Talking back to corporate marketing: What brilliant women are doing

One of my favourite feminist activities is to dissect and deconstruct the messages that are directed our way by large corporations who want to sell us not only their products but also their values and ideas on how the world ought to be.  Most of us believe ourselves to be too smart or impermeable to the advertiser’s tactics.  We think that the commercials and the print ads we see on a daily basis don’t linger in our subconscious and subtly influence our thoughts, opinions, and and actions.  I’d like to think it was so easy but sadly I think many of us lack the basic critical skills (or interest) to see the messages that are being imposed on us.

If I had the influence to end our complacence, I would start by asking everyone to watch Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly films.  She started in 1979 with her original study, then followed with Still Killing Us Softly in 1987, and Killing Us Softly 3 and Killing Us Softly 4 in 2000 and 2010 respectively.  While sticking mostly to print ads in popular magazines, Jean deconstructs the ads to expose the ideals that corporations impose on us, like the perfect woman (thin, silent, and sexual) and acceptable sexuality (heterosexual and racial).  Here’s a glimpse of the most recent version or click below to see the entire 35 minute third version.

While Jean was really the first to present these critiques in an easily digestible way to general audiences, other feminist have since joined in to highlight not just the demeaning and dangerous messages in corporate marketing but also the absurdity.  One of my favourites is Sarah Haskins.  In her segment called Target Women on the Current.  Sarah uses her amazingly dry and puny sense of humour to ridicule the way that corporations use stereotypes to create ideas of femininity and instill a sense of insecurity and incompleteness in female viewers.

Sarah isn’t the only one mocking these silly ads that target women, the corporations themselves have now started to use this tactic to make themselves seem more enlightened than the competition.  Fortunately there are feminists out there who are calling them out on their falseness and their products altogether.  For an example, check this critique out.

Last, but not least, I want to attract your attention to a movement started by two sisters in Utah.  They are challenging everyone to rethink our ideas of beauty and health and the negative role that some corporations play in defining these ideas.  Check out their website, Beauty Redefined, here.

It is so refreshing to see these types of intelligent and no-nonsense responses to the corporate messages that constantly invade our lives and tell us how to be and what to buy.  Because women are the biggest consumer group, and consequently also the main audience for commercials, even the most obscure products are marketed toward women.  Next time you watch TV or flip through a magazine try to shake the passive viewer from inside you and look at the messages with a critical eye.   Ask yourself, who are the ads directed at?  What products are they trying to sell? Most importantly, what messages and ideals are they trying to sell?


In Memory of Wendy Babcock – child prostitute, Osgoode law student, mother, fearless activist (1978-2011)

Photo from Erin Hatfield at (Nov 2009)

Last Tuesday the Toronto activist scene tragically lost one of its heroes.  At the age of 32, and after living a lifetime of challenges, Wendy Babcock was found dead in her apartment.  The cause of death has not been released, though police do not suspect foul play.

Wendy overcame many more challenges than most of us are faced with.  She came from an abusive home and was out on the streets by the tender age of 11.  She was introduced to the sex work industry at the age of 15 when her first sexual encounter was exchanged for $75.  At the age of 16 she dropped out of school and became a mother shortly after.  Her son was taken from her by the Children’s Aid in 2003 and in the same year quit sex work when a colleague of hers was murdered on the job.

However, despite all of her trials and disadvantages Wendy pushed on.  She graduated from George Brown and went on to begin a law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School – one of few students accepted without a university education.

Wendy was a fearless defender of sex worker rights and hoped to use her law degree to humanize the child welfare system.  In 2008, she received the Toronto’s first Public Health Champion award.  Her story caught the eye of numerous news outlets in 2009 when she began law school and she was met with an outpouring of support and donations from strangers to sustain her studies.

Wendy’s perseverance and dedication to the protection of the vulnerable is an inspiration to us all.  She will be sadly missed by many.

Xtra! news has published an excellent story, here.  Click here to view a CBC interview with Wendy from 2009 when she first started law school.

The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I’m sure you’ve all heard the news; Target has come to town.  As one Zellers disappears at a time and some of us lament the loss of another Canadian company and the further Americanization of Canada, others are excited for more options in cheap fashion styles coming to a store near you. Recent news out of Jordan on the treatment of female garment producers however, is another kick in the ass reminder of the high cost of this cheap fashion.

Photo by Flickr user adgray2k, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Jordan has become a magnet for the garment production industry since 2001, when the U.S. ratified a free trade agreement with the country. Classic Fashion is currently the largest garment export factory in Jordan employing some 4,800 people, mostly guest workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China.

Last month, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights released a report alleging that workers producing clothing for Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Hanes at the Classic Fashion factory in Jordan are being regularly beaten, underpaid, and forced to work overtime without pay and in excess of what is allowed under Jordanian labour laws. At the centre of the abuse and exploitation at Classic Fashion factory is widespread sexual assaults and rape of female workers by male members of management.

The report presents the stories of numerous women who have taken great personal risk to tell their stories of abuse and exploitation. Female workers report that women who become pregnant and women who refuse the sexual advances of Classic‘s managers are forcibly deported. In October of last year, 2,400 Sri Lankan and Indian workers went on strike demanding the removal of the alleged rapist, general manager, Anil Santha.  Classic‘s owner, Sanal Kumar, sent Anil on a recruiting mission to South Asia, only to return him to his management position at the Classic factory one month later, where he has resumed his reign of fear and abuse.

Despite being notified of these abuses by The Institute as early as 2007, the Jordanian Ministry of Labor has taken no action. Neither has the American corporations using these suppliers taken responsibility for or action to end these abuses.

In the past month, leading human rights groups increased the pressure on American brands purchasing from the Classic factory, demanding immediate public action to end the abuses.  A recent Huffington Post article  quotes the author of The Institute’s report, Charles Kernaghan expressing his frustration and disappointment with the response (or lack there of) from the implicated American brands “When we first started with this I thought Walmart and Hanes, they are not into human rights,” he said. “But we thought they would draw the line in the sand at these rapes. Instead, they’ve been virtually silent.” It has been over a month and these companies have yet to declare any public action. Their silence, while production continues as these factories, is deafening.

This is not just a story for U.S. consumers especially as Target moves into the Canadian market, and where Walmart has been a mecca for Canadian budget shoppers for years. On March 24, 2010, the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement a Free Trade agreement with Jordan. This bill was introduced in the last session of Parliament, though Parliament was dissolved before the bill could be passed when the federal election was called in March. There is every reason to believe, however, that this bill will be quickly re-introduced when parliament sits again this fall. This means we here in Canada will also be welcoming goods produced under conditions of exploitation and abuse.

The exploitation and abuse of workers is a central tenet of the current global capitalist production chain and workers who are even more vulnerable because of factors like their sex or immigration status often experience the worst of this abuse.

As a feminist I often think about and struggle with the question how do we resist (and support the resistance of) gender oppressions that are beyond our own daily experiences.  I recognize that not all readers will identify with my “we” and “us” here. In using these personal pronouns I am acknowledging my own social location and position of privilege as a white, middle-class woman living in Canada and consequently am speaking to others who enjoy positions of privilege in the global production chain and to signify that these are questions with which I personally struggle.  It is a position of extreme privilege that for so many of us understanding and resisting these systems of exploitation and oppression is even a choice; it certainly is not for the women working at the Classic Fashion factory in Jordan.

While the actions below are certainly not an exhaustive or even the most radical ways to support the brave women at the Classic factory it may be a place to start for some.  In addition to refusing to buy goods from the companies who use do business with Classic Fashion factory here are some options for action:


 1 ) Sign onto the petition urging American companies purchasing from Classic Fashion to take immediate action to stop these abuses. 

2) Stay informed: Check out the for Global Labour & Human Rights Institute’s Classic campaign page for more reports, updates and news

3) Call or write the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird, and urge him to refuse to ratify a free trade agreement with Jordan until there is evidence that human rights and labour rights are being upheld and protected. Make sure you cc’ your MP and the Foreign Affairs critic for the NDP.

John Baird                                                                                                                                                                                                               Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade                                                                                                                                        613-990-7720                                                                                                                                                                              

Paul Dewar                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Foreign Affairs Critic, New Democrat Party                                                                                                                                                          613-946-8682