Twitter was a fun place to wake up to this morning. People of colour, feminists, LGBTQIA+ groups, activists – and pretty much anyone with a working barometer of cultural awareness – were expressing outrage at the latest Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner. In a political moment when protests have never been more necessary, how the ad even made it past an initial pitch is beyond me.
Here’s a quick breakdown. Kendall Jenner, amid a crowd of protesters, including black activists and a woman in a hijab, has the solution to building bridges with the hostile officers policing the demonstration: hand one a can of Pepsi. As soon as you do, BAM – the threat of police brutality is over, and the world’s political woes cured. Thankyou Pepsi - and thank YOU, Kendall – for giving minorities the simple answer to centuries of systemic oppression.
As a queer person of colour, I found the advert deeply offensive. One key issue was the campaign’s collation of different oppressed social groups into one body of protestors. What is this protest actually about? Was the assumption that black people, a woman in a hijab, Asian men, and white students would probably all be fighting for the same thing?
Every separate social group is imbedded in its own cultural history and set of struggles in America – from police brutality, the mass incarceration of black people and Trumpist Islamophobia to college campus rape culture. The advert’s homogenisation of varying social identities is reductive and insensitive. This “pick-and-mix activism”, in which the distinct struggles particular to each minority are thrown into one colourful bag of “young person issues”, has been a worrying trend as of late.
In 2015, for instance, Selfridges was praised for their #agender clothing campaign, the branding of which comprised a wide spectrum of diverse genders, races and sexualities all looking out at the viewer. Now, I had mixed feelings about this campaign. I’d much rather see it in a magazine than another portrait of a straight white man curing the world with cologne, but again, it was guilty of this “pick-and-mix” mentality.
Rather than portraying the diverse group as empowered individuals, the campaign fused together many non-conforming identities into one cultural blending pot of “diversity”. The effect was a dilution, not a celebration, of queer cultural histories.
I had personal experience of this when I played a drag queen role in the recent Absolutely Fabulous movie. While I was initially excited to have my voice included, it transpired that basically every drag queen and/or non-conforming gender in London had been invited to stand as one queer mass of people. On screen, it gives the visual impression of diversity, but it also homogenised all wide-ranging identities to basically “mean the same thing.” As with the recent Pepsi advert, the mass of identities becomes a stand-in for diversity – but it was actually a mask for white capitalism unbothered by nuance.
Certainly capitalism has got into bed with activism. In December 2016, ELLE magazine said that “2016 was the year of fashion activism” (cue barf). Dior cashed in on the popularity of protest slogans with a range of T-shirts reading “We should all be feminists” – these retailed at a hefty £490. At last: the exclusive garment to accompany a movement rooted in inclusivity.
It’s not unusual for the privileged few to capitalise on the labour of minorities, whose efforts for progress are usually erased. And in a political climate when the left needs to mobilise and take action against institutional injustice, the Pepsi advert is a sign that institutions want to suppress our labour – preferably while making a quick buck.
Rather than suppressing these complicated, diverse identities completely, such companies and conglomerates fake a celebration of them, and present a sanitised, whitewashed erasure of our struggles which all boil down to something easily solvable by Pepsi.
It’s time we start telling our stories on our own terms. And Pepsi and Kendall Jenner should feel ashamed that they tried to do it instead.
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