Powerful in Pink: The corporatisation and commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’

By Elize Soer

South Africans commemorate Women’s Month in August to pay tribute to the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women.[1] Various corporations have promptly used the opportunity to advertise everything from shine-boosting shampoo to insurance in the name of ‘celebrating women’.[2] This has not been specific to Women’s Month, but forms part of a broader trend in which aspects of feminism and ‘women’s empowerment’ have been appropriated by corporate advertising campaigns to further capitalist imperatives, primarily boosting sales to increase profit. The following piece will provide a brief contextualisation of Women’s Month and will then provide analyses of various Women’s Month/Day and/or ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns by some of the world’s most famous corporations. The chosen campaigns will be contextualised in relation to the tendency of some corporations to engage in what scholars have referred to as ‘marketplace feminism’ (Zeisler, 2016), ‘postfeminism’ (McRobbie, 2009) and ‘neoliberal feminism’ (Hengeveld, 2015).

The piece will discuss a range of Nike campaigns because they epitomise the trend. Moreover, by historicizing Nike’s campaigns, we can see how the trend evolved and in which ways gendered portrayals changed over time. Thereafter, I will discuss campaigns by various other corporations including Pantene’s ‘Braids of Strength’ (2019), Hyundai’s ‘I_Can’ (2019), Barbie’s ‘Did You Know’ (2018) and Levi’s ‘Shape My World’ (2019). These campaigns were by no means exceptional and there are various other campaigns that reflect and promote the same discourses, for example MacDonald’s International Women’s Day advertisement (2020) and Netflix’s ‘#SheRules: International Women’s Day’ (2019). These campaigns were chosen because they represent the trend, but there were many other campaigns that could have served the same purpose. Summarily, the piece will argue that it is problematic that transnational corporations built on exploitation are appropriating ‘progressive’ ideas while simultaneously (re)producing the same exploitative structures that activists have been critiquing.[3]

Similar to Women’s Month in South Africa (SA), the origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) can be traced back to protests against exploitative and oppressive policies. The Socialist Party of America initiated IWD in order to honour the garment workers’ strike in New York in 1908, which can be situated in a struggle against capitalist economic exploitation. As Catherine Rottenberg noted, this tradition is still evident in many protests for gender justice, which often connect feminist issues with demands for racial, economic and/or climate justice (Rottenberg, 2019). However, these inspiring movements have been paralleled by a more worrisome trend- the increased commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’. Corporations often use images of ‘women’s empowerment’ as a part of ‘brand activism’, which refers to corporate attempts to improve a brand’s reputation “by using some popular and often progressive cause in their PR and advertising campaigns” (Rottenberg, 2019).

As mentioned in the introduction, the commodification of Women’s Month/Day is typified by the fact that various corporations and retailers have linked ‘celebrating women’ to buying effeminate gifts. These gifts include spa treatments, scented lotions, lingerie and perfumes. There are even lists of ‘empowering gifts’ such as wine glasses and bracelets (Murden, 2020). The first problem with these gifts is that they are usually pink and stereotypically feminine. This reinforces a gender dichotomy in which women are associated with ‘self-care’ products typically aimed at ‘improving’ their physical appearance. Ironically, this reinforces precisely the problematic binarised discourses around femininity that most feminists have aimed to oppose.

The notion of ‘empowering’ products has not been limited to Women’s Month. Katy Perry branded her signature fragrance, Killer Queen, as “royal, rebellious, and feminist” (Zeisler, 2016: 9) while various brands such as Dior launched ranges of T-Shirts with slogans like ‘We Should All be Feminists’[4] and ‘The Future is Female’. T-shirts with feminist slogans are not necessarily problematic, but these shirts often undermine the very causes they claim to support (Kvidal-Røvik, 2018: 210).[5] As Catherine Rottenberg noted, “activism and empowerment here is equated with buying an expensive t-shirt with words like ‘You Go Girl’. Women, in other words, are encouraged to express their solidarity not through struggle or protest, but by shopping” (Rottenberg, 2019). She labelled this type of feminism ‘neoliberal feminism’[6] and argued that it is marketable “precisely because it is a non-threatening feminism. It doesn’t address the devastation wrought by neoliberal capitalism, neo-imperialism or systemic misogyny and sexism.”

Andi Zeisler similarly critiqued this form of feminism for being uncritical of capitalist structures and for promoting a “glossy feel-good feminism” that ignores entrenched forms of inequality (Zeisler, 2016: 10). It draws on a vocabulary of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ to promote an individualistic discourse that transposes structural and social problems into individual (in)adequacies (McRobbie, 2009: 1; Cole & Hribar, 1995: 354). The notion of individual empowerment featured strongly in all of the campaigns that will be discussed. This logic suggests that everyone can succeed within capitalism if they are dedicated enough and, from a gendered lens, that every woman can be ‘empowered’ if she chooses to be. It is implied that individuals must not allow prejudices associated with circumstances of class, race, gender, sexuality or physical ability to impede their efforts, “as if transcending these things is simply a matter of will and effort” (Helstein, 2003: 288).

The notion that one must simply work harder to transcend one’s circumstances is a fundamental capitalist mantra. Debra Capon and Michelle Helstein argued that advertisements can be considered to be the myths of contemporary (Western) culture and it is thus not really surprising that they would promote capitalist ideologies (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 40). According to their definition, myths funcion to “naturalize speech, transmuting what is essentially cultural (historical, constructed, and motivated) into something which it materializes as natural (transhistorical, innocent, factual)” (2004: 56). The myth that one must simply work harder to transcend all circumstances was particularly evident in Nike’s campaigns. If we assume that myths function to naturalise ideas that are constructed in specific historical periods, then a short discussion of Nike’s history seems appropriate.

Nike was founded in 1964, but its sharp ascent began during the Reagan era (1981-1989) in the United States (U.S.). Ronald Reagan has become associated with his neoliberal economic doctrine, which demonised state support and favoured privatisation. His ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on AIDS’ also followed a logic that foregrounded free will and located “insufficient free will in the bodies of others” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355). The advertising campaigns of the era promoted free will, the ‘deep self’ and the ‘hard body’ and encouraged consumers to work on their bodies and to consume commodities in order to maintain the body. Working on the body was presented as a means of taking control and displaying one’s self. Concurrently, consumer power was championed as a means of transcendence at a time when political options were narrowing. Summarily, It is not a coincidence that Nike thrived in the decades characterised by cultural emphases on “fitness, health, lifestyle, addiction, and individual responsibility” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355).

During the same period, advertisers began to respond to the heightened awareness of feminist critiques of the images of women in advertising. More and more advertisements started to contain signs associated with so-called ‘positive images of women’. Advertisements that incorporated commodity feminism advanced an image of the ‘new woman’ who was defined by a series of attitudes and signs based on the characteristics of the liberal subject, including individuality, independence and choice. Nike’s advisers informed the company about the potential of the rising ‘women’s market’ in 1979. However, Nike’s executives dismissed the advice because they thought it would harm the company’s image as an “authentic and serious” sport brand, in contrast to Reebok, which did cater to the ‘women’s market’ (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 359).

Nike finally ventured into the ‘women’s market’ in 1987 with a TV campaign featuring the famous triathlete Joanne Ernst. The advertisement concluded with Ernst sitting on a locker room bench and telling the audience that “it wouldn’t hurt if you stopped eating like a pig” (cited in: Hengeveld, 2015). Unsurprisingly, the advertisement was not the breakthrough into the ‘women’s market’ that Nike had hoped for. Nike then hired the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, wich actively drew on feminist critiques of the advertising industry and incorporated these critiques into subsequent Nike campaigns. The first advertising message the agency created for Nike (in 1990) was ‘empowerment’. The campaign encouraged women to reject ‘traditional holds’ and challenged them to become ‘empowered’ through fitness. Nike promoted an image of empowerment that corresponded with the Reaganite malieu. For example, one ad closed with the line “the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be”, reiterating the point that women could take control of their destiny and exert personal agency through buying shoes (Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 11).

It was thus in the early 1990s that Nike began capitalising on calls for gender justice by using critiques of patriarchy as a marketing strategy. However, Nike executives were still adverse to using women with muscular bodies in their ads. The emphasis was not on women as competitors, but on women who were healthy and fit, “but not too fit, always pretty” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 14). Although the depiction of women has changed over time, there has been a continuous emphasis on beauty. Standards changed from voluptuousness to thinness to being ‘toned’, but cultural norms continued to promote the importance of beauty. Beauty also continued to be conceptualised in a narrow (Western) way and images of beauty remained predominantly white and ‘not too masculine’.  For example, Nike launched a range of sports bras in 1999 with the tag-line “After years of exercise, what kind of shape will your breasts be in?” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 22). The bra was thus not advertised by appealing to athletic performance, but to fears that women’s breasts would become ‘deformed’ by athletic training.

Since these first campaigns, Nike has attempted to brand itself as a purveyor of equality and justice for women. This image was somewhat tarnished by multiple sweatshop scandals that “made it crystal clear that Nike profited from, rather than, railed against patriarchy,” (Hengeveld, 2015). Nonetheless, Nike’s advertisements continue to push an emancipatory narrative that focuses on “empowerment embedded in bodily maintenance and the consumption of Nike products” (Helstein, 2003: 282). These ads have been targeted more towards the global north, however, Nike has also had multiple campaigns in the global south. On the one hand, these campaigns take the form of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ programmes.[7] However, for the sake of this piece, I want to focus on one of Nike’s recent campaigns featuring the famous South African athlete Caster Semenya.

Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign was launched in 2019 and featured multiple videos with a range of athletes, including Sam Kerr, Virgil van Dijk and Caster Semenya. In the video centred on Semenya, she shows the audience her home in Soweto, a township in SA. The narrative of the video explains that Semenya overcame her circumstances and rose from poverty to become an Olympic gold medalist, or in Semenya’s words “I moved from rurals to international stage”. Throughout the video, she made multiple comments emphasising that “you dream it and then you do it” and  “even if you are coming from a dusty place like this, you can be whoever you want”. After the inspirational video, Nike’s infamous slogan ‘Just Do It’ appears with the company’s signature swoosh (Nike, 2019).

The advertisement clearly advances the capitalist notion that structural and social problems can be overcome through personal lifestyle choices. Accordingly, success can be achieved through the force of individual will, personal perseverance and self-responsibility (McDonald, 2004: 28). It is important to note that Semenya is an exceptional athlete who has overcome multiple forms of discrimination and that she certainly deserves admiration. However, this is where the conceptualisation of advertisements as modern myths becomes significant. Myths are often not total falsehoods or delusions, but partial truths that “accentuate particular versions of reality and marginalize or omit others” (McKay, 2004: 83). Accordingly, “myths depoliticize social relations by ignoring the vested interests involved in struggles over whose stories become ascendant in a given culture” (McKay, 2004: 83).

The problem with Nike’s campaign is thus not the fact that Semenya got recognition, but the myriad of factors that this ‘just do it’ narrative omits. If succeeding within a capitalist structure is simply a matter of individuals working hard, then the people who fail to succeed have no one to blame but themselves. This ignores institutionalised classism, racism and sexism (McKay, 2004: 88). Just as notions of ‘women’s empowerment’ began to feature in Nike advertising campaigns when the company wanted to reach the ‘women’s market’, Nike has also begun to associate images of freedom, success and opportunity with athletes of colour, while omitting any indication of exploitative practices. This led Jim McKay to argue that contemporary sports advertising discourses “exemplify the capacity of the media to mythologize relations of exploitation, and construct ideologies of enlightened racism and celebrity feminism” (McKay, 2004: 93).

Caster Semenya is not only famous for her athletic capabilities, but also for the (highly publicised) debates about her intersexuality. In the Nike video, she touches on the subject by stating “I know I look like a boy, so what?” (Nike, 2019). A discussion about sexuality and sport as well as the implications of intersexuality for notions of a gender dichotomy falls beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I want to draw attention to the fact that Semenya’s ‘masculine’ traits are presented as acceptable. This is seemingly in contrast to the company’s earlier insistence that the women in their campaigns should not be ‘too fit’ (read ‘too muscular’) since they would no longer be pretty and, assumedly, too threatening.

The first possible explanation for this change over time is the fact that Nike’s advertisers are acutely aware of feminist critiques and they incorporate these critiques into their campaigns. The second possible explanation is that ‘black femininity’ is stereotypically more ‘masculine’ than ‘white femininity’ because black women in the U.S. were expected to do manual labour (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 53). Both of these explanations are supported by gendered representations in another Nike campaign featuring Serena Williams. Williams is one of Nike’s primary spokespeople and she is often presented as strong and powerful. In the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign she stated: “I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated for motherhood. But I am proving time and time again, there is no wrong way to be a woman” (Nike, 2018). In the text there is a clear incorporation of feminist critiques. However, as we shall see, there is also a variance between Nike’s presentation of black and white women.

Nike’s 2019 ‘Dream Crazier’ campaign starts with an image of a crying white woman, although the advertisement also features a feminist-inspired narration by Williams (Nike, 2019). Nike’s preceding ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign in 2018 (narrated by  Colin Kaepernick) included a snippet with Alicia Woollcott, an American teenager who played linebacker and was named homecoming queen during her high school senior year. The advertisement asserted: “Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker, do both” (Nike, 2018). This advertisement seems to validate a critique Barbara Lippert wrote of Nike ads in 2001. Lippert took issue with the “general, red-blooded, upbeat, you-go-girl message, synthesizing every post-empowerment female idea about combining strength and emotions and humanity, karate kicks and mascara” (Lippert, 2001). Significantly, black female athletes are portrayed as purely athletic, while white female athletes are portrayed as both athletic and feminine. We are told that Woollcott was a linebacker, but we are reminded that she was not ‘butch’ since she was also the homecoming queen. During the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign discussed in the previous paragraph, Williams mentioned motherhood, which could be read as a reminder that she could be both an excellent athlete and a mother and thus ‘have it all’. However, this is a relatively new addition and there is a general tendency to emphasise the pure strength of black women while white women are portrayed as strong, but still feminine.

Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz identified a similar gendered ideology in Nike campaigns and argued that women are now encouraged to “both ‘like pink’ and yet ‘still sweat” (2004: 75). Accordingly, “the dual consumption of hyperfemininity and tomboy-athleticism is no longer diametrically opposed; the New Age female athlete á la Nike is both ‘girly girl’ and ‘athletic’” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 75). As demonstrated by the discussion of Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign, not all of their campaigns conform to this ideology. In addition to the racial element, this could possibly be due to the fact that Nike still wants to protect its ‘serious sports’ image. However, other ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns do conform to this ideology. The general themes of these campaigns are a ‘you go girl!’ ethos with examples of women who ‘have it all’. In this instance, women who ‘have it all’ are depicted “carrying babies, modeling clothing, scoring baskets, and kicking goals, all the while displaying conservative, feminine, and attractive qualities and characteristics” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 63).

Pantene’s 2019 Women’s Day campaign, ‘Braids of Strength’, presents an apt example of this ideology. The first ad in the campaign starts with the statement “By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports (at) twice the rate of boys”. The ad then follows Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, an artistic gymnast. Although the ad does comment on her strength, she is also feminine and skilfully make-uped and there are multiple shots of her hair being braided. Finally, the ad declares “stay strong, stay beautiful and stay in sports”. The emphasis is thus on the fact that women can compete in sport and stay beautiful, if they buy Pantene shampoo of course (Pantene, 2019).

The second ad in the campaign featured Nur Suryani, the Malysian shooter who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games while being 8 months pregnant. At the launch of the campaign Suryani stated: “Embracing our womanhood through sports is at times challenging, but ultimately rewarding” (cited in: Angie, 2019). Both ads thus emphasise the fact that women can stay in sport and be feminine. Suryani did not have to choose between being a mother and competing in the Olympics, she could do both. Significantly, Suryani’s athleticism did not challenge her role as a woman, but she could ‘embrace her womanhood through sports’.

While Pantene’s Women’s Day campaign at least promotes a form of empowerment and comments on women’s strength, Hyundai’s ‘campaign’ is simply an advertisement. The advertisement shows a woman’s hands being hennaed while the narration states “this is the moment I was waiting for. I can’t wait to experience this new life. Every girl dreams of this day, now it’s coming true” (Hyundai, 2019). The advertisement thus encourages the audience to believe that the woman is speaking about her wedding day. Then a Hyundai car key is placed in her hands and the audience realises that the day she has been waiting for, is the day she would receive the car. The ad is then hashtagged ‘I_Can’. The hashtag therefore follows the individualised ‘you go girl’ notion of ‘women’s empowerment’ while the advertisement suggests that this is achievable through buying a new car. The advertisement also evokes the ‘traditional’ idea that women are supposed to dream of marriage and suggests that ‘empowered women’ rather dream of participating in consumer economies.

Even Barbie (a subsidiary of the American toy company Mattel Inc.) launched an ‘empowerment’ campaign, ‘Did You Know’ #Barbie #MoreRoleModels. The brand has  encountered widespread feminist criticism because of its representation of notions of beauty, body image and race, amongst other issues. In response, Barbie has been trying to reinvent its image and has been presenting its princesses as more independent than their Disney counterparts. The brand has released 14 feature-length films since 2001 in which Barbie refuses to marry a prince and prefers studying science to attending balls (Orr, 2009: 10). In concurrence with this theme, Barbie’s 2018 campaign shows a range of young, effeminate girls, each saying a phrase of the following: “We really need more female scientists, more coders, more civil engineers. Can you believe most head chefs are men? Seriously?[8]… If girls can’t see women doing these jobs, how will we know we can?” Subsequently, the ad declares

“Because imagining she can is only the beginning. Actually seeing that she can makes all the difference”. Only then do we get to the point, namely that you can inspire a feature scientist, engineer, doctor and so on by buying her a Barbie.

The Barbie campaign captures the theme of all of the campaigns: that women/girls can become empowered through owning the right shoes, shampoo, car or doll. Perhaps Barbie’s presentation of femininity is more problematic than Nike’s, but Nike’s bottom-line is still selling products. As we have seen, if Nike could sell more products by making women feel insecure about their breast shape, then their campaigns would focus on that. I find Nike’s campaigns more worrisome precisely because they appear to be so progressive and are thus more difficult to criticise. If one criticises Nike’s campaigns, it very easily comes across as if you are trying to belittle Semenya or William’s achievements, while the problem is the co-option of progressive ideals to advance capitalist interests.

Nike is not the only company that has followed this strategy. The South African activist Zuleika Patel who challenged Pretoria Girls High School’s hair policy regarding black girls’ hair in 2016, is now part of Levi’s ‘I Shape My World’ campaign.  In the campaign, Patel states that she is standing up “for girls, for women, for my people”. This might be true and Patel’s activism should not be undermined. However, Patel is shown “leading from the ground” in very stylish Levi’s apparel and the company’s ultimate aim is still to boost its sales (Levi’s, 2019). Jim McKay criticised Nike for reinscribing “an act of dissent as a funky fashion statement” (2004: 88), but this seems to be a general trend in the industry. While watching these ads, it is important to keep in mind that the brands behind them profit from racialised and patriarchal structures even if they claim to support ‘women’s empowerment’ and black activism.

Summarily, the first problematic aspect of recent Women’s Month/Day campaigns is that they subject feminism(s) to capitalist structures and motivate women to be successful within capitalism. By focussing on the fact that women can be successful within capitalism, these campaigns emphasise the importance of free will and determination. This then implies that the people who do not become successful (according to the capitalist definition of the term) simply did not work hard enough and that “ anyone who did not succeed did not deserve to succeed” (Helstein, 2003: 282). The ‘Girl Power!’ and ‘You Go Girl!’ narratives also promote self-betterment strategies that conceal economic and political power relations that place people in positions of vulnerability. As  Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz argued, “it is the productive aspect of power circulating such discursive spaces and masking unequal power relations that, while seemingly embracing all things Girl, further contributes to the status quo rather than challenging it” (2004: 71).

This is not to say that women are only victims or that they have no agency. Instead, I am critiquing the narrow definition of ‘empowerment’, which frames it as something that can be achieved through working on the body and consuming lifestyle products. This notion of empowerment seems very far removed from the campaigns that inspired Women’s Day/Month in the first place. These campaigns aimed to challenge exploitative policies and oppressive structures. By highlighting this I am not trying to evoke nostalgia for some golden age of ‘real feminism’. As already noted, there are many contemporary feminist campaigns that challenge power and promote various forms of justice. Nonetheless, we must be weary of the corporatisation and commodification of (some) feminist ideals, which threatens neither patriarchal culture nor capitalist hegemony.


Angie, T. 2019. ‘International Women’s Day 2019: Pantene Inspires Women to Stay in Sports through its Braids of Strength Campaign’. <> Access: 25 July 2020.

Barbie, 2018 ‘Did you know’. <> Access: 14 August 2020.

Capon, D.A. Helstein, M.T. 2004 ‘“Knowing” the hero: The female athlete and myth at work in Nike advertising’, in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S.J. Andrews, D.L. (eds). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon and New York.

Cole, C. L. Hribar, A. 1995. ‘Celebrity Feminism: Nike Style Post-Fordism, Transcendence, and Consumer Power’. Sociology of Sport Journal 12, pp. 347-369.

Frosdick, S. 2019. ‘P&G boss David Taylor reflects on gender equality after Gillette advert – but does he practise what he preaches?’ <> Access: 14 August 2020.

Giardina, M.D. Metz, J.L. 2004. ‘Women’s sport in Nike’s America: Body politics and the corporo-empowerment of “everyday athletes”’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

Gillette, 2019. ‘We Believe: The Best Men Can Be’. <> Access: 14 August 2020.

Grow, J. Wolburg, J. 2006. ‘Selling Truth: How Nike’s Advertising to Women Claimed a Contested Reality’. Advertising and Society Review 7(2).

Helstein, M.T. 2003. ‘That’s Who I Want to Be: The Politics and Production of Desire Within Nike Advertising to Women’. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 27(3), pp. 276-292.

Hengeveld, M. 2015. ‘How Nike’s Neoliberal Feminism Came to Rule the Global South’. Portside. <> Access: 23 July 2020.

Hurst, S. 2017. ‘What’s the Environmental Footprint of a T-Shirt?’ Smithsonian Magazine. <> Access: 14 August 2020.

Hyundai, 2019. ‘Hyundai – Celebrating International Women’s Day’. <> Access: 25 July 2020.

Kvidal-Røvik, T. 2018. ‘The Meaning of the Feminist T-Shirt: Social Media, Postmodern Aesthetics, and the Potential for Sociopolitical Change’. Media and Communication 6(2), pp. 210-219.

Levi’s, 2019. ‘Levi’s® | I Shape My World 2019 | Zuleika Patel | South Africa’. <> Access: 25 July 2020.

Lippert, B. 2001. ‘Barbara Lippert’s Critique’. Adweek. <> Access: 24 July 2020.

McDonald, M. 2004. ‘Model Behaviour? Sporting feminism and consumer culture’, in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

McDonald’s, 2020. ‘McDonald’s: International Women’s Day’. <> Access: 14 August 2020.

McKay, J. 2004. ‘Enlightened racism and celebrity feminism in contemporary sports advertising discourse’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.

McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. SAGE Publications, London.

Murden, K. 2020. ‘Celebrate Women’s History Month with these empowering gifts’. CNN. <> Access: 23 July 2020.

Netflix, 2019. ‘#SheRules: International Women’s Day’. <> Access: 14 August 2020.

Nike, 2018. ‘Colin Kaepernick Nike Commercial’. <> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2018. ‘Serena Williams: Until We All Win’. <> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2019. ‘Caster Semenya: Birthplace of Dreams’. <> Access: 24 July 2020.

Nike, 2019. ‘Nike- Dream Crazier’. <> Access: 24 July 2020.

Orr, L. 2009. ‘”Difference That Is Actually Sameness Mass-Reproduced”: Barbie Joins the Princess Convergence’. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 1(1), pp. 9-30.

Pantene, 2019. ‘Pantene ‘Braids of Strength’ ft Farah Ann #WanitaBesi’. <> Access: 25 July 2020.

Rottenber, C. 2019. ‘Commodifying Women’s Rights: How corporations make money out of ‘feel-good’ feminism’. Al Jazeera. <> Access: 23 July 2020.

Walker, C. 1991. Women and Resistance in South Africa. David Philip Publishers, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Wells, J.C. 1993. We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.

Zeisler, A. 2016. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Girrrl to Covergirl, the buying and selling of a political movement. Public Affairs, New York.


[1] There are multiple sources that provide more in depth discussions of this topic. For example Cherryl Walker’s Women and Resistance in South Africa (1991) and Julia C. Well’s We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa (1993).

[2] Pantene’s 2019 ‘Braids of Strength’ campaign will be discussed as an example later in the piece. However, the company’s 2017 campaign, ‘Labels Against Women’, is another apt example. The advertisement is available here:

[3] This piece will focus specifically on ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns because of the context of Women’s Month. However, this can also be situated within a broader trend. Here we only need to think of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign (available here: The campaign presents an apt example of the individualistic discourse that will be discussed subsequently by insisting that “it is only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”. Moreover, a company that has profited from  promoting images of what ‘real men’ are supposed to look like, has suddenly positioned itself as opposing ‘toxic masculinity’. Gillette is thus associating its brand with the struggle against ‘toxic masculinity’, while the company has a median gender pay gap of 30% (Frosdick, 2019).

[4] This slogan was inspired by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay with the same title. Adichie also presented a TED Talk on the topic, which is available here:

[5] Here we only need to think about the gendered sweatshop labour associated with the garment industry and the extensive environmental footprint T-shirt manufacturing (Hurst, 2017).

[6] It is important to note that there are multiple feminisms, which are shaped by particular contexts and are reflective of ingrained social configurations and patterns. ‘Neo-liberal feminism’ is thus related to a specific context within North America and Europe and the companies that promote ‘women’s empowerment’ are advertising their products to upper-middle class (mostly western/white) women.

[7] For a critical discussion of these programmes please consult Maria Hengeveld’s ‘How Nike’s Neoliberal Feminism Came to Rule the Global South’, available at: <>

[8] Apparently women are still the ones who belong in the kitchen.

Empowered to please my man: (Post)feminist discourses in contemporary romantic comedies

by Elize Soer

As fears related to the coronavirus COVID-19 have risen, so have the number of Netflix subscribers. Countries around the world have imposed various stages of ‘lockdown’ and since more affluent people have been spending an increased amount of time at home, the American media-services provider Netflix has grown in popularity.[1] One of the most watched genres on Netflix is the ‘romantic comedy’. Although rom-coms are often dismissed as trivial, they are still widely enjoyed as ‘guilty pleasures’ (Warner, 2013: 226). Rom-coms have also received more scholarly attention over the past two decades, especially regarding their importance in depicting and constructing gender relations (Garret, 2007; Kaklamanidou, 2013). Accordingly, the following piece will discuss the representation of gender relations in recent romantic comedies released by Netflix. The piece will focus on three recent releases, namely Let it Snow (Snellin, 2019), Isn’t it Romantic (Strauss-Schulson, 2019) and The Wrong Missy (Spindel, 2020). These three films will be used as examples of broader trends in the genre and as manifestations of contemporary gender ideologies.

Firstly, it is important to define what a ‘romantic comedy’ is. Ostensibly it might be simple to identify a film as a rom-com, but the genre has actually been the subject of some debate. According to a recent straightforward definition it is a hybrid genre that encompasses romance and comedy. It is thus characterised by a narrative that focuses on a relationship and, since it is a comedy, it must feature a happy ending (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 7). What exactly constitutes a ‘happy ending’ is subjective, but the narrative focuses on romance between (often lovably eccentric) protagonists who face antagonism, which leads to comic situations, and then the eventual reconstitution of the relationship (Garret, 2007: 97). It is important to note that many genre theorists have argued that “genres are not defined by a feature that makes all films of a certain type fundamentally similar; rather they are produced by the discourse through which films are understood,” (Warner, 2013: 224). However, for the purpose of this piece, I will employ the straightforward definition since I chose the films based on a search of ‘popular romantic comedies’.

Film genres have become organised into a cultural hierarchy, which views ‘feminine genres’ such as the rom-com as less culturally legitimate than, for example, film noir (Warner, 2013: 225). Distinctions between films are often gendered. Roms-coms have a lower cultural status because they are associated with ‘feminine’ and thus ‘trivial’ themes such as relationships, romance and love.[2] This link is evident in the classification of rom-coms as ‘chick flicks’.[3] When ‘female’ genres are classified separately it creates the impression that they are a deviation from the standard, which is then presumably masculine (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 10).

This divide is further perpetuated by (relatively) new rom-com subgenres such as the ‘bromance’ and the ‘homme-com’, which focuses on the same themes but follows a male protagonist. Prominent examples include The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005), The Heartbreak Kid (Farrelly & Farrelly, 2007) and 50 First Dates (Segal, 2004). The Wrong Missy, which will be discussed in more detail later, also falls under this category. John Alberti argued that the emergence of these subcategories demonstrates that the marketing of rom-coms to predominately female viewers “resulted not from any essential qualities of male viewers that prevented them from connecting emotionally with romantic comedies but from an ongoing crisis involving the construction of masculinity within the genre.” (Alberti, 2013: 161). This point will be reinforced by the discussion of The Wrong Missy, which presented an ‘empowered’ female character as threatening and emasculating.

Not only is the genre itself gendered, but the focus on relationships and the performance of each character’s gender as a narrative point makes rom-coms particularly interesting from a gender-studies perspective. Moreover, as Amanda Rebekah Roskelley noted, “we often take our cues on appropriate social behavior from examples found on television and in the movies,” (Roskelley, 2016: 74). We thus emulate the gendered performances of characters we see on screen while socio-cultural contexts and historical events influence the media produced. The genre has been significant in mediating changes in the norms of sexual behaviour, courtship rituals and the function of marriage. The ideological changes presented in various historical cycles of the rom-com therefore present “a particularly rich source of inquiry regarding these issues, highlighting the way in which the specific rules and conventions which comprise the discourse of heterosexual coupledom have been articulated in different cultural contexts,” (Garret, 2007: 96). The films that will be discussed in this piece represent a new group of rom-coms that form part of ongoing dialogues about romantic and sexual relationship and they can lend insight into the world of gender politics (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 2)

As mentioned, my choice of films was based on a simple google search of the most popular rom-coms on Netflix from 2019-2020. The three films I chose were mentioned on multiple platforms and, as I will argue, they also present pertinent examples of broader gendered ideologies. The first film I will discuss is Let It Snow, an American Christmas special directed by Luke Snellin and based on the similarly named young adult novel by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle. The film followed a group of young people in a small American town on Christmas Eve and was comfortably clichéd. The story centred on three couples and it is significant because it is the only one of the three films considered that featured both an interracial and a same-sex couple. This is representative of the genre more broadly, which usually focuses on white heterosexual couples, with the exception of Hitch (Tennant, 2005)[4] and Set It Up (Scanlon, 2018), although the leading couple in Set It Up was still white and heterosexual.

It is not insignificant that Julie (played by Isabela Merced) and Stuart (played by Shameik Moore), the interracial couple in Let It Snow, were Latina and African-American. This is part of a general reluctance to match African-American men with white women in mainstream narratives. In Set It Up the interracial couple was an African-American man and an Asian woman and in the popular Hitch, the interracial couple was also an African-American man and a Cuban woman. As Chito Childs noted, “it is safer to pair a man of color with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white,” (cited in: Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). Childs argued that this allows filmmakers to have black male characters that are slick and savvy, but who do not directly pose a threat to white men who are, according to Hollywood narratives, interested in white women.

In Betty Kaklamanidou’s analysis of race and ethnicity in recent romantic comedies, she observed that they superficially incorporate “‘a ‘raced’ subject into the neoliberal cosmos, conforming to the promotion of colour blindness as the way to eliminate the issue of race,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). This observation holds true for Let It Snow. The film featured people from various ethnicities, which is a progressive step for a (relatively) conservative genre. However, the film followed the principle of colour blindness and represented a world in which racial equality had already been achieved. Although people of colour were represented, their positions were completely depoliticised. The other two rom-coms that will be discussed did not have any main characters that were people of colour[5]. However, in rom-coms that do feature people from other ethnicities, there is no mention of structural inequality.

Similar to the incorporation of race into a ‘neoliberal cosmos’, same-sex couples are incorporated into a monogamous structure. In Let It Snow the lesbian couple, Dorrie (played by Liv Hewson) and Kerry (played by Anna Akana) are united in the end and it is implied that they are a monogamous couple. It has to be noted that the obstacle to their romance was that Kerry had not ‘come out’ to her friends yet and she did not want them to know that she was attracted to Dorrie. To an extent, the film did thus consider some of the difficulties and personal struggles faced by sexually diverse people who are afraid of being ostracised. However, the two characters appeared feminine and their gender performances did not challenge constructions of masculinity and femininity.

During the last part of the film, Dorrie and Kerry kissed in front of Kerry’s cheerleader friends and the friends applauded the union. This unanimous acceptance stood in contrast to the characterisation of the cheerleader squad throughout the film and definitely presented an oversimplification of people’s reactions to sexually diverse people. The film suggested that the obstacle to Dorrie and Kerry’s romance was Kerry’s reluctance to ‘come out’ and be true to herself. When she overcame this fear, society was supportive of her choice. This representation completely erased the discrimination and social scrutinity that sexually diverse people face and, as with racial differences, everyone was presented as equal in a world where discrimination and structural inequality were things of the past.

The last and (arguably) main couple in Let It Snow was Angie/The Duke (played by Kiernan Shipka) and Tobin (played by Mitchell Hope) who were best friends at the start of the film. We find out later that Angie was nicknamed ‘The Duke’ because she was “always one of the boys”. Tobin gave her the nickname because he thought she should be distinguished for her masculine qualities. In many ways, Angie was a younger version of the classic ‘cool girl’ trope. The ‘cool girl’ has become a stock character in male-authored literature and movies. A typical example of the trope is Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox) in the live-action Transformers films. However, the trope is also prevalent in rom-coms, as demonstrated by Andie Anderson’s ‘real’ character in How to lose a Guy in 10 Days (Petrie, 2003) and Mary in There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly & Farrelly, 1998).

The general characteristics of this trope is that she is ‘one of the guys’, meaning that she is passionate about cars, sports or other stereotypically masculine activities. She is also generally fun-loving, uninhibited and raunchy. She enjoys junk-food and beer, but she is, above all else, conventionally attractive. She is constructed in contrast to other women who are presented as overly feminine and apparently ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’. There are often explicit references to her food choices since she must remain ‘effortlessly hot’ while other women are then portrayed as overly concerned with their dietary choices. The trope has become so popular that the American author Gillian Flynn commented on it in her psychological thriller Gone Girl, which was also adapted into a film in 2014. A (now famous) passage from Flynn’s novel remarked:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl,” (Flynn, 2014: 226).

Angie was less raunchy than the 20-something cool girl because of her age, but she shared many other characteristics with the trope. She was interested in sports and beer and was conventionally attractive[6]. Most significantly, she was repeatedly lauded for being ‘not like other girls’, as demonstrated by the reasoning behind her nickname, The Duke. I want to stress that the problem is not the fact that a female character was interested in ‘masculine’ activities, but that women who are interested in these activities are seen as exceptions. Firstly, this perpetuates a gender dichotomy because ‘other girls’ are portrayed as overly feminine caricatures. Moreover, it praises masculinity above characteristics that are deemed to be feminine and thus less significant. In fact, the cool girl is often used to demean other characters who are portrayed as more feminine.

The developing romance between Angie and Tobin is also significant in relation to constructions of masculinity. Throughout the story, Tobin was portrayed in relation to Angie’s other love interest, JP (played by Matthew Noszka). Three versions of masculinity were present in the story: Tobin’s, JP’s and a kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ evinced by the antagonists, the Reston brothers. Chad and Pete Reston presented a violent hyper-masculinity based on physical strength. They also used gendered slurs to insult other characters and teased Tobin for driving a “pussy wagon”. This type of masculinity was presented in a negative light and the film thus shunned toxic masculinity.

JP was depicted as ‘the perfect guy’ and was a good example of the ideal masculinity in contemporary popular culture. He was conventionally attractive and demonstrated his physical capabilities early in the film when he beat Tobin in a sporting contest. He also mentioned that he spent his holiday building schools in Kenya and that he practiced a type of meditation that was “great for martial arts training”. This participation in New-Age-inspired exercises such as yoga formed part of what Benjamin Brabon referred to as ‘the sensitive new man’. In Brabon’s analysis of masculinity in contemporary romantic comedies, particularly Failure to Launch (2006), he argued that ‘sensitive new man’ characteristics were often combined with more ‘traditionally masculine’ characteristics such as a daredevilish love of fun (Brabon, 2013: 122). In Let it Snow, as is in other new romantic comedies, this enlightened kind of masculinity was pitted against pure strength and aggression. As demonstrated by the attributes of the Reston brothers, “those traits traditionally lauded in men of the past are given to antagonists and punished,” (Roskelley, 2016: 73).

Although JP is portrayed as the ideal, he did not ultimately win the heart of the heroine. Throughout the film it was made clear that Tobin had less physical prowess than JP  and that he was not as ‘enlightened’. In fact, he embarrassed himself multiple times and a large part of the narrative focused on his continuously bleeding nipple, which he got from cutting himself while trying to trim his nipple hair. Tobin’s musical talent was highlighted and it was made apparent (in a somewhat awkward musical number) that he and Angie shared a musical connection. The fact that many of Tobin’s flaws were accentuated gives us insight into the factors that were presented as valuable in a relationship, predominantly, friendship. As we shall see, this is a widespread theme and it was also present in Isn’t It Romantic. Perfection was thus shunned and even mocked, while friendship and shared experiences were valued.

Another interesting element that Let It Snow shared with Isn’t It Romantic was that men (or a man) were portrayed as better feminists than women. In an exemplary scene from Let It Snow, Angie, Tobin and JP were fleeing from the Reston brothers after they had stolen the brothers’ beer-keg and the car they had been driving, notably named Carla, died. Angie and Tobin then started speaking to the car in an attempt to encourage it to restart. Angie exclaimed “come on Carla, don’t be a little bitch” and Tobin followed up with “work that ass like I know you can”. In response, the enlightened JP commented “I know it’s a car, but I’m also a feminist”. JP was thus depicted as a ‘better feminist’ than Angie and the way in which the scene was contextualised portrayed feminism as something to be mocked or something annoying that spoiled other people’s jokes.[7]

Similarly, in Isn’t It Romantic, the female protagonist Natalie (played by Rebel Wilson) and her office friend Whitney (played by Betty Gilpin) commented on the physical attractiveness of Blake (played by Liam Hemsworth) only to be corrected by the male protagonist Josh (played by Adam Devine), who stated “please don’t objectify the men in this office, I won’t stand for it”. In this instance, feminism was taken into account in a joking way. In both movies there was a clear recognition of feminist issues, but also an implied understanding that they should not be taken too seriously. This attitude forms part of a general (post)feminist sentiment that has shaped popular media productions since the 1990s, typified by the dominance of ‘Girl power’ rhetoric in consumer culture (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 3).

The concepts ‘post-feminism’, referring to a historical period, and ‘postfeminism’, referring to a cultural sensibility, have been the subject of much debate. I use the term (post)feminism to refer to a popular cultural sensibility that can coexist with feminism. This sensibility is characterised by a celebration of the power of the individual that implies that the socio-economic constraints faced by women and girls have become inconsequential. In Angela McRobbie’s canonical thesis statement on the topic she argued that “postfeminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings, which emphasize that it is no longer needed, that it is a spent force,” (McRobbie, 2009:12). As demonstrated by the two extracts discussed above, (post)feminist discourses do not explicitly reject feminist politics, but imply that feminism has been successful and thus superceded (Bowler, 2013: 189).

Within (post)feminist discourses, women are positioned as empowered subjects “in ways that are almost always connected to consumption and feminine physical appearance,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 7). There is an emphasis on women’s financial autonomy, but instead of contextualising this within a climate of social responsibility, it conforms to the individualist goals of neoliberal ideology (Moya: 2013: 15). Women are encouraged to attain success materially and ‘express themselves’ through commodity consumption while maintaining a female identity. The image created by (post)feminist discourses is a “new autonomous and independent woman who seeks personal gratification and self-development,” (Moya: 2013: 16). The emphasis on choice and individual agency often encourages the female subject to ‘have it all’, including job aspirations and material success, a rewarding home life and a belief in independence and the pleasures of feminine adornment (Brabon, 2013: 128).

Accordingly, (post)feminist discourses do not encourage women to pursue their careers at the expense of (heterosexual) romance. In fact, women are required to be skilled in a variety of sexual practices and a performance of confident sexual agency is seen as empowering (Farrimond, 2013: 51)[8]. This is not problematic because of the emphasis on sexual agency, but because sexual agency is presented as a way to please men. This is exemplified by the popular phrase ‘men like confident women’. This implies that women should be confident in order to please men. Moreover, the demand for women’s domestic expertise has not receded. Roberta Garrett remarked that “Women are still exhorted to excel at domestic skills, regardless of any other goals and aspirations they might want to nurture,” (Garret, 2007: 204). In fact, there has been a boom in magazines, books and television programmes dedicated to fashion, cookery, home decoration, makeovers and mothering during the last decade. Accordingly, women are constructed as having the personal choice and agency to become ‘domestic goddesses’ (Garret, 2007: 204-205).

In light of the earlier discussion of race and same-sex couples in rom-coms, it seems even more pertinent to note that “postfeminist discourse has little to say to the Hollywood consumer who is not a young, white, heterosexual, middle class woman,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 4). In fact, when people of other ehtnic groups are included in mainstream Hollywood narratives, their function is often to contribute to the spiritual enlightenment of white characters. A clear example of the ways in which these discourses function together was Eat Pray Love (Murphy, 2010). The film is focused on the individual agency of a white, heterosexual, middle class woman who encounters other cultures in order to enhance her knowledge of her ‘true self’.

A very intriguing aspect of Isn’t It Romantic was the film’s critique of a similar discourse in relation to the ‘gay sidekick’. The protagonist of the film, Natalie, continuously critiqued the ‘gay sidekick’ trope because the character presented gay men as (necessarily) overly-effeminate and as having no other purpose than to support the female protagonist. While discussing rom-coms with her friend Whitney, Natalie listed problematic aspects of rom-coms, including “the cliché gay best friend whose sole purpose is to help the hot chick”. Later in the film, when her neighbour Donny transformed into a hyper-effeminate gay sidekick in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life, she commented that “my neighbour Donny is setting gay rights back 100 years”. The film thus used the trope, but commented on it critically throughout, which in turn made it seem more acceptable.

Natalie’s comments on the ‘gay sidekick’ trope were not an exception. Throughout the film, she critiqued typical rom-com conventions while the film followed these conventions almost precisely. During the same conversation with Whitney, she stated “this movie ends like all stupid rom-coms do. The girl gets the guy and then finally that makes her happy”. According to Natalie, the problem with this is that “she should be happy with other things in her life. Like her great career that she’s worked hard for”. Although this might be true in principle, the film went to great lengths to demonstrate that Natalie was not happy with her life without love. This was demonstrated by her remarks about her “dull ordinary life”. Not only did her career not make her happy, but from the start of the film she needed to male protagonist, Josh, to boost her very low self-esteem. ‘Wokeness’[9] was therefore invoked and, as we shall see, the film alluded to important debates, but the status-quo ultimately remained unchallenged.

Accordingly, Isn’t It Romantic followed many of the principles associated with (post)feminism. Firstly, there was a strong ‘empowerment’ discourse which celebrated “depictions of white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s success as markers of all women’s supposed success,” (Moya: 2013: 14). The film explicitly referenced feminism when Whitney turned into a nasty and competitive woman in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life. In response to Whitney’s transformation, Natalie announced “we marched together, remember? We had that sign: Girls Just Want to Have Fun- Demand Your Human Rights”. In this instance, Natalie was not necessarily referring to a march that she and Whitney participated in, but to the women’s movement more generally. Earlier in the film she also criticised “the idea that women can’t root for each other at work” and called it “just disgusting”.

Although the feminist observations were positive, the film followed a (post)feminist trajectory by defining ‘empowerment’ as individual women’s career success. Natalie’s comments about female solidarity in the workplace were also completely contradicted by her reaction to Josh’s love interest, Isabella. While looking at a poster of Isabella modelling a swimsuit, she mockingly said “I’m so sexy. I just want a man to buy me a salad”. She was also condescending towards Isabella’s career as a yoga ambassador and the film thus followed the typical structure in which two women compete with each other for the affection of a man. The fact that Isabella, the only non-white woman in the film, was hypersexualised as a bikini model with a career based on her physical attributes, is interesting in itself. This reinforced the observation that, when (post)feminism does refer to solidarity among women, it implicitly refers to solidarity among white women.

The (post)feminist ideology was also evident during the climax of the movie. Natalie ran to stop Josh and Isabella’s wedding and burst into the chapel. Her intention was to stop the wedding and declare her love for Josh after her ‘gay side-kick’ remarked “what, so the best friend you’ve always had a ton of chemistry with is the guy for you. Oh my God, who could have seen that coming except every single person ever of all time.” However, as Natalie was about to confess her love for Josh, she realised that the person she really had to love was herself. At the critical moment she exclaimed “I love me!” The message of the film was about the importance of self-love. This fits perfectly into an ideology that emphasises the liberation of the individual while completely ignoring exploitation or unequal social power. As with Let It Snow’s representation of sexual diversity, the only thing that Natalie had to do to prosper in life was find her confidence. This empowered her to attain success in a patriarchal capitalist framework, which the film was obviously oblivious to.

Moreover, after Natalie’s realisation that she ‘completes herself’ she became ‘empowered’ to choose a heterosexual romantic relationship with Josh. At the end of the film, Whitney observed that “even though you were so cynical, it seems as though you have the dream job, the guy that really likes you, the really cool best friend… it looks like you are in one of those romantic stories you hate so much”. Here I want to argue that Natalie’s cynical commentary did not contradict the structure of the conventional rom-com, but that it was precisely this commentary that made the film watchable. We can clearly see all the aspects of a conventional rom-com and the film does end with happy heterosexual coupledom for the protagonist. However, since it is assumed that the audience is now familiar with this structure,[10] the film had to critique certain elements of it so that it would not be written off as yet another soppy rom-com.

This technique has not been limited to Isn’t It Romantic, though this was the most extreme incarnation. In Let It Snow, Tobin confessed his love for Angie in the following way: “I’m in love with you… It’s not in the traditional sense of anything… I want to be with you for the rest of my life, Angie.” However, Angie then commented that “that was actually pretty traditional”. We can again see how the ironic comment at the end is exactly what makes the ‘traditional’ confession of love acceptable.

Another similarity between Isn’t It Romantic and Let It Snow was the construction of ideal masculinity and its ultimate refutation in favour of friendship. In Isn’t It Romantic, Blake was supposed to represent the ideal rom-com hero. It was made evident throughout that Blake was physically attractive and he characterised himself as “a good listener”. Throughout the film he also used New-Age pseudo-philosophical quotes like “still waters run deepest”. The construction of ideal masculinity was rich and handsome with a New Age twist. However, Blake’s flaws were his patriarchal assumptions. During the last part of the film he told Natalie “now that you’re with me, you won’t be working anymore”. He also assumed that “obviously we’ll be changing your last name” and he wanted to change her first name to Georgina. He thus did not accept Natalie ‘for who she is’. Although Blake was supposed to present ideal masculinity, he ultimately also functioned as the embodiment of toxic-masculinity in comparison to the more ‘woke’ Josh.

Isn’t It Romantic was a typical example of a (post)feminist rom-com in which the protagonist ultimately got to ‘have it all’, meaning that she could maintain her career and have a hetrosexual romantic relationship. This stands in contrast to a recently released homme-comme, The Wrong Missy,  in which Missy’s ultimate role was to enrich the life of the male protagonist, Tim Morris (played by David Spade). The basic plot of The Wrong Missy started with a blind date involving Tim and Melissa/Missy (played by Lauren Lapkus). Tim was presented as a plain guy who followed social conventions while Missy was extremely odd and borderline terrifying. She talked about sex openly, dipped her hair in wine before sucking it and carried around a knife named Sheila. The date ended disastrously. Three months later, Tim met another woman named Melissa who seemed to be his perfect match (basically a female version of himself). The second Melissa gave Tim her number and Tim invited her to accompany him to a work retreat in Hawaii. However, the first Missy showed up on the plane and it became clear that Tim invited the wrong Melissa.

In Hawaii, Missy was uninhibited and embarrassed Tim in front of his boss, Jack Winstone, and his colleagues. However, as the weekend progressed Missy helped Tim win Winstone’s favour by hypnotizing him and Tim began to develop feelings for Missy. Because of Missy, Tim beat his workplace competitor, Jess, and won a promotion. In order to get revenge, Jess revealed to Missy that she was invited by accident. Missy checked Tim’s phone and after she discovered the truth she left Hawaii. Meanwhile, the ‘right’ Melissa arrived in Hawaii, having been invited by Jess. During a lunch with the ‘right Melissa’, Tim started behaving like Missy and realised that he actually loved her. He left Hawaii, found Missy in Portland, apologised to her and declared his intention to become more like her. She forgave him, they were reunited and they presumably lived happily ever after.

The gender relations depicted in The Wrong Missy were problematic for various reasons. The most prominent reason was the fact that Missy’s sole purpose in the film was to make Tim realise that he should be more outgoing. She was a somewhat extreme version of the classic ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. Although this trope has been applied to a variety of characters and it has perhaps become overused, its trademark quality is the fact that the manic girl’s function is to transform the male protagonist (Schwyzer, 2013).[11] However, the problematic aspect that I want to discuss is how Missy was portrayed in relation to Jess, Tim’s workplace competitor.

Although Missy had a strong personality, her role was ultimately to support Tim. In contrast, Jess was competing with Tim for a promotion. Jess was presented as competitive, emasculating and ruthless and was nicknamed ‘The Barracuda’ by Tim and his male co-workers. This is no exception and there is a general tendency in rom-coms to “pathologize the career woman and turn her into a monstrous figure,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 28). It was thus no coincidence that the stereotypical ‘career woman’ was the antagonist in the film. However, even in films with ‘career women’ protagonists, it is made apparent that they sacrificed relationships in order to gain success in a ‘man’s world’. Here we only need to think of Margaret (Sandra Bullock) in The Proposal (Fletcher, 2009). Instead of being applauded for her perseverance and dedication, she is described as a “Type A (rhymes with) witch”.

At the start of The Proposal, Margaret was criticised for her drive and decisiveness, traits that men in business are congratulated for. However, as the film progressed and she developed a relationship with the male protagonist Andrew (played by Ryan Reynolds) the audience was exposed to her softness, sensitivity and humour. She was thus portrayed as misguided and miswanting (wanting the wrong things in life) and, once she understood the importance of heterosexual romance, it was made apparent that she was ultimately an amiable person. In contrast, Jess remained the antagonist throughout The Wrong Missy. Although she was a more dedicated worker than Tim and she was more knowledgeable in her field, she was punished because of her ‘masculine’ characteristics. The message of the film was clear: it is alright for women to have strong personalities as long as their goal is to enrich the lives of their male partners. However, it is not acceptable for them to be competitive and challenge the positions of their male colleagues.

Betty Kaklamanidou noted that the vicious caricature of the ‘evil career woman’ has been around since at least the 1980s. Moreover, the stereotype has not been limited to the rom-com genre. Harriet Hawkins noted that powerful female literary figures are often anathematised as femme fatales, vampires, unnatural monsters or superbitches (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 33). On the one hand, there are thus rom-coms that portray working women as ‘superbitches’ and, on the other hand, (post)feminist rom-coms encourage women to ‘have it all’, including successful careers. This apparent dichotomy could perhaps be explained away by simply noting that different films promote different (gendered) ideologies. After all, Isn’t It Romantic is a rom-com while The Wrong Missy is a homme-com that is more tailored to a ‘masculine’ audience. It is therefore possible that films directed at women encourage them to ‘have it all’ while films directed at men portray their ‘empowered’ female challengers as vicious and emasculating.

While keeping the rom-com/homme-com distinction in mind, I think it is also important to recognise the difference between ‘having it all’ and ‘being a career woman’. Natalie in Isn’t It Romantic still needed the male protagonist to boost her self-esteem and, although she did eventually succeed in her career, she was not competitive and did not threaten masculine power in any way. In fact, she still had to propose her ideas to a male investor to gain approval. In contrast, female characters that are independent and competitive, and thus threatening to masculine power, are presented in a negative light.[12]

In conclusion, films inform our conceptualisations of gender relations while they should also be read within their ideological and sociopolitical contexts. This piece has provided analyses of three popular contemporary rom-coms in order to gain insight into gendered constructions in popular culture. The first significant observation was the tendency of films to register the triumph of liberal feminism. This was especially evident in Isn’t It Romantic, which emphasised a discourse of female self-empowerment within capitalist structures. A similar trend was visible in the depiction of race in Let It Snow. The film depicted characters from various ethnic groups. However, these characters were included in a ‘neoliberal cosmos’ where racial inequality was assumed to be something of the past. Similarly, same-sex sexuality was presented as acceptable as long as it followed the principle of monogamy. In all instances, the characters were debilitated by their own lack of self-esteem and once they gained confidence they were successful. The existence of structural inequality and patriarchal capitalism was thus completely ignored.

Another tendency in recent rom-coms is to incorporate a critique of the discourse of romantic love within a romance framework (Garret, 2007: 57). Alexia Bowler observed that “the work of the postfeminist romantic comedy disarms and depoliticizes its own feminist critique of sexual negotiations through knowingness, irony and a cosy humour, coupled with discourses surrounding personal choice.”  (Bowler, 2013: 194). In Isn’t It Romantic and other recent rom-coms such as Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and, to an extent, Let It Snow, the characters are aware of rom-com conventions and cinematic techniques that are used to manipulate audiences. They also critique these conventions while they are themselves following them. Summarily, they employ a (post)feminist knowingness and irony to discredit romantic conventions and then these critiques are subsumed within the same romantic ideologies. Instead of undermining romantic ideologies, it is precisely this ironic self-awareness that makes contemporary rom-coms watchable for an audience that is well versed in rom-com conventions.

Within a (post)feminist framework, there is also a celebration of very specific forms of female ‘empowerment’. Women are encouraged to ‘have it all’, including a successful career and a heterosexual romantic relationship. However, women are discouraged from adopting ‘masculine’ character traits such as being ‘too competitive’, lest they become ‘emasculating’. Women must also appear ‘feminine’ and engagement in consumer culture and feminine adornment activities is presented as empowering. All of these factors indicate that it is not enough to label contemporary rom-coms as simply ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’. They can be ‘progressive’ in some ways and can disrupt ‘traditional’ gender divides by featuring driven ‘career women’ as protagonists. However, we must also remain critical of the ways in which these films contain progressive discourses within monogamous, patriarchal and capitalist structures. A particularly worrisome trend is the ways in which rom-coms (and other popular media productions) invoke ‘wokeness’ to sustain these broader exploitative structures.


Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, Durham.

Alberti, J. 2013. ‘ “I Love You, Man”: Bromances, the Construction of Masculinity, and the Continuing Evolution of the Romantic Comedy’. Quarterly Review of Film and Video 30(2), pp. 159-172.

Apatow, J. 2005. The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Apatow Productions.

Bowler, A. L. 2013. ‘Towards a New Sexual Conservatism in Postfeminist Romantic Comedy’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Brabon, B.A. 2013. ‘‘Chuck Flick’: A Genealogy of the Postfeminist Male Singleton’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Farrelly, P. Farrelly, B. 1998. There’s Something About Mary. 20th Century Fox.

Farrelly, P. Farrelly, B. 2007. The Heartbreak Kid. ‎Ted Field‎ & Bradley Thomas.

Farrimond, K. 2013. ‘The Slut That Wasn’t: Virginity, (Post)Feminism and Representation in Easy A’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Fletcher, A. 2009. The Proposal. Touchstone Pictures.

Flynn, G. 2014. The Complete Gillian Flynn. Random House, New York.

Garret, R. 2007. Postmodern Chick Flicks: The Return of the Woman’s Film. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire & New York.

Gluck, W. 2010. Easy A. Olive Bridge Entertainment.

Gluck, W. 2011. Friends With Benefits. Screen Gems; Castle Rock Entertainment.

Green, J. Myracle, L. Johnson, M. 2008. Let It Snow. The Penguin Group, New York.

Gwynne, J. Muller, N. 2013. ‘Introduction: Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Higgins, C. 1980. 9 to  5. IPC Films.

Kaklamanidou, B. 2013. Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com. Taylor & Francis Group, London.

McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. Sage Publications, London.

Moody, R. 2020. ‘Netflix Subscribers & Revenue by Country’. Comparitech. <> Access: 30 June 2020.

Moya, A. 2013. ‘Neo-Feminism In-Between: Female Cosmopolitan Subjects in Contemporary American Film’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Murphy, R. 2010. Eat Pray Love. Dede Gardner.

Petrie, D. 2003. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Paramount Pictures.

Roskelley, A.R. 2016. The Modern Mr. Darcy: An Analysis of Leading Men in Contemporary Romantic Comedy Film. Masters Degree, Brigham Young University.

Scanlon, C. 2018. Set It Up. Berman, J. Nappi, J.

Segal, P. 2004. 50 First Dates. Columbia Pictures.

Snellin, L. 2019. Let It Snow. Netflix.

Spindel, T. 2020. The Wrong Missy. Netflix.

Strauss-Schulson, T. 2019. Isn’t It Romantic. Netflix.

Schwyzer, H. 2013. ‘The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché’. The Atlantic. <> Access: 5 July 2020.

Tennant, A. 2005. Hitch. Overbrook Entertainment.

The Take. 2020. ‘The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope, Explained’. <> Access: 5 July 2020.

Torres, M. 2019. ‘The 1980 Movie ‘9 To 5’ Is Still Depressingly Relevant For Women At Work’. Huffington Post. <> Access: 9 July 2020.

Warner, H. 2013. ‘‘A New Feminist Revolution in Hollywood Comedy’?: Postfeminist Discourses and the Critical Reception of Bridesmaids’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.


[1] At the end of 2019, Netflix had about 167 million subscribers and generated revenues of $20.1 billion during the year. Subscriptions skyrocketed in the first quarter of 2020 and by April there were 183 million. Netflix is also popular worldwide and has subscribers from the United States (US), Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and Africa (Moody, 2020).

[2] It is also possible that rom-coms have a low cultural status because they trivialise the complexity of relationships.

[3] Although rom-coms are generally marketed as feminine, males dominate behind the scenes. Only about 12% of rom-coms are directed by women (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 11). Coincidently, all of the films chosen for this piece were directed by men and I only noticed this after I had already chosen the films.

[4] For a more in-depth discussion of the racial elements in Hitch please consult ‘Romantic comedy and the ‘other’: race, ethnicity and the transcendental star’, in: Kaklamanidou, B. 2013. Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com. Taylor & Francis Group, London.

[5] Isn’t It Romantic did feature Priyanka Chopra, the Indian actress and singer. She played Isabella, the temporary love interest of one of the main characters in a fantasy world. She was a billboard model and, somewhat stereotypically, a yoga ambassador.

[6] In the book version of the story, the author (John Green) also repeatedly emphasised the fact that she ate junk-food and did not diet ‘like other girls’. She was often discussed in contrast to other hyper-feminised girls of her age, especially a group of cheerleaders (Green, Myracle, Johnson, 2008). However, Angie’s eating habits were not really mentioned in the film version.

[7] This is perhaps a humorous (though no less serious) evocation of what Sarah Ahmed labelled ‘the feminist killjoy’. The feminist killjoy is seen as getting in the way of the happiness of others by, amongst other things, not laughing at their offensive jokes (Ahmed, 2017: 37; 201)

[8] This obligation to have sexual expertise stands in contrast to earlier discourses that constructed chastity as the ultimate feminine virtue (Farrimond, 2013: 51).

[9]  ‘Woke’ is a popular term used to describe someone who is alert to injustice and social movements, especially racism and sexism.

[10] This assumption is made apparent throughout the film since it references several past rom-coms. In fact, a young version of the protagonist (Natalie) is watching Pretty Woman at the start of the film. There are also references to other popular rom-coms, including Notting Hill and 13 Going on 30, and Natalie also uses a pun (“you had me at hallo-copter”) to evoke another rom-com.

[11] The Take recently released a video that discussed the trope and some of the complexities around classifying a character as a ‘manic pixie dream girl’. The video is available at:

[12] An exception to this is the 1980 classic 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980). The film is not a rom-com since it does not feature a romance as part of its main plot, but in my opinion this factor is a strongpoint. For an interesting discussion of the film, please consult ‘The 1980 Movie ‘9 To 5’ Is Still Depressingly Relevant For Women At Work’ (Torres, 2019).

Sex, Drugs and COVID-19

by Elize Soer

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that a national lockdown would commence on 26 March 2020 in response to COVID-19 or what some have labelled the ‘panic pandemic’ (Locwin, 2020). Since the start of the lockdown, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown conditions have been ubiquitous (Business Tech, 2020; APO, 2020; Arndt et al. 2020). The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) predicted that South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would shrink by 6.1% in 2020 and other sources claimed that the contraction would be around 8% (Business Tech, 2020; Institute for Economic Justice, 2020). Most sources noted that the unemployed and informal workers would suffer the most and that “the hardship will fall hardest on black people, and especially black women and children” (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

Although it is noted that the lockdown will have a more profound influence on some than on others, the general belief seems to be that economic growth is beneficial for everyone, while economic contraction harms everyone. This is based on the common conceptualisation of ‘the economy’ as a homogenous and abstract system, as well as an implicit faith in the ‘trickle down’ effect.[1] The following piece will argue that this assumption conceals some of the heterogeneous effects that the lockdown has had (and will have) on different economic systems in South Africa (SA). In order to illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the effects of the lockdown on two economic systems that are sometimes (mistakenly) seen as separated from SA’s official economy, namely the informal economy and the illicit economy. Some of the gendered aspects of these economies will also be discussed, especially in relation to sex work, which can be characterised as part of both the informal and illicit economies.[2]

The ‘trickle-down’ effect has been widely critiqued by academics and activists (Andreou, 2014; Lichtblau, 2019). Yet, in almost all of the media coverage concerning the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on ‘the economy’, it is assumed that this impact will be homogeneously damaging. It is clear that there will be massive job losses[3] and millions will be pushed further into poverty. Nonetheless, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have profited greatly. Lockdown situations around the world have led to increases in the number of people who work from home and shop online. Moreover, educational institutions, hospitals, police and military institutions are outsourcing more and more of their core functions to private tech companies (Klein, 2020).

In the midst of a turn towards tech-alternatives and requests for a future run on artificial intelligence, it is important to remember that these systems function because of human workers. Tens of millions of workers labour in warehouses, content-moderation mills, data centres, electronic sweatshops and lithium mines so that the economically advantaged can work from home and order online. Technology will certainly be a fundamental part of strategies to protect public health in the coming months and years.  This raises significant questions about how that technology will be used and under whose oversight; a discussion that falls outside of the scope of this short piece. Instead, I used tech companies as an explicit example of how some sectors of ‘the economy’ have benefited while others have suffered.

The position of technology companies is a rather obvious example of the heterogeneous economic effects of lockdowns. If we consider the so-called ‘informal’ and ‘illicit’ economies, then the effects become more complex. It is difficult to give an exact definition of ‘informal economy’, since it is so connected to the ‘formal economy’. However, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current working definition includes small, unregistered enterprises and all employment without adequate social and legal protection (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91). Informal employment accounts for approximately a third of employment in SA[4]. Nonetheless, it has received very limited and narrow support from the government and interventions usually consist of training and micro-finance loans that are centred on a very small group of informal workers.

Moreover, there are stark gender divides in informal employment. According to a 2015 analysis of SA’s labour market dynamics, women earn less within the same broad categories of employment and are also concentrated in the types of employment with the lowest pay (Rogan, 2018)[5]. Since 1994, informal employment has constituted a greater share of total employment for women than for men, mostly owing to the fact that household and domestic work is classified as informal work.[6] Childcare is also still commonly seen as ‘women’s work’ and this responsibility influences the incomes of female informal workers. For example, female waste-pickers often have to bring their children with them when they work in hazardous conditions on landfill sites. In an interview with Rogan and Alfers (2019) a waste-picker from Durban explained that she found it difficult to keep pace with her male counterparts because she had to bring her child to work:

“We collect recyclable materials by climbing into moving trucks when they enter the landfill. You need to act very quickly to catch up with the truck. We push each other whilst we are trying to get onto the back of the truck. Sometimes I don’t know what to do because I can’t leave my child on the ground. No one cares about you or your child. I no longer work as efficiently as I did when I didn’t have my child with me,” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91).

Gender-based violence (GBV) is also common in informal economies in SA. In preparation for the 2018 International Labour Conference’s Discussion on GBV in the Workplace, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) conducted a series of interviews with informal workers. During the interviews, a group of female waste-pickers from KwaZulu-Natal reported that physical intimidation regularly impacted their incomes. Male waste-pickers physically intimidated them in order to access the most valuable pieces of waste first and forced them (sometimes at knifepoint) to buy recyclables (WIEGO, 2018). The municipality is responsible for the provision of security at landfill sites. However, generally, the municipal officers do not intervene, and/or they collect recyclables and sell them to the women in exchange for sex. Rape has also been common and about two rape cases are reported per month in these settings (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 98). It is therefore evident that women in the informal economy often work in an environment of insecurity and fear in which GBV and exploitation are widespread.

Before SA’s lockdown, the Professor of Development Economics Imraan Valodia noted that “whilst the government offers a vast package of support measures to big business, its policy is largely irrelevant to the survivalist segment of small business” (2001: 871). However, government policies have not been irrelevant. Not only do they support the big businesses against which survivalist entrepreneurs compete, but they sometimes affect these entrepreneurs negatively. For example, it is often difficult and expensive to access water in informal workspaces such as on roadsides and in markets. People (the majority of whom are women) who sell cooked food need access to water before they can start cooking and frequently spend their peak selling time looking for water. Not only does this decrease sales, but in Durban, for example, there is a municipal by-law which states that only a legal permit holder can oversee a trading stall. When the legal permit holder has to leave the stall to look for water, the goods can be confiscated by the police. One food seller in Durban declared that: “When I run around looking for water, sometimes I come back to my goods being stolen…the policeman comes and takes my things if I’m late. They ask for permits and they do their own theft” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 99).

There is also a ban on imported second-hand clothing in SA, with the aim of protecting clothing retailers. However, there is a large illegal market in second-hand clothes (Velia, Valodia & Amisi, 2006). When police officers catch sellers with illegal garments, they can impose a fine and confiscate the goods. This can demolish the income of survivalist sellers and even leave them indebted to the importers of second-hand clothes. This demonstrates how government policies are not necessarily irrelevant to survivalist entrepreneurs, but actively disadvantage them in favour of larger retailers. The second-hand clothing trade is also significant because it is located at the nexus between the informal and the illicit economies

Sex work is another sector that is part of both the informal and illicit economies, again illustrating the considerable extent to which these different economic systems are intertwined. Despite outcries from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT), sex work has remained criminalised in SA. Selling and buying sex are illegal and other aspects of sex work, such as running or owning a brothel or “enticing a woman into prostitution”, are also prohibited (SWEAT, 2019: 1). The criminalisation of sex work has not prevented people from selling sex to make a living, but has undermined sex workers’ access to justice and has also exposed many of them to exploitation and abuse by law enforcement officials. It is thus clear that sex work was already a precarious occupation before the lockdown. This is not only because the trade is criminalised and stigmatised, but also because sex workers are often from marginalised groups such as migrants and gender non-conforming people who have been pushed out of their families because of identity discrimination (Wheeler, 2020).

Along with most of the informal economy, sex work has been affected negatively by the lockdown. Sex work can be conducted online, but it is generally physical and intimate work. SA has about 158,000 sex workers[7] who were already impacted negatively when fears of COVID-19 began to spread, since customers and workers were afraid of contracting the virus. The increased police presence since the start of the lockdown has certainly increased the risks associated with conducting sex work. Sex workers have also reported interruptions to condom supplies and people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) have experienced a decrease in access to essential medicines. Moreover, sex workers do not have access to some of the emergency assistance available to other workers. Many assistance schemes require proof that employment has been lost as a result of COVID-19 and, because sex work is still criminalised, workers do not have the necessary paperwork and proof of unemployment (Mafolo, 2020; Wheeler, 2020; UNAIDS, 2020).

Organisations such as SWEAT and Sisonke have created solidarity fund raisers to assist sex workers and there has been an increase in online sex work as people have attempted to adapt to lockdown conditions (Collison & Christianson, 2020).[8] This is where the definition of sex work becomes particularly pertinent. The United Nations (UN) defines sex workers as “Female, male and transgender adults aged over 18 years who sell consensual sexual services in return for cash or payment in kind, and who may sell sex formally or informally, regularly or occasionally,” (Sonke Gender Justice, 2014: 5). This definition highlights two fundamental characteristics of acceptable, but often criminalised, sex work: it must be consensual and the participants must be over the age of 18. From the discussion above, it is evident that appropriate sex work has suffered due to COVID-19 and the lockdown. However, more illicit sex markets related to human trafficking and child pornography have flourished.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC) recently released a report about the ramifications of COVID-19 for human trafficking. The report noted that some forms of human trafficking, especially those related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children and domestic servitude, are likely to increase (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 1). Since the start of lockdowns around the world, there has been an increase in online Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM). The demand for CSEM has increased, because more predators have been confined to their homes and the supply has increased as people have become more desperate to acquire incomes. The inflated demand has also probably exposed children who were already being used for CSEM to greater frequencies of exploitation and violence (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 4).

It is not only children who have become more vulnerable. Due to an increase in movement restrictions, many migrants have been forced into immobility, “unable to continue on their journeys or return home,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6). Migrants who are continuing with their journeys are more reliant on smugglers for assistance in environments that are more hostile towards migration. Smugglers often have connections to traffickers, who seem to be taking advantage of the situation. Trafficking and sex work are intertwined and the GIATOC noted that sex workers are more exposed to trafficking during lockdown.[9]

Transnational criminal networks are often involved in multiple illegal activities, including human trafficking and the trade of prohibited drugs. COVID-19 and its ramifications seem to have presented drug dealers with both challenges and opportunities. Challenges include disruptions in supply chains, restricted access to some markets and blocked distribution channels (Eligh, 2020: 1). On the other hand, in countries such as Afghanistan[10] the drug trade is a significant source of income for people with very limited options. As more people’s livelihoods are diminished in the aftermath of COVID-19, the pool of exploitable labour upon which drug markets depend will widen and workers will become more likely to accept even worse terms, similar to the ‘formal economy’. As the GIATOC noted, “structural changes caused by abrupt shocks tend to persist long after the shocks or crises are over,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 13). In addition to a more desperate and cheaper labour source, COVID-19 might also lead to further monopolisation in illicit markets since the shock could ‘weed out’ the weaker organisations. This will evidently harm some organisations while it is likely to benefit others in the long term.

It is also probable that supply chains of opium-based drugs (primarily heroin) will be disrupted. Conversely, drug expert Jason Eligh stated that the supply of crystal meth or tik in SA is unlikely to run out in the near future. In spite of this, many drug dealers have raised their prices based on the assumption that buyers will expect prices to rise in the midst of COVID-19. There has also been an increase in the sale of ‘adulterated’ drugs[11]. In some cases, this has been the consequence of actual supply-chain disruptions and in other cases, dealers have been opportunistic (Hyman, 2020). Organisations have also found creative ways to transport drugs and crystal meth has been found in shipments of medical supplies and food parcels. The last few months have also seen a rise in the trade of fake pharmaceuticals, especially medicines linked to COVID-19. Fake or counterfeit medicines are often sold online and can contain dangerous ingredients if they are not properly formulated. Sellers of fake pharmaceuticals are exploiting widespread fear and panic to sell their products (OECD, 2020).

It is impossible to discuss illicit markets without mentioning the lockdown-induced ban on alcohol and cigarettes in SA. Reporting on the ban has largely discussed it in a negative light. In particular, the tax income that the state is losing as a consequence of the ban has received notable attention. Hellen Ndlovu, the director of Regulatory and Public Affairs at South African Breweries (SAB), has been cited in multiple articles. She emphasised that excise tax and value-added tax (VAT) would be lost. She claimed that SAB would have paid R14 billion in excise taxes this year, which equates to an average monthly contribution of more than R1 billion per month that will be lost as a consequence of the ban (Food Review, 2020).

There was already a well-established illicit alcohol market prior to the lockdown and the illicit trade in alcohol was valued at R13 billion in 2017, which accounts for more than 15% of the total alcohol market in SA (Stockenstroom, 2020). There is no doubt that the ban on alcohol, which was partially lifted in late April, boosted the illicit trade.[12] In almost all of the articles that discuss the alcohol ban, the licit and illicit sale of alcohol are seen as completely dichotomous. However, many of the beverages that are sold on the black market are obtained from the licit market, albeit not always in licit ways[13], and sold by people who do not have liquor licences. This also implies that the initial tax has already been paid on beverages that are resold (Luthuli, 2020). This factor was not accounted for in SAB’s calculations of lost tax revenues. It also implies that the ban did not harm everyone, but harmed some and benefited others. While SAB’s profits evidently decreased, many organised criminal cartels and smaller back-yard brewers have benefitted. Although the ban has ended, it seems as if cartels have seized the opportunity to grow their business and strengthen their stronghold in the market (Ndlovu, 2020).

Similar to the illicit trade in alcohol, there was already a booming trade in illegal cigarettes prior to the lockdown. Illegal cigarettes accounted for about 33% of the cigarettes sold in SA and approximately 42% of the informal market. Illegal cigarettes come from a variety of sources. They can be smuggled into SA from neighbouring countries via illicit networks or they can be counterfeit versions of legitimate cigarette brands. However, the bulk of illegal cigarettes sold in SA come from “local, licenced tobacco manufacturers who do not declare all their manufactured product to the South African Revenue Services (SARS),” (BATSA, 2016). Not only are the manufacturers of illegal cigarettes well known, but they are also reported to be significant funders of multiple political parties, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) (Pauw, 2018). The same cartels who are involved with human trafficking and narcotics also collect revenues from selling illicit cigarettes and alcohol and it seems likely that their power has increased during the lockdown.

It is critical not to conflate ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as most of the news articles about illicit markets have done. As in many other parts of the global south, gangs and cartels exercise a great deal of territorial control in regions of SA, and, in many cases, they can become arbiters of governance and power. Gangs often protect the communities in their territories in order to maintain local legitimacy and can become figureheads of stability in times of crisis. Gangs and cartels can thus become entrenched in local governance. In SA, this is clearly the case in some suburbs of the Cape Flats (such as Steenberg), where the Mongrels exercise a great deal of authority. Since the start of the lockdown, the Mongrels (under the leadership of Leon ‘Poppie’ Meyer) have set up soup kitchens to feed people in one of SA’s poorest communities. Naxz Modack, another underworld figure, has launched feeding schemes in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. He has commissioned security companies to deliver food parcels and pots of food to multiple poor communities predominantly in Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Athlone and Mitchells Plain (Hyman, 2020).

Distributing food parcels certainly does not justify the violence and brutality that cartels and gangs inflict. However, it is important to remember that state apparatuses also inflict violence and brutality. Activists in the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests have highlighted this, but it has also been evident in reports of police violence against lockdown violators and protestors in countries such as SA and Zimbabwe (Shoki, 2020; Dzirutwe, 2019). There are almost innumerable histories recounting the violent actions of nation states and, as illustrated by the example of the illicit cigarette trade in SA, state actors sometimes benefit from illicit markets. Moreover, there is not always a sharp distinction between licit and illicit markets, as demonstrated by the fact that illicit alcohol is often obtained from licit sellers but sold by people without liquor licenses. It is of course true that gangs do not always distribute food out of pure altruism and that they benefit from community loyalty in the long term. However, as Leon Meyer observed, “Why does that lady go to that drug merchant asking for help? Ask her, because the politicians and government officials come when they want the votes, and when they’ve got their vote it’s all over” (cited in: Hyman, 2020).

The literature on gender, drugs and crime has tended to emphasise women’s victimisation and there is a recurring narrative of dependence, exploitation and dysfunction (Anderson, 2005). In contrast, the state has attempted to represent itself as a protector of women’s rights and a champion of gender equality. During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest national address on 17 June 2020, he discussed GBV as “another pandemic that is raging in our country”. He mentioned various steps that the government was taking to curb GBV and commended the South African Police Service (SAPS) for their “excellent work in arresting almost all of the alleged perpetrators”. This evidently ignores the fact that SAPS officers are often perpetrators of GBV, as demonstrated by the example of some SAPS officers abusing female waste-pickers. Moreover, he blamed GBV on “the actions of violent men,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although this seems obvious at a superficial level, it ignores more structural drivers of GBV and individualises the problem.

In reference to victims of GBV, President Ramaphosa even claimed that “we will speak for them where they cannot,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although the President did not specify who this ‘we’ was, he was presumably speaking on behalf of the government. The narrative that emerges is thus one that presents the state as the protector of women against violent men. This is problematic for various reasons. As mentioned above, it individualises GBV. Furthermore, it creates a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between the state and ‘violent men’. The President did not only present these men as separated from society, but in an earlier address on GBV he stated that they were attacking “the very foundation of our democratic society” and “our common humanity” (Ramaphosa, 2019). If violent men are depicted as outside society or as ‘attackers’ of society, then we run the risk of overlooking the complex drivers of GBV within our societies.

It is also worrisome that the state is allegedly speaking ‘for’ victims of GBV. This again perpetuates the notion that women are merely helpless victims that cannot speak for themselves and have to be protected by the (masculine) state. It can be argued that the President was speaking on behalf of deceased victims. However, this is still problematic because it overlooks the voices of thousands of protestors who demanded action on GBV. The state was thus not speaking for people who have been affected by GBV, but was responding to the outcries of survivors and activists.

In order to disrupt the narrative of the valiant state as the protector of women against violent men, we should also recognise the agency of women in illicit economies. Women in illicit economies, particularly in those related to drugs and sex work, do experience discrimination and are often victims of GBV. However, as the sociologist Tammy Anderson reminded us, “the situation is not quite as simple as it has been made out to be: ‘victimization’ and ‘empowerment’ can be, and often are, interrelated,” (Anderson, 2005: 375). On the one hand, men are more likely to occupy more lucrative and higher status roles in illicit drug economies and male actors in these economies often live out violent masculinities. According to Anderson, this gives men ‘structural power’, especially in relation to the possession of resources.

On the other hand, women seem to exercise a more relational form of power that enables illicit economies to function. This is particularly evident in the realm of sex work, which supplies “the drug economy with necessary money capital,” (Anderson, 2005: 376). Due to socially constructed gender roles, women often act as facilitators in drug deals and do a lot of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that supports drug markets[14]. Although men still generally hold structural power in illicit economies, women’s ‘supporting’ roles are not necessarily performed for men’s benefit. Anderson argued that “While it is true that women’s agency does not earn them a more structurally recognized position of power in the illicit drug market, less recognized is that their agency may empower them to better excel in future conventional (i.e. legal) activities than their male counterparts,” (Anderson, 2005: 383).

Anderson’s discussion of women’s agency in illicit economies supports the argument that there is not a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between licit and illicit markets. In fact, when seen through a gendered lens, it seems as if illicit economies are structured relatively similar to licit economies. In both cases, ‘women’s work’ is central to the functioning of markets, yet it is often overlooked. In relation to illicit economies, Anderson noted that “the market is dependent on their agency, yet it disallows their accumulation of structural power” (Anderson, 2005: 383). This same point is equally applicable to the ‘formal’ economy, which depends on women’s capital as consumers and on their ‘behind-the-scenes’ labour. Moreover, women are allowed to become ‘empowered’ within the ‘formal’ economy, but are discouraged from changing its structure. The argument that women’s roles in illicit economies sometimes enables them to participate more effectively in ‘formal’ economies again challenges the distinction between different economic systems.

As mentioned at the start of this piece, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown have been ubiquitous. Concurrently, President Ramaphosa declared that the state would implement an economic strategy that will “drive the recovery of our economy” (Ngobeni, 2020). According to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, this strategy involves stimulus measures that would amount to R800 billion. This included the monetary response of the SA Reserve Bank, which cut the interest rate and made concessions to banks. In order to benefit from the stimulus package, spaza shops would have to have licences and bank accounts and be registered at SARS (De Lange, 2020). The stimulus package includes a COVID-19 Block Exemption for the Retail sector. However, other businesses that want to access funds have to be owned by South Africans (thus excluding migrants), they have to “demonstrate strong business fundamentals” and have a detailed business plan. They also have to be able to demonstrate that they will recover within 18-24 months (White & Case, 2020).

This piece has attempted to demonstrate that speaking of the damaging effects of the lockdown on ‘the economy’ is highly misleading. Similarly, claims that the stimulus package will save ‘our economy’ obscures the heterogeneous repercussions that it is likely to have. The previous paragraph mentioned only a few of the policies in the government’s stimulus package. However, it becomes clear that retailers and banks are likely to benefit while people working in the ‘informal’ economy could become even more marginalised. The situation becomes more complex when we consider the links between different economies in SA. This was demonstrated by the fact that illicit tobacco sellers often obtain their products from larger licit tobacco manufacturers. At first glance it thus seems as if the illicit cigarette trade is flourishing to the detriment of the licit trade, but this is clearly an oversimplification.

Furthermore, it is problematic to assume that licit economies are ‘good’ while illicit economies are ‘evil’, as much of the reporting on the two interrelated economies did. This was demonstrated in the discussion of evidence to suggest that cartels and gangs are supplying food parcels to struggling local communities. This does not mean that the brutal actions of gangs are justified. Instead, we are able to draw parallels between the ways in which gangs and governments function. This point becomes clearer if we consider the gendered aspects of illicit markets, since they are analogous to the gendered dimensions of licit markets. This also disrupts the government’s narrative on GBV, which positions the (masculine) state as a protector of women against ‘evil’ men. All of these factors have implications for the policies that are adapted in response to COVID-19. Summarily, we cannot assume that a stimulus package will benefit ‘our economy’ because this leaves crucial questions unasked: Who will benefit, and in which ways?


African Press Office (APO), 2020. ‘Coronavirus – South Africa: COVID-19 impact on the economy’. CBN Africa. <> Access: 16 June 2020.

Anderson, T. 2005. ‘Dimensions of women’s power in the illicit drug economy’. Theoretical Criminology 9(4), pp. 371-400.

Andreou, A. 2014. ‘Trickle-down economics is the greatest broken promise of our lifetime’. The Guardian. w<> Access: 17 June 2020.

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[1] Very basically, the ‘trickle down’ effect or theory refers to the notion that policies that benefit the wealthy will benefit everyone because the profits will ‘trickle down’ into society.

[2] This also demonstrates how interconnected various economic systems are.

[3] Estimates are around 1 million in SA alone (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

[4] The labour market in SA has historically been characterised by informality and flexibility because the apartheid system was based on highly flexible migrant and contract labour (Valodia, 2001: 874).

[5] This is because informal economies (much like formal economies) often have a pyramid structure with employers, the group with the highest earnings, at the top. Men make up the majority of employers and “moving further down the different levels of the pyramid, the risk of poverty increases, as does the percentage of workers who are women,” (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 93).

[6] About 70% of women in the informal economy work in domestic and ‘elementary’ occupations (Valodia, 2001: 875).

[7] According to a 2013 study by SWEAT, these workers often support families of up to seven dependents with their incomes (Mafolo, 2020).

[8] These organisations have launched various programmes, which are accessible via their websites: and

[9] One reason for this is that sex workers frequently live in the places they work and the closure of brothels, bars and nightclubs has heightened their risk of losing their accommodation along with their livelihoods. One inspiring trend is solidarity groups that have formed among sex workers. For example, in Amsterdam sex workers have set up a crowd funding initiative to support their peers (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6).

[10] About 90% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan (Malloch-Brown, 2008).

[11] Adulterated drugs are mixed with other substances that decrease the purity.

[12] It is important to note that beer is the most commonly sold type of alcohol in the legal market while illicit traders focus on high margin, low volume products and are more likely to sell hard liquor. Licit and illicit traders thus focus on different types of demand (Stockenstroom, 2020).

[13] There has been a sharp increase in the looting of alcohol stores and storage facilities since the start of the lockdown (Ndlovu, 2020).

[14] This ‘behind the scenes work’ includes, but is not limited to: providing housing, subsidising male dependency and purchasing and selling drugs (Anderson, 2005: 393).