Pepsi and White Feminism

Much has been written since the global Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner aired on April 4. As is often the case, Black Twitter’s response was quick and witty creating memes that succinctly captured and critiqued the absurdity of the ad and led to it being pulled the following day.

Black Twitter’s insightful analysis has been reproduced and expanded in the bulk of the articles that have been written — specifically Black Twitter’s assertion that the ad referenced and made a mockery of a photograph of Ieshia Evans from a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge last year.

And while many white women and white men have used their social media platforms and columns to thoughtfully join in on Black Twitter’s critiques of Pepsi’s commercial, what their analysis has missed is the sexist, patriarchal portrayal of white womanhood that is also at the center of Pepsi’s ad.

The commercial has three main characters: a male Asian cellist, a female brown-skinned Muslim photographer, and a female white model. The latter role is played by Ms. Jenner, a 20-year-old white female reality TV star, model and member of the Kardashian clan.

At various moments in the ad each of the main characters is shown working while protesters march in the background. One by one each main character sees the protest, is drawn away from their workspace and joins the peaceful crowd on the streets.

When each main character joins the march, they contribute to the collective by performing their profession — the cellist plays the cello, the photographer takes pictures. But when Ms. Jenner, the model, joins the march she serves a man a drink. She doesn’t strike a pose or sashay along the police line like it’s a runway. She literally hands a can of soda to a white male police officer. He takes a gulp, turns to the white male officer on his left, raises his eyebrows and smiles.

The crowd erupts in a scene of multicultural joy – the black man with cornrows and tattoos dances, the white lesbians with nose rings squeeze each other – the crowd is overcome by the sheer magnitude of Ms. Jenner’s accomplishment.

But what exactly was accomplished? If we take Pepsi at their word, their intention was to take “a more progressive approach to truly reflect today’s generation and what living for now looks like.”

In the ‘progressive’ world of peaceful civic engagement met by calm state acceptance that Pepsi’s ad depicts, the most influential white female character does two things that no other main character does – she leaves her profession behind and she receives white male approval.

Certainly, there’s nothing new in this message. White feminists have been fighting this for a very long time.

What is noteworthy, however, is that in the midst of the scathing international critique the ad has received, white women and white men have been largely silent about its sexist, patriarchal portrayal of white womanhood.

From my vantage point, as a feminist scholar who researches race and gender in popular culture, this silence points to larger questions about the influence of white feminism on pop culture.

White feminism in the United States of America has long been, rightfully, criticized for its unwillingness to meaningfully take up how race, class and sexual orientation impact womanhood — especially for black, Indigenous and women of colour. What white feminism tends to look like now is often some attempt to engage with these differences and others.

Feminism that meaningfully thinks about all women is necessary on a continent where women represent about half of the population and are paid less than men for the same work, are far less than 50% of elected public officials and hold far less than 50% of senior positions in industries, institutions and professions.

And even within all of the abysmal statistics that prove the impact of sexism and patriarchy, white women consistently have more pay, more representation, and more influence than Black women, Indigenous women, women of colour, trans* women, female-identified people and those who are any combination of these forms of womanhood. In other words, of all the women in North America, white women are the most economically, politically and professionally powerful.

The Pepsi ad is one of thousands of ads that bombard us daily with stereotypical images of humanity. Of course it could be argued that time spent thinking about any one of them is a waste of time. But that’s how popular culture works, it’s a series of tiny images and impressions that reflect and influence culture. Along the way there are brief moments when the culture responds and redirects the images and impressions.

Pepsi’s ad made a mockery of the contributions that white women have and can make towards a more just society. At least one useful thing can happen when white women’s critique includes an analysis of sexist and patriarchal depictions of themselves. People become a bit more cautious, and hopefully thoughtful, in how they address and depict women and that could make all women a little less vulnerable to the systems of oppression that profoundly influence our lives.

These are tiny gains but this is one way that we nudge our culture in the direction of equality and justice.