Image: Flea Market Socialist
Every once in a while, I have the thought “Dear Lord, who I basically don’t believe in, please let us go at least one week without white feminists doing something really, really dumb.” Usually that prayer goes unanswered.
One of the biggest things that mainstream feminist movements need to answer for is the fact that for the most part, the feminism that is talked about, displayed in things like the Women’s March on Washington, and discussed in the media and by celebrities is white feminism—feminism that prioritizes the needs and feelings of white, usually middle or upper class women, and ignores or sidelines the needs of trans women, women of color, queer women, women with disabilities, and basically anyone who isn’t a cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class white woman. I admittedly fall into a lot of those categories, so I’m absolutely certain that at various times, I’ve been part of the problem. White women, even well-intentioned ones, can do a lot of harm to both their movement and to other women when intersectionality is not part of their game plan, and they can do even more damage when getting called out only makes them even more defensive and tone-deaf. (I’m looking at you, Susan Sarandon.) Perhaps as a result of the last election, where 53% of white women focused on their own needs above literally their own country (and even voted against their own interests) when they voted for an idiotic sexual predator (or at the very least a sexual-predation enthusiast), I’ve started to see a lot more articles calling out white feminism and encouraging intersectionality, which is awesome.
And into this increasingly enlightened space stumbled Kendall Jenner, holding a Pepsi can.
For those of you who haven’t seen the commercial (which is becoming more likely, as Pepsi is desperately taking down all video evidence it ever existed), Amrou Al-Kadhi provides a brief summary:
Here’s a quick breakdown. Kendall Jenner, amid a crowd of protesters, including black activists and a woman in a hijab, has the solution to building bridges with the hostile officers policing the demonstration: hand one a can of Pepsi. As soon as you do, BAM – the threat of police brutality is over, and the world’s political woes cured. Thank you Pepsi – and thank YOU, Kendall – for giving minorities the simple answer to centuries of systemic oppression.
The advertisement is basically like if someone had said “Can we have a visualization of everything that is wrong with white feminism, but in a commercial that also commodifies protest?” and Pepsi was like “Oh hell yes.”
In having the commercial end with the protesters and police coming together over a Pepsi (and the smile of a pretty white woman) the advertisement seems to almost purposefully be recalling the humblebrag of the Women’s March being nonviolent, something that Zeba Bray breaks apart very well for its implicit ignorance of the racial politics of protest:
White women who participated in the march can be proud of many things, but congratulating themselves for being peaceful and non-violent is a slap in the face to their fellow POC protestors. There isn’t a “right” way to protest. Indeed, peaceful and non-violent protest has, historically, never necessarily protected people of color from arrest.
From the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, to the Black Lives Matter movement (started by three black women) and the protests at Standing Rock, peaceful protests organized, led and attended by women and people of color have been met with hostility and militarization by the police. Meaning, police have arrived to these protests already in riot gear, already with their tasers and tear gas poised. There’s an implicit assumption that any gathering of brown or black folk equals trouble.
It’s a double standard we’ve seen too many times.
If any of the people of color in the crowd around Kendall Jenner had tried what she had done in real life, they probably would have been tear gassed the moment they held an object in the vicinity of a police officer, the police would have called it a “good” shooting, and various internet commenters would have demanded to know why the person who was shot had been “stupid” enough to hold things around people with guns. And this is far from the only problematic thing in the commercial.
Incredibly troubling is also the way that the commercial relies on but also makes props of people of color. Diyora Shadijanova writes,
Sure, the advert is ethnically diverse, but of course POCs are given secondary roles. The hijabi girl is stereotypically frustrated, but can only capture the perfect shot when of Kendall in the protest [sic], a black woman has to hold her wig while Kendall goes to save the day and the Asian guy only looks happy when she decides to “join the conversation.” Are we supposed to feel thankful that queen Kendall has decided to grace everyone with her presence?
Kendall tears off her blonde wig (is the blonde wig supposed to signify her white privilege? Her class? Media standards? Just a bad wig?) and literally hands off her burden to her black, female assistant. Maybe said assistant would have liked to join the protest, too, if she thought she could leave the photoshoot without being fired, because she isn’t a wealthy model who can stride off a set if she wants to and not fear losing her job. Or if she didn’t have to suddenly hold a white girl’s hair. Awesomely Luvvie also points out the way that various images of tokenized diversity are used to add “authenticity” to the protest:
2 Trans women and 2 Black guys with a white girl in the middle of them (GET OUT) giving the peace sign are shown. BECAUSE UNITY. LOVE. PEACE. Kendall walks through all of them, and grabs a Pepsi from a cooler. She proudly walks through the crowd in a confusing denim patchwork #alphet, while dapping up a Black dude with cornrows. Muslim woman (remember her?) is capturing it all on her camera. This is just can’t miss. The revolution must be captured by a Muslim woman in a hijab otherwise it’s not real.
There’s a phrase in there that is possibly “peak white feminism symbolism” and that is “she proudly walks through the crowd.” Kendall in this commercial hears the protest that is being put on by largely people of color, decides she wants to join, is invited by one of the people of color she envies, then she pushes through all of them so that she is at the head of the crowd and takes credit for appeasing the police. If that doesn’t say “white feminism” then I have no idea what does.
Well I know one thing that does—Kendall Jenner feeling “traumatized” by people criticizing her for taking part in a tone-deaf campaign. She’s apparently super concerned that she won’t get any more work, and is “embarrassed” by all the attention. Now yeah, Kendall Jenner is young. And she probably did not go into this advertisement thinking “I’m going to symbolically screw over people of color!” But she’s also super wealthy, and could literally pay someone to be woke for her. Also, she presumably has agents and managers and also like, friends who could point out when she is about to do a very dumb thing. And barring even all of that, presumably she has eyes and the ability to read internet articles, and knows that she should probably be concerned with apologizing for doing something dumb and trying to make amends with the communities she used to help her sell soda. But she isn’t doing that. Again, Shandijanova puts it perfectly:
Kendall could be focusing on the real issues at hand, such as the fact that Pepsi tried to rewrite the real narrative of political protests across America, speak over minority voices, or you know – the fact that they tried to commodify racial struggle. Yet instead, supposedly she’s worried about her career and her own feelings.
Not only does this make her look insensitive, it also makes her look like a fake ally to whatever “cause” she was meant to be supporting. I’m pretty sure everyone would have more respect for her if she just admitted that she fucked up and that she has learned from the experience. Her “trauma” is doing nothing for the causes she’s adamant she’s fighting for, so an apology might be a step in a better direction.
As I talked about last year when Lena Dunham made some super unfortunate remarks about Odell Beckham Jr., there are 5 Stages of Getting Called Out:
- Denial: “But I’m a feminist/social activist/vegan/whatever! I would never say/do something that is racist/sexist/able-ist/transphobic/homophobic/whatever! I’m an ally, I don’t do things like that!”
- Anger: “How dare they say that about me? This is just PC culture run amok. Don’t they understand how much work I do for their causes? Can’t they see I’m trying? Well fuck them, no one is ever satisfied.”
- Bargaining: “Isn’t it enough that I do (X) activism? Doesn’t that mean I deserve a break for messing up sometimes for (Y)? Can’t we just ignore (Y) for a minute and focus on more important stuff?”
- Depression: “God, I can’t believe I said/did that. I feel terrible about myself. This is so difficult, sometimes I just want to give up… I’m going to be kicking myself for this one for days.”
- Acceptance: “Welp…. That sucked. I better do some more research before I say something stupid like that again. I guess I can use this as a learning opportunity, and apologize to the people I hurt.”
Kendall Jenner appears to be somewhere between Stage 1 and Stage 3. More importantly, she is nowhere near Stage 5. And she really, really needs to get to Stage 5. Basically any time a feminist gets called out for a failure of intersectionality, we need to move as quickly as possible to Stage 5. We need to learn a lesson from this commercial, and from all the ways that the people we’ve wronged have tried to let us know that we have wronged them. People of color aren’t props. Protest is not a commodity. And the voices of white women should not be the dominant voice that we prioritize when we’re talking about diversity.
….and just, What the fuck, Pepsi?
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not explaining in great detail everything that went wrong with Pepsi’s latest ad campaign, she studies gender in popular culture.
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