Feminism 101: What is the Commodification of Femininity?

Image by JLinsky via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The commodification of femininity (or “selling gender”) is a term used to describe how manufacturers strategically market products toward women for the purpose of selling into, and exploiting, their femininity and domesticity. Commercialization conveys the message that the only way to live up to “proper” standards of femininity is to own the product being advertised. This, in turn, pressures women to become active consumers of these products and simultaneously leads them to buy into standards of femininity and traditional gender roles.

The commodification of femininity demonstrates how a feminine gender identity is not an inherent quality all women are simply born with, but rather a construction produced through commercialization. Through gendered marketing practices, products targeted at girls and women define what it means to be feminine and actively produce and police standards of femininity.

An example of this exists in the marketing of Disney princesses to little girls worldwide. The manufacturing industry utilizes the allure of pink, princesses, and “girly-girl” products to establish the supposed necessary tools a young girl needs to essentially be a “normal” girl. This socializes girls into actively desiring pink, “girly,” or princess products in order to fulfill the ultimate feminine role. Subsequently, the marketing of princesses conveys the message that wearing crowns and dresses, waiting on men, staying locked inside a castle, and never going out to work is a woman’s rightful place in the world. Disney’s marketing tactics show how feminine qualities, such as liking pink or Cinderella, are not innate to little girls. Instead, young girls learn a construction of femininity through their active consumption of these “feminine” products.

In addition to reinforcing femininity standards, the commodification of femininity leads to an understanding of how capitalism under neoliberalism sustains gender inequality. Commercialization practices targeted at women maintain specific “feminine” roles and occupations, consequently enabling the subordination of women to men. Turn on the television to HGTV or TLC and within minutes of watching, without a doubt, you will come across a commercial featuring a mother promoting a laundry machine or kitchen appliance; this is a product of commodified femininity.

In “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan discusses how the commercialization of house products such as the washer and dryer, dishwasher, vacuum, and various forms of cooking appliances were originally marketed toward women in the 1950s in order to “liberate” them into becoming the perfect housewife. These products preserved (and continue to preserve) the “separate spheres” ideology that keep women in domestic roles so they do not venture outside of the home and take jobs from the “breadwinning” men. These housewife products exemplify how the selling of gender reinforces specific gender roles for women, inevitably placing them in a domestic status, inferior to the working status of a man.

It is important to note that many of the products targeted at promoting traditional feminine roles and femininity are housed (pun intended) under a guise of liberation—with household appliances “liberating” the perfect housewife or princess products “liberating” young girls to feel powerful by keeping a cleanly household or dressing like a beautiful princess respectively. However, the very act of buying household products or a princess crown is not liberating; it normalizes a female social role centered on appearance and status rather than intellectual growth and financial success. The commodification of femininity reveals how various marketing practices and strategies shape consumer patterns, gender identities, and social roles that continue to perpetuate gender inequality.

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