Virginia Slims and the Racialized Commodification of Feminism

When my mom was 21, she worked in a bank in which everyone around her smoked while they would balance their checkbooks each night. As a young woman, my mom hated the smell of smoke, the feeling of smoking, and pretty much everything about smoking. However, as a 21-year old, she thought if she smoked she would fit in at her job, so she went out and bought a pack of Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarettes made for women. She told me, “I never even thought of not buying cigarettes that weren’t advertised for women.”

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Virginia Slims was a line of cigarettes targeted at women between 1968 and the 1980s, and found success in its advertisements which “co-opted women’s liberation slogans to build a modern female image.”[1] My mother still talks about the advertisement that she remembers most vividly, which says, “You’ve come a long way baby,” a slogan that speaks to the feminist movement in the United States by selling the idea of equality and progress.

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While I was doing research on this slogan and the various advertisements that went along with it, I found advertisements featuring white women and black women, including black women with various hairstyles, including an afro, long straightened hair, shaven hair, etc. I was interested in this, since most of the advertisements I am used to seeing are almost exclusively white women. According to Stanford’s Tobacco Advertising Page, “in targeting black women, tobacco companies often portray an image of a strong, independent black woman.”[2] This appeal of seeing a strong, independent (and beautiful) black woman is discussed in Deborah Willis’ book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, who “recognizes that beauty is empowering in black culture” by examining how models “showed confidence through style and dress in posing beauty.”[3]

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As I think about how all these pieces fit together, I think about all the movements that were at play during this time, especially second wave feminism, which was predominantly white women, who were, for the most part, focused on white women’s issues. I find it interesting that these advertisements seem to be selling feminism to black women, who were not usually part of the discourses around women’s rights in this time (and to be fair, they are often left out of the conversations to this day). Therefore, it strikes me that Virginia Slims is commodifying feminism to black women, suggesting that if they purchase the cigarettes, they will be able to buy into feminism, and be part of the movement. It is just one of the many examples of times in which at first glance, it seems to be great that there is somewhat more diverse representation, yet it is actually not positive at all (especially because the product is cigarettes, but that’s probably a discussion for a different post).

[1] B. Toll and P. Ling, “The Virginia Slims identity crisis: an inside look at tobacco industry marketing to women,” Tob Control 14(3) (2005): 172-180, accessed May 28, 2017, doi:  10.1136/tc.2004.008953.

[2] “Tobacco Advertising Themes: African Americans,” Stanford, accessed June 2, 2017, http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php?token2=fm_st267.php&token1=fm_img20341.php&theme_file=fm_mt019.php&theme_name=African%20Americans&subtheme_name=Virginia%20Slims%20Black.

[3] Deborah Willis, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2009), xvii.

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2 thoughts on “Virginia Slims and the Racialized Commodification of Feminism

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  1. This blog post makes me think about the “marketplace feminism” that is currently en vogue. Andi Zeisler, in her book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, writes about how “feminist”, in our time, has been “rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars”, driving advertising and marketing, presenting social justice as “just another consumer choice.” Just as women’s liberation was tied to Virginia Slims, tying products to feminism, and to anti-Trump movements specifically, is contemporarily incredibly popular, and, as Zeisler demonstrates, incredibly problematic. It’s not as though this commodification of feminism has solved the problems that feminist movements have sought to address (as we can see through Trump’s election, sustained attack on Planned Parenthood, etc.). I think that your post does the incredibly important work of pointing out that this commodification and marketing of “women’s liberation” (now rebranded as “feminism”) and social justice movements are not solely phenomena of the twenty-first century; they are rooted in histories of selling empowerment without actually empowering or creating change.

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  2. It was interesting in this article to see how Virginia Slims used both white and black models to target different audiences. As Margaret Hunter explains in her essay Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World, “images of white beauty sell an entire lifestyle imbued with racial meaning (Burke, 1996; Saraswati, 2010). The lifestyle that is communicated through these ads sells whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth” (144). At this time period white models sold a newfound freedom as well.

    It is interesting that you noted how black models, when included in the advertisements, were used to sell the confidence, attitude and sass associated with the stereotype of the “strong, independent black woman”. (Side note: this reminds me of the Blackish clip we watched in class, where the mother and daughter are shown the only two black dolls in the store, “Sassy Selma” and “Sassy Sadie”.) This brings me back to Minh-Ha T Pham’s article, Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to Be Diverse, and the idea of co-opting the black image for added “multicultural cool” while not actually representing black women in an authentic way. While increased representation (especially of models with natural hair) is an overall good thing, I can’t help but wonder if these ads essentializing their models to fit into the “sassy” black woman stereotype is more harmful than empowering.

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