On ‘corporate feminism’ and the appropriation of the women’s movement

On Monday, Lisa Wade wrote, for Sociological Images, that Playboy (you know, the multi-million dollar porn empire) has been shopping around for writers who can bring some feminist cred to the magazine’s website. While they’ve yet to find a woman from the actual feminist movement to join them, they found Noah Berlatsky, a man who has a bone to pick with any woman who challenges objectification, male power, and the sex industry.

Berlatsky’s willingness to invent quotes, beliefs, and opinions on my behalf in order to revel in his own self-adoration at his ability to objectify women is remarkable. He has written two articles, previous to this most-recent one, that have wilfully misrepresented or even outright lied about my arguments in order to present himself as the true ally of women, and I, their natural enemy. These three occasions are, tellingly, the only three times, previous to this week, that I’ve ever had to contact a publication about libel or about misrepresenting my work.

I am, of course, unsurprised that Playboy would publish his most-recent libel. Playboy has long promoted the sexualization and objectification of women as liberatory and have a history of unethical behaviour (beyond the obvious dehumanization-of-women stuff) to match. Gloria Steinem documented their exploitative labour practices back in the 60s, a number of women, including Vanessa Williams, Madonna, and Marilyn Monroe, complained that their nudes were published without their consent, and the magazine refused to put a black women on the cover of the magazine for the first 18 years of its existence. Despite their interest in turning women’s bodies into profit, Hugh Hefner claimed he was “a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.” (The porn kings have always positioned themselves as the true freedom fighters.) It’s only recently, though, that “feminists” have bought it.

Bertlastky is selling the exact same thing Hefner is, in the exact same way. He is the ideal face of Playboy’s new “feminist” image, which latches on to currently-popular neoprogressive language in order to convince women that intersectionality and freedom is defined by equal objectification. In response to my position — that the objectification of Laverne Cox will not lead to empowerment for women — Berlatsky and Playboy accuse me of excluding women, an odd thing to say as I applied the same analysis to Cox’s image I do to all women. He quotes a woman named P. Marie, who says:

“When it comes to sexualized images of us, for me it’s all about agency! Did we consent? Are we respected? Is this our choice? Is this a collection of body parts or erased humanity?”

What this argument says, conveniently, is that Playboy has never objectified a single woman in all its history, as all the women who’ve graced their pages did so with consent.

Berlatsky and Playboy believe that equality will be achieved through fuckability. Yet a quick look through history shows that the sexualization and commodification of women’s bodies has never resulted in liberation from patriarchy — not for marginalized women, not for privileged women, not for anyone. As a number of Indigenous activists have pointed out, European men were the first to prostitute Indigenous women, here in Canada, as part of their colonization efforts. They also married and impregnated many of those women and girls. Certainly, the willingness of those men to sexualize the bodies of Indigenous women did not result in their liberation.

That simple and obvious argument was enough to create a backlash and a swell of support for not only male pornographers and the beauty industry, but for capitalism as our primary route towards freedom. If we are good enough to sell their products and their magazines, we have achieved liberation.

Shortly thereafter, a D-list writer at The Frisky* (a small women’s site that primarily publishes celebrity gossip and personal stories about how porn can liberate you from “sexual shame,” which I wrote for a few times in the past before my editor moved on) named Katie Klabusich wrote a disjointed rant about my post, declaring my criticisms of the pressure placed upon women to reach patriarchal standards “racist” and “transphobic.” Unable to come up with any examples of how it is “racist” or “transphobic” to oppose the objectification of women, Klabusich chooses to simply repeat the words over and over again, hopeful that her readers will become transfixed by her ability to avoid providing a single example of “bigotry” in 1800 words. Instead of explaining how the objectification of Laverne Cox will achieve liberation for women, despite all of history, she accuses me of “spewing hatred for profit,” calling on her twitter followers, repeatedly, to “call out” “White Feminism™,” “violent writing,” and myself. (She then proceeded to go on Netroots radio to further accuse me of “racism” and “transphobia,” saying that you will find all the “proof” you need of my supposed bigotry if you simply Google “Meghan Murphy blackface.” Apparently Klabusich isn’t familiar with the search engine herself, but for those of you who are skilled at this “Googling,” please do go ahead and punch that little phrase in… You will find my article for Herizons magazine criticizing “hipster racism” and “hipster sexism,” which I thought was quite good.**)

Desperate for the internet to acknowledge her existence but unwilling to do the work of reading words or developing an understanding of feminist ideology, Klabusich tried to punch up, but missed. That’s right, the woman shilling for Playboy Enterprises chose to attack a feminist with a largely unprofitable, independent website, with no staff, minimal advertising income (full disclosure: I make approximately $40 a month through those little ads on the front page — compare that to the amount of advertising income both The Frisky and Playboy receive by literally or figuratively selling women’s bodies), that survives on donations from readers, instead of the male-run corporations who’ve set the standard for women’s body-hatred. The full irony of accusing me of “spewing hatred for profit” in this context will come to light shortly.

This particular partnership between Playboy and The Frisky is no coincidence. You’ll notice the site is advertised in The Frisky’s sponsored links, right below Klabusich’s post.

So while the position taken by Klabusich and The Frisky, in favour of Playboy’s stance, is unsurprising as well as financially lucrative for both publications, the extreme naivete, hatefulness, and hypocrisy communicated by “feminists” who signed on to this slanderous attack on myself and on feminism as a whole, is.

One woman who 'favorited' this tweet writes for Vice Canada...
One woman who ‘favourited’ this tweet (as well as a number of similar ones) writes for Vice Canada…

The list of women who participated in attacking and slandering me while simultaneously promoting Playboy is expansive. A number of extremely misogynist, vulgar, and violent public statements were supported by women who call themselves feminist (as well as, naturally, by many men — the Media Director at Netroots Nation, for example thought the whole ordeal was hilarious and defended the attack). Many of those who shared and supported Playboy’s attack on me claimed that, while they wouldn’t normally promote the site, they were willing to now. Apparently it is only appropriate to support a company that made Hugh Hefner millions when it means supporting a white, anti-feminist man in his attempts to smear feminists who oppose the very objectification Hef built his fortune on.

But putting Playboy aside and speaking of “Feminism™,” what is it these people are sticking up for in the first place?

What I responded to and what became the center of this widespread attack on my character, work, political beliefs, and credibility as a feminist, was a nude photo spread in Allure magazine.

Allure is an American beauty magazine owned by Condé Nast. Their tagline reads:

“Discover new hair ideas, makeup looks, skin-care advice, the best beauty products and tips, trends, and more from Allure, the first and only dedicated beauty magazine.”

The purpose of the magazine is to teach women that they are too fat, too ugly, and, generally, too flawed and that, in order to fix these flaws, they must give all their money to male-owned companies that produce toxic beauty products — many of which contain cancer-causing ingredients. This is to say that Allure exists specifically in order to make women feel bad about themselves and to resolve those feelings by supporting corporations that not only want women to continue hating themselves and, therefore, purchasing their products, but are actually poisoning our bodies and the world around us in the process.

Condé Nast is a company that was founded in the early 1900s by Condé Montrose Nast. Charles H. Townsend is its CEO. The company is well-known for its exploitative internship program, which they were forced to close after two interns sued, as the program violated federal and state labour laws. They also tried to bribe a number of food politics writers into producing content for a series they were planning to run on the “topics of food, food chains and sustainability,” sponsored by genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto. It is a division of Advance Publications, one of the largest media conglomerates in the U.S., currently run by Samuel Irving Newhouse, Jr., Charles H. Townsend, and Robert A. Sauerberg. (This is to say that both companies were founded by and are run by men.)

Advance Publications owns over 100 American newspapers, cable networks, business journals, online publications, and magazines, including Vogue, Glamour, and The New Yorker. They also own Reddit.com.

In the past couple of years they have been responsible for mass layoffs in newspapers across the country and union-busting. A look back into Newhouse-owned newspapers show a history of promoting racism, segregation, and white supremacy, tacitly accepting the beatings, synagogue-bombings, cross-burnings, and general violence and hatred against black and Jewish people happening during the 50s and 60s in the South. When New York Times reporter, Harrison Salisbury, went to Birmingham, Alabama (which was then the most segregated city in American and consequently became the centre of the civil rights movement) in the 60s to cover that which the city’s Newhouse-owned paper was trying to hide, publishing an article entitled “Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham” on the front page of the Times, the Birmingham News accused him of slander and labeled him a bigot.

Reporters at Newhouse newspapers have been fired and demoted for telling the truth about relationships with advertisers (which involved publishing promotional material for the auto industry, presented as regular columns) and killing stories that rubbed advertisers the wrong way. In the 90s, the Portland Oregonian (a Newhouse paper, once the site of a violent five-year strike which, in the end, signaled the diminishing power of newspaper unions in Portland) ignored multiple sexual harassment allegations made about Senator Bob Packwood, opting to endorse the Republican politician instead.

I could go on, but the point is clear: Advance Publications and the Newhouse family are no friend to the working class, women, or to marginalized populations. The founders and owners of Advance Publications are billionaires. In the 90s the Newhouse family sold Random House for $1.4 billion. The patriarch of the Newhouse family and one of the richest men in America, Samuel I. Newhouse Sr., keeps the money in the family, filing all the top positions in the company with his relatives.

This is what corporate feminism looks like. Literal billion-dollar corporations who screw over the working class and marginalized, time and time again, profiting from the misogynist standards they set for women, promoted and defended as “feminist.” These wealthy white men have feminists across the web rallying together in support of their billion-dollar media empire and nefarious interests. While Hefner watches from his mansion, surrounded by his harem of young women, liberal American feminists who purport to be on the “progressive” side of history are doing his dirty work — not only by promoting the pornification of women and lining his pockets, but by actively working against any feminist who dares challenge him.

Beyond their wide support for the corporate appropriation of the feminist movement, these “feminists” are promoting the idea that, while objectification is bad for white women, it is good for marginalized women.

There is one thing in all of this that’s true: Feminism™ has arrived. You’ve been bought.

Wade asks, at the end of her post, “Who’s in charge over there? Are they trying to appropriate feminism?” And of course the answer is “men” and “yes.”

If you believe you are fighting the power while propping up Playboy Enterprises as the true voice of feminism, you’ve already lost. If you believe a porn empire is ever going to fight for marginalized women you have not only lost the fight, but you’ve thrown women to the dogs in the process. All that is won in these misguided attacks is more power and profit for capitalist patriarchy — a system consistently ignored by American mainstream feminists who prefer to believe that empowerment exists solely in the eye of the beholder and on a case-to-case basis.

Congratulations, the backlash is here and it’s name is feminism.

Written with contributions from Samantha Berg.

*The Frisky has, at this point, received dozens of letters of complaint about this article from individual women and women’s organizations, requesting that editor, Amelia McDonell-Parry remove the libelous statements and issue a public apology, which she has, to-date, ignored.

**As much as I am loath to give Klabusich the attention she desires, I think it’s important to document all of her libel, publicly. She insists, throughout the interview, that there is a history of “transphobia” and “racism” in my work, but is unable to point to a single example. The one benefit of this being that Klabusich’s desire to self-promote is building a public case against her own hypocrisy, inability to do very basic research and, again, her intentional efforts to publicly smear and slander me in an attempt to build a profile for herself.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.