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Airtel to Amazon — how big brands get the idea of feminism terribly wrong

From token ‘fixing’ of the gender pay disparity to making sure women do double the work, a look at how feminism and women's empowerment are misunderstood by brands.

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New Delhi: A new version of Monopoly thinks that paying women more for doing the same amount of work as men amounts to progressive feminism.

For those who have spent many summers navigating the cut-throat real estate world of Mr Monopoly, his female counterpart has something different to offer. Posited by multibillion-dollar American toy company Hasbro as an “advocate whose mission is to invest in female entrepreneurs”, Ms Monopoly grants female players 1,900 dollars at the beginning of the game, while the male players start with 1500 dollars. Further, passing ‘Go’ is a 240-dollar bonus for women, while men are given the standard 200.

The move hasn’t sat well with anyone. Be it Right-wing trolls criticising the game for being the “most lib f***ing thing” Hasbro has done or liberals pointing out that the tilted economics of the game actually ends up promoting disparity in pay, Ms Monopoly’s skewed understanding of feminism has few takers.

Some trolls went as far as to say that women will now use “Put ’Em In Jail cards with false #MeToo allegations against men…then collect multi-million-dollar civil suits & book deals.”

What’s worse, author Mary Piplon, who says she spent “five years… reporting my book The Monopolists, published in 2015, which chronicled the discovery of the board game’s invention”, has alleged that Ms Monopoly failed to attribute the origins of the game to “feminist writer, activist, and game designer” Lizzie Magie, which “only reinforces the false, misogynistic, and all-too-common belief that Monopoly is, then and now, purely a man’s game”.

Feminism, like many social movements, can take diametrically opposite forms depending on who is engaging with it.

From disagreements about the institution of marriage, the choice to wear makeup and whether reservations are enabling or segregating women to accusations of the ‘old guard’ being too conservative, the battle for gender equality exists at the intersection of many conflicting political, economic and social beliefs — one of which is its relationship with capitalism.

Large companies, in a bid to increase their bottom lines, or perhaps to genuinely promote responsible messaging, have often used the ‘empowerment of women’ to create products and campaigns around them. The trouble is when they have such a misguided understanding of what they’re promoting that they end up doing a disservice to feminism.

Ms Monopoly, is one such attempt that failed, but Hasbro isn’t the first and it won’t be the last to get its idea of feminism, gender parity and women’s empowerment terribly wrong.

Also read: Feminism hasn’t sold-out, it’s only using corporate spaces to mobilise support

Small chips and thin pens for fragile women

Just last year, PepsiCo, run by then CEO and women’s icon Indra Nooyi, launched ‘Lady Doritos’, a snack targeted at women because they “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public,” as she said in an interview to Freakonomics.

“And how can you put it in a purse?” Nooyi wondered, “Because,” she said, “women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

For many women, on and off the internet, the proposition was absurd — first, who asked for this? Was there a vast section of the female population just traumatically ashamed of…eating too loudly? And second, who carries loose individual chips in their bags anyway?

“Women have been taught that they must take less space, they must eat less, they must fade, slowly and discretely, to let everything else around them shine brighter by just a smidge. Women have been taught to eat slowly, softly, in smaller bites — a construct of femininity designed specifically to aid the creation of a fragile, waifish woman who looks weaker and easier to protect,” wrote poet Harnidh Kaur.

Women responded to the campaign by intentionally and purposefully defying Nooyi’s mould for them — they ate doritos in the loudest, most ‘unladylike’ way possible, crunching loudly away.

Thankfully, the idea behind Lady Doritos expired even before it hit the shelves, and the nacho brand tried to correct its image after the backlash.

In 2012, minutely thinner Bic pens were launched in (obviously) pinks and lavenders, and called ‘Bic for Her’ or ‘lady pens’ as most understood them. Boasting an “elegant design — just for her!” and a “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand”, the brand was the target of exceptionally snarky reviews on Amazon: “Finally! For years I’ve had to rely on pencils, or at worst, a twig and some drops of my feminine blood to write down recipes (the only thing a lady should be writing ever),” one reviewer wrote.

The pens were also more expensive than regular Bics, highlighting that ‘pink tax’ — that is the invisible extra cost that women have to pay for ‘female versions’ of products — exists even for goods for which gender is completely irrelevant. Forget razors, soaps and face washes, even earplugs and calculators cost more when marketed to women.

Writing for Forbes shortly after Amazon was flooded with sarcastic reviews, David Vinjamuri, a former brand manager who worked on feminine hygiene products, said: “It is very, very hard to imagine that the people who made the decision to launch ‘Bic for Her’ were the same women expected to buy them.”

“And that’s why the huge majority of consumer brand launches fail.”

The Indian Superwoman — exploited, but always smiling

Sometimes, it’s not the actual product that’s tweaked for female customers. For companies like Airtel, that are selling seemingly genderless services like mobile connections and Wi-Fi, rebranding its advertising campaign is enough — the practice is so common that there’s even a term for it now — Femvertising. The problem is when femvertising is done badly.

A significant characteristic of this kind of posturing results in the creation of the ‘superwoman’ — a self-sacrificing multi-tasker who juggles her husband’s inability to knot his tie, a crying baby, a fledgling home-run business, calls from relatives and cooking, all without breaking a sweat or asking for a single break.

Under the guise of this ‘modern working woman’ trope, Indian telecom company Airtel released an ad in 2014 that reveals a woman to be her husband’s boss at work, but when she gets home, she also proceeds to cook dinner for him. Because of course, that’s the only way her professional seniority over her husband can be allowed.

Just three years ago, Amazon launched its Pantry service with an ad that showed a man telling his heavily pregnant wife that he’s on his way to do the monthly grocery shopping, but is confused about how toor dal looks like. The wife proceeds to “save his Sunday” by showing him how to order online. We’re meant to find the man’s ignorance about kitchen ingredients cute, but what it tells us is that he probably hasn’t spent a lot of time in the kitchen and he’s only started helping out at home because of the pregnancy. Presumably, once she’s back on her feet, she’ll be safely back in the kitchen.

And for Colors TV, women will at least get one day off in the week, because #SundayIsHerHoliday. So what if she exhausts herself to the bone doing all the housework plus going to office, with no help from the man for the other six days? When he massages her feet and cooks for her on Sunday, we’re all supposed to feel grateful.

The funny thing is, it’s not that hard. If these brands had reversed the same story shown in their ad and made it about men, they would have instantly seen how ridiculous it is. If Hasbro really wants to showcase the wage gap issue via Monopoly, perhaps creating a disparity that will lead to backlash against women isn’t the way forward, but about 20 years backward.

Also read: The four A-list weddings of the year give us an idea of the new feminism emerging in India


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