627  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/gwao.12627