Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Grandiose Vacuity of "Rock the Lips"

Among the handful of press releases and notifications I received about International Women’s Day—which is today, March 8 (set your estro-calendar!)—was an event known as Rock the Lips. The idea is that “Because Women Rock,” women worldwide should wear red lipstick today to turn the world “into a sea of power pouts,” for “if we can get 1 million passionate, dynamic, creative, intelligent, fun women to wear red lipstick March 8th...what else can we do together?” Good question. Judging by the event’s team page on microlending site, “we” can raise $200, the grand total of all donations made in the name of Rock the Lips as of the time I published this.

I probably don’t need to spell out how ludicrous this campaign is. There’s the utter emptiness of it (why exactly are we wearing red lipstick? to raise awareness of...the existence of women? of lipstick? of red?), the insulting idea that lipstick is an icon that women worldwide would be thrilled to embrace as a symbol of liberation, the equation of red lipstick as a de facto symbol of womanhood. I’d call it redwashing if anything were being washed; instead it’s wholly vacuous, without even the pretense of anything progressive or charitable coming out of it, unless the idea is that women using a tool of conventional beauty en masse is a charitable act in itself, a gift to the world at large. (So pretty we are!) As Nancy Friedman, who alerted me to Rock the Lips, says, “I became a feminist and all I got was this lousy red lipstick.”

It’s the brainchild of a leading interactive marketing firm, AKQA, which specializes in digital advertising and has won numerous industry awards. I’m holding out a tiny amount of hope that this is some sort of subversive advertising campaign for a cause/company as yet unidentified, for it’s difficult to imagine an industry leader creating something this birdbrained as its independent outreach to the ladies. But I suspect that hope is optimistic; Rock the Lips appears to think it’s clever or brave for playfully challenging major brands to “rock the lips” along with them. “How about putting a red power pout on the green mermaid?” they ask of Starbucks. To Google, “Let’s see the O’s replaced with lipstick marks.” The idea, perhaps, is that if you get corporations to recognize your stunt (and that’s what this is, a stunt), you gain legitimacy. But legitimacy for what? 

Its vacuity is so grandiose as to teeter on the line of genius: Remember how everyone got all excited about flash mobs, and then they turned out to be a sort of social experiment from a Harper's editor? "Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad; it was, in its very form (pointless aggregation and then dispersal), intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it," wrote Bill Wasik, the flash mob's creator. Is AKQA trying to prank us? Or just discredit participants by revealing them to be woefully out of touch with what women are actually capable of? Or is it really just as nefarious as it seems: A company that exists to market other companies marketing the vaguest and most superficial idea of "girl power" by doing something with absolutely zero social value and attempting to pass it off as...can we even call this slacktivism?

Listen, I often wear red lipstick, and in fact I’ve written about how “In seeing my highlighted lips move, I saw the words themselves as being highlighted.” Swivel lipstick was invented shortly after women in the U.S. gained the right to vote, and the color red has a long association with women’s sexual expression, indubitably tied to larger forms of expression. It’s not that there’s a lack of correlation between verbal articulation and cosmetic articulation. (For more on this correlation, see, oh, everything I’ve ever written. It's not the lipstick here that I find offensive, it's the total lack of substance behind the "action.") But that seems to go unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon, by Rock the Lips. It’s style without substance, rallying without a cause. It’s red without blood.

*   *   *

So Rock the Lips is vacuous and terrible, we agree, right? Yes, we agree, let’s move on and not speak of it again. (Given that their goal was 1 million women, and they only have 4,500 "likes" on Facebook, I'm guessing that AKQA will see it for what it is and quietly close up shop on this initiative.) So what about International Women’s Day? I’m feeling ambivalent about it and am trying to figure out why. Undoubtedly, plenty of good comes out of it. Some assorted examples: Global action group Lane Change has a list of hands-on actions we can take to improve the status of women (mentoring women, reading feminist writers, writing about real-life female heroes), Kiva is pioneering a “free trial” program to encourage new donors to its microfinance program (presumably including the whopping $100 from The Campaign That Shall Not Be Named), and there are literally hundreds of woman-centric global events going on today.

Plus, the day’s history is pretty interesting: Proposed by a member of the German Social Democratic Party in 1910, International Women’s Day was meant to highlight women’s contributions to labor, though more general demands were included in its celebration. Union participation heavily factored into early IWDs, highlighted by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which occurred just weeks after the inaugural celebration. It’s bigger in other countries than it is in the U.S. (though we here have Women’s History Month) and is even a legal holiday in 27 nations. In some places it’s treated somewhat like Mother’s Day is in the States, with men in Russia rushing out in the morning to buy bouquets for wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. It seems a shame that labor isn’t so much a focus of IWD any longer—certainly workers’ rights are very much at the heart of women’s rights—but women’s history, arts, literature, and entrepreneurship are celebrated in various activities, and there are indeed plenty of political rallies and feminist actions connected to the day. Still, I find myself hedging.

Part of my hesitation could be boiled down into a little package of "Every day should be International Women's Day!" That’s more than a little pat, I know, but there it is. I write thousands of words every week about women, and so do plenty of other people, not to mention the activists, politicians, caregivers, social workers, creative workers, health-care providers, lobbyists, engineers, educators, parents, and laborers of all stripes who devote their work partially or wholly to the needs of women. Is our work supposed to matter more today than it did yesterday? Are more people going to be paying attention because—hey, didn’t you know, today is women’s day!

Of course, that’s also a limited mind-set. Today isn’t Women’s Day; it’s International Women’s Day. And while I pay attention to international women’s issues, the fact is I’m a product of an arrogant, powerful country that thinks it matters more than other nations. I try not to fall into that mind-set but I admit I have a hard time conceptualizing how international movements and events like this play out in other countries. The United States doesn’t seem to do much for International Women’s Day, and I don’t know how it really plays out elsewhere. I have no idea if it’s treated like Mother’s Day is here in ways that go beyond the bouquets, with that underlying sentiment of “Thanks for doing the majority of household work for the other 364 days of the year, Ma,” or if it’s something that actually helps increase women’s visibility and educates the public about women’s issues. (Not to say Mother’s Day isn’t nice, but the proportion of breakfasts in bed vs. discussions of maternal leave policies is a bit skewed.)

To really suss out my thoughts on International Women’s Day, I’d have to be talking with a lot more residents of countries where it’s celebrated. But when I looked at the list of countries where it’s an official holiday, it only raised my eyebrows higher. The list of countries where it’s an official celebration reads like a list of the world’s worst places for women: Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Tajikstan, Madagascar, and so on. Absent from the list is a single country known for being good to women. The celebrating country that places second-highest on the list of the World Economic Forum’s international rankings of places for women is Moldova—where, in 2008, an estimated 25,000 people were trafficked for forced labor, the majority of them women, many of those forced into sex work against their will. (Trafficking is complicated and not all women are trafficked against their will, but from what I understand Chisinau is an export hub for bait-and-switched forced prostitution.) When Moldova is one of the female-friendliest countries officially recognizing International Women’s Day, well, maybe we need to rethink exactly how effective such a day is.

You might say: That’s exactly the point, we need International Women’s Day in countries like Burkina Faso. But women worldwide don’t need flowers handed to them before breakfast; they need education, justice, basic safety measures. It’s a cliche to say something like “every day should be women’s day” in nations with more parity, but when applied to the actual countries that do set aside one particular day to honor half their population, it goes from being trite to being frightening. Uganda can afford to make it a national holiday because the other 364 days of the year women go back to, say, having no legal protection against marital rape, poor health care to treat fistula, and limited inheritance rights.

Now, I’m the first to admit that my knowledge about international issues is limited, though I know enough to see that in questioning a day that cultures foreign to me have embraced, I’m assuming that my privileged western views are “correct.” I don’t know enough about Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa (where most of the official celebrants are) to be able to say with authority that International Women’s Day isn’t important, or an instrumental part of a larger surge toward improving conditions for women in the countries that are the farthest in inequality. And in researching the international aspect of IWD, indeed what I found was somewhat encouraging: Plenty of countries on this list are taking active measures to improve the status of women. Moldova has taken strict measures against traffickers; Uganda has passed better domestic violence laws. Some of the celebrating countries are faring far better than the United States in ways: Fifteen of the countries celebrating IWD have a higher percentage of women in national parliaments than the United States.

I suppose I find International Women’s Day simply confusing. I don’t want to sit in my western world ivory tower and proclaim the entire affair a pony show, and I also recognize that most people don’t operate in the feminine sphere as heavily as I do and could use a prompt to get them to think about women’s issues. On a certain level, anything that puts women in the public light as something other than sluts, assumed caretakers, bridezillas, or any such tropes, I’m going to support. But I’m just not really sure who it’s for. (Unless, as my friend Mary suggested, it's for women with dual citizenship. Swiss-American ladies, rejoice!) The actions I’ve read about seem positive (with the odious exception of Rocking the Lips), but they also seem like things that people in female-friendly spaces already do, and I don’t know how much the public at large really engages in International Women’s Day. Is that the point here? That we need to keep having these days until we really don’t need them any longer?

I want to like International Women’s Day, I really do. So...convince me. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon, I’m not as knowledgeable about international women’s issues as I should be, and I certainly don’t want to pull some Independent Women’s Forum shit and say that women have made enough gains that we don’t need events like this any longer. Do you celebrate or otherwise mark International Women’s Day? If so, why, and how? (For that matter, did you Rock the Lip?) Do you see it making an impact outside of specifically female spaces? Should that even matter?


  1. Rock the Lips (forgive me re-mentioning) sounds sinister. "If we can get 1 million passionate, dynamic, creative, intelligent, fun women to wear red lipstick March 8th...what else can we do together" ain't so far from "if we can get women to do this, which other meaningless nonsense can we also manipulate them into doing?"

    For me, IWD is a good day to find comprehensive information aboutInternational women's positions. I forget the celebration because like you I don't understand what I can do for that and concentrate on the more easily forgotten sisterhood efforts (out of sight, out of mind).

    1. Claire, perfectly put. It feels like a manipulation, and to what end? And I like the idea of IWD as being an opportunity for us to continue thinking of feminism as an international action--that makes more sense to me than anything else. It's about the *inter* part of "international," I suppose.

  2. We don't even have to look to the world's worst places for women to see more meaningful things that could be done. If we're going to have International Women's Day we should be, I don't know, getting the ERA ratified or something. Hey, let's get a million women together (or more) and march on every statehouse in this country until contraception is an iron clad right and a patient's conscience (and her doctor's) are ranked as important as the guy at the pharmacy counter. Just a thought. Ugh.

    1. YES. It wasn't that long ago that a million women marched on the Washington Mall for reproductive rights. And I really hate it when holier-than-thou feminists point to feminists like me who parse messages about appearance, clucking tongues about the lack of political action. But the argument there has always been that the two coexist, because they do. This "action" takes away that argument. Ugh.

  3. So far, your writing on the topic is the most interesting thing about International Women's Day. I don't particularly want to like it, and my initial response is based on my belief that my womanhood is not the most interesting or important thing about me. But as you suggest, that response is probably shaped by my experience as a privileged person in a privileged nation, and it may be quite different for a woman in a nation in which it is not the norm for women to expect to be recognized as having worth aside from their procreative potential. That was a good insight for me. (Also, as regards the lipstick silliness, "It’s style without substance, rallying without a cause. It’s red without blood" is brilliant.)

    1. Heh, thanks! These responses are helping me see that, as I wrote to Claire, perhaps the *inter* part of "international" is key here--certainly I learned more about global women's issues in researching this piece than I'd known, both good news and bad.

  4. Yes I did "rock the lips"...

    "...Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes'.”
    ― Stephen Colbert"

    So lets stop this woman on woman hate and let a gal wear red lips in celebration if she wants. It's really not that different from wearing a clover on St Patricks day and be happy people are finally paying attention to our day.

  5. Women really Rock!! to be honest I've never been able to attend to any of International Women's Day Celebration but I'd like to participate. Because I believe if we become more united with same objectives in life we could do more productive things that will be benefits of everybody

  6. "Swivel lipstick was invented shortly after women in the U.S. gained the right to vote, and the color red has a long association with women’s sexual expression, indubitably tied to larger forms of expression." I had no idea. I wonder whether the connection was really women's liberation, or merely the pharmaceutical industry (male-run) trying to compensate for women's newfound freedom by creating a way of tying them to a certain expectation of appearance. Dunno. Very interesting post, thanks!

    1. CC, I don't think it's so much a direct cause-and-effect in either direction (but certainly the second point you raise is very much an early iteration of the beauty myth, so it makes perfect sense) as it is a matter of how the products were used--and then later on, as history framed them. It's interesting that you rarely hear the beauty myth argument raised about the flapper look, isn't it?