Last week while flicking through TV channels an advert caught my attention. I was momentarily pleased to watch as a young girl was enchanted by clips of famous women – from feminist activist Emmeline Pankhurst to iconic singer Billie Holiday – while Fleur East’s version of Girl on Fire played in the background. But as the feature came to a close, I was jolted back into reality; this was an advert – a multimillion-pound advert for Virgin Media, to be precise. The billion-pound conglomerate is now using women and girls to sell broadband. Exploiting feminism for profit.
I can’t celebrate seeing feminism exploited in the ad breaks by a company that has been built by taking millions from the taxpayer. Virgin ushers publicly run assets into the private sector then languishes on subsidies from the public purse while making a huge profit. This is not an outlandish statement; it’s what has happened in the past. Take a look at their involvement in the privatisation of our railways and you’ll see a pattern: Virgin takes state subsidies, distributes massive payouts for their shareholders, while the quality of service declines.
It doesn’t stop there. Virgin Media sits alongside Virgin Care Ltd, which is slowly creeping further into the NHS in the form of backdoor privatisation. Although the company’s foray into feminist territory might seem like a reason to celebrate, a win for women it really represents neoliberal capitalism’s attempt to co-opt the message of feminism. All in the name of profit.
Neoliberal capitalism, which is built on the disenfranchisement of women and people of colour, is attempting to contain radical discourse within its walls. In doing so it neutralises the potential for system change. Richard Branson, the billionaire businessperson who owns Virgin, is flourishing under the current system. Though he likes to cultivate a benevolent image, he isn’t doing anything that would seriously challenge the system out of which he does so well. It’s far better and easier for him to give the impression that he cares while making symbolic tweaks to unequal structures.
This is going on all around us; it’s how capitalism stayed relatively steady on its feet after the 2008 financial crash. It’s a dangerous process that inhibits the possibility for real change: it takes in the collective effort of intersectional feminism and spits out individualistic gender equality and antiracism in its most feeble form.
We’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon from one of neoliberalism’s cheerleaders, in the form of David Cameron’s recent jaunt into the world of antiracism. From his Conservative party conference speech this year to a recent article in the Guardian, the Prime Minister has proclaimed himself a champion of race equality.
But our PM has conveniently failed to touch upon the number of ways his government is systematically disenfranchising black and minority ethnic people: through their aggressive cuts agenda, which disproportionately affect people of colour; their decision to continue protecting an unfair employment market that leaves BAME young people worse off; and the role they play in sustaining racist – in particular Islamophobic – narratives; have we already forgotten when Cameron described migrants as a “swarm”?
Cameron and Branson are bringing antiracism and feminism – two struggles that are actually interwoven – into Margaret Thatcher’s arena of individualism. Helping the the few to appease the masses.
There is a big difference between certain women succeeding in a society that exploits the poorest and most vulnerable and a movement that reconstructs a system to create a fairer society. Similarly, there’s a vast chasm separating the recently announced name-blind university applications and deconstructing institutionally racist structures that see people of colour as lesser, structures that have been maintained since the era of colonialism.
None of this is to say that accepting these steps forward within the current system is a failure. We can recognise the benefits of quotas in the workplace (incidentally, a policy Virgin say they’re all for) but challenge why this is not enforced across all companies and certainly with not enough attention paid to race.
But while we’re realising the shift in public discourse – usually a problematic shift where race is pushed to the back of the conversation – we have to remember that the real alterations won’t come by accepting these small steps from individuals. You can do both; as American scholar Kimerlé Crenshaw said: “I believe that women in power is absolutely essential, and that women in power is absolutely not enough”.
Or as writer Reni Eddo-Lodge put it, equality is a transitional demand; we must remember we don’t want to be assimilated into the status quo. For real change we have to reconstruct the system. We need liberation. But that goes against the interests of the people (often white men) who stand to benefit from the world the way it is. That’s why business tycoons and rightwing politicians saying they care about gender and race discrimination don’t convince me.
It’s as if Branson’s and Cameron’s media strategists are sitting in a room realising that some people want liberation from gender and race discrimination, and thinking of ways to give the illusion that they want the same thing too. Giving that impression is good for the brand.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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