No, the Dove "Love Your Curls" Ad Is Not a Feminist Victory
Dove is at it again.
capitalist marketing campaign advertisement-based social movement has previously targeted women's body insecurities through its "Real Beauty" campaign ads, but its latest paradoxical attempt to convince female consumers they are inherently beautiful yet still in need of products that improve their appearance takes on an even more specific enemy: curl hate.
"Love Your Curls" and the accompanying hashtag #LoveYourCurls are being hailed as a celebration of natural beauty that "you have to see" because it will instantly "melt your heart." In fact, the ad is allegedly so powerful it's somehow enabling a texture of hair to become stylistically "ahead of the curve." Congratulations, curly-haired ladies: Your genetic possession of an asymmetrical follicle shape has apparently made you empowering this season.
The ad joins a long line of "femvertisements" to be noted by the mainstream media as amazing and empowering indicators of women's progress. In the run up to Super Bowl Sunday, the Holy Grail of ads, it's more important than ever that we recognize that while these types of commercials may function as a mainstream point of access to the feminist movement, they are not feminist victories themselves.
Claiming ads like Dove's latest as a feminist victory is admittedly enticing: Who wouldn't want to uncritically embrace images of adorable children learning to love their natural beauty, awash in flattering lighting and sentimental music, no less? And it's true that portraying feminist concepts in a positive, uncontroversial manner in the media does much to alleviate the negative stereotypes that have alienated people from the feminist movement in the past and marginalized feminism from having a greater impact.
But while the message of these ads may function as a point of access to the feminist movement, they must not become synonymous with the movement itself. Interpreting these feel-good, yet ultimately shallow, portrayals of key feminist concepts — like body positivity — in the mainstream media as reassurance that feminism is winning not only reinforces the harmful systems of which they are ultimately part of but also prevents us from making real progress.
"Love Your Curls" is hardly the only example of the public embracing an increasingly superficial version of feminism.
Commercials sell products, not liberation. Let's give credit where credit is due. This ad, as well as Dove's larger campaign for Real Beauty, is part of a smart, well-executed marketing strategy. And to be clear, there is nothing inherently evil about Dove attempting to sell a product in a capitalist society.
But at the end of the day, Dove is a company like any other. It has clearly realized that associating its brand with whatever narratives or images are being positively regarded among its target demographic means dollars in the bank. Judging by Dove's global sales rising to above $2 billion in the last decade, mobilizing a quasi-feminist narrative has paid off.
But it's hard to take Dove's message of female empowerment seriously when the beauty brand is owned by Unilever, the same company that owns the ultimate bro toiletry of choice, Axe. The same company ironically decided that while consumers of one of their brands would respond to an authentic depiction of women's deeper sentience and complex relationships with their bodies, consumers of another would appreciate the opposite approach, including dismembered female body parts and hypersexualized women.
The media matters, but is not the site of a revolution. Media messaging undoubtedly impacts individuals in a real way. For example, studies have shown that as ads become increasingly sexualized, attitudes of objectification in daily life also increase. Hypersexualization and objectification in media is further linked to common mental health issues in girls and women. The depictions of women and men in advertisements, therefore, undeniably shape the lived experiences of individuals who are exposed to them, and pushing back on them when they are harmful is a valuable and even necessary endeavor.
But these depictions are symptomatic of deeper problems within our society, not the problems themselves. Eliminating ads featuring dismembered women's body parts probably won't eradicate violence against women, nor would eradicating ads in which hypersexualized women sell unrelated products likely stop people from objectifying women in general. Similarly, featuring ads in which women embrace their appearance likely won't singularly create a world devoid of negative body image or eating disorders.
Ads are reflections of culture — of sexist attitudes at worst and feminist progress at best — and not progress in and of themselves. They might be able to mitigate harm or support activist efforts, but they certainly won't lessen the pay gap or increase the representation of women in politics and business fields.
Feminism is a systemic movement, not a PR campaign. To understand that feminism has become only superficially understood in many circles one need look no further than when Time deemed the concept a fad worthy of being "banned." But feminism is not a fad to be banned or a label to be eradicated — it is an anti-oppression movement. A true feminist victory, like the true feminist movement, must be systemic.
Dove ads can point out that narrow beauty standards are ridiculous, but they can't fix the economic, social and political systems that perpetuate these standards in the first place. Ultimately, a three-minute compilation of images of women loving themselves hardly addresses the systemic causes of why women are at war with their bodies for the other 1,437 minutes in the day, and does absolutely nothing to propose an alternative.
Furthermore, it's questionable whether the Real Beauty's campaign proposition that women, no matter their size or hair texture, are closer to achieving an ideal of beauty than they think is actually a feminist message, even superficially so, at all. "You really are beautiful, women of the world," Dove's ads seem to say, "you just didn't know it." A truly feminist message would disavow the entire idea of beauty mattering at all and suggest instead that women concern themselves to living up to their intellectual, emotional and ethical potential.
To be fair, most of us would much rather watch positive, optimistic and, yes, even sentimental ads than insultingly sexist ones. And there's nothing wrong with that. I certainly enjoy watching curly-haired girls have a spontaneous dance party much more than the soft-core porn Carl's Jr. is currently peddling. But framing these ads as anything more than feel-good capitalist maneuvers is not only futile but misses the point completely. The sooner we realize that and get back to doing actual feminist work that addresses greater systems of oppression, the better off we'll all be.