Several years ago, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill noticed that a common message was being sent to women through advertisements, self-help books, music and other media: the solution to all their problems was to be more confident.
“Every time we heard a politician, a business leader or someone from a brand talk about inequality, then there they were talking about women’s confidence,” said Dr Gill, professor of social analysis and Culture at City University London.
She and Dr Orgad, a professor of media and communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science, started holding a “trust basket”.
“We were ripping things out of magazines, newspapers,” Dr. Orgad said. “We looked at particular genres where these exhortations seem to be particularly important: advertising, apps, but also the self-help industry.”
Over time, Dr Gill said, they realized that “the inequalities were explained by this psychological feature of trust”.
Their research is distilled in “Confidence Culture,” a feminist cultural critique to be published by Duke University Press on February 9. The book confuses the idea that the challenges women face in work, sex, relationships and parenthood are self-esteem rather than social structures.
In the interview below, which was conducted via video call and has been edited, Dr. Orgad and Dr. Gill discussed their findings.
Let’s clarify something. In this book, your criticism is not directed at trust as a general trait, but rather at the culture of trust, or as you put it in the book, the “culture of trust) “. Can you explain the difference?
Shani Orgad: Our critique is about the culture that repeatedly blames women and tells women that the problem lies with their psyche, their body, their behavior and their way of thinking. We do not dispute the trust. It’s a wonderful thing for women to be more confident.
Rosalind Gill: The culture of trust allows institutions, organizations and larger structures to pull through because if women are in charge, we don’t have to make fundamental changes.
What is “Love Your Body” marketing?
Dr. Gill: “Love Your Body” marketing was a real turning point when it first appeared. Dove, Nike, and L’Oreal were among the first brands to make this shift to not market to women their insecurities.
There’s been a lot of criticism of him, not just in academia, but in popular culture, around his fakeness – whether he uses non-models that look incredibly like models, or techniques like Photoshop or filters. There have also been some really, really egregious examples of racism.
We criticize the way this type of advertising tends to trivialize the pressure that women tend to feel around their bodies. He does show that pain and suffering, but then he blames the women, as if the responsibility for the pain is in the women’s heads. If they could just cheer up and be a little more confident, the problem would go away.
There is an example you provide in the book of a Dove ad called “Patches”.
Dr. Gill: Women show up in a fake lab to take part in an experiment. They are given this beauty patch, like a nicotine or hormone patch, and they wear it for two weeks while doing a video diary.
In the end, of course, they all come back looking much better, more confident, more comfortable in their own skin. And then it’s revealed that the patch didn’t contain anything.
It seems like such a toxic story for an ad because it places all the blame for the painful and damaging nature of our beauty culture on the women themselves.
Rather than taking the pressure off women, all of these seemingly uplifting and confidence-inducing messages actually increase it, because the demand to look good, to look young, to be beautiful, to have a incredible skin, hair, body and teeth has not disappeared.
But now we have the added pressure of being confident, of feeling good about ourselves. Not being able to talk about your insecurities produces psychic discipline from women.
The women in the Dove video feel the pain of their insecurities on camera and are told they can overcome it by believing in themselves or by using Dove products. In the book, you describe a tendency for powerful women to speak out about their insecurities in public and how that relates to the culture of trust.
Dr. Orgad: We talk about vulnerability, but not about systemic issues that make some people more vulnerable than others.
If you’re in a position where you can come on social media and confess your vulnerabilities, chances are you can only talk about it because it was already safe in the past.
It is reserved for those in power. For most people, who are far less privileged, it is still a problematic and dangerous thing to be vulnerable which can cost them their jobs. This can have a huge emotional cost.
How are confidence messages for men different from those for women?
Dr. Gill: Messages of confidence to men are much more about outward displays of confidence. They are about performance, success and achievement.
For men, it’s actually about getting more dates, doing better work, moving up the ladder in some way, but it’s not based on the idea that they have a lack of trust linked in one way or another to inequality.
Does the culture of trust express itself as feminist?
Dr. Orgad: The versions of feminism deployed by the culture of trust are very individualistic, and they are really different from feminism as a political movement.
These mantras – “lack of confidence is holding you back” or “you are your own worst enemy” – illustrate how it is a very particular version of feminism that has become popular that drives women to undertake this very intensive work on themselves, ranging from the way they look and feel and communicate and occupy space.
It is an optimistic and positive version of feminism. It celebrates women’s accomplishments, which is great, but, in a truly disturbing way, it disavows the very feelings that have propelled feminism for decades: anger, disappointment, rage, criticism. Those feelings that are now presented as negative and toxic.