Feminist essentialism’s mantra is “equal but different.” This is a lovely sentiment that masks a nasty contradiction.
Essentialism is the argument that women are, well, essentially different to men. Women can attribute differences in their DNA, how their brains are wired or how their bodies (hormones and the like) function to being better at multi-tasking, languages, looking after children or being empathetic.
Essentialism calls upon science to testify on debates such as “why are there no top female creatives?” or “why are there fewer women in boardrooms?” It also gets dragged out in equal force to explain the “DOW Jane effect,” (Which JWT’s Rachel Pashley discussed, but not in an essentialist feminist way) or why there are more female nurses.
My gut tells me yes, of course women are fundamentally different to men. I know that I can’t lift the same weights as men in the gym, so why should this muscular, bodily difference not also manifest itself in how our brains are composed and therefore how we think?
Jane Cunningham, who co-wrote the (hopefully deliberately) patronisingly titled “Insider Her Pretty Little Head” with Philippa Roberts as “A New Theory of Female Motivation and What it Means for Marketing,” spoke first at the APG. Cunningham very much falls within the old school essentialist feminist mindset. Here’s my subtext to her book’s first chapter “The Science Bit” – no doubt a title chosen to evoke those shampoo ads that encourage women to ‘concentrate’ for the ‘difficult science bit’.
“Given the controversial nature of any work that aims to look at the differences between men and women, it seems to us that the best departure point is the terra firma of scientific discovery and empirical evidence.”
(Grow a Fabulous Moustache + Focus on Sitting Very, Very Still because of the Long Exposure Required of Early Camera Film = Generic 19th Century Philosopher Pose 1)
“We see that science also rests on a faith. The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: ‘Nothing is needed more than truth.'”
“Thus the question “Why science” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature and history are “not moral”? Those who are truthful in the ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world” – must they not by that same token negate this world, our world?”
Put simply, (Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to understand, along with Kant)
1. Science is a quest for first principles driven on a faith that first principles exist.
2. Faith in science presupposes that it will reveal truths that will, and can, solve anything and everything.
3. Science is undertaken under the conviction that there is a truth to be found and thus runs the risk of affirming whatever premise by which the research was initially undertaken. The answers you get will depend upon the questions you ask.
4. In making scientific truth your moral compass, you might have to disengage from our world that does not exactly follow scientific truth.
It will come to no surprise that Cunningham feels it appropriate to isolate her argument from “the swirling storm of gender study or political opinion.” To me it seems strange to write a book about marketing to women that shuns the political, socio-economic context in which women and marketing operate. Objectivity and practicality are great thing to aim for, but they do simplify things somewhat. This is the practical guide that Cunningham gives us that she has distilled from “the neutral foundation of science.”
Despite being a woman and what she would call an ’empathiser’, Cunningham speaks in the language of male ‘systematisers.’ She is using the focused, linear, logical and “unbiased and measured voice of science” to give us a practical, actionable guide to marketing to women. Her table systemises.
In the Q&A session a lady posed a question along the lines of “how do I get male creatives to be more empathetic when working on a marketing brief aimed at women?” Her answer was to ‘speak in the systematising language of men’. Cunningham advised that women undergo coaching to think more like men in order to communicate better with them. Er, what? Her suggestion that women bend to ‘male ways of thinking’ in order to be heard sat uneasily with me.
Essentialism it isn’t an argument that is seen to promote change. It goes back to foundations in order to legitimise stereotypes that have been built upon them. When you call upon science or ‘fundamentals’ to circumscribe and define differences you end up naturalising them. All women are great multi-taskers because of their brain chemistry (I, for one, am terrible at multi-tasking) or all women are emotional because of their hormones (my Dad definitely cries more than my Mum).
(Infographic courtesy of JWT’s ‘Brands and the Modern Male’)
‘Proof’ of differences leads to ‘proof’ of how these differences make us unequal in different situations. Science, in the wrong hands, could legitimise why men earn more than women. If science proves that all women are emotional then arguably they really do have no place in a boardroom where they will be required to make more rational decisions – unless, of course, they learn to think like men. If men are really hardwired to ‘spread their seed’ then we should keep sexually provocative women in adverts to pander to this impulse.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” – Nietzsche
You can twist scientific data to make it say a lot of different things. The views of the person or people twisting the data are sometimes more important than the experiment itself. If science proves all women are emotional, then how have they defined ’emotion’ and how do they know that what they are measuring is in fact a measurement of emotion? Karl Popper wrote “Observations are always interpretations of the facts observed. They are interpretations in light of theories.” There will, of course, be a post on Art vs Science coming soon.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex
I know that I don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s nature and there’s nurture. Nature may well be the starting point, but we are sentient beings endowed with self-consciousness (and opposable thumbs, yippee) that we use to determine what our aspirations are and how to go about obtaining them.
If it were really all down to nature wouldn’t all women be the same? If this were the case then either all women would feel alienated by one advert, or none at all. If marketing to women was equatable to a science and built on fundamental principles we would now have a tried-and-tested formula that we are all happy with. We were gathered at the APG precisely because many women are not happy with these formulas.
The essentialist/scientific argument is often labelled ‘regressive’ by feminist writers. Later feminist theorists might say something like, ‘Science is a phallo-centric discourse that serves to uphold the hegemony of men in our society.’ A deeply contentious statement, but there are two words that ring out from it: ‘phallo-centric’ and ‘hegemony.’