Gendered Consumption as Cruel Optimism: Purchasing the Feminine with Electrolux and Maybelline

Lauren Zwicky


In Volume 6, Issue 1
Special Issue: Consuming Gender

Abstract

In this current neoliberal age, gender identity is constructed as much through material consumption as it is through other forms of cultural expression. There is a very real sense in which we now purchase our points of identification and it is these acts of consumerism that then become markers for gender, sexuality, and class. My argument is that this kind of gendered consumption functions as an exemplar of ‘cruel optimism’, that it hinders rather than helps subjective flourishing. Lauren Berlant defines ‘cruel optimism’ as a kind of relation that exists when the object of individual desire becomes an ‘obstacle’ to flourishing. It is the undelivered promise of health, happiness, and wellbeing.
          I argue that gendered consumption itself is a form of cruel optimism. After discussing the specifics of gendered consumption's relationship with cruel optimism, I examine two American television advertisements, Maybelline's 'Push Up Drama' and Electrolux's 'Juggle'. By focusing on how these two advertisements instantiate a culture of cruel optimism, I illustrate the extent to which femininity is constructed through such acts of consumption, and the problematics that inhere in this process.

Keywords: consumerism, identity, cruel optimism, advertising, beauty culture, self-expression

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