Feminist writers – such as Greer45, Wolf46 and Bordo47 – suggest that the freedom from being confined to the home, and the dovetailed freedom to participate in the capitalist market, have been overshadowed by the growth of newer oppressions. A regime of plucking, waxing, bleaching and shrinking are now a part of the regime of disciple – of self-discipline – for the female subject. Since the 1990s, feminists have interpreted this as new forms of oppression for women to supplant the old. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, has argued:
Reproductive rights gave Western women control over our own bodies; the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23% below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially, and a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control48.
The interest of my research has been to analyse how gendered advertising forms a mechanism of this oppression. With the expansion of media, gendered advertising has reached new saturation points in women’s everyday lives. For example, the rise of social media has exerted significant influence on daily life as experienced by many. But this expansion has meant not only quantitative saturation of ‘womanhours’. New forms of media have qualitatively changed the way people’s gender identities interact with media.
Exemplary in this case is an analysis of what might be called the ‘Kim Kardashian effect’ on gendered advertising. Jennifer Lueck has used ‘Parasocial Interaction Theory’ to analyse Kim Kardashian’s use of social media to endorse products. Horton and Strauss defined Parasocial Interaction Theory as a ‘simulacrum of conversational give and take between senders and receivers of mass media messages’49. Such a simulacrum creates the illusion of intimacy between the celebrity (endorser) and the fans (consumers). While private details of the celebrity’s life are published through these channels, the interaction is unidirectional, since there is no interaction with fan responses after the original celebrity post. Within these interactions there is a lot of ‘emotional and transformational advertising’ – that is, product placement that is embedded and disguised in personal stories50. In Lueck’s words:
The celebrity endorser is strategically using the benefits of emotional involvement created in the realms of parasocial interaction to her advantage…The audience stays constantly alert and informed, while being consumed by an idol, wanting to imitate her lifestyle and purchase brands and products that make her lifestyle admirable51.
What is interesting about this analysis for my purposes is the platform of beauty-related products Kardashian sells and their relationship to the aspects of the beauty myth that Wolf identifies. It is no longer the case that advertising patrols female embodiment purely by providing them with norms of what they ought to look like, but it also gives them norms of who they want to be like. The daily self-narration of life that is a feature of celebrity endorsement encourages the affective involvement of fans/consumers with the products embedded in those narratives. A celebrity/endorser’s (often cosmetic) ‘self-improvement’ narrative, and the products embedded in that narrative – its ‘heroes’, in a sense – will strike a chord with a fan/consumer’s own experience of self-improvement. But this will to ‘improve’ is a will to beauty, and so, as Wolf and Bordo analyse it, it is a will to discipline female embodiment into oppressive forms. This self-narration encourages the consumer/fan to think of themselves in similar progress-themed, self-narrating terms, such that the embedded product becomes an aspect of one’s self – a powerful means to fabricate consumer need. Omitted, however, are the immensely different economic/class structures of fans/consumers and celebrities/endorsers. Where a celebrity/endorser is essentially paid to self-narrate, a fan/consumer’s self-narration is unpaid – and taxed by the expense of any products indispensable to the terms of the narration. The same themes of striving, sacrifice, self-control and reward mean perversely different things for consumers and celebrities. Perhaps this is the new form of the traditional ‘unpaid domestic labour’. In a sense, Kim Kardashian’s economic existence is uniquely possible only in our slender, beautiful present: she is paid to live out Wolf’s beauty myth full time and, in the process, to maintain the fiction of the beauty myth as a possible impossibility.