Suffragettes, Cigarettes and Women Laughing Alone with Salad

Suffragette comes out in cinemas tomorrow so be sure to grab yourself something from the little feminist goodie bag: a ribbon or badge to support women’s rights in the late 19th Century…

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I’m starting to question whether those marketing the film really want to stir up any kind of political activism at all. Perhaps they just want people to see the film and appreciate the history so that they too may find their own cause, find their own voice, in their own time – and not at the Leicester Square premiere as happened a few nights ago.

But one little look in the time travelling campaigner’s box o’ treats shows some stickers, one with the film’s tagline: ‘The Time is NOW’.

I’m sure what they mean is the Now back then, not Now Now.

Interesting still to see that all the merchandise reads ‘Suffragette 2015’ as not to be confused with the actual movement.

The cynic in me is starting to think that this ‘Vote Meryl Streep’ sash that I’ve been wearing has nothing to do with equality but is some PR trap that I’ve fallen into. But would a multi-million dollar industry piggy-back on an activist movement for the disenfranchised to boost profits?

I’m reminded of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and the founder of public relations. Bernays realised the potential for advertising by linking products to unconscious desires. He implemented this theory when hired by the American Tobacco Company after World War One to try and expand the market to include women. This was a problem in the 1920s as smoking was seen as improper and even immoral for women, and as such they were only permitted to smoke in the privacy of their own homes, over the stove presumably.

Bernays recognised this imbalance and so transformed cigarettes into a symbol of empowerment. He paid some beautiful women – ‘not too model-y’ – to start smoking as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York, rebranding cigarettes as Torches of Freedom. This event was reported nationwide thanks to Bernays providing his own photographers and stirring up the controversy himself. As a result, women began to smoke more freely and openly. A slow shift towards equality motivated by corporate greed and one of the first ever publicity stunts.

From the 20s to the second wave of feminism in the 60s

We like to think we have come a long way but advertising and publicity remain quite the same, still based on this model proposed by Bernays that appeals to innate and unconscious desires. And by way of feminism we have guilt chipswomen laughing alone with salad and ribbons supporting the right for women to see the film about the fight for women’s rights.