Commodified Feminism and the Female Body: A Case Study of Bulletin

“Bulletin...was really born after the Trump election. We are a fully female-run team...and we were so devastated...We were like, ‘what can we do to make a difference, to make women feel like their voices matter, and they’re safe and they’re protected?’” -Rachel Hodes, Communications Manager at Bulletin

Bulletin is a female-run company that donates ten percent of in-store profits to Planned Parenthood of New York City. As the self-named “WeWork of retail” (Personal Interview, 2018), Bulletin’s e-commerce and two retail locations (Nolita, NYC and Williamsburg, Brooklyn) feature a wide range of products by female-owned brands, many of which display messages of female empowerment, sexuality, and images of feminist icons. Upon entering Bulletin’s Nolita location, consumers are greeted with the company's mission statement (Figure 1), which celebrates female empowerment, and can be seen near the entrance on one of the store’s saturated medium- pink walls. Pop music that conveys lyrics of love, sexuality and female agency can also be heard throughout the store. Though the overlapping product displays are updated frequently and often rearranged, the minimalist yet slightly imperfect aesthetic remains. An entire station devoted to Planned Parenthood lies near the center of the store. The primary consumers are Caucasian teens to middle-aged women, although men occasionally enter the store, often accompanied by a woman. Maggie Braine, the Bulletin Director of Product and Brand Experience noted that the target consumer of the store “skew[s] a little bit younger,” including Millennials and Gen Z (Personal Interview, 2018). This became increasingly evident, particularly through my observation of a Caucasian teenage girl taking photos of the Bulletin products and calling out to her slightly agitated mother: “Hey, we spent like an hour at your store!”

I conducted research at Bulletin’s Nolita location between March 2018 and May 2018. This included observation and active listening in the space, and interviews with Bulletin corporate employees, Bulletin partners, Nolita store employees, and consumers. As a female Millennial, I resemble a typical consumer of the store and fit their target demographic. My passion for retail and beauty as well as my self-identification as a feminist contribute to my biases. However, these aspects of my identity allowed me to communicate more easily with my interviewees: as a student of marketing, gender and visual culture, I am familiar with the buzzwords surrounding feminism today, as well as recent trends in retail environments, and was therefore able to observe and tailor my questions accordingly. Throughout my fieldwork, due to the small size of the store, I quickly became aware of the ways in which my movements affected those of the customers around me. In response, I made an effort to mirror the natural movements within the store so as not to disrupt the flow or block customers from navigating the store’s narrow passages. Additionally, the volume of the store music occasionally made it difficult to actively listen to those around me.

In their work on activism and consumer culture, Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee write that social activism is evolving in contemporary U.S. culture by transforming social action into a marketable commodity (Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee, 2012). This process manifests through corporate strategies of “shopping for change,” and creating communities in which activist, citizen and consumer identities are merged (Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee, 2012). Through an analysis of corporate social responsibility, aesthetic and experiential consumption, and the language featured on products at Bulletin Nolita, I will demonstrate the ways in which Bulletin projects a commodified feminist identity. I will then explore the implications of placing feminist- branded commodities onto their consumers (primarily female-identifying bodies), and will ultimately argue that Bulletin’s products are not only extensions of the female body, but also can actively construct a new kind of feminist body.

As all employees interviewed echoed the notion that Bulletin’s retail settings exist “[as] a collective for feminists” and reflect a “[feminist] mindset” (Personal Interview, 2018), one must contextualize Bulletin in relation to recent shifts in the feminist movement. In her analysis of feminist consumption, Riordan writes that the second-wave feminism of the 1960’s was characterized by a demand for reproductive rights and equal pay primarily for middle-class, white women (Riordan, 2001). By the early 1990’s, the rhetoric of second-wave feminism evolved into a new form, rooted in the acceptance and inclusion of a range of sexualities, races, social classes, and gender identifications (Riordan, 2001). Though Cremin notes in her book on gender politics that the commodification of feminism by corporations began as early as second-wave feminism (Cremin, 2017), Riordan adds that this practice gradually evolved into expressions of female empowerment in popular culture, referred to as the emergence of “pro-girl” rhetoric (Riordan, 2001). As Rachel Hodes remarked in our interview, Bulletin exists as an inclusive space in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and seeks to support women through its “genuine, girl power vibe” (Personal Interview, 2018). Her comment suggests that Bulletin is reflective of commodified third-wave feminism, but represents an additional evolution as well. The company not only uses “pro-girl” rhetoric to create what Goldman and colleagues refer to as “commodity feminism,” or products that emphasize feminist ideals such as female empowerment and agency (Goldman et al., 1991), but uses this rhetoric to create an entirely feminist-branded retail space.

Central to Bulletin’s feminist space is their sense of corporate social responsibility (CSR), defined by Vogel as practices that aim to improve and benefit society, rather than focusing solely on the bottom line (Vogel, 2005). In addition to donating ten percent of store profits to Planned Parenthood, Bulletin’s in-store Planned Parenthood station features a volunteer sign-up sheet, postcards and contact information of U.S. senators, protest postcards, feminist pins, and a dip jar to directly contribute to the organization (Figure 2). Displays of CSR at Bulletin reflect the values of Millennial and Gen Z consumers by linking Bulletin to the support of women’s health care. As Eastman and colleagues write in their article on Millennial consumption patterns, Millennials are more socially conscious than many previous generations, with social responsibility greatly impacting their purchase decisions (Eastman et al., 2013). The Cone Communications 2017 CSR Report confirms: “consumers are no longer just asking, ‘What do you stand for?’ but also, ‘What do you stand up for?’” (Cone Communications, 2017, 2).

Through the philanthropic elements of the store, Vanessa Enriquez, Co-Founder of Nevermind Cosmetics (sold at Bulletin), reflected that the act of purchasing Bulletin’s products becomes a more meaningful experience for consumers because they feel that they are directly contributing to social change (Personal Interview, 2018). The concept of merging consumerism and activism, referred to as “commodity activism” by Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee (Banet- Weiser and Mukherjee, 2012), includes other aspects of the Bulletin retail experience as well. For Mia Calotta, Founder of A Shop of Things (sold at Bulletin), purchasing Bulletin’s products supports the general community of female entrepreneurs, giving them a platform and stability in a competitive marketplace (Personal Interview, 2018). For Alexandra Chang, Founder of The Zeitgeist (sold at Bulletin), supporting her small business allows her to pursue her related passion projects, which involve interviewing professional women for her brand’s blog and sharing their inspiring narratives with the world (Personal Interview, 2018). By linking social activism to consumption practices, Bulletin solidifies its image as a feminist space, committed to the celebration and support of female voices.

As social networks play an increasingly important role in the lives of consumers (Eastman et al., 2013), the aesthetic and experiential elements of consumption greatly contribute to Bulletin’s Nolita feminist retail space. Kelley Feighan, Co-owner and CEO of Valley Cruise Press (sold at Bulletin) echoed the role of social media in visual culture in our interview: “I think that people just like pretty things around their house—fun, interesting, new things. Instagram obviously really drives it” (Personal Interview, 2018). Throughout my fieldwork, I constantly heard enthusiastic remarks of the following variation: “This is so pretty/cute/gorgeous!!” to describe the products and the general retail space, suggesting that their presentation aligned with consumers’ sense of aesthetic appeal. It is noteworthy that even when the products did not match their individual tastes, consumers such as one Caucasian woman in her twenties exclaimed, “This is stuff I would never wear—but it’s so fun to look at!”

The aesthetic appeal of the store contributes to Bulletin’s feminist-branded identity through its sense of intimacy and engagement. Maggie Braine reflected on the level of care that went into making each decision that contributed to the environment of Bulletin; she commented that their employees (called “brand experience leaders”) are smart, personable, and do not wear uniforms to complement the social experience of the store: “We want people to feel like they’re a friend” (Personal Interview, 2018). Employees play their “guilty pleasure” music in the store, and Candace, and employee at the store, added that frequent store events, including store themes, book signings and panels “refresh the company” and contribute to Bulletin’s “empowering environment” (Personal Interview, 2018). These store elements, as well as Bulletin’s feminist-themed products, allow the company to establish themselves as unique in a highly competitive environment— particularly for physical retail today (Charters, 2006). Through activities such as event participation, engagement with their products, and interaction with the Planned Parenthood station (which is rewarded with a free glass of rosé on Thursdays), Bulletin aims to create an inclusive community for feminists centered around embodied experiences (Biehl-Missal and Saren, 2012).

In order to have a more complete understanding of Bulletin’s feminist-branded retail space, one must consider the symbolic aspects of the store aesthetic. In their analysis of experiential consumption, Holbrook and Hirschman note that all products can carry symbolic meanings (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982). The setting of Bulletin can be classified as a site of visual culture, with t-shirts, pins, posters, and accessories that feature not only political and feminist figures but also popular culture and fashion icons (Figure 3). The Nolita retail space is painted a highly saturated, Millennial pink, a color that Koller describes as indexing sexual identity as well as positivity, fun, adventure, and even vulgarity (Koller, 2008). It is important to note that as Bulletin’s company colors are pink and yellow, their Williamsburg retail location is painted a bright yellow—a color currently associated with Gen Z (Eisenberg, 2018). In my fieldwork, I witnessed a conversation during which a customer commented that she loved the color scheme of the Nolita store, to which an employee responded: “Yeah, we’re pink girls,” suggesting the symbolic association of pink with female identities in the space.

In their effort to make Bulletin an environment in which “everything comes from the hands and the brains of a woman” (Personal Interview, 2018), womanhood itself has become a symbol that represents their feminist environment. In her analysis of male and female handbags, Cremin demonstrates that a product can index a kind of femininity that embodies style, abandonment, sexuality, and fragility all at once, but ultimately establishes women as a single, unmarked category (Cremin, 2017). At Bulletin, the production of symbolic meaning through layers of association has contributed to their ability to manufacture a feminist retail space.

Finally, one must analyze the role of the products themselves at Bulletin, specifically the myriad of ways in which the sexually explicit and subversive language featured on their products contributes to the feminist-branded retail space. In her piece on feminist vulgarity, Fricke argues that vulgarity in language shows emphasis and commitment, and that women can claim agency by using this language to name themselves (Fricke, 1999). This can be clearly seen through one of Bulletin’s best-selling items, a sweatshirt by Geneva Diva that reads “Designer Pussy” (Figure 4). Angie, another employee, remarked that “it’s very much a statement” to wear this item in public (Personal Interview, 2018), hinting at the explicit language that has been reclaimed from its derogatory usage against women. This new phrase adds an element of glamour in its reclamation, and also hints at labiaplasty (referred to as “designer vagina”), which potentially serves to associate the phrase with a high socioeconomic status as well. One can also view a greeting card by A Shop of Things that reads “put the seat down you fucker” (Figure 4), which incorporates profanity in its subversive messaging by explicitly targeting men. The product language aligns with Fricke’s encouragement of the linguistic assertion of female aggression against men, and arguably is successful in bringing subversive language into the public sphere (Fricke, 1999).

The element of humor underlies many of the products at Bulletin. Customers discussed funny word play and often laughed out loud with each other in reference to explicit items in the space. They also discussed the relevancy of the products to their own lives and experiences: at one point I observed an African American consumer in her twenties pointed to a two-part necklace that read “Basic Bitches” (Figure 5) and exclaimed to her friend, “Oh my god, this is me, this is me!!” Products including a postcard by A Shop of Things that reads “let me drop everything and work on your problem” (Figure 5) humorously references the emotional labor often expected of women, as well as the devaluation of women’s time more generally. In her piece on feminism and jokes, Bing notes that while feminist humor can contribute to a sense of group solidarity, it may also serve to reinforce gender stereotypes and sexual difference, which is counter- productive for achieving gender equality. Butler writes that essentializing the category of women is dangerous, because in reality, women do not experience oppression in a singular form (Butler, 2015). Additionally, while subversive in nature, humorous phrases such as “put the seat down you fucker” allow men to be the central focus, rendering women’s lives and values invisible (Bing, 2004). Though the effectiveness of the sexually explicit and subversive messages featured on Bulletin’s products is debatable, they demonstrate the symbolic value of language in creating a feminist-branded space at Bulletin.

The aforementioned analysis has demonstrated the ways in which Bulletin has used the commodification of feminism to develop a feminist-branded retail space through its CSR practices, aesthetic and experiential environment, and the language featured on its products. To further understand the dynamics within Bulletin, one must consider the relationship between this feminist-branded space and the female-identifying bodies that shop there. In their piece on “commodity feminism,” Goldman and colleagues note that feminism in capitalist settings exists as a kind of semiotic abstraction that can then dictate the signs of a feminist identity without encompassing any true values of the social movement (Goldman et al., 1991). Though spaces such as Bulletin may normalize feminist language in its attempts to appeal to a wider audience, their aesthetically depoliticized form of feminism directly contradicts third-wave feminist values, which encourage inclusivity and self-identification (Goldman et al., 1991). Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee add that the normalization of consumption as a means of accessing empowerment rearticulates capitalist values in a way that excludes marginalized individuals (Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee, 2012). This further prevents Bulletin from being inclusive of many kinds of female- identifying bodies in their space. Ultimately, the existence of Bulletin within the capitalist marketplace reinforces the patriarchal values that keep it from challenging or disrupting power relations in any substantial way (Riordan, 2001). Instead, through their apparel and accessories, Bulletin works within the system to change what they can: the surface of the body (Zeisler, 2016). Throughout her work on feminism in popular culture, Zeisler notes that this approach often temporarily succeeds within fundamentally unequal settings to empower individuals, but is not a sustainable strategy for social change (Zeisler, 2016).

In the context of the capitalist marketplace, one can argue that the feminism projected in Bulletin’s retail setting is not feminism at all, but rather a combination of signs and a culmination of associations that suggest a depoliticized, but feminist-branded feel (Banet-Weiser, 2012). The aesthetically pleasing products of Bulletin are powerful, however, because they provide consumers the language to think about social and political ideas, which consumers then use to construct and solidify their own decontextualized feminist identities. Perhaps within the setting of Bulletin, individuals do not simply exist as bodies in an aesthetic world—they are bodies being constructed by an aesthetic world.

The construction of decontextualized feminist bodies begins with the commodification of the consumer. Maggie Braine articulated that this occurs at Bulletin because the company has two clients: consumers, and brands that pay a membership fee to be sold in their stores (Personal Interview, 2018). By selling an audience of primarily female-identifying bodies to the female entrepreneurs who partner with the company, Bulletin is effectively commodifying their consumers, which requires the abstraction of the female body (Irigaray, 1985). In her piece on the economy of exchange, Irigaray argues that women as abstracted figures are simultaneously “utilitarian objects and bearers of value” (Irigaray, 1985, 175). By abstracting and by extension reducing the female body, consumers in the setting of Bulletin exist as object-commodities for Bulletin’s partners, and demonstrate their value through the purchasing of products in the retail space.

The marketing and branding of depoliticized feminist ideas creates a framework for the cultural production of these new, aestheticized values (Venkatesh and Meamber, 2006). This process occurs through the development of the products sold at Bulletin, which provides the context for reconstructing feminist-branded bodies within Bulletin’s retail spaces. Banet-Weiser emphasizes the power of branding by arguing that today, brands impact our organization of reality, our understanding of ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves (Banet-Weiser, 2012). As a result, resistance within consumer culture is severely limited, as it is determined and expressed within the boundaries of the culture itself (Banet-Weiser, 2012).

Finally, the placing of the depoliticized, feminist-branded commodities onto female- identifying bodies through consumption that constructs an entirely new kind of feminist body. The consumption of desired products reflects a complex self-narrative and cognitive framework, both of which constitute identity (Hearn, 2012). This process allows for the production of female-identifying bodies at Bulletin: bodies that are equipped with semiotic abstractions of depoliticized feminist values. It is important to note that the symbolic construction of these new feminist-branded bodies in the retail setting of Bulletin is an ongoing process, and one that works to normalize notions of this new kind of feminism in the public sphere. By placing a limited set of semiotic markers onto the surface of female-identifying bodies under the guise of consumer choice, consumers within Bulletin transform into living embodiments of Goldman and colleagues’ “commodity feminism.”

These consumers are reconstructed as highly contradictory manifestations of aestheticized, feminist-branded values. As Jeffreys quotes Wolf: “In a world in which women have real choices, the choices we make about our appearance will be taken at last for what they really are: no big deal. Women will be able to thoughtlessly to adorn ourselves with pretty objects when there is no question that we are not objects” (Jeffreys, 2005, 9). In other words, from the limited set of choices within Bulletin’s aesthetic environment, the surface of female-identifying bodies is crucial because consumers are commodified objects that are then reconstructed. In a world that truly reflected feminist ideals, aesthetic presentation would have no role in the process of constructing feminism, womanhood, or any kind of empowered identity.

Through this analysis of Bulletin’s retail space, one can better understand the ways in which the company’s CSR practices, aesthetic and experiential approach, and product language contribute to the production of a feminist-branded space. While the environment of Bulletin Nolita succeeds in supporting female entrepreneurs and increasing awareness about feminism, it ultimately exists in tension with capitalist constraints, and therefore cannot attempt to effectively reset the balance of power in society. Instead, the store produces a new form of decontextualized feminism, which has the potential to reconstruct and style feminist-branded identities and bodies in the space. As contemporary visual culture continues to grow within the capitalist marketplace, further research is needed on evolving forms of corporate social activism, particularly as new technologies enter the retail environment.


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Additional Photos from Fieldwork—Nolita Retail Space

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